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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 4

 p33  Chapter III
Life in Fez

After enduring for more than ten years the perils and discomforts of a wandering life, Maimon resolved to emigrate from Spain.8 Taking with him his daughter, his two sons Moses and David, he sailed for the Maghreb, "the Land of the West," and settled in Fez. Maimon and David engaged in commerce, while Moses devoted himself to his studies in theology and medicine. Maimon's motive for selecting Morocco as his new abode cannot be clearly ascertained. Fez was under the same rule as Cordova, and a "Moslem state for Moslems" was the watchword of the Unitarians in Africa as well as in Spain. There were parts of Christian Europe in which Maimon might have  p34 found a tolerant if not a friendly reception. The saintly influence of Bernard of Clairvaux did not fade away when this "oracle of Europe" died in 1153. The second Crusade had been, on the whole, productive of a better feeling between the devotees of Church, Mosque, and Synagogue. But Maimon had grown old in a Moorish society, and would have felt himself a stranger to the language and habits of a Christian community. He had another reason for choosing Fez as his home. Neither he nor his son was personally known to the Mohammedan scientists of Morocco. Hence they would not be driven into the category of ordinary anusim, pseudo-converts to Islam under pressure of force majeure. They were not known as Jews to the local authorities, but in all probability they were commonly assumed to be Moslems. The evidence does not justify us in asserting that Maimonides ever did more than act a part of  p35 tacit consent, though he has been suspected of a more positive conformity. That he joined in the Tarawih prayers during the month of Ramadan, or made any other serious ritual concessions to Islam, is improbable in itself, and is certainly not supported by adequate testimony.9

In a certain sense, the dual life that Maimonides passed in Fez chimed in well with the needs of his intellectual development. His close intercourse with Jewish scholars satisfied his eager desire for the further acquisition of Rabbinical learning, and his intimate acquaintance with Moslem literati stimulated his interest in science and philosophy. In Judah ha-Kohen ibn Shoshan, head of the Jewish community in Fez, he found a companion and guide in his researches into Jewish lore. During the five years passed in the Maghreb he made considerable progress with his Commentary on the Mishnah.  p36 On the other hand, he frequently refers in his later medical treatises to the experience gained among the Moslems of the Maghreb. The Unitarians (Almohades) were not foes to enlightenment. It is true that Ibn Tumart assailed the Moravid Khalif because his daughter appeared in public unveiled, because wine was drunk in defiance of the Koran, and the flesh of swine was offered for sale in open market. Yet the metaphysical tone of Ibn Tumart's Tauhid, or formula of Unity (p20 above), would have led us to expect that the new Puritanism was compatible with a genuine regard for science and philosophy. "There is no Church and no Synagogue in our land" ran the Moslem boast, but the vaunt did not add, "and there is no school." Well-known facts tally with this inference. "A man like Ibn Tofail, the author of the philosophical romance, Hai ben Jokdan, which has been translated  p37 into Hebrew, Latin, Dutch, and English, and a man like Averroës during an important part of his life, flourished at the Court of the Almohades, though the latter in the end was banished."10

The double life of the ordinary Jew of Fez was not, however, without its dangers. Maimonides and the leaders of thought might remain absolutely true to their religious covenant, but commoner men could not but suffer from a continued yielding lip-homage to Mohammed, occasionally supplemented by compulsory visits to the mosques, at which hymns and sermons were devoted to eulogy of the Prophet. Some of the Maghreb Jews began to persuade themselves that Islam was a God-sent substitute for Judaism, and that Mohammed had been born to replace Moses. It was to meet this danger that Maimon composed the "Letter of Consolation" to which reference has been made in a previous chapter.

 p38  Maimon's Letter was written in Arabic in 1159 or 1160.11 The author argues that Israel's tribulations were a chastisement of love, the tender correction administered by a father to his wayward child, not the desolating vengeance of a potentate upon a rebellious favourite. Let no Israelite imagine that God had changed His plan, that Israel, His beloved son, is now cast off for another. "God does not desire a thing and then despise it; He does not favour and then reject." Where is the other religion in the midst of whose camp the divine Shechina patently dwells, where are the signs and the miracles? Maimonides was not at one with his father here; his confidence in Judaism was independent of miracles.12 Maimon makes a stronger appeal on the basis of God's promises to Israel, which, like the Law itself, are of eternal and irresistible validity. "We must no more doubt God's promises than we doubt His  p39 existence." He urges his brethren to a whole-hearted loyalty to their God. "What health can there be for him who is not whole with his Master?" He exhorts them to find salvation in spiritual communion with God; he would have them think less of this world's charm than of life everlasting; praying regularly, using, if need be, an abridged form of the liturgy, and the Arabic language, if Hebrew were unfamiliar; content with little materially, yet hoping for much spiritually. The Law of God was a Cord "stretched from earth to heaven," a sure rescue for those who, immersed in the sea of captivity, grasped at this unbreakable means of safety. Then, with noble charity towards those of his brethren who had lost firm hold of the Cord, Maimon said, "He who clings to it with his whole hand has, doubtless, more hope than he who clings to it with but part of it, but he who clings on with the tips of his fingers has  p40 more hope than he who lets go of it altogether."

