Welcoming Back the Anousim: 1 – A Halakhic Teshuvah

Written by Rabbi David A Kunin

My paper this morning will be divided into five sections.

  • I will first examine existing rabbinic responsa.
  • Second, I will turn to elements of the laws of conversion as they affect the anusim.
  • Third, I will examine two status issues.
  • Fourth, I will examine some extra-halakhic issues that are germane to the decision making process.
  • Finally, I will present my views on how I hope thehalakhah will develop in the future.

Last year in my paper presented at the Pueblo meeting, I examined the major trends found in the Ashkanazic and Sephardic responsa on the return of forced converts (to Christianity and Islam) to Judaism. That paper aimed to present a historical examination of rabbinic opinion, and how it developed over time.

This year, while I will be discussing many of the same rabbinic texts, my paper serves a very different function. Rather then merely presenting and examining Jewish legal sources of the past, this paper is meant as a halakhic teshuva, which I hope will be a beginning of a new Jewish legal response for the present.

Within the Jewish legal tradition rabbis most often issue halakhic (legal) decisions as responses to questions that are sent to them by lay people or even other rabbis. The questions are referred to as she’elot, and the answers as teshuvot, the literature as a whole is called halakhic responsa. 

Teshuvot (answers) may be simple short answers to a question, or they may be elaborate answers, presenting both the answer to the question and the sources upon which the answer is based. Halakhic opinions are often comprised of precedent, building on the decisions and opinions of the past. They are, however, not limited to the majority opinions of any generation, but in the words of the Mishnah may select even a minority opinion, or an individual opinion of a past rabbi.

Having said that, I must add that this paper represents my personal opinion as an individual rabbi on the questions addressed, and is in no way binding on my congregation or the Conservative Movement.

Now we must turn to the question addressed in this halakhic responsa; what are the Jewish legal requirements for the return of the anusim, crypto Jews, to the mainstream religious Jewish community? While this question may not seem relevant, just or even reasonable to many anusim, it is an essential question within the Jewish legal framework. In essence, it is related to the basic status question: Who is a Jew, and what are the essential elements of Jewish identity? The answers given to this question will affect every aspect of participation in mainstream Jewish religious life, from synagogue participation to marriage to another Jew.

Before I present my own answer, we will examine two modern teshuvot, rabbinic responsa, which, to a limited extent, also address the question of requirements for the return of the anusim.

The first of these was written by Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu (1994), former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the second by Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik (1994), Rosh Yushiva of the Brisk Rabbinical College in Chicago. Both of these are prominent Orthodox rabbis. Both were written as responses to questions submitted by Dr. Shulamith Halevey, and are published on her website. *

Rabbi Eliahu’s teshuvah is fairly simple and straight forward, he states that the following steps are required for the return of an anus to the Jewish people: “After completion of all the steps of learning Torah, acceptance of the yoke of Torah and its commandments, circumcision…and immersion…he should be given a certificate with the title, ‘Certificate for he/she who returned to his/her ancestors’ ways.’”

In other words, aside from the certificate, Eliahu imposes all of the requirements of conversion on the returning anus. Eliahu explains that these requirements are necessitated because of the length of time since the forced conversions, and because of the concern about intermarriages in succeeding generations.

Perhaps the most striking aspect, however, of Eliahu’s Teshuvah is his acceptance of the Jewish connection of the Anusim, despite the length of time and his doubts concerning the matralinial line of descent. He uses terms of return, rather than conversion, when he speaks of the rituals that are required, and as noted above, the certificate he believes should be issued is not a “Certificate of Conversion.” but rather is a “Certificate of Return.”

Soloveichik’s responsa, on the other hand, may also be short, but is anything but simple. Initially he states, “they (anusim) must be treated like full Jews in every way (counted for a minyan, given aliyot, etc.)” The rituals chosen are important, because both of these mitzvot (religious observances) require the participant to be equally obligated for Jewish law as the other participants in the service. Allowing returning anusim to perform them, without any conversion or ritual of return as part of a congregation, is an explicit and public recognition that they are fully Jewish.

Subsequently, however, he denies their membership in the community in any way, shape or form, as he requires full conversion if the anus wishes to marry into the Jewish community. Unlike Eliahu, Soloveichic explicitly uses the term conversion rather than return, “He or she must undergo full conversion.” This ritual requirement, using the term “conversion” contradicts his previous contention of the Jewish identity of the anusim since the explicit requirement of “conversion” implies that they are in no way Jewish and therefore should not be allowed to count in a minyan, or ascend for an aliyah to the Torah.

This responsa is extremely puzzling. There is no precedent within the Jewish legal tradition for a person on one hand to be treated as fully Jewish, and explicitly able to fulfill Jewish legal requirements on the behalf of other Jews, while on the other hand being treated as a non-Jew and required to “undergo full conversion,” when desiring to marry a Jew.

Eliahu’s teshuva fits in well with the stringent Ashkanazic halahkic tradition concerning the return of the anusim. Ashkanazic legal figures from Rashi to the Rama, while recognizing the Jewishness of the Anusim, require that they undergo rituals identical to those required of a convert to Judaism.

Eliyahu does quote from the Sephardic resonsa of Solomon ben Simon Duran (1400 – 1467). He accepts Duran’s responsa, however, only in so far as to state that the anus is “to be welcomed with kindness,” and as the basis of the concept that the ceremony should be one of return rather than as a conversion. He rejects Duran’s basic opinion, and indeed that of all the other medieval Sephardic authorities, who do not require the conversion rituals.

These two responsa represent the sum total of modern rabbinic thought that I could find, examining the return of the anusim to the Jewish community. They do not, however, represent all possible and legitimate halakhic answers to the requirements for the return of the anusim. We will now examine another approach, my personal suggestion, on an appropriate halakhic answer to this question.

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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.


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