Commentary Magazine

Acts of Faith, by Dan Ross

Beyond the Pale?

Acts of Faith: A Journey to the Fringes of Jewish Identity.
by Dan Ross.
Foreword by Raphael Patai. St. Martin’s Press. 244 pp. $15.95.

Everyone knows the story of the pigtailed Chinese Jew who greets his Litvak visitor in total disbelief: “You Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.” But though this is funny when first heard, it might seem foolhardy to write a book consisting largely, as Acts of Faith does, of variations on this one theme. Luckily, the variations bring out an underlying issue of considerable substance, which is of course what makes the anecdote so witty in the first place.

The issue can be stated simply. As Jewish experience has come down to most contemporary Jews, it is built around broadly unified norms into which the individual fits. To find that there are odd kinds of Jews—like the ten groups described in this book—who insist that they are Jewish though they fall outside the norms might seem to send everyone back to first base. Have all ten a place in that ideal minyan, a minyan for all seasons, which is suggested by the concept of “catholic Israel” formulated early in this century by Solomon Schechter?

This has not always been a purely academic question. With the Nazis, the definition of who is a Jew could be a matter of life or death. And on a wholly different level, in present-day Israel some “abnormal” groups have had trouble getting the authorities to give them Jewish rights in human as well as in legal terms. Altogether, one hears in the title of this book an echo of the Inquisition’s auto da fé—a very perverse “act of faith”—and one is forced to wonder how closely these variants or mutants relate to the great body of Jews from whom most Jews today are descended.

Dan Ross appears to have launched himself into his subject by accidentally encountering the one group of the ten which carries little relevance to the central issue: some dark or dusky “Jewish Indians” who are offered as an attraction at a tourist spot in Mexico. Even though he enjoys a Passover spent with them, he soon sees that they are in origin neither Jewish nor Indian, but just another instance of someone’s imagined discovery of one of the Ten Lost Tribes. The Ten Tribes do, of course, crop up at many points in the Jewish story; but this particular case is very thin in comparison, say, with the sensational discovery of a tribe of Jewish natives in South America in the 17th century by the highly fanciful traveler Aaron Levi de Montezinos, whose book on the subject became a best-seller in England in 1644 and was utilized by the passionate Judaizing sects who were active in England at that time.1

Moving on from the Indians, Ross sets out the strangely fractured life, persisting until today, of some descendants of Marranos—secret Christian Jews—in Portugal, and the discrimination that still pursues similar Marrano descendants in Majorca. In both these cases, as with the Jewish Indians of Mexico, it is interesting to see how odd groups of Jews have been brought out of their old half-existence through new associations with the state of Israel.

The same is true of the fourth group he deals with, the secret Muslim Jews of Meshed (the capital city of eastern Iran), who were forcibly converted to Islam in 1839 and have subsequently lived out a double life, as Muslims in Iran and as Jews elsewhere, with an independence and panache wholly distinct from the style of Christian Marranos. Through business wealth, political influence, and an intensely felt Meshed kinship, they have sustained themselves in small communities in various parts of the world, including Israel, with no one doubting their “Jewishness” even though they are unorthodox in religion and style.

Much more peculiar are the Dönmeh converts of Turkey, who, following the failed messiah Sabbatai Zevi, became Muslim in 1666 and kept his memory alive through engaging in deliberate reversals of Jewish laws, including (so we are told) wife-swapping orgies—all as a way of hastening the dawn of the true messianic age. If this took them beyond the Jewish pale, Sabbatianism in less heinous forms survived as a powerful strand in Jewish history for quite a long time.



The next two groups the book deals with are, from one angle, the most un-Jewish that can be imagined, yet from another deeply embedded within the tradition from which all “normal” Jews have descended. The first are the Samaritans, who claim unbroken descent from the Hebrews who inhabited Samaria in Bible times, and who to this day sacrifice the Paschal lamb at Passover and carry out all biblical injunctions to the letter. By the same token, they turned their backs completely—from the time of Ezra!—on interpretations of the Torah, and were regarded, politically, as the deadly enemies of the Jews. (A “good Samaritan” was a contradiction in terms.) The emergence of modern Israel has changed all this: the Samaritans are loyal citizens of the state. Yet they are still wholly outside the normative Jewish tradition—which forces one to reconsider perhaps what was the force in Jewish life in the early centuries of the Christian era which took Jews away from any literal following of the Bible and steered them into the immensely involved regulations expressed in rabbinism.