Coming from a foremost champion of "legalistic" religion, this is one of the finest expressions of tolerance which medieval literature can show. The rest of Maimon's "Letter" is intensely interesting. His object is to maintain the permanence of the Jewish law and the greatness of the original lawgiver. He launches out into an extraordinary eulogy of Moses. "His creation was the evidence of the strength of God, for God created him in the most beautiful form. The light of God was clear in his face, a light more brilliant than the sun's, for the latter light was created, whereas the light of the face of our master Moses was from the light of the glory of God, which is uncreated. How magnificent were the eyes which gave forth a light which not Michael, or Gabriel, or the holy hayoth could look upon!" His body was purified like  p41 that of the angels, yet was it stronger than theirs, "for those were of light, not of flesh or of blood, or of sinew or matter." "Moses was a prophet in whom was the strength of God." "If any one doubted the apostleship of Moses, his life was consumed like Korah's." Maimon freely uses Moslem phrases, and describes Abraham as "the Mahdi of God." His stress on the greatness of Moses is obviously meant "as a set-off to the greatness of Mohammed." "If the law which he promulgated had to be believed merely on account of Moses' greatness, it would still have been necessary to believe it; how much more must we believe it when that law contains the commands of the Creator and His ordinances. Gratitude and cleaving to God are necessary, on account of Him who sent and of him who was sent. And how great is the glory both of the sender and the apostle!" Maimon concludes his remarkable epistle with a detailed commentary  p42 on the 90th Psalm, "The Prayer of Moses, the man of God." Maimon sees in this Psalm a forecast of Israel's vicissitudes. He applies it "not so much to the shortness of life as to the shortness of God's anger, and the ultimate deliverance from captivity." With exquisite fancy he turns the phrases of that noble Psalm to the contemporary condition of his people, and utters many an impassioned note of unconquerable confidence in the future restoration of Israel to its former place in God's regard. "O God, satisfy us in the morning in the dawn of our deliverance, and favour us with thy grace. . . . Grant thy redemption to draw near in our days, and establish in our time that which thou hast promised us; enlighten our darkness as though hast assured us, and thy assurance is indeed sure. 'The Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.' And so may it be God's will."

 p43  Maimon appeals throughout to sentiment, and sentiment is perhaps the best guide for an individual in such a case of conscience as presented itself to the Jews of his day. But when a community is internally lacerated by a life and death struggle, the only saving guides are reason and duty. It has been objected that while the father applied the principle of faith to the question of pretended apostasy, the son applied the principle of law. But when Maimonides took a severely legal view, he did so because he was fixing a norm for other men's conduct, not for his own. For himself he might adopt an ideal standard, but of others, speaking as the upright judge, he would require no more than the letter of the law. It is characteristic of Maimonides that he elected to participate in the solution of the difficulty just at the moment when it was placed on a practical basis. Maimonides' Letter does not lack feeling; he indulges  p44 in unwonted invective, but its very strength lies in its patent repression of emotion. It appears that a Jew of the Maghreb, possibly resident in Fez, had applied to a foreign Rabbi for his opinion as to the conduct of Jews who saved their own lives and preserved their children for Judaism by uttering the formula, "La ilaha illa Allah, wa-Muhammad rasul Allah" — There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Regardless of the effect of his reply on many thousands of his brethren, the armchair hero, to whom the appeal had been addressed, answered that a Jew who publicly confessed belief in Mohammed thereby denied God, for the Moslems were idolaters. The prayers of such a man would find no acceptance before God, his secret performance of all the Jewish precepts would be futile, and he could no longer be regarded as a Jew. The only course for a steadfast Israelite was to accept martyrdom rather than yield.

