From Moses to Moses, there has arisen none like Moses. This has long been the evaluation of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam), otherwise known as Maimonides. One of Judaism’s greatest philosophers and halakhists, Maimonides was a Spanish Jew whose magna opera etched in stone his status as the poster boy of medieval Jewry. Born in Cordoba, Spain (Pesach of 1135 or 1138), he moved frequently throughout his life, fleeing Islamic oppression to Fez, Morocco, spending an uneventful few months in the Holy Land, and finally moving to Fostat, Egypt, where he served as the personal physician to Saladin until his death in 1204. Though certainly not exhaustive, given the plenitude of excellent and nuanced scholarship on the Rambam, this paper will examine the historical contexts of three of Maimonides’ works, aiming to clarify who and/or what influenced his writings. Introduced firstly shall be a brief history of Almohad influence on Andalusian Jewry, which informs some controversial claims in his Iggeret ha-Shemad. Secondly, we shall survey the decline of the knowledge and study of Torah that led to his pioneering of the systematization of Judaism in his Mishneh Torah. Finally, we shall consider two significant underpinnings of the composition of his Moreh Nevuchim: the pervasiveness of Aristotelian thought in the Arab world, as well as his tight bond with a promising disciple.

Iggeret ha-Shemad: Under Pressure from a Radical Muslim Movement 

Maimonides was born while Cordoba was under control of the Almoravids: “a confederation of Berber tribes whose roots lay in the Sahara region, were nominally in control of Muslim Spain and western North Africa” (Davidson 9). By Maimonides’ teen years (1150s), the Almoravids had crumbled under the pressure of a new and much more fanatical sect—the Almohads. The Almohads were ruthless against all opposition, their raison d’être being two-fold: i) guarding their doctrine of the unity of God and ii) the “eradication of error” (Davidson 10).  

While living under Almohad rule, many Spanish Jews were given the ultimatum to either i) convert to Islam and stay in their homeland, ii) remain a Jew but leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, or iii) refuse conversion and be slain. In an attempt to save themselves and at least some of their Jewish identity, many feigned conversions and lived as Muslims in public. Unlike Christian persecution of Jews, the Almohads were not concerned to surveille or thoroughly inspect the lives of the pseudo-converts, being content with as little as a publicly professed renunciation of the Jewish religion and affirmation of Mohammad as Allah’s prophet. Heschel explains that “in these countries [Spain and the Maghreb] the privacy of the personal sphere and of domestic life was highly respected” (7). This allowed for everyone who feigned conversion and truly wished to continue living as a Jew to do so in the haven of their own homes, both secretively and unmolested. However, anything done outside the confines of the Jewish home ran the risk of drawing suspicion and unwanted attention: “The Jews who had recently turned to Islam were regarded as completely bona fide Mohammedans; but holding a Jewish divine service was synonymous with apostasy from the Mohammedan religion. And, according to Islamic law, the apostasy of a Mohammedan is punishable by death” (Heschel 7). 

There were mixed opinions among Jews as to how the pseudo-converts ought to be viewed and interacted with in the larger Jewish community. Some leaned toward showing them a measure of grace: “The general feeling must have been that in mass conversion under duress, individuals had no free choice. Conversion under such conditions should not, therefore, be held against a person, and should not be recorded as a blemish on him or on his family” (Stroumsa 59). On the other hand, Heschel notes the disgrace in which they were held by those Jews who stood firm in the faith, even to the point of zeal-inspired rebellion: “They openly declared that the pretense of the pseudo-converts was a far greater peril than total apostasy. They were willing to go to any lengths to expel the ‘double believers,’ like lepers, from the sphere of Jewry” (12). The latter group of Jews reviled this concept of a double-life as heretics and traitors, regarding those who chose it as unworthy to be considered even ethnic Jews. One of their leading rabbis remarked: “Any Jew who visits the mosque as a pseudo-Mohammedan, albeit not participating in the prayer, is committing blasphemy when he says Jewish prayers in his home! His prayer is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord” (Heschel 13). The overarching issue to which this controversy especially pertained was the question of whether the act of emptily confessing Islam was Kiddush ha-Shem—sanctification of the Holy Name—or Chillul ha-Shem—desecration of the Holy Name (Stitskin 105). 

