The Law of the Other: Converts and Gentiles in the Eyes of Seventeenth-Century Istanbul Rabbis



Project Summary

“The Law of the Other” explores the interactions between Ottoman Sephardic Jews, who migrated from Spain in the fifteenth century, and Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire, including converts, through the perspective of Ottoman rabbis. My project focuses in particular on Jewish law as written within the Sephardic Jewish community of seventeenth-century Istanbul, then the administrative and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire. Early modern Ottoman rabbis regularly expressed their educated opinions on contemporary conflicts in the context of a canon of Jewish law spanning millennia. To this end, I have spent the majority of my research time studying Hebrew manuscripts called responsa, written as a series of questions and answers. As part of my research, I was also able to travel to Turkey during the summer and explore historical sites of Ottoman Judaism including the Jewish Museum of Istanbul and the Ahrida Synagogue located in the district of Balat. During my travels, I attempted to find alternative sources, including material sources such as gravestones and marriage certificates.

By studying the rich corpus of rabbinic literature produced in Istanbul during the seventeenth century, I hope to shed light on the unique views on religious conversion among Ottoman Jews. Indeed, “The Law of the Other” examines where and how converts and their families fit into Jewish law. In Jewish law, converts were still legally considered Jewish after conversion and always, at least in theory, had the opportunity to return to Judaism. Consequently, converts largely fell into a gray area between Jews and Muslims when it came to interactions of religious, financial, and matrimonial natures. This unique phenomenon produced debates and varying opinions in terms of how to deal with the Jewish status of converts within the framework of Jewish law.

Throughout my research, I encountered interpretative challenges created by the limited sources available in the early modern Ottoman world: Is it possible to separate the theoretical law from the living world of the Ottoman rabbi? Was the typical rabbi in touch with his community with emotional attachments to the conflicts of his members, or did his position and reputation necessitate an aloof quality that manifested itself in legal literature? How did rabbinic literature treat other Jewish communities of different customs? “The Law of the Other” hopes to contribute to the material and social history of Jewish law, conversion, and rabbinic literature in the Ottoman Empire. I believe that the questions raised here, as well as the challenges, open up exciting avenues for further research in the scholarship surrounding the rabbinic literature of early modern Istanbul and other centers of Judaism in the early modern Ottoman world.

To see my poster, please visit Penn Presents: