Isaac D’Israeli was an easy-going freethinker, Spinozist and Voltairian, who, though he did not want to give up his ancestral faith, never showed religious zeal. As Sheila A. Spector has pointed out, ‘Isaac D’Israeli’s attitude toward his Jewishness was problematic at best’(24). He was probably one of the first British Jews, who revealed unorthodox approach to traditional Jewish ceremony. In 1798, he published in the Monthly Magazine a sketch about Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), the father of the Jewish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. He called him, with admiration, the ‘Jewish Socrates’, who ‘fought all his life with obscurantism, poverty and prejudice’ (Schmidt v). In 1813, D’Israeli was appointed, for a year’s term, Parnas (Head Warden) of the Congregation of Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest British Sephardic synagogue in Aldgate, London, built in 1701. Surprised by this nomination, he politely refused it, explaining that his secular lifestyle and the relative indifference to Jewish traditions and ceremonies did not permit him to accept such dignity. In the early nineteenth century, open expression of disloyalty to religious leaders was seen as totally unacceptable. The rabbi and a council of elders punished Isaac by a fine of forty pounds, which was quite a substantial sum for that time. Isaac refused to pay, claiming that the rabbi had no legal grounds to impose such a punishment to him in England. The dispute lasted for several years without a final solution, probably because Isaac did not want to worry his old and pious father by an open apostasy from the faith of his ancestors. But in 1816, after the death of his father, who left him a tidy sum of 35,000 pounds, Isaac formally broke off with the synagogue and began to sympathise with the movement of Reform Judaism, which began in Germany in the early nineteenth century. D’Israeli, influenced by the writings of Voltaire, treated Judaism as a relic of ancient, barbaric times. Talmud was for him ‘a mass of superstitions, contradictory opinions, rambling oriental fancies, and casuistical glosses’ (Endelmann 110). His son Benjamin certainly adopted man of his father’s views.
On the advice of a friend, the historian Sharon Turner (1768-1847), Isaac had all his children baptised in the Anglican Church of St. Andrew in London’s Holborn in 1817, because he believed that only the full assimilation would enable his children to enjoy a comfortable and peaceful life in England. However, Isaac himself chose not to be baptised and he never had a desire to convert from Judaism to Christianity. However, he did not participate in the inauguration ceremony of the Reformed Synagogue at Berkeley Street in London. After learning about the baptism of Isaac’s children, the rabbi of the Bevis Marks Synagogue immediately declared it invalid and to this day the London synagogue has never officially approved the departure of Benjamin Disraeli from the Jewish religion.
Baptism had an unequal impact on Isaac’s children. At the time of baptism, the younger sons, Ralph and James, were eight and four years old, respectively. Their elder brother Benjamin was twelve years old and was probably old enough to understand the consequences of this event. The eldest sister, Sarah, who was then fourteen, was undoubtedly the most aware of the importance of baptism. However, it appears in her letters that she was not an overly religious person, but she understood well Benjamin, who devoted much attention to his complicated situation of a Christian convert. In 1838, D’Israeli published anonymously a tract, The Genius of Judaism, in which he gave expression to his ambivalent views on the question of Jewishness and Judaism. He attempted to explain the causes of the exclusion of Jews from Christian and Muslim societies. Shortly before his death, he urged his son, then an MP, to support the Jews Relief Bill, which removed the barriers to Jews entering Parliament.
Last modified 30 November 2016