Bnei Anousim of our generation
Recently Shavei Israel participated in the Symposium organised by Shiloh Miriam a descendant of the Bnei Anousim “The Return of the Bnei Anusim” which was moderated by our chairman Michael Freund and with the participation of experts on the subject such as Genie Milgrom, Ashley Perry, Rav Yehoram Ulman and Rav Eliahu Birenbaum who shared with us the content from his fascinating lecture entitled “The Bnei Anusim of our generation”.
Thank you for your invitation to speak at this important conference.
I would like to thank Miriam Shilo for the initiative and arranging the conference and I thank everyone who took part in organizing and supporting the conference.
Over the next few moments, I will try to speak from my heart and from my experience with the Bnei Anusim over the past twenty years, and I will also base my speech on passages from the Bible which shed light upon this important topic.
I would like to open with a description of the current situation of the Bnei Anusim and the various categories of Bnei Anusim which exist today.
There are various aspects to the question of Bnei Anusim in these times. We can discuss historical, sociological, religious and halachic aspects, as well as aspects of identity and psychological ones, but I believe that this question has important consequences on the future and the existence of the Jewish People.
We usually tend to think that the Anusim are an extinct species, who exist only upon the pages of history books and dusty documents from the times of the inquisition. But, in fact, it is not so. There are Bnei Anusim alive and kicking today around the world, asking to return and reconnect their destiny to the future of the Jewish People! Every week I hear new stories and receive e-mails with requests from people who find a connection to past generations of Anusim.
Categories of Bnei Anusim
There are various categories of Bnei Anusim throughout history, as well as in our times. The Anusim are Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition, but continued to observe the Jewish laws secretly, in their hearts and in their homes.
But today, the situation is such that there are no Anusim or Maranos or Conversos or crypto Judeos, who live a double life and keep their Judaism a secret. There are only Bnei Anusim, who discover their roots and their affinity to Judaism. So actually, there are no people living under a false identity as Jews in their homes and as Christians in public.
It is well known today that there are Bnei Anusim all around the world where the Anusim were dispersed when they fled from the decrees of destruction. Some of them are still living in Spain and Portugal and believe they are descendants of the Jews from the time of the Inquisition.
Individually and as a community the descendants of the Anusim are acquiring a renewed awareness of their connection to their parentage. Thousands of Bnei Anusim are currently undergoing a process of spiritual and national search, with the purpose of returning to their Jewish roots.
Of course, the whole matter of Anusim is complicated. There are many groups and divisions among them and not all of them are descendants of the Anusim of Spain and Portugal, but most of them can be seen as their spiritual descendants, when considering the halachic consequences that apply to each group.
There are anusim who have a direct lineage from Jews, but no Jewish identity. These Anusim kept certain traditions and were strict about marrying only within the family, but they could not explain why they did so. They lit candles in hiding on Friday night and married only family members, but they did not see this as a religious or Jewish act. On the other hand, there are Bnei Anusim whose Jewish identity is strong. They know that they come from a Jewish family hundreds of years back, but it is very possible that the lineage was broken and over the years they married non-Jews. However, they feel like Bnei Anusim and are proud of their Jewish roots and they wish to revive their Judaism. Abarbanel wrote of these Jews in the sixteenth century “We consider them as gentiles, but we believe they will return to Judaism. G-d did not give up on them and with His great mercy He will return them to His Torah”. There are Bnei Anusim who were born to a Jewish mother, while others, born to a Jewish father, nonetheless feel truly Jewish. Unfortunately, there are also Evangelists and Messianic missionaries who try to impersonate Bnei Anusim in order to influence Jews.
In addition, there are the converts and the emerging communities, which are arising around the world. Of course, this is a completely different phenomenon, as these are not descendants of Jews, but Christians who leave their religion and choose to become Jewish, but I believe they are both post-modern phenomena, of searching for meaning and roots.
It is interesting that also Rabbis who spoke of the return of lost Jews, the lost tribes and ingathering of the exiles, wrote that it must be clear that not everyone who returns to the Jewish Nation will be Jewish according to Halacha, nonetheless, we must accept them joyously, even if they must undergo conversion.
In the book of Isaiah, it says (66, 20-21): “ And they shall bring all your brethren out of all the nations… And of them also will I take for the Priests and for the Levites, saith the LORD.” In his commentary of these passages, the Radak writes: “That is to say, even from those who were firmly settled among the gentiles in faraway islands, until they were forgotten… and they may have changed the religion somewhat, even so, from them will I take to be Priests and Levites”.
So wrote Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen from Lublin, one of the Chassidic leaders in Europe during the eighteenth century:
“As it says ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great horn shall be blown; and they shall come that were lost in the land of Assyria, and they that were dispersed in the land of Egypt’. They that were lost are those who were assimilated among the nations and do not know at all that they are of Jewish descent, and they that were dispersed in the land of Egypt are so distant within the spiritual impurity, as they were in Egypt, when they were surrounded there as a fetus within its mother’s womb, and they need a great horn to awaken them as well, as anyone who is only descendant from Israel must not be distanced.”
Bnei Anusim, a Renewing Phenomenon
I believe that a new phenomenon has been formed these days, of Bnei Anusim by identity.
These are people who cannot prove a historic or genetic lineage on their mother’s side from Jewish families, but based on various signs they believe that they belong to families of Anusim and ask to return to their parents’ roots.
Usually, most Bnei Anusim who ask to return to Judaism today do not learn of their roots through family tradition, passed down through the generations. They discover something, a family name, an object, some deep feeling in their heart, and they start to research their family. It is actually a reverse process, not a regular one, therefore it is becoming more and more difficult these days to confirm the Jewish status of the Bnei Anusim, as it is almost impossible to prove the family lineage over the generations.
The halachic approach
In the halachic world there is much confusion and misunderstanding. There is not enough time to explain the full situation, but I will try to touch a few topics shortly.
The first topic is the status of the Bnei Anusim during the first generations after they converted to Christianity.
The second – the status of the Bnei Anusim today and the ceremony of the return.
The third is the question of the Law of Return and the Aliya to the State of Israel.
The Era of the Anusim
Historically and halachically we must, of course, differentiate between the first generations of the Anusim, following the expulsion or a few generations later, and the situation today, five hundred years later.
In the beginning of the period most of the Anusim were strict about marrying only among themselves. We can see testimony to this in the writings of Rabbi Shimon Duran, one of the greatest rabbis of Algeria in the fifteenth century, who was born in Palma de Majorca and received many of the Jews banished from Spain in 1391: “It is surely assumed that all the Anusim do not marry non-Jews and it is well known that they behave so… one generation after the other until today… and any of the Anusim who wish to repent, just as we assume that his father is from Israel, so we assume that his mother is from Israel and is not a gentile… therefore such Anusim do not need to immerse in the Mikve, since they rely on the assumption that their mother is from Jewish descent. And even though there are few of them who mix with gentiles and take wives from their daughters, only a very few of them do so…”
Rabbi Eliahu Mizrachi from Istanbul, who was the chief Rabbi of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire and received many of the banished Jews of Spain, wrote about the Spanish Anusim: ‘and this is what is done every day and in every place according to the great rabbis, that all the Anusim who come to repent, we do not need to do anything (to them) besides circumcision alone, not immersing in the Mikve’ (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi Responsa, 60, 32).
But throughout the generations the desire not to mix with non-Jews weakened. Today almost all the descendants of the Anusim do not live separated from their environment, except for few individuals or unique communities, while the rest intermarried with the locals.
How long did this status, which could sustain the presumption of Judaism, continue? It is impossible to make a clear statement, but it is interesting that a few generations after the expulsion, in the seventeenth century in Tzfat, we can find the continuation of the tendency to see the descendants of Anusim presumed as pure Jews, who did not intermarry, in the responsa of Rabbi Yom Tov Ben Moshe Tzahalon, the Maharitz, who writes: ‘and there is no need to worry that the father of this uncircumcised Anus married a non-Jew and bore this son to him, and therefore he would be considered a non-Jew like his mother and need circumcision and immersion. We should not say this, as the presumption is that the Anusim do not marry gentiles… and the gentiles are careful not to marry them, therefore there is no concern in such a case’ (New Maharitz responsa, 107)
If we skip to the current situation among the Bnei Anusim, it is difficult to determine the family lineage from the mother’s side, which according to Judaism is the determining side of the family. There are few Bnei Anusim who succeed in proving the continuity of the family lineage, through family documents, the inquisition archives and family trees.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who was the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel (in a letter to an Anusim Association) wrote: “however, since a long time has passed since the times of the Anusim and there is great concern of intermarriage with non-Jews and it is difficult to check the lineage of the Anusim as well, and everything that is mentioned in the Shuchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 60, 268, should be fulfilled “He should be treated with kindness” in other words they must be commended for coming today to fulfill all the laws of the Torah in open, and circumcision and immersion should be preformed on them and they should be granted a certificate with the title: “Certificate for the returnee to the ways of his forefathers”.
It seems that according to Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu today we cannot rely on the presumption of their Judaism, therefore they must undergo full conversion, including standing before a Jewish conversion court, circumcision and immersion in the Mikve, in addition to reaching out to them in kindness and granting them a certificate of return to Judaism.
The topic of the Anusim and their descendants did not arise significantly among the adjudicators (poskim) of our times. There are only few responsa and rulings concerning them and offering a way to bring them back to our nation in the modern times. We can assume that the main reason for this is their continuing seclusion over generations and years. The Bnei Anusim felt free to show their feelings and desires only after the change of rule in Spain (after the end Franco’s rule) and Portugal (after the end of the dictatorship and beginning of democracy in 1975).
The matter of the Anusim and their status arose at the European Rabbinic Council and all the rabbis agreed to the halachic permit and to the necessity to bring the Anusim closer to the Jewish People: ” To accept our distant brethren, the Anusim of Spain and Portugal, with open arms, bringing them back under the wings of the Shechina (Divine Presence)”.
