As noted above, both existing rabbinic responsa follow Ashkenazi requirements placed on returning anusim. Yet, the returning community are not Ashkenazim but Sephardim. It is well known that the historical experiences of the two communities were not identical, and it should not be surprising therefore that the halakhic responses to the differing situations were also not identical. This is due to the fact that halakhah is by nature situational and dynamic, rather then universal and static. (These differing approaches, and the reasons for them were examined in the paper I presented last year).
I believe that it is appropriate therefore to turn primarily to the halakhic responsa of Sephardic rather than Ashkenazic rabbis, since they were writing for, and based on the realities of the community that we are addressing.
Essentially the question that we will address could be rephrased as, “are returning anusim required to undergo the rituals of conversion before they are permitted to participate fully as part of the mainstream Jewish community?” We will therefore primarily examine the requirement of the anusim vis-a-vis the laws of conversion.
Conversion to Judaism traditionally (for Conservative and Orthodox Jews) is comprised of three (for a man) or two (for a woman) essential steps as outlined in the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 268, written by Joseph Karo. A male convert is required to undergo milah, tevilah and kabalat mitzvah, that is to say, to be circumcised, to be immersed in a mikvah, and to accept the yoke of the commandments in the presence of a Bet Din (a court of at least three rabbis – technically a Bet Din is required to witness all aspects of the conversion, but Karo states that in practice if the Bet Din is present only at the Acceptance of Mitzvot then the conversion is still valid). A woman is required to undergo tevilah (immersion) and Kabbalat Mitzvah (acceptance of the Mitzvot).
All of these steps are necessary or the conversion is not considered valid, the only caveat being that if a man was previously circumcised then a drop of blood is drawn instead in a ritual called hatafat dam brit. It is also traditional to push the potential convert away three times, and today most rabbis require an extensive period of study, over a year or more, before the conversion rituals can be performed. Each step of the ritual, as they are presented in the Shulchan Aruch, will be examined in relation to the return of anusim.
The first step of the conversion is the requirement to push the potential convert away. The Shulchan Aruch records that one is to say to a convert “Don’t you know that the Israelites are an oppressed and despised people.” If they still wish to convert then they are accepted and the process is begun. This step of the conversion process is absent from both Ashkenazic and Sephardic sources. There is no requirement to push a returning anus away since both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic medieval responsa recognize the historic connection of the anusim to the Jewish community.
After resisting the push, the proselyte is to be educated in Jewish law as preparation for kabbalat mitzvah, the acceptance of the yoke of the law. Kabbalat Mitzvah is to be done in the presence of a Bat Din. Interestingly, Karo does not require that the proselyte undergo a detailed education in the law, rather he or she is to be educated merely in the basics of Jewish observance and belief.
The sources on anusim present an interesting variety of approaches concerning the requirement of education and kabbalat mitzvah. The Ashkenazic sources are silent as to the requirement for education, but universally require kabbalat mitzvah. But the Sephardic sources explicitly state that neither education or kabbalat mitzvah is necessary. In the words of Solomon ben Simon Duran:
“Since it is clear that these (anusim) are not to be considered proselytes, we do not need therefore to enumerate to them all the commandments and their punishments (as must be done to a gentile who wished to become a proselyte). This is obvious, since, if you were to say to him that (as you might with a gentile candidate for conversion), should he (the anusim) not wish to accept the commandments, we would dismiss him and he would be free to them as if he were a gentile – God forbid that this should even come to mind. Because he is already in duty bound to fulfill them just as we are.”
Duran explains that education and acceptance of the miztvot are unnecessary because the anus is, in his words, already part of the household of Israel.
Following the teaching of the mitzvot, the next step in the process listed by Karo is tevilah, immersion in the mikvah.Traditionally the proselyte immerses himself or herself once, then recites the appropriate berachot (blessings) and then immerses him or herself once or twice more. Ashkenazic sources all require a that a returning anus undergo tevilah. Sephardic sources from the Rambam on hold that immersion is unnecessary. Duran states, “Since he (the returning Anus) is an Israelite, he does not need the ritual bath.”
The final stage of conversion mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch as part of conversion is milah, circumcision. The circumcision of a proselyte is to be accompanied by the beracha – Baruch atah Adonai Elohainu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lamul et gerim. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has made us holy with mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the circumcision of proselytes.) Karo adds that if the candidate is already circumcised then the hatafat dam brit must be performed.
Brit Milah literally is translated as sign of the covenant, and is a mizvah which is incumbent on all male Jews. Therefore all of the sources require that returning anusim be circumcised, or undergo hatafat dam brit. Most of the sources are silent on the wording of the beracha, but Duran states that the same berachot used for male Jewish children at their brit milah on the eighth day should be used for returning anusim.
These are Baruch atah Adonai Elohainu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al hamilah. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has made us holy with mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the circumcision), preceding the circumcision, and Baruch atah Adonai Elohainu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lahakniso b’vrito shel Avraham Avinu (Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has made us holy with mitzvot, and commanded us to bring him (the anus) into the covenant of Abraham our father).