 p45  This opinion seems to have been widely circulated in the Maghreb, and one can well imagine the consternation produced by such an epistle, "turning men back from God." Some must have felt crushed under a burden of sin, more must have been tempted to conform in earnest to Islam, since they were denounced as apostates for an insincere secession from Judaism. Maimonides could not tolerate the injustice to which the Maghreb Jews were subjected by their critic, and he felt that his own conduct had been sufficiently like that of the rest of the local Jews to warrant him to associate himself personally with the charge. He does not deny that there was something to reproach in a policy of pretended submission. There is "genuine anguish" in this passage: "God is a witness that if he who had uttered these reproaches against us had uttered many more, we should not have sought help for ourselves; we should have said,  p46 Let us lie in our shame, and let our confusion cover us, for we have sinned against the Lord our God. We know, O God, that we have done wickedly, and had it not been insisted upon that those who pray in these times are committing a transgression, we should have been silent. But will not the ignorant, if they hear that to pray is a sin, leave off praying altogether?" He opposed the zealot with his own weapons. He, too, appealed to precedent, and showed how in the past R. Meïr and R. Eleazar had saved their lives by feigning heathenism at a time of persecution. Then Maimonides develops a view which has not had altogether salutary effects on Judaism in subsequent centuries. "The present," he said, "differs from previous experiences. In former cases, Israelites have been called upon to transgress the Law in action. Now we are not asked to render active homage to heathenism, but only to recite an empty  p47 formula which the Moslems themselves know we utter insincerely in order to circumvent a bigot." The distinction between conformity in speech and conformity in act saved many a Jewish community from extinction, but as a general principle it is untenable, and savours too strongly of casuistry. In the application of the principle to the case immediately before him, Maimonides is, however, perfectly sound. He placed himself entirely at the Talmudic standpoint. The three capital offences which, the Talmud ordains, must be avoided even at the cost of martyrdom are idolatry, unchastity, and murder. "But now," continues Maimonides, "nothing of this is required. Indeed any Jew who, after uttering the Moslem formula, wishes to observe the whole 613 precepts in the privacy of his home may do so without hindrance. Nevertheless, if, even under these circumstances, a Jew surrenders his life for the sanctification of the name of  p48 God before men, he has done nobly and well, and his reward is great before the Lord. But if a man asks me: Shall I be slain or utter the formula of Islam I answer, Utter the formula and live."

Thus Maimonides drew back into the fold the weaklings whom a zealot would have cast forth into the desert of despair. He urged them to fortitude. He warned them against supposing that because they had strayed from the way of the Lord they were free to leave the path altogether. So, too, those who profaned the Sabbath must, he said, be treated not with contempt and rejection, but must be brought near and urged to reform. But he did not counsel a continuance of this yielding to coercion, nor justify quietism under persecution. "The advice I give to myself, to those I love, and to those who ask my opinion is that we should go forth from these places, and go to a place where we can fulfil the Law without compulsion  p49 and without fear, and that we should even forsake our homes and our children, and all that we possess." Those who remain must regard themselves as partially, but not entirely, estranged from God so long as they are not compelled to transgress actively any of God's commandments. Should that be demanded of them, no consideration must weigh with them, no fear of the journey, no love for their home, but they must forthwith depart. Maimonides has no patience with those who would soothe their conscience by the thought that soon the Messiah must appear and lead them to Jerusalem, until which event there was nothing possible except submission.

Maimonides was about twenty-five years old when he wrote in Arabic this famous Maamar Kiddush Hashem ("Essay on the Sanctification of God"), known also as Iggereth Hashemad ("Letter concerning Apostasy").13 It was his first incursion  p50 into public life, and it placed him at a bound among the foremost authorities of the time. Henceforth men recognized in him a leader, at once statesman and enthusiast; and they sought a secure anchorage in his steadfast common sense and piety. Like a skilful physician who accurately diagnoses his patient's symptoms, at first he soothed the sufferer, then roused him to a sense of his condition. He saved Judaism from absorption into Islam in the Maghreb by persuading the pseudo-Moslems that they had not lost their inheritance in the God of Israel; but he followed this up by urging them to abandon their duplicity and live openly and whole with God. His effort was brilliantly successful, yet its very success occasioned new though more honourable dangers. The bolder spirit that now animated the Jews of Fez could not but translate itself into action easily detected by the Moslems.14 These did not sit idly  p51 by when the genius of Judaism reasserted itself. An inquisition was instituted. The crime of relapsing from Islam after conversion is punishable in Moslem law by death. Under that law force majeure is no admissible plea. Judah ibn Shoshan was seized and executed. For the moment Maimonides was saved from a similar fate by the intercession of his friend, a Moslem poet and theologian, Abul-Arab ibn Moisha. But his position was so hazardous that he resolved to leave the Maghreb.15 In the darkness of the night (4th Iyar = 18th April, 1165) the family went on board a vessel bound for Palestine. For six days their voyage was calm, but on Saturday, the 24th April, a terrific storm assailed the vessel, and shipwreck seemed imminent. Then the danger passed, and Maimonides, after the manner of the time, solemnly vowed that he would annually observe the 4th and 10th of Iyar as fast days, "and as on this  p52 occasion we were desolate and destitute of all succour but God's, so year by year on this day will I sit solitary, apart from all my fellow-men, to pour out my inmost soul before the Lord alone."

