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    The ban that never was

    The following by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the festschrift, Yismach Yisrael: Historical Essays to Honour Rabbi Dr Israel Porush, OBE, on his 80th Birthday, published by the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Sydney, 1988.

    For over 200 years, from the time of the Resettlement until 1875, no proselyte was officially received into Judaism by the London Synagogue authorities, Sephardi or Ashkenazi.[1] John Mills, writing on “The British Jews” in 1853, was adamant that the Jewish rules and procedures of conversion “have had no exemplification in this kingdom in modem times”.[2] Conversions validly performed elsewhere were accepted, but no conversion could take place in England itself. In the words of a Minute of the London Beth Din in 1833, “It is not permissable (sic) in this country to convert any person.”[3]

    The surprising thing is that it was not Jewish law but the law of the country that was cited in support of the ban. There are three theories as to the basis of this belief, the first two being more commonly held than the third:

    1. Cromwell laid down a ban on Jewish proselytisation of Christians when he permitted the resettlement of Jews in 1656, reflecting the view, as James Parkes put it, that there was “one subject on which all Christian advocates of readmission were, perhaps naturally, united. Under no circumstances must a Jew convert a Christian to Judaism.”[4]

    The belief that there was a Cromwellian ban is explicitly stated in an exchange of correspondence in 1751-2 between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi authorities. The wardens of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation spoke of a ban on conversion as an “express condition annexed to our first establishment here,” whilst the wardens of the Great Synagogue said that the “making of Proselites” (sic) was “contrary to the known laws of this Kingdom.”[5]

    Supporting this view, Haham Benjamin Artom wrote in 1876:
    When the learned Manasheh ben Israel applied personally to Oliver Cromwell for the re-admission of the Jews into England, the Protector reminded him of the three accusations that were constantly directed against the Jews. 1st. That they employed the blood of a Christian child in the performance of their Passover ceremonies. 2nd. That they impoverished by their usury the country in which they lived. 3rd. Their unremitting efforts to convert their countrymen to Judaism – The eloquent Rabbi easily proved the injustice and futility of the first accusation. He showed that the second grievance might be averted if all trades were freely opened to the Jews. He denied the third charge which is contrary to the views of our religion. But he promised that such things should never occur in England. The Jews were re-admitted by Act of Parliament on December 14, 1655, and from that time no Christian has been converted to Judaism in this country. That was, and still is the rule of the Chief Rabbis of England.”[6]

    Hermann Adler, confirming that “from the time of our return to this realm, for a period of two hundred years, no proselytes were received into the synagogue”, ascribed this state of affairs to “the belief that a promise to this effect had been given to the Lord Protector”.[7] However, no evidence has been found, either for a condition imposed by Cromwell or a promise made by the Jews. Hermann Adler said he could find “no valid foundation whatever” for the traditional belief;[8] Picciotto suggested that a Cromwellian condition may have been “traditionally understood”.[9]

    2. A condition was laid down by Charles II in 1664 when the Earl of Berkshire had tried to blackmail the Jews into paying protection money – whereupon the wardens of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation petitioned the king. The latter replied that
    They may promise themselves the effects of the same favour as formerly they have had, so long as they demean themselves peaceably and quietly, with due obedience to his Maties Lawes and without scandall (sic) to his government (sic).[10]

    The phrase, “without scandall to his governement” seems to have been taken as requiring that the Jews abstain from religious propaganda and from accepting converts.[11] “A report was current among the members of the Spanish and Portuguese community, ” wrote Cecil Roth, “that the toleration extended by Charles II was conditional upon nothing of this sort being attempted.”[12] But no clear evidence of any condition having been laid down has been found.

    3. The Act for the More Effectual Suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness, 1698, provides that a Christian who denies the Trinity loses his legal rights and risks three years’ imprisonment.[13] The preamble runs:
    Whereas many persons have of late openly avowed and published many blasphemous and impious opinions contrary to the doctrines and principles of the Christian religion, greatly tending to the dishonour of Almighty God and may prove destructive to the peace and welfare of this kingdom…

    In a case in 1819 before the Court of King’s Bench, Mr Justice Best declared that “the Legislature, in passing this act, had not the punishment of blasphemy so much in view as the protecting the government of the country, by preventing infidels from getting into
    places of trust.”[14]

    The Act is primarily directed against Christians who commit the “detestable crime” of denying Christianity, but there is the implication that a Jew who converts a person from Christianity could be seen as instigating, aiding or abetting or being an accessory to such a misdemeanour. There is no known attempt to use the Act against conversion to Judaism, but the belief of English Jews that the acceptance of converts was unlawful could have been based on this Act.