While circumcision is required both for the proselyte and for the anus, and indeed for any male Jew who has not been circumcised, the wording of the beracha is again an indication of the anus’ full status as a member of the Jewish people.
Two Final Questions: Sincerity and Descent
There are two final questions which must be addressed. Should we be concerned with the sincerity of the initial conversion to Catholicism by the ancestor of the anus in Fourteenth or Fifteenth Century Spain, and should we accept only those anusim who can demonstrate matrilineal descent going back to … I guess to Moshe Rabeynu.
Early Sephardic authorities, such as the Rivash, Rabbi Isaac ben Shesht, required that careful checks should be made of returning anusim (Resp. 11). They believed that only those who were converted forcibly, and who never embraced Christianity with any degree of sincerity should be accepted back into the Jewish fold.
Shashet states that there are two types of anusim, “those who have chosen conversion, and have given up the yoke of Torah, and cut off the chains of the Torah from themselves, and of their own will they are following the ways of idolaters and transgressing all the mitzvot of the Torah.” and “those who would have left Spain, but were unable to do so…and are careful not to defile themselves with the impurity of sins, except in times and places of danger.” The first group was in effect no longer part of the Jewish people and its members were ineligible as witnesses, while the second group remained Jews and were kosher as witnesses.
The Rivash’s responsa only dealt with those people who made the initial choices concerning conversion. It did not deal with their children. Later Sephardic rabbinic authorities addressed the descendants of these anusim, and did not make any distinction between the Rivash’s two groups, since even the children of those anusim that fell in the first group bore no responsibility for the decisions of their parents. Sadaya Ibn Danan and other Sephardic authorities equate the children as Jewish children raised by gentiles, therefore having no culpability for their practice of Christianity.
The answer to the second of these two questions is more complex. For more than two millennia Jews have traced religious/national identity through the matrilineal line. Yet, to require this of anusim, is essential a sign post saying no entry- at least without a full conversion in every sense of the word. The Sephardic responsa do provide, however, a means of creating a bypass. While Duran, in what otherwise is one of the most liberal of the Sephardic responsa, states that Anusim who can trace a maternal line should be accepted “to the end of all generations,” Ibn Danan is much more liberal on this point. Danan states that “no special care should be taken in investigating the genealogy of the anusim, as to whether his or her mother was Jewish.”
It should also be noted that nearly all the Sephardic responsa make it almost an obligation to welcome back the anusim. Duran states, “we must not terrify him or confuse him, but draw him to us with kindness, for he stands as we do under the oath taken at Sinai.” Danan indeed captures modern feelings of anusim when he states, “If the marranos, his word, are to be considered gentiles and those who wish to return as proselytes, their desire to return to the fold will weaken…the marranos must be received not as strangers but as brethren. They should have the feeling that they are returning home…indeed when it comes to lineage all the people Israel are brethren.
We are all sons of one father. The yoke of the law is still on their shoulders and can never be removed from them.” Joseph Karo, in the Bet Yosef states that anusim “must not be discouraged in any way from returning to Judaism.”
Some modern rabbis have required kitubahs or other documents as instruments of proof of the anusim’s Jewish identity. It cannot be held in due conscience that those who maintain their identity orally and by acts should be punished where the written material was in the hands of the oppressor (e.g. the Spanish royal government or the Holy Office of the Inquisition). The irony in this case was that the oppressor was in charge of the records now required by some rabbis. Further, as Hordes points out, the very existence of these records is precarious, often vanished or destroyed over time.
The following extra halakhic factors must also be taken into account. The history of persecution and secrecy of the anusim over 600 years is becoming well known. The following therefore can clearly be demonstrated, 1) the anusim have been an identifiable though hidden segment of the Jewish community for more then half a millennium. 2) the anusim consider themselves part of the Jewish people despite the danger, and despite being cut off from the Jewish world.
The anusim have also maintained a remarkable dedication to the teachings and rituals of the Jewish tradition as best they could despite the danger and isolation. And the often harsh response of the Jewish community is poor reward for such heroic survival in the face of persecution and fear and the test of time.
Based on the above discussion the following in my opinion should pertain.
Due to the special history of the anusim who have maintained their Jewish identity, beliefs and practices secretly and often to their peril, and since in the words of R. Solomon Duran, the anusim for all time are part of the Jewish people, no conversion ceremony is necessary, nor is it necessary to investigate the genealogy of the returning anusim to demonstrate a clear matrilineal line of descent. It is advisable however to provide and encourage ongoing adult education as we do for all Jews, so that the returning anusim can play a full and fulfilling role in synagogue life. It may also be useful to develop a ritual of return within the congregation as a form of celebration and formalization of the return.
Like all male Jews, those anusim who wish to return must be circumcised, or undergo hatafat dam brit, using the same blessings as are used for the brit milah on the eighth day following the birth of a Jewish male child.
It is an obligation on all Jews to reach out to our brothers and sisters from the anusim community to facilitate the return to the Jewish community of any who wish to return.
David Kunin was Rabbi of Temple Ohr Shalom in San Diego, a congregation with many crypto Jewish members. He was the local chair of our 2002 conference.