“Our Jewish life”

[Conversion of Jews, antichrist sends his preachers—[cc By SA] / Wikimedia]

Maimonides (1135–1204)

Born in Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon) was a Jewish scholar and philosopher especially known for his Torah scholarship. When the fantatically intolerant Almohad regime conquered Córdoba in 1148, the ben Maimon family had to hide their Jewish faith and practices. By 1159 the charade finally proved too difficult, and they fled, traveling through southern Spain and northern Africa for years. They settled in Egypt, where Maimonides was appointed nagid (Hebrew for prince and leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community in 1171. His rise may have been due to his campaign to rescue Jews captured during Christian king Amalric’s siege of Bilbays, Egypt.

Maimonides’s younger brother, David, a wealthy jewelry merchant, died in a shipwreck in the early 1170s, leaving the family without fortune. Maimonides turned to practicing medicine to financially support them. In his writings he demonstrated his vast understanding of Greek and Arab medicine, while also using his own observations of patients to advance medical knowledge. Not only a tireless scholar, he also treated patients all day long: first the Egyptian royal family, then the common people waiting for him when he arrived home. 

Maimonides was the first person to compile a Jewish creed. His most famous works are the Mishneh Torah (c. 1170–1180), a wide-reaching systemization of Jewish law, and Guide for the Perplexed (1190); he also wrote many other books on theology, doctrine, philosophy, and medicine. He argued that when people contemplate the beauty and order of God’s creation, they love him and recognize their own insignificance. Having lived among believers in both Islam and Christianity, Maimonides believed both derived from Judaism but had gone astray. He criticized the doctrine of the Trinity, considering it polytheistic, and wrote of Deuteronomy 6:4, “The Christians utilized this verse to prove that God is one of three, teaching that Lord, Our God, the Lord makes three names, all followed by One.”

Baruch (14th century)

In July 1320 a Jewish man named Baruch testified in court about his conversion from Judaism to Christianity and back to Judaism. He recalled that one day as he sat in his study in the Jewish quarter of Toulouse, France, a Christian mob barged in yelling, “To death, to death, be baptized or we will kill you immediately!” He went to a church for shelter, but church officials demanded baptism. He did not believe this baptism was authentic, though, because it was done under duress. 

When the court asked Baruch if he put up any fight before his baptism, he replied, “No. I feared that I would be assassinated if I did or said anything.” Asked if he wished to be Jewish or Christian, Baruch was emphatic: “I wish to live as a Jew and not as a Christian, because it does not seem to me that I am a Christian. I never believed that [the baptism] was valid.”

But in the end, the bishop did not believe Baruch was baptized by force. The court considered him a Christian and said because he was still practicing Judaism, he would be tried as a heretic. He responded, “I do not wish to believe or observe Christianity, and I prefer to die than to leave Judaism, the more so since I am no small authority for the Jews of these regions.” But Baruch agreed that if no discord between Jewish and Christian teachings could be proven, he would remain a Christian. After weeks of comparing the teachings of the Christian Scriptures and the Jewish Law and Prophets, he agreed that Christianity is correct.

One month later, in August of 1320, however, he was back in front of the court to express doubts about Christianity after he reread parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. He cited many verses that countered Trinitarianism, including the same one Maimonides had noted, Deuteronomy 6:4. When asked if the court had previously countered his doubts, he said that it had, but he could not recall the arguments.

On September 25, 1320, Baruch returned yet again and told the court, “I, Baruch, appearing for questioning before you . . . abjure entirely all heresy against the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Roman Church.” But on December 3, he returned to the court once more to beg for mercy as a heretic because he had continued to live as a Jew after Christian baptism. His final sentence is lost to history. 

Glückel of Hameln (1645–1724)

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Glückel was one of six children from the prosperous Jewish family of Judah Joseph Leib. Leib educated all his children, including his daughters, and Glückel received a formal education in a cheder (traditional Jewish school). At age 14 she married Hayyim of Hameln, who became a wealthy businessman in the gold trade. The couple had 14 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood and married well throughout the European Jewish community. When Hayyim passed away in 1689, Glückel successfully took over the family business. She eventually married again, although her second husband lost his own fortune as well as hers. 