This question arises even more strongly in relation to the second group, the Karaites, who assert a much more authentic relation to the Bible than that of the “rabbinite” Jews, and who have been very important in Jewish history even though they are wholly outside the Jewish tradition. The Karaite movement began in the 8th century, in the area which is now Iran and Iraq, as an outright attack on the authority of the Halakhah, Jewish religious law, which the rabbis claimed was derived from Torah teachings handed down by word of mouth since the time of Moses. The name Karaite is derived from kara (“to read”) which indicates a determination to obey only the written Torah. The gap that this established can be seen in the rules on food. To Jews in the rabbinic tradition, the Bible ordinance, “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk,” yielded an immense body of law on the separation of milk and meat, leading to a rigorous separation of pots, pans, dishes, etc., and complicated regulations of diet. “The Karaites,” Ross explains, “take the verse literally. They do not seethe a kid in the mother’s milk. Period.”

This literal attitude has many facets. Karaites do not use tefillin (phylacteries) or the mezuzah (a small case, containing biblical verses inscribed on parchment, that is attached to doorposts of the house), because these rabbinical ordinances go beyond the Bible. They take off their shoes on entering a synagogue, in accordance with God’s instructions to Moses: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” Strictness of this intensity is common among many kinds of sectarians; what makes it strange in the case of the Karaites is the fact that they also developed a very strong political position. Their separatist tradition took hold, especially in the Turkish empire and different parts of Russia, where they were often exempted, as “non-Jews,” from living in the Russo-Polish Pale of Settlement. The Nazis themselves hesitated before ruling that they were to be classified for destruction like all the others. Indeed, the bizarre situation arose in which Nazi officials consulted Jewish leaders on the status of the Karaites; in an absorbing section of the book, Ross tells how rabbis who had fiercely rejected the Karaite claims of a separate racial origin now allowed themselves to be defeated in a debate on this question so as to spare the Karaites from death. (A more somber part of the story is that some Karaites were said by Jews from the camps to have collaborated with the Nazis.)

Readers of Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe will recall that he adduced evidence from a notorious Karaite, the forger-scholar Abraham Firkovich (1786-1874), to support his theory that a very large part of all the Jews of Eastern Europe were descended from the Aryan Khazars who were converted to Judaism in the 9th century. To add to all these past and continuing conflicts, Karaites in Israel today are given a peculiarly limited status as Jews, since the authority on marriage and divorce is vested, of course, in the rabbinite establishment.

The Karaites’ second-rate status in Israel is paralleled to some extent by the position of two more groups described by Ross, the black Falasha Jews from Ethiopia and the dark Bene Israel Jews from India. The origins of both are obscure; if their passion to be accepted as Jews is strong, their acceptability has undoubtedly been affected by the fact of their physical difference from “ordinary” Jews. It can at least be said, however, that in these two cases the rabbis have finally given these odd cousins a clean bill of Jewish legality.



With the tenth group in the book, the Jews of Kaifeng in China, we are back to our original joke. The story has often been told (most recently in Michael Pollak’s Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries2) of the discovery at Kaifeng in the 17th century by a Jesuit missionary of a group who were completely Chinese physically and linguistically, but with a distinct religious tradition linking them to Jews. Nothing was or is known of their origin, but they had, and could vaguely read, the Torah. A physical reproduction of their synagogue is now to be found in the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv; this is virtually all that remains of them today. The real question to be asked is not how they got to Kaifeng originally, but what there is in Jewish faith which impelled these obscure travelers in some distant century—in Bible times, or after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., or during the first heyday of Jewish world trade in the 10th century—to perpetuate the tradition of their ancestors against all the odds.

In the end, the peculiarities of survival and transmutation which are revealed quite entertainingly in this book are to be seen as exceptions that prove—i.e., establish—the rule that it is within the great mass of Jewish fulfillment in the rabbinic tradition that Jews have made their imperishable mark on civilization. One has to see the vagaries of Jewish history with a sense of proportion—and this can be expressed, perhaps, in another anecdote. It is said that Sir Isaac Wolfson, a contemporary benefactor of Jewry on a massive scale, found himself troubled one day by a problem in one of his huge companies, and decided, since he is an Orthodox Jew, to seek advice from the Almighty. Entering the synagogue, he found a Jew at prayer, weeping and wailing at his inability to meet his rent of five shillings. Sir Isaac joined the man in prayer for a few moments, and at the conclusion handed him the five shillings. The man left the synagogue enraptured. When the door closed, Sir Isaac turned to face the Ark. “And now, God,” he said, “I want Your undivided attention.”


1 The story is told graphically in a new book by David S. Katz, Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England 1603-1655 (Oxford, 286 pp., $39.95).

2 Jewish Publication Society, 1980.

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