Apostasy and the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’

While Michelson may have felt no affinity to his Jewish roots, it does not really matter. Every list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners includes Albert Michelson.

Was he Jewish? A painting of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1831) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Was he Jewish? A painting of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1831)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A 2016 report by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry suggests that, in addition to the roughly 14 million people who identify as Jews around the globe, there are some 95 million more people who are likely descended from Jews who either left Judaism voluntarily and assimilated or were forced to convert.
With regard to forced conversion, the celebrated Jewish scholar Rabbeinu Gershom, who convened a rabbinical synod in about 1,000 CE, which among other things banned polygamy, was tolerant to those who had submitted to baptism to escape persecution and who afterward returned to the Jewish fold. He strictly prohibited reproaching them with infidelity and even gave those among them who had been slandered an opportunity to publicly pronounce the benediction in the synagogues.
Maimonides’s famous Iggerot Hashmad (‘Letter Concerning Apostasy’) was written in the year 1160 during a time when Almohad Muslims were forcing Christians and Jews in Spain and North Africa to recite the Muslim creed. Failure to comply meant execution. Maimonides’s letter states that the Jews who converted to Islam should not to be expelled from the Jewish people, and he advised them to immigrate to more tolerant lands.
Between those who chose to leave Judaism out of religious or ideological conviction and those who are forced to convert, lie a spectrum of possibilities, including whether a convert from Judaism is still considered to be Jewish and whether they self-identify as being Jewish.
In a recent issue of The Jerusalem Report, Jane Biran (“The Wagner Syndrome,” February 20, 2020) notes, “his (Wagner’s) contemporary musicians, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, both of course Jewish.”
In fact, while Meyerbeer did adhere to the Judaism of his birth and was buried in a family vault in the Berlin Jewish cemetery, Mendelssohn was baptized when he was seven years old and is buried in a Protestant cemetery in Berlin. Nevertheless, Biran is not alone in considering Mendelssohn to be Jewish; the Nazis certainly did, and it has been suggested that he himself was reluctant to completely break his ancestral ties.
Heinrich Heine, one of the greatest German poets and writers of the 19th century, converted to Christianity in 1826 at the age of 28 in order to ease his path into the German cultural world. Yet, a recent blog by Chen Malul published by the National Library of Israel on the contents of a letter Heine wrote to a friend and confidant just months after his conversion, reveals that he regretted it.
Heine expresses his disappointment at not receiving an academic position and writes, “I just converted to Christianity and already they are angry at me for being a Jew.”
Heine’s experience was not unique. In 1918, Fritz Haber, a German Jew, received the Nobel Prize for discovering how to produce ammonia from Nitrogen and Hydrogen gases, a discovery important to the production of fertilizer and explosives. (Haber is also considered to be the father of chemical warfare for his role in the development and use of poison gas as a weapon.)
Haber, a patriotic German, supported German militarism and converted to Christianity to further his career. Indeed, he was eventually named to the powerful position of director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Despite his conversion Haber was forced to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power.
In August 1933, he wrote to his friend Albert Einstein: “In my whole life I never felt as Jewish as now!”
Haber was offered the directorship of a new research center, the Daniel Sieff Institute (now the Weizmann Institute of Science) in Mandatory Palestine but died while on his way to take up the position.
Benjamin Disraeli was first elected to the British parliament in 1837, well before the Jews Relief Act of 1858, which removed electoral barriers to Jews. Disraeli’s political career was only possible because his father, in reaction to a dispute with his synagogue, had him baptized in 1816 when he was 12. His conversion did not stop his opponents from referring to him as a Jew, nor did it stop Disraeli from referring to himself as a Jew.
In response to an antisemitic attack in 1837 by the Irish politician Daniel O’Connell (“He [Disraeli] has just the qualities of the impenitent thief on the Cross”), Disraeli replied “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
Albert Michelson, an American physicist known for measuring the speed of light, among other accomplishments, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1907. Michelson, the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in science, immigrated to the US with his Jewish parents from Poland when he was two-years-old and grew up in a mining town in Nevada, where his father was a merchant. Michelson, described by his contemporaries as an agnostic, seemed to eschew any connection to Jews or Judaism. He was married in a church, his daughters were baptized and confirmed and he was cremated and buried after a church service. Ironically, the reference letter by Rep. Thomas Fitch of Nevada to US president Ulysses Grant, which was instrumental to Michelson’s admission to the Naval Academy and the subsequent success of his career, stressed the point that Michelson’s father was a prominent “member of the Israelite persuasion... has largely contributed to the success of our cause and induced many of his co-religionists to do the same.”
While Michelson may have felt no affinity to his Jewish roots, it does not really matter. Every list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners includes Albert Michelson.
The tolerant views of Rabbeinu Gershom and the Rambam are to some degree echoed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who wrote in a recent weekly Torah parsha that, from time to time, Jews have abandoned their faith in order to more fully participate in the intellectual and cultural milieu that surrounded them. Sacks adds, “None of us is entitled to be critical of what they did. The combined impact of intellectual challenge, social change, and incendiary antisemitism, was immense.”
My own view is best described by Amos Oz. In his book In the Land of Israel Oz described Judaism as a civilization, not just a religion. He notes, “The rebellion and apostasy in our history… they are Judaism too.”
As to the question of who is a Jew? Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, wrote in Jews and Words, “any human being crazy enough to call himself a Jew is a Jew. Is he or she a good or a bad Jew? This is up to the next Jew to say.”

The writer is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo.