Contemporary American Reform Responsa

68. Status of a "Completed Jew" in the Jewish Community

QUESTION: There are a number of individuals in the community who consider themselves as "completed Jews" or "Messianic Jews"; they accept Jesus as their savior, but, nevertheless, still feel Jewish "in their hearts." How should the congregation view such individuals? (Rabbi A. S. Task, Greensboro, NC)

ANSWER: Individuals who feel a vague attachment to one or another religion pose no problem for those religious groups which leave identification solely in the hands of the individual. Judaism, however, does not do so. It is not the individual who defines whether she is Jewish but the group. For us in the Jewish community anyone who claims that Jesus is their savior is no longer a Jew and is an apostate. Through that belief she has placed herself outside the Jewish community. Whether she cares to define herself as a Christian or as a "fulfilled Jew," "Messianic Jew," or any other designation is irrelevant; to us she is clearly a Christian. It is true that this individual may be somewhat different from other Christians as she continues to follow certain Jewish practices and folkways, but we should remember that various Christian sects do likewise. For example, the Seventh Day Adventists observe shabbat as their day of rest. There are some Black Christian groups who also follow specifically Jewish observances, and there have been other groups like this in the past centuries.

We should, therefore, consider a "completed Jew" as an apostate. What would her status be for us? Judaism has always considered those who left us as sinners, but still remaining as Jews. They could always return to Judaism through teshuvah, and the exact response of Judaism depended very much on the conditions of the time. Hai Gaon (as quoted by Aderet Responsa, VII #292) felt that an apostate could not be considered as a Jew. Centuries later the rabbis of the Mediterranean Basin had to face the problems of the Marranos (anussim). Their attitude differed greatly and may be summarized under five headings:

(1) Apostates were Jews who had sinned but, nevertheless, remained Jewish (Isaac ber Sheshet; Simon ben Zemah of Duran, but on some occasions he did not grant this status; Solomon ben Solomon; Zemah ben Solomon).

(2) Those who considered the apostate as Jewish only in matters of matrimony (and so their offsprings were Jewish), but not in any other area (Samuel de Medina).

(3) Marranos (anussim) were non-Jews in every respect including matters of marriage; their children were not considered to be Jews (Judah Berab, Jacob Berab, Moses ben Elias Kapsali, etc.).

(4) An apostate was worse than a Gentile (ben Veniste, Mercado ben Abraham).

(5) Descendants of the Marranos who have been baptized were like Jewish children who have been taken captive by non-Jews, and their children are Jewish (Samuel ben Abraham Aboa).

A full discussion of the problem may be found in H. J. Zimmel's Die Marranen in de Rabbinischen Literatur pp. 21 ff. One extreme position was held by Solomon ben Simon Duran (Rashbash Responsa #89) who felt that not only the apostate but also the children would continue to be considered Jewish forever into the future as long as the maternal line was Jewish. He also felt that nothing needed to be done by any generation of such apostates when they returned to Judaism. No ritual bath or any other act was considered necessary or desirable. In fact, he emphasized that no attention be given to their previous state, for that might discourage their return. Rabbenu Gershom similarly urged the quiet acceptance of all who returned to Judaism (Mahzor Vitry pp. 96, 97).

The other extreme has been presented by Hai Gaon as cited in a slightly different fashion by Rashi (in his commentary to Kid. 68b and Lev. 24.10). He felt that any returning apostate, or the children of a Jewish mother who had apostasized, were potentially Jewish but must undergo a process akin to conversion if they wished to become part of the Jewish community. That point of view was rejected by most later scholars, as for example, Nahmanides (in his commentary to Leviticus 24.10; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.10 f; Ezekiel Laudau, Noda Biyehuda #150, etc.). We, therefore, have two opposing positions in rabbinic literature; both, of course, represented reaction to particular historic conditions. Solomon ben Simon of Duran wished to make it easy for a large number of Marranos to return to Judaism; unfortunately this did not occur. Even when it was possible for Jews to leave Spain, the majority chose to remain. Rashi's harsh attitude probably reflected the small number of apostates who were a thorn in the side of the French community. The later tradition chose a middle path and encouraged the apostate's return along with some studies, but without a formal conversion process. Even if an apostate indicated no desire to return to Judaism, he would, nevertheless, be considered as part of the Jewish people (San 44a).

A summary of special laws which were applied to apostates would include a number of matters mainly connected with family law. The marriage of an apostate who left Judaism under duress, if performed according to Jewish law, was valid (Yeb 30b; Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 44.9). The rules of divorce when apostates were involved were modified; such individuals were not considered to be reliable witnesses except in the case of an agunah. Penalties could be imposed on their inheritance (Kid. 18a) although they did possess the right of inheritance (B. B. 108a, 11a). Normal mourning rites should not be observed for such persons (M. San. 6.6; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 345.5). Clearly apostates stood outside the community in all but relatively few matters until their repentance.

Each of these cases cited above, of course, dealt with apostasy under greater or lesser duress. Outside pressures played a major role in the lives of the individuals involved. This is not the case with the "Completed Jew." We would, therefore, be stricter with her than with individuals who were forced into a position of becoming Christian. For us such modern willing apostate is a non-Jew. In this matter we would disagree with the Talmud and later tradition (Bech. 30b; see "An Apostate Proselyte," American Reform Responsa, #71 for further references).

We can not, and should not, exclude such individuals from attendance at services, classes or any other activity of the community, for we always hold the hope that they will return to Judaism and disassociate themselves from Christianity. But they should be seen as outsiders who have placed themselves outside the Jewish community. This should be made very clear to them and to the Jewish and general community, especially as many such individuals are active proselytizers . Such individuals should not be accorded membership in the congregation or treated in any way which makes them appear as if they were affiliated with the Jewish community, for that poses a clear danger to the Jewish community and also to its relationships with the general community.

We certainly do not want these individuals to speak for Judaism in any public forum. In conclusion, we should make the distinction between ourselves and these individuals very clear to them, to the Jewish community and to the general community around us.

September 1983

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.