After Hayyim’s death, Glückel began writing a memoir to cope with her deep grief. From 1691 until 1719, she wrote seven books cataloging her life, adventures, sorrows, and faith; they give us remarkable insight into northern European Jewish life of the era and chronicle many important historical events: Sweden’s war on Denmark, the Khmelnytsky Uprising, the Black Death, Sabbatai Zevi, the Franco-Dutch War, and the War of Spanish Succession. She described difficult circumstances for Jews, including anti-Semitism, and also recalled the expulsion of Jews from Hamburg to Altona when she was a child, remembering that Jews were forbidden to live in whole regions of Germany. 

Glückel explained in the beginning of her book that its purpose was not a moral one; her children only needed Torah to live a godly life. Instead she wanted to tell her children and their descendants the family story. After her second husband’s death, Glückel moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in Metz, where she continued to write her memoirs. 

Sholem Asch (1880–1957)

Sholem Asch was born in Poland to a large Hasidic family (see p. 11). His parents enrolled him in the town’s best Jewish school, where he studied the Talmud. When he moved to Warsaw in 1889, he met his hero, Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz (1852–1915), who convinced him to write exclusively in Yiddish, the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews. 

Asch began establishing himself as a gifted writer with his first book of stories, In a Bad Time (1902). He continued to write short stories and also plays, for which he became even more famous thanks to multiple translations of his work. His most well-known and often reviled play was God of Vengeance (1906), set in a Jewish brothel. While theaters throughout Europe and on Broadway performed it, many Jewish leaders decried it as anti-Semitic fodder. 

Asch and his young family moved to New York in 1914 to escape the violence in Europe, eventually settling on Staten Island. He wrote for Yiddish newspapers and was active in Jewish relief programs, traveling to Europe to report on the devastation of World War I. Though he became a US citizen in 1920, he eventually moved back to Europe, spending extended time in France. 

He returned to the United States as World War II was beginning, and there wrote a trilogy, The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1945), and Mary (1949). Many accused him of converting to Christianity, but Asch insisted he was still Jewish and only wanted to bridge some of the division between the two religions. He believed that Christianity is an expression of Judaism, asserting they are “one culture and civilization.” 

His Jewish readers and contemporaries, however, did not like his more open-minded treatment of Christianity, and he was fired from the New York Yiddish newspaper Forverts. He started writing for a communist paper, which led to multiple questionings by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Because of the hearings and widespread criticism from fellow Jews, Asch left the United States permanently in 1953 for London and eventually died in Israel.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929)

Franz Rosenzweig was born in Germany to an intellectual middle-class family. Though his family was ethnically Jewish, his parents were not religiously observant. A gifted student, he studied modern history and philosophy; after researching Hegel’s German idealism and its stress on holistic history over the individual, Rosenzweig found himself attracted instead to existentialism and its emphasis on how personal experience shapes meaning. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), one of Rosenzweig’s close university friends, also criticized German idealism. But instead of looking to philosophy for answers, Rosenstock-Huessy turned to religion, converting from Judaism to Christianity. 

In July 1913 Rosenzweig decided he, too, would convert to Christianity. Before conversion, however, he wanted to attempt to live as early observant Jews would have. During a Yom Kippur service in a Berlin synagogue in October 1913, he encountered new (to him) concepts of human sinfulness, God’s forgiveness, and the deep love God has for his people. At that moment he became a committed Jew. He never considered converting to Christianity again. 

Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy remained close friends. During their time as soldiers in World War I, the young men corresponded via letter about their respective religions. These letters were compiled and published decades later as Judaism Despite Christianity (1970).

Rosenzweig’s most famous book, The Star of Redemption (1921), chronicles how, as humans love God, they become more connected to the world—and that, Rosenzweig believed, is redemption. In the last seven years of his life, Rosenzweig suffered from paralysis due to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). His wife, Edith, helped him continue to produce important scholarship, including a new German translation of the Hebrew Bible with Jewish scholar Martin Buber (1878–1965). 

Marc Chagall (1887–1985)

Born in modern Belarus, Moishe Segal (later gallicized as Marc Chagall) was the oldest of nine children in a Lithuanian Jewish Hasidic family. Art critic Michael J. Lewis wrote that he was “most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk.” Although Jewish children were not allowed to attend regular high schools, Chagall’s mother bribed a local high school headmaster to admit her son. There Chagall saw a fellow student drawing and was amazed; he had not been exposed to such art in his home. 

