Oxford Jewish Thought » Introduction to Iggeret Hashmad - Letter of Apostasy by Maimonides in the context of Jewish medieval life in Oxford

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Introduction to Iggeret Hashmad - Letter of Apostasy by Maimonides in the context of Jewish medieval life in Oxford

Friday, May 15, 2009 - 9:41 am
Posted by Rabbi Eli Brackman

 

The city of Oxford has a very rich Jewish history. In medieval times, there was a prominent Jewish community with a cemetery and synagogue. This community lasted until the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Even before the expulsion, relations between the Church and the Jews were not at all smooth. In 1222, Robert of Reading, who was a member of the Christian clergy, converted to Judaism. He joined the medieval Oxford Jewish community and subsequently married a Jewish woman. His defection caused an upheaval in the Church and he was given an ultimatum to return to the Christian faith or face death. When he rejected  the ultimatum, the Christian Church court put him to death at the gate of Osney Abbey, which today, is at the end of Swan Street, the site of a ruined canal boat repair yard. In commemoration, a plaque was erected on the site, on which it is written: Haggai of Oxford suffered for his faith on Sun 17th April 1222 AD, corresponding to 4th Iyar, 4982, in the AM.

 

Another episode occurred in 1268, when the University held a procession up St. Aldates in commemoration of Ascension Day, the day Jesus is believed to have ascended to Heaven. Out of respect for their Christian neighbours, members of the Oxford Jewish community attended the parade, which was preceded by a large crucifix carried by Christian clergymen.

 

During the procession, it is told that a Jew tore down the cross and trampled on it. As a result King Henry commanded that all the Jews of Oxford be arrested and pay for an ornate marble cross to be erected. The cross was bought and erected in Merton College, between the Grove Building and the Chapel, and remained there until 16th century when it collapsed.

 

At the base of the cross, an inscription stated that the Jews bought this cross as a punishment for defacing Christianity. Cecil Roth, Anglo-Jewish Historian, maintains that the cross fell during the parade as a result of religious fervour and the Jews were blamed for unintentionally trampling on it.

 

In Spain the situation was far worse than in Britain. In Britain, Jews enjoyed relative religious freedom until 1290, when they were expelled. The Jews of Spain, however, were stripped of this freedom a hundred and fifty years earlier, around 1140. It was during this period that Maimonides lived and wrote the famous Igeret HaShmad, letter of Apostasy.

 

Maimonides, R’ Moshe ben Maimon bar Ovadya [1], was born the day before Passover, 1135 (4995), in Cordova, Spain, at the close of the five hundred year golden age of Spanish Jewry.

 

The golden age, under Islamic rule, offered the Jews equality and complete freedom of religious expression. This allowed the Jewish Diaspora community in Spain to flourish and produce some of the greatest Rabbis, whose works are studied until today, including Rabbeinu Yehudah Halevi, Rabbeinu Bechayei, Gersonides, Nachmonides and others.

 

This era ended when the radical Almohadim [2] Muslim sect came to power in Morocco in 1146. The government gave the Jews and Christians an ultimatum of conversion to Islam or death. The king, Ibd el Mumin, believed the existence of a Jewish tradition that the Jewish Messiah would redeem the Jews five hundred years after the revelation of Muhammad in 622. However, by 1146 it was evident that the Messiah had not arrived and in his opinion this was a sign that the Jews must convert to Islam.

 

The Jewish community pleaded with the government to be spared from this decree of apostasy, Gezeirat HaShmad, and a compromise was made: the Jewish community was granted the option to flee the country.

 

in 1148, two years after the Almohadim rose to power in Morocco, they conquered Southern Spain. They subsequently imposed the edict of Gezeirat HaShmad on Spanish Jewry. Entire Jewish communities, Cordova, Grenada, Elisana, Shibilaya, were destroyed. As in Morocco, the Spanish Jews were forced to flee the country or convert to Islam. Many Jews were sold as slaves to Christians or were forced to flee barefoot and hungry.

 

As Italy and parts of Spain were Christian, Christians living under the Almohadim were easily able to emigrate to Italy or Christian Spain where their co-religionists welcomed them with open arms.

 

The Jews, however, who had no homeland of their own, were in despair. While some Jews fled to Christian Spain, Italy and other countries, most of the Jews were disinclined to leave and they chose to stay behind. Some Jews avoided conversion, but the vast majority were forced to accept Islam.

 

The Spanish Jewish community justified their acceptance of Islam as follows: belief in Islam does not fundamentally contravene Jewish belief, since Jews and Muslims believe in the Oneness of G-d. Furthermore, the Jews assumed that, as with most radical political movements, the state of affairs was merely temporary.

 

Another important factor was that conversion to Islam only warranted verbal acceptance, declaring belief in Allah and His prophet Muhammad. This did not have any bearing on their practical lives. Even while the Jews were forced to attend prayers in a Mosque and study the Koran, the government allowed Jewish practise at home; many Jews, after attending Mosque, would pray a second time at home, and study Torah as before.

 

This was indeed in stark contrast to other periods in Jewish history. During the Hellenist period, the Jews were forced to abandon Judaism and were forbidden to close their front doors in suspicion that they might be practising Judaism privately. Similarly, during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, Jews were burned at the stake for practising Judaism in private.

 

Maimonides was thirteen years old when the Almohadim came to power. His family fled for eleven years from city to city in Spain and they eventually arrived in Fez, Morocco, in 1160, where they lived for four years.

 

It is intriguing to historians that Maimonides’ family moved to Morocco, where the Almohadim government first came to power and was seated. King Ibd Almumin was still alive and Judaism was stringently prohibited!

 

In Fez lived Rabbi Yehudah HaKohen, whose parents came from Iraq. According to historians, Rabbi Maimon wanted the opportunity for his sons Rabbi Moshe (Maimonides) and Rabbi Dovid to study Torah from this great Torah sage. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Kohen was killed for refusing to convert to Islam.

 

A possible reason why Maimonides and his family were able to live in Fez as Jews, despite the dangers involved, was because the Almohadim forced Islam only upon its citizens, but did not concern themselves with foreigners. Furthermore, Rabbi Dovid was a wealthy diamond trader and Rabbi Moshe was a distinguished philosopher. This might have been the reason for the special privilege granted them to live as public Jews.

 

While Maimonides was in Fez, he began his famous commentary on the Mishna at the age of 24. He remained in Fez for four years. He completed his commentary to the Mishna after he moved to Egypt, at 30 years old, in 1165. He then began to write his legal work, Mishne Torah, which took ten years to complete.

 

Maimonides left Fez because his life was threatened, which forced him to flee in the middle of the night by boat to Akko, Israel. Historians say that Maimonides was walking on the streets of Fez on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot with his Lulav (palm branch, myrtle and willow) and Etrog (citron) in his hand, when a government official confronted him ridiculing Jewish tradition. Maimonides retorted that the tradition of the four species is a Divine commandment in the Holy Bible and if any tradition was ridiculous it was the practise of throwing stones at a rock, referring to Muslim practice in Mecca.

 

The official was deeply insulted by this remark and took it as a great offence to Islam. Aware of the threat to his life, Maimonides fled Fez immediately with his family.

 

Another reason historians give is that Maimonides was seen to encourage Jews to leave Morocco in favour of a place where they would be free to practice Judaism. The intensity of the decree against Judaism fluctuated and when the government in Fez changed for a more radical approach towards non-believers in Islam, Maimonides was forced to flee.

 

As time passed, life in Spain became very difficult and Jewish identity and morale eroded. Doubt began to surface in the Jewish community about the authenticity of Judaism and Jews began to consider the possibility that G-d had really replaced Judaism with Islam.

 

in 1160, discerning the low morale of Spanish Jewry, Rabbi Maimon wrote a letter of comfort, Igeret Nechamah, to the Spanish Jewish community. In the letter he urged the Jews to continue praying to G-d three times daily in Hebrew, despite the difficulty and dangers involved. It was this sense of leadership, responsibility and love for the Jewish people that was passed from Rabbi Maimon to his son, Rabbi Moshe Maimonides.

 

The impetus for Maimonides to write Igeret HaShmad was a particular rabbi living outside Spain who wrote a letter condemning the Spanish Jewish community for converting to Islam. The letter was written in response to a question by a secret Spanish Jew on the status of forced Jewish converts to Islam. The rabbi showed insensitivity to the Jewish state of affairs in Spain and failed to express sympathy and encouragement.

 

The rabbi wrote that belief in Islam and its teachings is considered idolatry. Therefore, a Jew who is forced to convert to Islam is first obligated to give up their life rather than convert. Failure to do so renders the person an apostate, excommunicated from the Jewish community, unfit to testify in a Jewish court of law and invalid to be a witness in a marriage or divorce. This is the case even where the person secretly practises Judaism at home.

 

Furthermore, he writes, if one enters a Mosque, even without praying, the person is considered an apostate. If, after attending prayers in a Mosque, one prays to G-d at home, the prayers are despised, hypocritical and considered a sin. In conclusion, he writes, every Jew is obligated to give up their life rather than accept Islam.

 

This letter dealt a heavy blow to those Jews who attempted to retain their Jewish identity despite their Islamic conversion. It had a devastating effect on thousands of Spanish Jews and led many to feel that in any event they are condemned and they might as well abandon Judaism all together instead of living a life of duplicity .

 

To counter this devastating letter, Maimonides, 27, in 1163, wrote a harsh letter, in Judeo-Arabic, called Igeret HaShmad, Letter of Apostasy [3], or Mamar Kiddush HaShem, Essay on Sanctification of G-d’s name [4]. The purpose of the letter was to refute the opinions of the rabbi and raise the morale of Spanish Jewry.

 

In the letter writings of Maimonides, there are generally two categories: Teshuvot, responsas, and Igrot, letters. Teshuvot are mostly related to legal, Halachik, issues and Igrot are mostly related to moral, theological or personal issues. In the opening to Teshuvot, the word Teshuva, or in Arabic, Algoib, is written VeKotav Moshe (and Moses wrote) at the end. Thus, the Letter of Apostasy is called Igeret HaShmad, since the point of the letter is primarily moral, though it discusses the Halachic  status of forced converts.

 

The style of Igeret HaShmad is atypical. Most of Maimonides’ writings are written in a collected and calm manner. However, the style of Igeret HaShmad evidently reflects his exasperation at the ignorance and lack of sensitivity of the rabbi.

 

Maimonides begins by suggesting that a person should not speak in public before revising the content three or four times and before publishing a thousand times. He admonishes the rabbi for writing on a sensitive subject to which he cannot relate, and judging a community without standing in its place. Maimonides continues systematically to refute all the opinions written in the letter regarding the status of forced converts to Islam and the laws of self-sacrifice.

 

Two central dilemmas Igeret HaShmad addresses are as follows: should one give up ones life when faced with forced conversion to Islam? The question has immense implications. By sacrificing their life, they allow their children to become orphans who will almost definitely be abandoned to Islam. Conversely, by submitting to Islam in public, the Jewish identity of the children can be retained  for generations to come.

 

Another question is whether a person can be considered a hypocrite in Judaism.  If the person converts to Islam but continues to observe some commandments and pray the Hebrew liturgy of the Siddur, is this hypocrisy?

 

Maimonides, as in the Mishne Torah [5], explains the Jewish law related to abandonment of Jewish practise under duress [6]:

 

A person who is forced to commit one of the three cardinal sins - idolatry, adultery, and murder - in any circumstances should rather die than capitulate. This applies whether the threat was to transgress in private or in public, during a time of oppression or freedom, and whether the threat is for personal motive or in spite of Jewish belief.

 

If the sin, however, is other than the three mentioned above, there is a difference as to whether the oppressor is out for personal benefit, or acting out of spite towards Judaism. This is one of the reasons why Esther was permitted under duress to marry the Persian king, Achashverosh[1][7], against Jewish law, since the motive of the king was for personal benefit, rather than out of spite [8].

 

If the oppressor has religious motives, there is a difference whether it is a time of persecution or peace. If the circumstances took place during a period of peace for the Jews, one is only permitted to transgress if it is done in private.

 

In addition to the laws of keeping the Jewish faith when threatened by death in certain circumstances, Maimonides discusses the need for a Jewish person to live to a high moral standard. A person who behaves in an anti - social manner causes a desecration of G-d’s name. If a person is held in high esteem, they are expected to live up to an even higher moral standard [9]. It is more problematic when someone abandons Judaism when not under duress, but for reasons of indulgence.

 

On the other hand when a person behaves in a manner that is of a high moral standard, this sanctifies G-d’s name: A person who is genuine, altruistic, commands respect, has a good reputation and is disciplined, sanctifies G-d’s name. These qualities, according to Maimonides, sanctify

G-d’s name more than religious practice.

 

When a Jew is indeed killed for being unwavering to the Jewish faith, it is the highest virtue in Judaism, as was merited by Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, who were killed by the Romans [10]. Even  one who is not actually killed but was prepared to die and was miraculously saved, is also called a Martyr. The four Jewish advisors to Nebuchadnezzar, Chananya, Mishael, Azarya and Daniel experienced this. They were thrown in the lion’s den for not prostrating themselves before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and miraculously survived [11].

 

Similarly, the seven sons of Hannah refused to prostrate before the Greek ruler, Antiochus, and as a result were all put to death in front of their mother [12].

 

Maimonides writes, even one who is not observant but was killed for maintaining faith in Judaism merits a portion in the World to Come. This is illustrated in the story related in the Talmud, when the entireJewish population of the city of Lod was accused of killing the daughter of a Roman king; all its inhabitants were threatened with annihilation. Two brothers, Papus and Lulinus, came forward and falsely confessed to the killing in order to spare the lives of thousands of Jews. The Talmud says that this was an act of martyrdom and the brothers ascended to the loftiest level in Gan Eden where ordinary people cannot enter [13].

 

Returning to the subject of Spanish Jewry, Maimonides maintains that it is not incumbent upon a Jewish person to sacrifice their life not to convert to Islam. This is because conversion to Islam is purely a verbal declaration. One who does give up life, however, receives great reward and is indeed considered a martyr.

 

Conversely, Maimonides concludes, even one who is obligated to sacrifice life not to convert to Islam, but does not rise to the challenge of martyrdom, and abandons Judaism under duress, is not considered an apostate and does not deserve any degradation or punishment. This is similar to a woman who is betrothed to a man and is raped by another. The woman is not held accountable although she could have given her life and been spared the act of adultery [14].

 

This is very different to the Talmudic discussion concerning idolaters who abandon the Jewish faith willingly. The Jews of Spain are all in the category of forced converts and are not considered responsible for their actions. They are permitted to testify in a Jewish court of law and may be a witness in a marriage or on a bill of divorce.

 

Maimonides proceeds to enter into a diatribe towards the rabbi. He writes that the rabbi is sinful by expressing his opinion that Jews in Spain should die for their faith. This is compounded by the irony that this rabbi is expressing this view when he himself is living a life of religious freedom and comfort.

 

With regard to keeping Judaism under such difficult circumstances, Maimonides says, there is no reason for concerns of hypocrisy. If when under duress, certain Jewish practises are abandoned and others retained, it should not be said that the transgression overwhelms the observance. This rule only applies in a civil court of law; however, G-d rewards a person for each individual action notwithstanding other conduct. Therefore, a person should endeavour to keep the Mitzvot as much as circumstances permit and will be rewarded for what is kept. Furthermore, a person should realise that a Mitzvah is of great value when done under difficult and life threatening conditions

 

. Although Maimonides defends Spanish Jewry for converting to Islam under duress, he nevertheless considers Jews who remain in Spain under such circumstances to be bordering on negligent abandonment of the Jewish faith.  If Jews feel they must remain in Spain, they should live covertly and stay as much as possible indoors, to avoid total assimilation.  He concludes by strongly advising that Jews should flee countries that prohibit Jewish beliefs and escape, even under dangerous travel conditions, to a country where to be conspicuously Jewish is permitted. He adds that they should not be distressed for leaving behind beloved family members, nor should they feel concerned that they are forfeiting their possessions by fleeing the country, as these matters are insignificant when considering the importance of retaining ones Jewish belief.

 

[1] In Arabic he was called Ibn Maimon bin Ovad Alelah

[2] Meaning believers in the unity of G-d

[3] According to the Riva”sh, R’ Itzchak bar Sheshet, Spain, 200 years after Maimonides

[4] According to Tashba”tz, Teshuvos R’ Shimon bar Tzemach, colleague of Riva”sh

[5] Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah

[6] Talmud, Sanhedrin, 74a2255

[7] Book of Esther

[8] See Talmud Sanhedrin 74b for other reasons

[9] Talmud, Yuma 86a, Berachot 19a, Shabbat 51a, Pesachim 110a

[10] Sanhedrin 110b

[11] Daniel Ch. 3

[12] Hasmoneans Vol. 2 Ch. 7

[13] Pesachim 50a

[14] Deuteronomy 22:25

 


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