    To sum up the legal position, then, it seems that none of the three theories clearly or unambiguously arises out of any actual, tangible provision of English law. The truth may be that the small Anglo-Jewish community felt itself to be in a fragile and insecure position, and feared, with some justice, that it would be endangered if proselytes were accepted and the host society thus offended. James Parkes wrote:
    This explains the vehemence of synagogal legislation on the subject for the next hundred and fifty years (after the resettlement); and there was, indeed, nothing which would create a more instantaneous panic among the Mahamad or Elders than the rumour that a Christian sought admission to the Jewish fold.[15]

    But synagogal legislation would not have needed to be so vehement if there had not been cases or rumours of conversions, indicating that the official policy was not entirely effective. Indeed incidents did occur which necessitated congregational sanctions, amongst both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. A significant exchange of correspondence between the congregations took place in 1751-2: [16]

    The Wardens of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, London, to those of the Great Synagogue.

    London, 27th December 1751

    Being persuaded that you will join with us in all things that tend to preserve the present happy toleration, we take this opportunity to acquaint you as worthy representatives of your congregation, of a growing evil among us, viz. that of permitting proselytes, for which end we have heard that two or three Christians have come hither from Norway with that intention, and lest these practices should extend to English proselytes, which is contrary to the express condition annexed to our first establishment here, we have thought proper to forbid in our Synagogue any from aiding and assisting them therein in any manner whatsoever, under the penalties as we send you enclosed. We do not doubt that you will also concur with us to endeavour to prevent the same from taking effect amongst you in the manner that may be judged most expedient. We pray God to preserve you for many years, and believe us to be, Gentlemen, your friends and humble servants,

    A. de Castro
    For the Congregation.

    (Copy of the Resolution referred to Above)

    It having been represented to us that some foreign Jews not inhabitants of England make it their practise to convert Christians to the Jewish faith in order to put a stop to so pernicious and unlawful Practices, we the aforesaid Presedents & Gentlemen of the Vestry come to the following Resolution, that in case any Person or persons shall attempt making of Proselites, he or they so offending shall be immediately expeld the Synagogues & also be deprived the Benefit of being burried in the Jewish Barren Grounds and to be deny’d all other privileges appertaining to the Jewish Religion. These Penalties are not to be understood as merely personable but even to extend to their Wives & children.

    To the President & Gentlmen belonging to the Vestrys of Duke’s Place & Magpie Alley Synagogue.


    The Wardens of the Great Synagogue, London, to those of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

    London the 2nd Jan. 1752

    The President and Gentlemen belonging to the Portuguese Vestry

    We received your letter & have this evening met in order to take it in consideration & concur with you in Opinion that we ought to do Every thing in our power to prevent the ill consequences that may arise from making of Proselites, contrary to the known laws of this Kingdom, & here annexed you have the Resolutions we have taken upon that occasion. And in order to prevent their pleading ignorence we shall publish the same in our Synagogues. We shall always joyn with you in our Endeavours to check such unlawfull practices, we pray God to preserve you for many Years and believe us to be

    Your Friends & Humble Servants

    M.L. Polack
    For the Gentlemen Parnassim & Gabay of the Dutch Jews.

    In 1760 the authorities of the Great Synagogue informed those of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation that a recently-arrived foreign Jew had made a proselyte, and in consequence had been expelled from their Synagogue. At the same time, they respectfully intimated that a member of the sister-community had recently been guilty of a similar offence.

    In 1783, the Hambro’ Synagogue imposed sanctions arising out of another such incident as indicated by the following excerpt from its minutes:

    November, 1783.

    At a meeting of our vestry held this day it was made known to us that Phillip Nathan of Houndsditch did for a certain sum of money circumcise a Christian foreigner a Native of Flanders, which we hold contrary to the laws of this Country. We therefore have excommunicated him from our Society and also Excluded him from all the benefits which he has hitherto received.

    The ban on proselytes was, however, not total. Children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers were apparently accepted into Judaism by the authorities, as the London Beth Din minute book indicates. Apart from zealous individuals who occasionally accepted proselytes in defiance of the ban, it was not unknown for a provincial congregation or its leaders to act in this way.[17] Thus at the end of the eighteenth century Lord George Gordon applied to the then Chief Rabbi, David Tevele Schiff, for acceptance into Judaism, but was refused; he went to Amsterdam but for some reason returned still unconverted, and was subsequently received into Judaism in Birmingham under the auspices of a Rabbi Jacob.[18]

    The general procedure was that applicants viewed sympathetically by the London authorities were advised to proceed to a continental rabbinate, and their conversions were registered in London on their return to England. Usually it was Holland to which they went (“accompanied by a trustworthy person”) – to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague or Elburg; sometimes to Germany; and on at least two occasions to Paris. The applicant would bring back a certificate of conversion but would frequently have to undergo immersion in the Mikvah (ritual bath) a second time in London to validate the conversion proceedings.[19]