After studying art in Saint Petersburg for four years, Chagall relocated to Paris, only to return to Russia to marry his fiancée, Bella Rosenfeld. They returned to France following World War I, and Chagall finally began to make a name in the French art world in 1927. When commissioned to illustrate an edition of the Old Testament, Chagall traveled to Israel where he “found the Bible and part of my own being.”

Though the German art world originally lauded Chagall’s work, following Hitler’s rise German authorities mocked Chagall’s style as “. . . green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air . . . representing [an] assault on Western civilization.” The Chagalls remained in Vichy, France, until they realized the Nazi threat to their safety as Jews. A rescue operation to get artists and intellectuals out of France ultimately saved them, and the Chagalls finally landed in New York in 1941.

As he learned more about atrocities in Europe, including concentration camps, Chagall angrily spoke out:

After two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world . . . with few exceptions, their hearts are silent . . . I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.

He returned to his beloved France shortly after World War II and remained there until his death.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994)

The son of a renowned Talmud scholar and rabbi, Schneerson was born in what was then Imperial Russia and is now Ukraine. When Schneerson was 11 years old, his private tutor informed his father that he had no more to teach his son. By the age of 17, Schneerson had mastered the entire Talmud—which was over 5,000 pages—as well as its early commentaries. 

In 1928 Schneerson married Chaya Mushka, a daughter of the sixth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, leader of the Chabad Orthodox Hasidic movement. He and his bride moved to Berlin where he resumed his studies. As the Nazi Party continued to gain popular traction, the couple relocated to France and eventually escaped to Brooklyn in June 1941. A year after his father-in-law passed away, Schneerson became the seventh Chabad Rebbe, leader of one of the world’s most well-known Hasidic movements. 

One of Schneerson’s practices as rebbe was to hold yechidus, private meetings, on Sunday and Thursday evenings (often running till the early morning hours). Anyone was welcome to ask questions and seek his advice on all matters spiritual and personal. Even politicians and leaders (including President Kennedy) sought his advice; the meetings finally had to be discontinued in 1982 due to the impossibility of accommodating all who desired his company.

During his tenure as rebbe, Schneerson established Chabad branches in Canada, England, Israel, and the United States and international schools and synagogues in England, Italy, Morocco, and the United States; promoted public lightings of the menorah during Hanukkah; rescued thousands of Jewish Iranian youth from Iran in 1979; and supported a campaign to study Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah daily. A tireless worker, he dedicated 18 hours of every day to work and study and never took a day of vacation. 

In 1978 Schneerson became the first (and so far only) rabbi to have a US national day proclaimed in his honor. He died in June 1994, leaving many followers and fans, both Jewish and gentile. He was so beloved that many of his followers believed he was the Messiah, even after his death.

Abraham Heschel (1907–1972)

The youngest of six children, Abraham Heschel was born in Poland, coming from a long line of important European rabbis on both his father’s and mother’s sides. He earned his doctorate at the University of Berlin and obtained a liberal rabbinic ordination, studying under some of the greatest European Jewish teachers of his time. 

In 1938 the Gestapo captured Heschel in Germany and deported him to Poland. Just six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, he escaped, never to return. Nazis murdered one of his sisters and his mother. Heschel moved to the United States in 1940 and eventually served as professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City from 1946 until his death. 

In much of his work, Heschel argued that humans must be amazed by God. Heschel criticized Maimonides’s rationalism and argued that awe brings us closer to the divine. In his book The Prophets (1962), he wrote that Jewish prophets are God’s voice for the oppressed: “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.” 

Believing that Jewish people should engage with the larger world, Heschel supported the civil rights movement (he walked from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965), protested against the Vietnam War, and worked to improve Jewish-Christian relations. He served as a representative of American Jews at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and convinced the Catholic Church to either eliminate or alter liturgical passages that demeaned Jews. C H

By Jennifer A. Boardman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #133 in 2020]

Jennifer A. Boardman is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a master of theological studies from Bethel Seminary with a concentration in Christian history.
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