Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Legal and Social Bonds of Jewish Apostates and Their Spouses According to Gaonic Responsa

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Legal and Social Bonds of Jewish Apostates and Their Spouses According to Gaonic Responsa

Article excerpt

Conversion to Islam in the classical Islamic period (ca. 600-1258) was the outcome of both voluntary choice and sporadic phases of compulsion. Accordingly, historians have developed a variety of ways to explain why non-Muslims chose to join the Islamic fold, along with suggestions as to when these movements took place and their scope.* 1 While these longstanding debates, reinforced periodically by^ new findings, are not likely to be settled in the near future, focused readings into particular phenomena may shed further light on the process of conversion to Islam and the social realities entailed by it. The present discussion seeks to do just that by considering cases of enduring matrimonial arrangements in the context of the Jewish conversion to Islam of one of the partners.

The process of conversion to Islam was augmented by efforts to detach new converts from their former coreligionist family members. Conversion entailed not only a new religious identity but also the severance of preconversion familial ties, investing the spiritual act with dramatic social implications.2 Accordingly, at the beginning of the eighth century, the caliph 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Azïz (reigned 717-20) would issue a decree granting equal standing with other Muslims to any Christian, Jew, or Zoroastrian who embraced Islam and ''mingled among the Muslims in their place of dwelling and separated from the dwelling in which he lived."3 Supporting the scholarly claim that religious conversion entails social divorce, scenes of kinship detachment can be seen in the Cairo Geniza in the few references to Jews who converted to Islam. Thus S. D. Goitein asserted that "a person changing his religion would prefer to move to another town or country, and several such instances can be traced in the Geniza."4 Goitein, however, conceded that in some cases apostates did not fully sever ties with their former communities and families.5 Frustratingly, Goitein found little evidence for Jewish conversion to Islam, leading him to conclude that ''cases of conversion were not very common in that period."6

However, there is a considerable Geniza documentation on conversion that awaits thorough investigation. Beyond the Geniza, a substantial body of evidence from highly diverse literary sources from the classical Islamic period challenges Goitein's conclusions about the social trajectory of coverts, as do the relatively numerous gaonic responsa dealing with the aftereffects oí apostasy. Gaonic writings should be read alongside early Islamic sources and those from the Gemza. Together these sources provide ample evidence that many among the converts to Islam chose to maintain some ties with, if not to remain within the fabric of, their original families. The present discussion is premised on the recognition of nonIslamic sources in general, and gaonic responsa in particular, as important evidence for understanding Islamization in the classical period.

In what follows I wish to consider one particular type of family relationship between Jewish apostates and their former coreligionists present in Babylonian gaonic responsa -that between married couples/ I will conduct my analysis on two levels: a legal level, reflected predominantly in gaonic opinions, and a social level, chiefly inferred from questions presented to the geonim. At times, the two levels intertwine, casting light not only on the legal rationale of the geonim but also on their social considerations. Specifically, I will look at gaonic responsa that treat the legal dilemmas involved in the religious conversion of individual Jews in the context of their social and legal commitments vis-à-vis their Jewish spouses.7 8 My analysis is premised on the interplaj/ between law and society. Social realities constituted an important consideration in the shaping of legal positions, while legal arguments, in turn, were bound to affect the lived social reality. I will not treat these responsa in isolation but will present them in conjunction with additional forms of literary testimonies, both Jewish and non-Jewish, so as to establish the responsa in a broader historical context. …

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