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The Maskil, the Convert, and the עAgunah: Joseph Perl as a Historian of Jewish Divorce Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 March 2004

Nancy Sinkoff
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Some time in the third decade of the nineteenth century, the maskil (enlightened Jew) Joseph Perl (1773–1839) appealed to the provincial authorities in Lemberg, Austrian Galicia to support those in the Jewish community who strove to find a solution to the rabbinic requirement that a male convert to Christianity grant his Jewish wife a writ of divorce (get).Contested divorces where the husband had converted to Christianity were particularly poignant for Ashkenazic Jewry living in medieval and early modern western Christendom because of the paradox inherent in the halakhic requirement for a male Jewish apostate to grant his wife a Jewish divorce. The apostate was viewed as both immutably Jewish, always a potential baעal teshuvah, to the Jewish community, and immutably Christian to the Church because the waters of baptism were indelible. Jewish jurists, well aware of their community's susceptibility to conversionary pressures, struggled between keeping the doors of repentance open and making an example of the convert by meting out harsh punishments against him. See Rashi's famous responsum regarding the marital status of women whose husbands had been forcibly converted during the Crusades, cited in Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World (Atheneum, 1938), pp. 301–302; and the discussion in Jacob Katz, “Though He Has Sinned, He Remains an Israelite,” Tarbiz 27 (1958): pp. 203–217. For the early modern period, see Elisheva Carlebach, Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500–1750 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 25, 138–139. Perl's treatise, with the bold title, Über die Modifikation der Mosaischen Gesetze (Regarding the Modification of Mosaic Laws),Joseph Perl Archive, folder 144, JNULA. Written primarily in Gothic German, with occasional use of Latin characters and Hebrew citations, the manuscript is 83 pages with an introduction. The only mention I have found of the text is by Avraham Rubinstein, who noted that the manuscript was indicated in Philip Koffler's appendix to the Perl archive. See [Joseph Perl] Über das Wesen der Sekte Chassidim, Avraham Rubinstein, ed. (Jerusalem, 1977), p. 4, n. 17. See, too, Joseph Perl Archive, folder 131, “Comments or corrections to the book dealing with Jewish Law,” and folder 38.7075. did not urge the abandonment of rabbinic law or authority. Rather, he argued that a historical investigation of Jewish divorce law proved that minimizing the possibility of ‘aginut (“grass widowhood”) had always been a priority of a responsible rabbinic leadership. Were the Austrians able to empower an upstanding contemporary rabbinate sensitive to women's needs, Perl reasoned, a rabbinically-sanctioned halakhic solution to the problem of an ‘agunah married to a convert could be found. Although the Austrian censor rejected the publication of Über die Modifikation der Mosaischen Gesetze, the manuscript is illustrative of the ideological concerns of moderate maskilim in Central and Eastern Europe who wanted to participate fully in civil society while retaining the authority of Jewish law.The censor rejected the manuscript on February 17, 1831. See number 6 in the list of manuscripts compiled as an appendix to Perl's Archives by Philip Koffler of Tarnopol during the interwar years, Joseph Perl Archive, JNULA, appendix.

Research Article
© 2003 by the Association for Jewish Studies

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Versions of this article were given as talks at The Association of Jewish Studies, December 1999; the Second International Conference on the History of the Jewish Enlightenment, April 2000; and the Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, November 2001. I am grateful for all the comments and questions generated at those conferences and for the comments of the anonymous readers of the AJS Review. Ulrich Groetsch was generous with his native German.