What does it mean to belong to, then abandon, and then return to a community?

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, over 500 people who had registered on Zoom had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Law at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, discourse about Dr. Kanarfogel’s newest book, Brothers from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europewhich challenges a long-held view that those who had apostatized and later returned to the Jewish community in northern medieval Europe were encouraged to resume their places without the need for a ceremony or act that verified their reversion.

 

Brothers From Afar Cover

 

The event, sponsored by Revel, began with a spirited welcome by Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, David Mitzner Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future. He marveled at how the “medium of Zoom” allowed Yeshiva University to share “this stimulating and elevating experience of scholarship and reflection with people from all over the world,” a point echoed by Dr. Daniel Rynhold, dean of Revel, as Dr. Rynhold set the stage for the two men’s conversation.

The next hour was filled with detailed and nuanced investigations of what Dr. Berman called the central issue not only of Dr. Kanarfogel’s work but of Jewish life itself: Jewish identity. “We’ve long been taught the premise that once a Jew, always a Jew: you always stay Jewish and always in all matters,” noted Dr. Berman. But, as both men knew, “the halachic [Jewish legal] history is actually far more complicated,” especially when it concerned those who had converted to another religion and then wanted to return to Judaism.

[For more background on this topic, read this interview with Dr. Kanarfogel.]

At the end of the conversation, everyone could agree with Dr. Berman when he said that they had had “a very rich and deep conversation that deals with halachic history, social circumstances and how the rabbis applied the Talmudic text to new situations.” The two men also, as Dr. Berman said, “probably raised more questions than they answered but also enlightened a lot of people with new ideas in halachic history that they perhaps had not known before.”

For his part, Dr. Kanarforgel lauded Dr. Berman for his erudition on this topic. “He has written a wonderful work on these ideas and is an expert, too, and everyone should seek out his expertise. I hope we can have a return engagement.”

The entire event, noted Dr. Berman, demonstrated “a real merger between the yeshiva and the University.”

Listen to the audio of the discussion.

 

Rebecca, Miriam, and Denise (L-R)

Denise Zami currently teaches Tanakh to 9th and 11th grades at SAR High School in Riverdale. She is also studying towards her MA in Bible Studies at Revel. Denise received her BA in Jewish Education from Stern College, where she was a Legacy Heritage Scholar. Denise previously taught Jewish Studies at Gann Academy, an innovative pluralistic high school in the Boston area. Denise lives in Manhattan with her husband Jason, around the corner from her sisters Miriam and Rebecca.⠀

Miriam Zami is in her first year studying towards a PhD in Ancient Jewish History at Revel. She received her BA from Stern College for Women and previously served as the Jewish educator at the Hillel at Baruch College, where she brought Jewish texts and ideas to hundreds of students in New York City. Miriam is especially interested in the study of Tannaitic literature in its cultural context and is excited to pursue research under the guidance of the wonderful professors at Revel.⠀

Rebecca Zami is a Master’s student at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies studying ancient Jewish history. Currently, Rebecca is the Leon Charney Research Associate at the YU Center for Israel Studies working on the upcoming exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum, Samaritans: A Biblical People. Rebecca has a particular interest in Biblical archaeology and has participated in archaeological excavations in Israel and hopes to pursue a degree in archaeology following her graduation from Revel.

 

Meet the three Zami sisters studying at Revel:

Denise Zami currently teaches Tanakh to 9th and 11th grades at SAR High School in Riverdale. She is also studying towards her MA in Bible Studies at Revel. Denise received her BA in Jewish Education from Stern College, where she was a Legacy Heritage Scholar. Denise previously taught Jewish Studies at Gann Academy, an innovative pluralistic high school in the Boston area. Denise lives in Manhattan with her husband Jason, around the corner from her sisters Miriam and Rebecca.⠀

Miriam Zami is in her first year studying towards a PhD in Ancient Jewish History at Revel. She received her BA from Stern College for Women and previously served as the Jewish educator at the Hillel at Baruch College, where she brought Jewish texts and ideas to hundreds of students in New York City. Miriam is especially interested in the study of Tannaitic literature in its cultural context and is excited to pursue research under the guidance of the wonderful professors at Revel.⠀

Rebecca Zami is a Master’s student at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies studying ancient Jewish history. Currently, Rebecca is the Leon Charney Research Associate at the YU Center for Israel Studies working on the upcoming exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum, Samaritans: A Biblical People. Rebecca has a particular interest in Biblical archaeology and has participated in archaeological excavations in Israel and hopes to pursue a degree in archaeology following her graduation from Revel.

 

 
Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel
Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel

Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Law at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, has published Brothers from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe, with Wayne State University Press, which has published three of his previous books. (Dr. Kanarfogel has authored or edited 11 volumes in all.)

In this new book, Dr. Kanarfogel challenges a long-held view that those who had apostatized and later returned to the Jewish community in northern medieval Europe were encouraged to resume their places without the need for a ceremony or act that verified their reversion.

His evidence suggests that from the late 12th century onward, leading rabbinic authorities held that returning apostates had to undergo ritual immersion and other rites of contrition. “I also identity,” he says, “a series of concomitant shifts in rabbinic positions during the 12th and 13th centuries concerning the halachic [Jewish legal] status of ongoing apostates, which I argue were also developed largely in response to changing Christian perceptions of Jews.”

 

Brothers From Afar Cover

 

Dr. Paola Tartakoff, professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, finds that Brother from Afar “reorients understandings of the attitudes of medieval rabbinic authorities toward apostasy, opening new avenues for research in medieval Jewish-Christian relations,” and Dr. Edward Fram, Solly Yellin Chair of Lithuanian and Eastern European Jewry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, praises Dr. Kanarfogel for unearthing “a goldmine of material […] that sheds a whole new light on the place of repentant apostates in medieval Jewish societies.”

With this publication, Dr. Kanarfogel cements his reputation as a preeminent scholar in the fields of medieval Jewish intellectual history and rabbinic literature, writing prolifically in both English and Hebrew about these topics. (His 100th scholarly article is in press.)

His first book, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, won the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship. Dr. Ivan Marcus, Frederick P. Rose Professor of Jewish History at Yale University, characterized Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period as a “stimulating tour de force,” while Dr. Moshe Idel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that it is “a major contribution to the understanding of medieval Jewish culture.”

The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz won the Goldstein-Goren Prize for Best Book (2010-2013), awarded by the International Center for Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the Association for Jewish Studies’ Jordan Schnitzer Book Award for the best book in biblical and rabbinic literature. Dr. Elliot Wolfson of New York University noted that “with the publication of this volume, Ephraim Kanarfogel has solidified his status as the leading intellectual historian of rabbinic culture in medieval Ashkenaz.”

Frequently invited to address international conferences in North America, Europe and Israel, Dr. Kanarfogel has been a three-time Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Jewish Studies and has held visiting appointments at UPenn and at Ben-Gurion University. He is editor-in-chief of the academic journal Jewish History and a lifetime Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, where he has served as secretary and a member of the executive committee.

He is also a valued mentor and guide for his students. Five doctoral candidates at Revel have completed their dissertations under his direction, five are currently writing their dissertations, and another five are preparing to write under his guidance.

Dr. David Berger, former dean of Revel, was impressed by the “unprecedented detail” that Dr. Kanarfogel’s research uncovered about the actions and rituals required to readmit returning converts to the Jewish community as members in good standing. “As we have come to expect of Dr. Kanarfogel,” said Dr. Berger, “he has greatly enriched our understanding of a significant phenomenon that illuminates the development of halacha, the self-image of medieval Jewry and the relationship between Jews and their environment.”

Dr. Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yeshiva University, felt that Dr. Kanarfogel had outdone himself with this new publication. “Even for someone as remarkable as Dr. Kanarfogel, this new achievement is ‘off the charts’! Brother from Afar is a page turner, if one is allowed to say that about a scholarly work of this level of sophistication.”

 

By Dean Daniel Rynhold

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when we honor the contributions of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women. I did not expect that it would also become a day on which I would, with deep sadness, also be honoring the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The sheer volume of tributes pouring out in the media, social and print, from world leaders and dignitaries, is a measure of the unquantifiable influence that Rabbi Sacks exerted within and far beyond the Jewish community. Such a tribute from me would pale in comparison. But I’ve realized as I sit here agonizing over what I should say, that measured intellectual tributes are for another day. Oddly enough, today it seems more appropriate to be almost self-indulgent, and remember the times I was honored to spend with him. Whether interviewing him early in his tenure as Chief Rabbi alongside my cousin (now Professor) Jonathan Rynhold when I was a simple undergraduate; drinking tea in his sukkah together with (now Rabbi Dr) Raphael Zarum; filming with him for his BBC Rosh Hashanah message in 1998; or sitting around the table at Hamilton Terrace where Rabbi Sacks would take the time to sit with the younger generation of Jewish educators who were barely finished – often indeed not yet finished – with their own education (when I’m sure some would have thought he could have better used that time with the great and the good). And what strikes me today is indicated by the parentheses above. That is, how many of the young people who sat around that table are now educators and communal leaders, rabbinic or otherwise, across the Jewish world. I know personally that I would not be doing what I do were it not for Rabbi Sacks. I guarantee that is the case for many of those from my generation posting today. Not only because he modelled what it was to be committed unapologetically to Orthodox Judaism without sacrificing – indeed while excelling – in the world of general philosophy and culture, but for taking the time to sit around the table not just with Prime Ministers and Presidents, but with us. To speak to us, to teach us. And to model right in front of our eyes what it is to be a Jewish leader, to be the voice of religious reason for a generation, and a public figure in whom we could all take great pride as a living, breathing kiddush hashem. יהי זיכרו ברוך