Rabbi Gedalia Felder, in his book ‘Nachalat Tzvi’, wrote: “Judaism did not maintain animosity to their sons the Anusim, but saw them as foreign among the nations and called out to those who want to return – Come back distant brethren into your mother’s arms, recognize what people say: a flower among the thorns is still named a flower and is called a flower”.
Rabbi Menachem Yehuda Halevi Ushpizay Z”l, Rabbi and Head of the Ramat Gan Beit Din wrote: “We believe that now that G-d has remembered His people and His land and we have merited the end of the exile, as the prophet Ezekiel promised ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to My people Israel; for they are at hand to come’…. We must awaken the Anusim of Spain and tell them – G-d the Lord of Israel calls you return to the Jewish Nation… Don Yitzchak Abarbanel in his book on the Torah commemorated them and promised that the Anusim of Spain will return to Judaism”.
Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, who was the chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv wrote: “From now on one of the wonders of the future miraculous redemption of Israel will be the return of lost, distanced sons, back to the lap of Judaism. And if indeed also the descendants of the Anusim in Spain and America will ask to return to Judaism, we will see this as a sign of the beginning of the redemption.”
Return to Judaism
Who is a convert from Judaism or an apostate? An apostate (meshumad) is someone who left the Jewish religion and committed himself to another religion. However, if he decides to return to Judaism, he is considered a Jew like any other Jew. The known source from which we learn that it is impossible to leave Judaism and the Jewish status is the Talmud in Sanhedrin: “If an Israelite sins, Rabbi Aba says: Even though he sinned, He is still an Israelite” (Sanhedrin 44). In other words, even if one does not keep the tradition, the name of Israel is not taken from him. The law ‘An Israelite who sinned is still an Israelite’ gives a sort of national immunity, even to a person who sinned or converted his religion.
In other words, the status of a Jew negates any description of belonging to another religion or nation and the Jew will always belong to the Nation of Israel, even though he sinned. A Jew is a life-long status.
Although according to the law of the Torah an apostate is a Jew and there is no change in his status, according to the laws of the Sages and the ancient edict he must undergo ‘return to Judaism’ and acceptance of all the Jewish laws, but he does not need to undergo conversion. The customary immersion in cases of return to Judaism is not for the sake of conversion, but for the sake of repentance, as is customary on the eve of Yom Kippur. So, one who wishes to return to Judaism is not obligated to undergo the process of conversion, but a kind of pronouncement that he repents from his former ways and asks to return to the religion of his forefathers. The approach to an apostate is like that of a son returning to his family and not a gentile asking to convert.
The Shulchan Aruch decrees that the apostate returning to Judaism does not need to immerse, but the Rama decrees that he must immerse and accept the full Jewish laws: “An apostate who repented does not need to immerse, only according to the laws of the Sages he should immerse and accept the Jewish laws before three judges” (Shulchn Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 267, 8). However, the poskim emphasize that this immersion is a mere virtue and does not delay the return to Judaism, therefore when it is impossible to immerse or there is concern that the request to immerse will stop the apostate from returning to Judaism, it can be forgone, since it is not based on conversion, but it is due to the sins that were committed as an apostate.
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg explains about accepting the apostates with warmth and love, back to Judaism: “Therefore the law is that when his evil-inclination is exhausted and he comes to us and says ‘I want to return and accept my Judaism…he is accepted back to Judaism with great sympathy and happiness and is told ‘you are our brother’ and we do not burden or alarm him at all, but pull him in with a thread of grace”. (Tzitz Eliezer responsa, part 13, 93).
In summary, I tried to present the reality of the Bnei Anusim to you, with some of the sources of the Halacha. As you have heard, the approach is positive towards the Bnei Anusim and there is desire to reach out to them and bring them to the Jewish Nation, but the matter must be discussed according to the different periods of time.
If so, what is holding up the Israeli Nation and the State of Israel? I believe the answer is a vision of reality that is a result of the exile… As long as we were in exile, we weren’t free to look at the reality around us, we couldn’t help our brethren join or return to the Jewish Nation, we could only look inwards. We haven’t yet managed to change this outlook, and I believe we must open up and base our vision on a wide perspective so we can bring the Bnei Anusim back to the Jewish Nation.
Unfortunately, the State of Israel has no clear strategy and policy on the matter of the Bnei Anusim and their status as Jews, the return to Judaism and their aliya to Israel, nor is there an answer for other groups of Jewish descendants around the world. Moreover, the Law of Return, the law that states who can become a citizen of the State of Israel, says that a Jew of “a different religion” cannot make aliya to Israel, therefore the status of people who converted to Christianity in past generations affects Bnei Anusim these days.
I believe we are in the midst of a process, a process of acquainting ourselves with the renewal of Bnei Anusim around the world; a halachic process of learning the matter in the rabbinic courts in Israel and around the world; a process of setting a policy in the State of Israel and I am certain that the Almighty will be our partner in these important challenges.