A full month was occupied by the voyage to Acre, which was reached on Sunday night, the 16th of May (3rd Sivan). As he himself joyously wrote: "On the 3rd of Sivan I arrived safe at Acco, and was thus rescued from apostasy." The anniversary was dedicated as a family festival, for whatever had really occurred to him in Fez, he could not but feel that his position there, amid a community of pseudo-Moslems, had been open to misconstruction. He remained in Acre for several months, recruiting his health both in body and soul, breathing in the ancient home of his people the air of freedom and sincerity. He was welcomed by the small Jewish community in what was then the chief sea-port of Palestine, and he enjoyed  p53 the close friendship of the dayan, Japhet ben Eliahu. After the autumn festivals, he decided on paying a visit to Jerusalem. He arrived in the Holy City on the 17th October (6th Marcheshvan). Japhet accompanied him, and the party spent three days in visiting the sacred sites and praying at the Wailing Wall. On Sunday, the 9th Marcheshvan, they left for Hebron, "to embrace the graves of the Patriarchs in the Cave (of Machpelah)." The 6th and 9th of Marcheshvan were likewise observed in the family of Maimonides as festive anniversaries.

Palestine at that period was in Christian hands, the second Crusade having left the general situation unchanged. But few Jews were to be found there; the total did not exceed a thousand families, scattered in many cities. They were poor in goods and in culture, and Maimonides feared to settle in an environment which offered no intellectual comradeship for  p54 him. Egypt promised a fitter field for his energies. Famous in Jewish history as the scene of the early career of Moses, later celebrated as the home of Philo, Egypt was now to receive a second Moses, who would again kindle in that land of human and divine marvels a light for the Jews of all the world.

The Authors' Notes:

8 The motive suggested by Sambary (Neubauer, Medieval Jewish Chronicles, I p117) is incredible. He states that Maimonides was forced to leave Cordova because of some offensive remarks made by him to the Khalif regarding Moslem rites. Maimonides was too tolerant to Islam for this story to be admissible.

9 The view expressed in the text seems best to fit the evidence. Geiger, Munk (Notice sur Joseph ben Jehouda, 1842, and Archives Israélites, 1851, p319), and Graetz emphatically maintain that Maimonides actually became a pseudo-Moslem, basing the opinion partly on general considerations, partly on the statements of Arabic authors. The question is fully examined, as to the first class of arguments, by Dr. M. Friedländer (Preface to Guide of the Perplexed, vol. I p. xxxiii), and as to the latter class by Professor Margoliouth (Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. XIII p539). Both vindicate Maimonides against the suspicion that he ever assumed the garb of Islam. See also Lebrecht, Magazin für die Lit. des Auslandes (1844, n. 62); H. Kahan's Hat Moses Maimonides dem Krypto-Mohammedanismus gehuldigt? (1899); and Rabbinowitz in the Hebrew ed. of Graetz, vol. IV pp332, 462, and the references there given.

10 Simmons, Maimonides and Islam (Jewish Chronicle Office, 1888), p4.

11 On the Arabic text of Maimon's Letter of Consolation see note 2 above. A Hebrew translation was published by Goldberg in the Lebanon, 1872. The citations and some of the comments are taken from Mr. Simmons' English edition. As to the Arabic style of Maimonides in general, and its relation to Moslem Arabic dialects, see I. Friedländer, Der Sprachgebrauch des Maimonides (Frankfort, 1902).

12 Introduction to the Siraj; cf. p75.

13 The Letter concerning Apostasy was edited by Geiger (Breslau, 1850) and Edelmann (Chemdah Genuza, p6); also in the Letters of Maimonides (Leipzig, 1867). Cf. Hebrew Graetz, IV p337, n. 1. The authenticity of the Letter has been disputed (see in particular Friedländer, loc. cit.), but on the other side, besides Graetz and Geiger, see Simmons' Maimonides and Islam, p5, and Margoliouth, loc. cit. The author must have been a person of consequence, and no one but Maimonides has ever been suggested. The Letter is cited as Maimonides' by Saadiah ibn Danon, Isaac ben Sheshet (Responsa, § 11), and Simon ben Zemach Duran (Responsa, § 63). The views expressed in the Letter bear a general resemblance to the known views of Maimonides, and there is some striking similarity between the phraseology of this Letter and the incontestably genuine Iggereth Teman (see note 36 below). The Letter concerning Apostasy by no means implies that Maimonides was himself a pseudo-convert, as Munk, Carmoly, and Graetz aver. Professor Margoliouth rightly says: "The fact of the writer's taking a lenient view of the act of pronouncing the Mohammedan profession of faith, and thinking the matter not one worth dying for, surely need not prove that he had himself followed that course."

14 This is an inference from the course of events; without this supposition it is difficult to understand what occurred.

15 See the Sefer Charedim of Eleazer Askari of Safed (written in 1588).

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