Heschel HaLevi was born in the city of Trier on April 15, 1777. His father and grandfather had served as the local rabbi, and his older brother Samuel would eventually become the rabbi as well. When HaLevi married in 1814, he married the granddaughter of a rabbi, Henriette Pressburg.
HaLevi trained as a lawyer. But when Napoleon was defeated in 1815, Jewish rights were rolled back, and Jews in Prussia could no longer practice law. HaLevi appealed and asked for an exemption, but to no avail.
Finally, HaLevi took the step of converting to the Lutheran church in order to preserve his career, and changed his name to Heinrich Marx. A few years later, he converted his wife and his children, including a precocious son by the name of Karl.
It may seem extraordinary to us now that the son of a rabbi would convert so readily. But Heinrich Marx was not exceptional. The German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz estimated that about 50% of Berlin Jews in the late-18th and early-19th century converted (although others dispute this figure). Many of these Jewish converts to Christianity did not see conversion as a betrayal of their roots, and remained connected to the Jewish community. Heinrich Marx would continue to maintain warm relations with his brother Samuel, the Rabbi of Trier, and with the members of the Trier Jewish community. To HaLevi, accepting Christianity was simply a stepping stone to his success and the success of his children.
Indeed, what motivated the turn of the century conversions was not persecution; it was success. Despite prejudicial laws, Jews at the time were far more prominent than before, and had celebrated achievements. But they wanted more. Deborah Hertz in “How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin” writes that many of the Jewish converts saw conversion to Christianity as an act of personal and cultural emancipation; they were not embracing Christianity, but rather the idea of being fully German. One of the more famous converts, Heinrich Heine, quipped that a conversion to Christianity was “a ticket of admission to European culture.” Upwardly mobile German Jews were already successful; but conversion gave them the possibility of entering exclusive circles and professions. By converting to Christianity they could realize their bourgeois dreams.
What happened in Berlin at the turn of the 19th century is a preview of the next 250 years. Jews in the Middle Ages had to struggle with hatred and antisemitism; they may have achieved material success, but were always outsiders, subject to official and unofficial discrimination. But in the modern era , Jews have achieved equal rights and integrated into the mainstream; and now, in the United States and elsewhere, Jews are full members of society. But this has not brought to American Jews a golden age of Judaism; on the contrary, it has increased assimilation.
The correlation between Jewish rights and assimilation raises a difficult question: what happens when we are no longer hated? Critics of Judaism have argued that Jews may very well disappear without antisemitism. Baruch Spinoza wrote that the Jews managed to retain their identity in exile only because of antisemitism. “As to their continuance so long after dispersion and the loss of empire,” he wrote, “there is nothing marvellous in it, for they so separated themselves from every other nation as to draw down upon themselves universal hate ... that they have been preserved in great measure by Gentile hatred, experience demonstrates.” This theory sees Jewish identity as a reaction, a refusal to bow to the harshness of antisemitism; and without antisemitism, the Jews would disappear. Based on his theory, less hatred of the Jews should lead to fewer Jews.
Spinoza dismissed the value of Jewish identity, which is why he needed to explain Jewish survival. And a supporter of Spinoza’s theory might feel vindicated by contemporary assimilation, which they might see as the disappearance of a people whose survival was purely an act of defiance.
However, Spinoza’s theory doesn’t account for the fact that assimilation predates exile. The Torah itself predicts assimilation multiple times; in our own Torah reading it says “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God ... lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them. When your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God …” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14).
The Torah sees decadence as the cause of assimilation; the worship of success gets in the way of the worship of God. Assimilation is not directly caused by a lack of persecution, and even occurred in the Jewish Commonwealth in Biblical times. Rather, it is materialism that impacts Jewish identity. Whenever success is more important than spirituality, and fame and fortune become the ultimate goal of life, Judaism will slowly disappear.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno takes this lesson a step further. In his commentary to Deuteronomy 8:2, he says that it is a nisayon, a test of character, to have every material need provided for. Confronting difficult conditions is a nisayon, but so too is the pursuit of happiness; it is easy to lose our soul when we have everything we need. And while Jews have managed to survive centuries of Crusades, inquisitions, massacres and pogroms, we find ourselves unequipped to handle equal opportunity and material success.
In the last two centuries, American Jews have come a long way in overcoming discrimination. They have asserted their rights, and made a point of opening up previously restricted private clubs to Jewish membership. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l would joke that perhaps that’s the way to fill up empty synagogues: just put up large signs outside synagogues declaring “no Jews allowed,” because contemporary Jews would make certain to get into any restricted institution! Sadly, for too many Jews, getting into the restricted golf club is more important than returning to a neglected synagogue.
Throughout history, Jews have been able to handle adversity; but as of yet, we haven’t figured out how to handle success. We have to reconnect to our mission, remember “that man shall not live by bread alone,” and that our commitment to covenant, community and character is the only way forward.