    The total numbers of converts were small. Thus, from resettlement up to the accession of Queen Victoria, 41 converts (37 of them women) were married under the auspices of the Sephardi congregation. John Mills wrote, not quite accurately, in 1853, “We are not aware of any male proselyte in this Kingdom; but several females have embraced the Jewish faith, generally upon being married to Jews.”[20]

    An interesting piece of evidence, which also illustrates the traditional reluctance to accept proselytes, comes in a letter sent by Nathan Marcus Adler in 1873 to the leaders of the Sydney Jewish community, advising against the formation of a local Beth Din:
    “I beg to state that my long experience has taught me that in general these mixed marriages, even if the woman becomes a convert, prove unhappy. It is not whether in Cromwell’s time a condition had been made that we must admit no proselytes into our faith, but this I must say, that even were such not the case we ought ourselves to act as if it were and do all in our power to prevent them. For this reason we postpone them six months, and afterwards, as you know, we send all these cases if unpreventible to Holland. Under these circumstances I must call your attention that you must not regard having a Beth Din in Sydney a boon but quite the reverse, as it will only induce young men to such marriages having every facility in their way and you would afterwards reproach yourself having asked for it.”[21]

    Both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi authorities, apparently independently, altered the existing usage in the 1870s. By 1875, Hermann Adler, clearly with the knowledge and sanction of his father, “had come to the conclusion that no valid foundation whatever existed for this abstention” (from accepting proselytes locally).[22] His view was probably that there now remained no danger to Anglo-Jewry or to its secure position in English society if the ban were to be removed. (Both the ban and its removal thus reflected the special features of the climate of opinion at the relevant time.) Thus, from 1875 onwards, the London Beth Din dealt with candidates for proselytisation locally and openly, applying the requirements of Jewish law without recourse to any real or imagined considerations of civil law, and in 1877 Benjamin Artom, Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation, accepted the first official convert under Sephardi auspices – Esther, daughter of Angelo Paris.[23]

    1. Hermann Adler. “A Survey of Anglo-Jewish History”, Jewish Historical Society oj England Transactions, vol. 3 (1899), pp. 13-14.
    2. John Mills, The British Jews, London, 1853, p. 254.
    3. London Beth Din Minute Book, Adler MS no. 2257; cf. HJ Zimmels, “Decisions and Responsa of Solomon Hirchel’s Beth Din”, Tiferet Yisrael (Israel Brodie Festschrift), Heb. vol., 1966, pp. 219-242.
    4. James Parkes, “Jewish-Christian Relations in England”, Three Centuries oj Anglo-Jewisn History, ed. VD Lipman, 1961, pp. 156-7.
    5. Takkanah Book oj the Great Synagogue, London, no. 1, reproduced in Cecil Roth, Anglo-Jewish Letters, 1938, pp. 126-7.
    6. Benjamin Artom, Sermons, 1876, p. 275, note.
    7. Loc. cit., p. 13.
    8. Ibid.
    9. James Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History, ed. I Finestein, 1956, p. 74.
    10. LD Barnett, Bevis Marks Records, vol. 1, 1940, pp. 8-9.
    11. Edgar R Samuel, “The First Fifty Years”, Three Centuries, p. 43, note 32.
    12. Cecil Roth, The Great Synagogue, London, 1690-1940, 1950, p. 89.
    13. HSQ Henriques, The Jews and the English Law, 1908, pp. 13-18; Charles Duschinsky, The Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue, 1921, pp. 119-120.
    14. R v. Richard Carlile, (1819) 3 B. & Ald. 161.
    15. Loc cit. p. 156.
    16. Cecil Roth, Anglo-Jewish Letters, 1938, pp. 126-7; cf. idem, The Great Synagogue, 1950, p. 90.
    17. Great Synagogue, pp. 90–93.
    18. Israel Solomons, “Lord George Gordon’s Conversion to Judaism”, JHSE Transactions, vol. 7 (1915), pp. 222-271.
    19. Mills, loc. cit.; Jewish Chronicle, 20 August, 1869; Beth Din Minute Book; Duschinsky, loc. cit.; Adler, loc. cit.; Picciotto, loc. cit., p. 179; Zimmels, loco cit., p. 221.
    20. Loc. cit., p. 252.
    21. Cited by Moshe Davis, Beit Yisrael b’America, 1970. p. 334.
    22. Loc cit., p. 13.
    23. Albert M Hyamson, The Sephardim of England, 1951, p. 358.

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