Chavurah Masarti

Lynchburg, VA                  Founded on 2 Cheshvan, 5766 

Jewish Excommunication

This Rabbinical opinion was developed by Michael Gillette and it represents a trans-denominational perspective.  Readers who identify with a particular Jewish movement or congregation should consider their local Rabbi as the appropriate authority.

 

  At one of our Chavurah dinners, an interesting question was raised regarding the status of Jews who convert to other religions.  Some of us were under the impression that Judaism does not recognize conversion to other religions, while others argued that an individual who is Baptized (for example) becomes non-Jewish and would have to re-convert later in life to become Jewish once again.  This led into a discussion of the most famous example of Jewish excommunication in history, that of Baruch Spinoza.  Was Spinoza Jewish even after he was excommunicated?  While we did not have the chance to do a thorough analysis of the question, I think that the answer is pretty clear.

  Baptism (and many other rituals from other religions) are not recognized under Halacha, so they have no validity in changing a person's religion from the Jewish perspective.  That means that even Jews who voluntarily undergo conversion to other religions may be considered unobservant apostates, but they won't be considered non-Jews.  Your status within Judaism might change, but your religion won't.  Once you are a Jew, you are always a Jew unless your Jewish status is somehow revoked by Jewish law.  The question then emerges, 'under what conditions does Halacha recognize that a person is no longer Jewish'?  This is what led us to the discussion of Spinoza.

  The notion of excommunication in Judaism is vastly different than that of other religions.  'Cherem' is the set of Jewish laws that deal with excommunication, although it would be better to understand Cherem as 'shunning' rather than exclusion from membership in the religion.  According to the laws of Cherem, a Beit Din can impose a variety of levels of punishment that involve the social and commercial exclusion of an individual from the community.  There are specific actions that justify imposition of such punishments, and the details can be found below, but it is interesting to note that Cherem is justified in cases where a person publicly acts in a way that undermines Jewish values.  The important point, however, is that a Jew who is subject to even the most severe form of Cherem is still a Jew.  Others will be forbidden from interacting with this individual for specified periods of time depending on the seriousness of the offense, but the subject of the punishment is still considered Jewish.

  If this understanding of Jewish law is correct, then it would be possible for a Jewish community to exclude an individual from membership in the social organization of its society, and it would even be possible for the State of Israel to withhold the right of return from that individual, but the individual himself would still be considered Jewish.

  Cherem, which is a form of punishment, should be distinguished from situations in which an individual voluntarily professes a desire to leave Judaism.  Does a person who converts to another religion cease to be a Jew?  What if the conversion was done under duress?  If such an individual wishes to return to Judaism, what must s/he do?  There are sources that indicate that such individuals, although still considered Jewish, should undergo a formal ceremony of commitment to Judaism in order to be considered suspicion-free.  This ceremony will not be equivalent to a full conversion, but it is still necessary according to Rabbinic sources.  This position is interesting because it creates a new category of individuals that could be termed "suspect Jews".  These folks are Jewish, but their commitment is suspect so it would be appropriate that they not be allowed to engage in certain activities.  For example, an apostate might be Jewish in the strict sense, but still be ineligible to lead services.  On this way of thinking, it might be correct to say that a Jew who has joined another religious organization is still Jewish, but should not be allowed to serve as President of a synagogue.  What then of the children of an apostate who is raised in a church?  If that individual wishes to be considered Jewish, must he or she be formally converted?  Now the conversation is getting interesting!!  See the links below for detailed responsa.

Relevant Links:

1) A Detailed Discussion of Cherem: Jewish Law on Excluding

2) Wikipedia Article on Cherem

3) A 2004 Example of Cherem from the Beit Din in South Africa

4) Conservative Responsa: The Return of Second Generation Apostates

5) Reform Responsa on this question: Baptism and Educating a Child as a Jew, a conflicting individual opinion: Does Christian Baptism Nullify Jewish Identity?, and a middle position: Return to Judaism of a Baptized Jewish Girl

6)Reform Responsa on the Apostate in the Synagogue

 

Some Interesting Related Issues on Defining Jewish Identity:

1) Conservative Responsa: The Status of Ethiopian Jews

2) Conservative Responsa: Accepting Egyptian Karaites into Our Communities

2) Consertavie Responsa: Should the Kashruth of Conversions Be Investigated?

 

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