Heinrich Heine – one of the greatest poets and essayists in the German language – converted to Christianity in 1825. He did not take his Lutheran baptism at the age of 28 seriously as a statement of faith in Christ. In fact, he argued that “the baptismal certificate is the ticket of admission to European culture.”
For Heine, abandoning Judaism was a career move. For a Jew in Germanic lands in the first decades of the 19th century, securing a position as a civil servant or an academic was a struggle, impeded by-laws that excluded Jews from certain areas.
In the end, Heine’s new Lutheran identity did not make a difference in his professional life. Due to his political satire, he escaped Prussia for a safe haven in Paris in 1831. He died in 1856.
In the years before his death, he returned in his German poetry to his Jewish roots, celebrating the medieval Sephardi Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi. One wonders if he ever regretted his conversion.
In England, in Heine’s lifetime, Jews who wanted to get ahead in society and politics faced similar obstacles to their brethren in central Europe. Although the return of the Jews to England was negotiated by British leader Oliver Cromwell in 1656, centuries after their forced expulsion, they did not officially receive civil rights until the 19th century.
Lionel Rothschild, son of the renowned banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild, was able to hold public office only after Jews struggled to be admitted to Parliament. In 1885, Lionel’s son Nathaniel was awarded a peerage, thereby becoming the first of many Jews to sit in the House of Lords.
But Jewish identity was an obstacle to social and political advancement even in Britain. And that is why Isaac D’Israeli (later Disraeli) had his son Benjamin – at the age of his bar mitzvah – and his siblings baptized in the Church of England in 1817.
In his biography of Benjamin, Adam Kirsch discusses Isaac’s “complex feelings about Judaism.” The biographer focuses on Isaac’s study The Genius of Judaism (1833), “written as a vindication of Isaac’s religion, and an attempt to educate Englishmen about the mysterious subjects of Jewish history and theology.”
But the book also advocated assimilation. Isaac believes that after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, “the basis for a dignified national existence disappeared, and Judaism entered its dark ages.” In the end, Isaac’s conversion of his children to Christianity was not only practical but epitomized the elder Disraeli’s rejection of Judaism.
Isaac Disraeli also had a troubled relationship with the Jewish community in London.
He was invited to serve as the chief administrative officer (parnass) of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, but he refused. Perhaps he was disillusioned with the ignorance of Judaism of the congregants, although he was no genius himself. This further drove Isaac – while not converting himself – to baptize his children in the Church of England.
This strategy worked. Benjamin Disraeli was one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers despite his Jewish birth. In fact, Disraeli used his Jewish roots to his advantage and was always proud of his origins. Had he not converted to Christianity, he most likely would have not occupied the English corridors of power.
We are fortunate to live in a world where Jews don’t have to abandon Judaism to succeed. One wonders why assimilation has gripped Jews in America and throughout the world. The obstacles are gone. Why abandon a 4,000-year-old identity, heritage, and history?
The writer is a rabbi at Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.