Photo Credit: Wayne State University Press

Title: Brother’s from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe
By: Ephraim Kanarfogel
Wayne State University Press



Throughout Jewish history, there have been waves of individuals who leave the Jewish community and faith: some of their own volition, others due to inquisitions, public pressure, and forced conversions. Many of these instances occurred in medieval Europe as Christianity spread and grew throughout the continent. However, not all apostates leave permanently; some return to the Jewish community and seek to be accepted once again, a situation which forces Jewish authorities to ask questions of philosophy, ethics, and Jewish law. Ephraim Kanarfogel’s Brother’s from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe delves into these questions which arose throughout a turbulent era of Jewish life, taking readers on a journey through questions of identity, community, and connection in trying times.

One particularly fascinating recurring question described in the book is that of a symbolic re-conversion as an apostate returns from Christian ideals to Jewish ones. The Rabbinic authorities of medieval Europe generally agreed that one who is born Jewish can never truly leave, even if they are baptized and welcomed into Christian life; in essence, the Rabbinic authorities of the time did not recognize baptism or other apostatizing processes as legitimate. As such, an apostate returning to Judaism may follow the Rabbinic logic to understand that no cleansing process or re-conversion is necessary in order to rejoin Jewish life in full.

However, some members of the collective Ashkenazic Jewish community did not find this ruling satisfying, as they believed that leaving the Jewish faith led to too dramatic a change in lifestyle and character for a person to seamlessly return to Judaism without a display or ritual to symbolize the transition. As such, some proposed that a reverting apostate should be made to immerse in a ritual bath, similar to a standard conversion to Judaism.

While many authority figures viewed a reversion ritual as sensible, mandating such a ritual posed a paradox in Rabbinic logic: if a reverting apostate is commanded to undergo a cleansing ritual after baptism, the implication is that baptism, along with other such conversions, is legitimate, to a degree. As such, many Rabbinic figures ruled that a ritual immersion demarcating a return to the Jewish faith should be recommended as a symbolic marker, but may not be mandated as a legal marking of an official return to Jewish status. However, this question continued to be revisited over the years as Rabbinic authorities confronted different challenges during waves of apostasy throughout medieval Europe.

Apostasy and reversion do not happen in a vacuum. Individuals leaving the Jewish faith in medieval Europe led to broken friendships, divided families, and gaps in community life. Meanwhile, reversion to the Jewish faith and community led to questions of how to once again accommodate these individuals into Jewish community life, identity, and interpersonal relationships. Ephraim Kanarfogel’s Brother’s from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe conceptually illustrates these questions in vivid detail, transporting readers to a time of immense religious tension and leading them through the Rabbinic arguments that brought clarity to a time of struggle and confusion within the Jewish community.


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Shayna Herszage-Feldan is a recent graduate of Stern College for Women and a research technician at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.