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Rahel
Posts: 223
Registered: ‎08-06-2007
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Disraeli the Jew?

[ Edited ]

Dear Readers,

I have always found it interesting that despite Disraeli's baptism, he never loses his identity as a Jew. In my experience with conversion -- which is mostly that of friends who have converted to Judaism -- there is an understanding that having converted, one isn't then reminded constantly of one's former religion, but accepted as a Jew. I'm sure that this is less true in some more right-wing Jewish communities, and many of my friends who have converted are also proud to claim aspects of their identity before conversion, to be Irish and Jewish, or Italian and Jewish, but others in the community would never suggest that they are other than full Jews. What is so interesting about Disraeli's conversion is that although it certainly opened doors for him -- most importantly, allowing him to serve in Parliament when Jews were not allowed to -- no one seems to have thought that it actually changed him in any way. It's as thought the baptism was somehow a loophole that allowed him access despite his Jewish background, but no one really thought he had changed, or ever forgot that he was a Jew. Is the difference that Jewishness was seen much more as a race in the 19th century? That even if you accepted Jesus, you couldn't rid yourself of the racial characteristics of Jewishness? As a Jew, I see it to Disraeli's credit that he never tried to reject his connection to the Jewish people. Which must have been nerve-wracking for him -- did he not worry that in campaigning for the right of Jews to serve in Parliament he would have been accused of being a false Christian? Or was his Jewishness so obvious that he saw no point in trying to distance himself?

All these questions -- what do you all think?

Also, I wanted to recommend a book that really takes on these issues, Aharon Applefeld's The Conversion, about a town in which all the Jews convert, and yet, like Disraeli, no one ever forgets that they are Jews.

Best,

Rahel

 

Message Edited by Rahel on 11-12-2008 09:23 AM
Rahel
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AdamKirsch
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Registered: ‎11-04-2008
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Re: Disraeli the Jew?

Rahel--The question you raise is one I've been asked at just about every event or talk I've done about Disraeli. Why does he still "count" as a Jew, people want to know, if he was in fact a practicing Christian?

 

The answer, I think, is that Disraeli's own life tells us a lot about the permanence of Jewish identity. First of all, in the eyes of Englishmen, he was never considered truly English--again and again, people who left accounts of their encounters with Disraeli remarked that he looked like an alien, a foreigner, or even the Wandering Jew. England, unlike America, was in the 19th century an ethnically homogeneous society, and while Disraeli was an English subject he could never be a member of the English race.

 

Partly in response to this, Disraeli himself insisted that Jewishness was a race, not just a religion, and that becoming a Christian did not cancel his Jewishness. In this sense, he came early to one of the main principles of Zionism--in Moses Hess's words, that the truest form of Jewish piety is Jewish patriotism. That Jews are a people, a nation, even more than members of a confession is both an ancient and a modern idea--you can find it in the Bible and in the writings of Theodor Herzl. Of course, this wouldn't satisfy Orthodox Jews, for whom Disraeli could be nothing but an apostate. But for most American Jews, I suspect, the idea that one can be a Jew without being observant is an easy one to accommodate.

 

 

 

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Rahel
Posts: 223
Registered: ‎08-06-2007
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Re: Disraeli the Jew?


AdamKirsch wrote:

Rahel--The question you raise is one I've been asked at just about every event or talk I've done about Disraeli. Why does he still "count" as a Jew, people want to know, if he was in fact a practicing Christian?

 

The answer, I think, is that Disraeli's own life tells us a lot about the permanence of Jewish identity. First of all, in the eyes of Englishmen, he was never considered truly English--again and again, people who left accounts of their encounters with Disraeli remarked that he looked like an alien, a foreigner, or even the Wandering Jew. England, unlike America, was in the 19th century an ethnically homogeneous society, and while Disraeli was an English subject he could never be a member of the English race.

 

Partly in response to this, Disraeli himself insisted that Jewishness was a race, not just a religion, and that becoming a Christian did not cancel his Jewishness. In this sense, he came early to one of the main principles of Zionism--in Moses Hess's words, that the truest form of Jewish piety is Jewish patriotism. That Jews are a people, a nation, even more than members of a confession is both an ancient and a modern idea--you can find it in the Bible and in the writings of Theodor Herzl. Of course, this wouldn't satisfy Orthodox Jews, for whom Disraeli could be nothing but an apostate. But for most American Jews, I suspect, the idea that one can be a Jew without being observant is an easy one to accommodate.

 

 

 


Dear Adam --

One can certainly be a Jew without being observant; the question is whether one can be a Jew having converted to another faith. In some ways I think it points to how the word meaning of "race" has changed. I would say that someone can convert to a new religion and still retain their racial identity. The question is if Judaism is a race, and if the race and the religion can be separated. I think that there is definitely an aspect of peoplehood in Judaism, but it isn't a race the way I see it today, given that there are Jews of many races. So Disraeli's act of retaining an identity as a racial Jew while rejecting the religion is to me a kind of impossible feat. 

On the other hand, my understanding (and someone please correct me if I am wrong) is that many Orthodox would say that it is not possible to convert out of Judaism; that having been born a Jew you cannot leave it. By that approach, a Jew who is baptized is an apostate, a sinner, but still a Jew, as though tthe conversion rites of other religions have no power to change a Jew. To me, that seems a little dismissive of people's confessions of faith, and yet, it is a bit more like Disraeli's attitude. Whatever you claim to believe, you're still a Jew.  

Rahel

Rahel
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