Coerced Conversion

Coerced Conversion

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Vayishlach – פרשת וישלח

November 20, 2021 – טז כסלו תשפב

This essay is sponsored by Joshua & Deena Davis in memory of Sarah Rebecca Davis שרה רבקה בת יעקב ז"ל.

Coerced Conversion

Genesis 36 records the genealogical table of Esau’s descendants. Robert Alter translates the introductory verse as follows: “And this is the lineage of Esau, that is, Edom (Genesis 36:1).” In the Midrashic tradition, the Roman Empire is identified with Edom (Lamentations Rabbah 4). Rashi, commenting on 36:43, regards the “chieftain Magdiel” as an allusion to Rome.   The historical nation of Edom, however, was not located on the Italian peninsula. The Edomites, later known as the Idumeans, resided to the southeast of Judea. They eventually disappeared from history, partly because they blended into Jewry. Conventional historiography has it that the Idumeans were forcibly circumcised and converted to Judaism during the reign of the Hasmonean kings. If that is correct, the obvious question is: Why did Second Temple era Jewish leaders coerce a foreign population to adopt Judaism?   Conversion to Judaism should be volitional and, ideally, motivated by sincere and unadulterated theological conviction (Yebamot 24b). The sages questioned the Jewishness of the Cutheans (Samaritans) on the premise that their ancestors converted to the religion of Israel out of fear of lions (Kiddushin 75b). Halakhah evolved to make the process of conversion to include (male) circumcision, ritual immersion, and a sacrificial offering. Beyond these ritual requirements, the proselyte must fully accept the burden of the commandments. The Talmud teaches that a rabbinical court can process the conversion of a minor (who lacks the legally recognized capacity to assume the burdens of Judaism) but that that court cannot do so for an adult unless he or she affirmatively and explicitly verbalizes the desire to become an observant Jew (Ketubot 11a).   The laws of conversion were inchoate during the Hasmonean period and would not take on definite form until the Amoraic period. Yet, even still, the notion of mass coerced conversion into Judaism seems contrary to the Judaic ethos. What happened?   In antiquity, victorious armies sometimes branded the losing army and the civilian population. The Persian king Xerxes did this to the Greek army of Leontiades after the Battle of Thermopylae (Herodotus, Histories 7.233.2). In a (possibly) fictional account, Ptolemy IV Philopator is accused of branding Jews with the ivy leaf sign of Dionysus (3 Maccabees 2:29). Somewhat analogously, David collected one hundred foreskins from the Philistines (I Samuel 18:25).   But the evidence suggests that the Hasmoneans did not circumcise the Idumeans in order physically to mar them or to evidence their defeated status. In this instance, the purpose of circumcision was to bring an outside population into the body-politic of Israel. Genesis 17:13 mandates that, as part of the covenant of Abraham, individual slaves purchased by a Jew or born into the house of a Jew had to be circumcised. But this cannot be regarded as precedent for the forced circumcision of thousands of militarily defeated, though un-enslaved, gentiles. Moreover, the Biblical tale of the mass circumcision of the inhabitants of Shechem, following which two of Jacob’s sons killed them, while they recuperated from that procedure, to avenge the rape of Dinah, is not a precedent for forced conversion to Judaism.   Ptolemy the Historian wrote an early record of the conversion of the Idumeans: “Jews are those who are so by origin and nature. The Idumaeans, on the other hand, were not originally Jews, but Phoenicians and Syrians; having been subjugated by the Jews and having been forced to undergo circumcision, so as to be counted among the Jewish nation and keep the same customs, they were called Jews (Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism 1:146).” Josephus described how the phenomenon of forcibly converting gentiles extended over several decades. Upon conquering the region, John Hyrcanus permitted the Idumeans of Dora and Marisa to remain in their cities on condition that they be circumcised and adopt a Jewish way of life. The defeated population, “so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers,” submitted to Hyrcanus’ demands (Antiquities 13.9.1). Aristobulus I conquered the Galilee and Golan regions and forced the local Iturean population to circumcise and become Jews (13.11.3). Alexander Jannaeus continued the expansion of the Hasmoean realm and utterly destroyed a certain region “because its inhabitants would not bear to change their religious rites for those peculiar to the Jews (13.15.4).”   The Idumeans were integrated into the political hierarchy. Antipas was a trusted advisor of Alexander Jannaeus’ (14.1.3), just as his son Antipater was a close confidante of Hyrcanus II. Upon Herod’s ascension to the throne, he gave Sohemus of Iturea weighty governmental responsibilities (15.6.5). Descendants of the forcibly-converted populations were not second-class citizens. And many of them became devout Jews. Josephus records that, on Shavuot, the pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple included “a great number of Galileans and Idumeans (17.10.2). Some even became impassioned Jewish nationalists. When the Zealots called for help during the Great Revolt, twenty-thousand Idumean soldiers rushed to the defense of Jerusalem (Josephus, Wars 4.4.1-2).   As could be expected, some Idumeans were disgruntled about their new “Jewish” status and wished to rid themselves of a religion that had been foisted upon them. Herod married off his sister Salome to Costobarus, whom he installed as governor of Idumea. Overly impressed with himself, Costobarus rebelled. “He did not think fit to obey Herod or that the Idumeans should make use of the Jewish customs or be subject to them (Antiquities 15.7.9).”   Strabo offered a different account of how the Idumeans became Jews. “The Idumæans are Nabatæans. When driven from their country by sedition, they passed over to the Jews, and adopted their customs (Geography 16.2.34).” No mention is made of coercion, nor is there reference to circumcision. It is possible that Idumean adoption of circumcision during the Hasmonean era was not regarded by the population as the imposition of a totally foreign custom. Biblical evidence suggests that circumcision was commonly practiced in Edom (see Jeremiah 9:24-25 and Ezekiel 32:29), only to fall into desuetude early in the post-Biblical era. When the practice was revived in the late second century BCE, it may have been regarded as an indigenous rite.   Some scholars theorize that the stories of forced circumcision are ahistorical and reflect anti-Hasmonean propaganda depicting the Jewish kings as religiously intolerant tyrants. Yet there is evidence from other literary works that forced circumcision was not foreign to the sitz im leben of the Hasmonean era. The founding patriarch of the Hasmonean dynasty, Mattathias, engaged in the practice. “And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys they found within the borders of Israel (1 Maccabees 2:46-47).” In the pseudepigraphic book of 2 Baruch, King Josiah is hailed for being “strong in Torah so that he left no one uncircumcised in the whole country (2 Baruch 66:5). The Septuagint embellishes upon the process by which the mityahadim, out of fear of the ascendant Jews, transformed themselves from pagans into Jews: “Many of the gentiles had themselves circumcised and became Jews themselves, out of fear of the Jews (Greek Esther 8:17).”   To determine whether the later Hasmonean kings were following a precedent set by their forebear, we must first ask: Whom did Mattathias and his collaborators circumcise? Was it Jews only, or did he also circumcise the local gentiles? Evidence strongly suggests that he circumcised only Jews. But how could a Jew possibly be uncircumcised in the first place? The answer is that, under the anti-Judaic decrees of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Jews were forbidden to circumcise their children (I Maccabees 1:48); they were punished with death for violating the edict (1:60-61). Indeed, among the adult Hellenized adult population, some Jews underwent epispasm to reverse their circumcisions (1:15). Mattathias’ goal, therefore, was to restore Torah observance among those obligated in the commandments. No mention is made of gentiles’ being forced to submit to Jewish customs. Rather, local gentiles were seen as irredeemably hostile and were killed in large numbers (5:35).   The early Hasmoneans wanted Jews to be “a people that dwells alone” so that the people would thereby avoid the spiritual danger of cultural contact with heathens. Those rulers adopted policies of economic and sexual segregation. The Talmud offers a vague memory of these: “The court of the Hasmoneans decreed that a Jew who has relations with a heathen woman has violated the prohibitions of fornicating with a menstruant, slave-girl, idolatress, and married woman” (Sanhedrin 82a). In effect, the Hasmoneans rose to power as xenophobes in the cause of Torah.   In the subsequent generations of Hasmonean rulers, attitudes and policies changed. John Hyrcanus was the first to hire foreign troops. He entered into a league of friendship with heathens (Antiquities 13.8.4). He had a falling out with the Pharisees, who were quite popular among the Jewish masses (13.10.5). Alexander Jannaeus was hated by a significant percentage of his Jewish subjects. He hired thousands of foreign mercenaries and used them brutally to suppress “seditious” Jews (13.13.5). The Jews initiated an insurrection against him (Wars 1.4.3).   In light of these changes in attitude between the Hasmoneans and their Jewish constituents, scholars conjectured about the forced conversion policy adopted during a period of rapid territorial conquest. Among the various explanations that have been put forward are these:   a) The Hasmoneans converted rural gentiles in order to isolate the larger pagan cities of Eretz Yisrael.   b) Having the gentiles who reside in the border regions look Jewish and behave Jewishly was a way of dissuading foreign armies from trying to recruit them.   c) The Idumeans were converted in order to counterbalance the rising power of the Pharisees.   d) There was an ever-increasing need for ethnically non-Jewish soldiers because the ethnic Jews enjoyed the country’s sudden spike in prosperity and were not interested in joining the standing army.   The Hasmoneans faced a dilemma. They were becoming increasingly unpopular among Jews, in significant part because of their reliance upon non-Jews to bolster their rule and expand their realm. Instead of placating the opposition factions, however, the Hasmoneans believed their best move was to rely even more heavily on ethnic non-Jews. But to govern, as a “Jewish” country, an expanding realm with an ever-weaker Jewish demographic, the Hasmoneans had to effectuate a religious transformation of the conquered peoples. Hyrcanus, Aristobulus, and Jannai did follow in the tradition of their ancestor Mattathias, but with a difference. Mattathias forcibly circumcised Jews to save the country for Judaism; his successors circumcised gentiles for the same reason.   The Judaization of local heathens is impossible if they are regarded as implacable foes of Israel. 1 Maccabees essentially adopts that view. But other works in the Apocrypha tell stories of villains’ ultimately seeing the light. The Book of Judith relates that “Achior had seen all that the God of Israel had done, he believed in God greatly, circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, and was joined unto the house of Israel (Judith 14:10).” In 2 Maccabees, even the wicked Antiochus IV repents and joins the tribe of Israel: “Yea also, that he would become a Jew himself, and would go through every place of the earth, and declare the power of God (2 Maccabees 9:17).”   The forced conversion of the Idumeans is not an episode that Jews recall fondly, or indeed at all. The Talmud is basically silent on the matter, other than to question Agrippa I’s eligibility for the throne. Josephus wrote unfavorably about the Hasmonean policy: “Everyone ought to worship God according to his own inclinations, and not to be constrained by force (Vita 23).”   Today, converts often refer to themselves as “Jews by choice.” That is how it should be. The spread of religion by the sword is a moral evil. It has victimized us Jews too many times over the millennia.