In Iggeret ha-Shemad (Letter on Apostasy)—the Rambam’s first public document, written in 1160 or 1161—Maimonides responded to the aforementioned zealous rabbis’ scathing judgments on Jews who feign conversion in order to escape death. Regarding such condemnations as “unscholarly,” he sought to demonstrate to those who held such views, in a systematic manner, that to merely say words under duress was not inherently wicked, and that only willful conversion to Islam that led to the real, heartfelt Islamic practice in one’s life, could be considered apostasy from the Jewish faith: “During this period of religious persecution we are not forced to perform any acts of apostasy but just to recite an empty formula…For this form of compulsion requires no action but the recital of a simple formula which the Moslems themselves know were uttered insincerely only to circumvent the King’s whims” (Stitskin 107). The gist of this claim is that a verbal profession in such circumstances was acceptable because it did not require of the Jew “actions that controvert Jewish law” (Kraemer 107). That said, Maimonides asserted sternly that no forced convert can in good faith remain in an environment wherein he is coerced to actively transgress the Torah. This lingering was utterly inexcusable to Maimonides: “I have no patience with one who offers those excuses in order to assuage his conscience, but it is imperative that he migrate to a favorable environment and under no circumstances remain in a place of apostasy. Anyone who persists in staying in a hostile location is guilty of almost willfully desecrating God’s name” (Stitskin 109–110). Thus, he “condoned conversion to Islam, discouraged martyrdom, and recommended migration and exile” (Kraemer 105). 

There is much controversy over the issue of whether or not Maimonides himself merely feigned a conversion to Islam or if he actually did convert, becoming a full-blown Muslim. For the first two decades of his life, he lived under Almohad rule in Cordova, al-Andalus (Muslim/Andalusian Spain) and Fez, Morocco. Growing up under such circumstances certainly makes plausible the notion that Maimonides did actually participate in the same false conversion as many of his compatriots. Given the Rambam’s argument condoning so-called apostasy and advising subsequent emigration in his Iggeret ha-Shemad, Amir Mazor takes this to be an “indication of his own experience” (320). Others, like D.S. Margoliouth, demur from reading that closely into Maimonides’ letter: “The fact of his taking a lenient view of the act of pronouncing the Mohammedan profession of faith, and thinking the matter one not worth dying for, surely need not prove that he had himself followed that course” (541). Kraemer cites a commentary written by a friend of Maimonides’, Joseph ben Judah Ibn ‘Aqnin, who lived near him in Fez, that refers to Maimonides’ great wisdom in dealing with forced conversions, duly noting that “although Ibn ‘Aqnin did not state that Maimonides was among the Jews who lived publicly as Muslims, his description of the circumstances and the clandestine study of Torah suggest that he observed commandments surreptitiously along with the others” (117). 

Excursus: Maimonides’ Alleged Apostasy in Muslim and Jewish Legend 

Mazor compares and contrasts various Muslim and Jewish accounts of Maimonides’ apostasy, finding the same motifs in both the heavily anti-Semitic Muslim accounts and the Jewish legends written as reactions thereto: “While in the Muslim accounts Maimonides, as a Jew, is depicted as ungrateful, malicious and treacherous, in Jewish legends Maimonides is presented as a wily, clever and superior Jew, who mocks the Muslims” (318). The Muslim accounts, Mazor argues, are usually biased toward reinforcing the second-class citizenship of Jews as dhimmis and perpetrating the stereotype of Jews as untrustworthy, devious people who would only befriend a Muslim if plotting to betray and kill him—sentiments arising from texts both in the Quran and Hadith. The Jewish tales, however, paint him as slyly finding ways to expose the baseness and stupidity of their Muslim counterparts. Mazor saliently observes that the less biased, and thereby more reliable, Muslim accounts tend to include more information that actually pertain to Maimonides’ apostasy, one simply giving a brief history of his life and reporting that the Andalusian jurist initially accusing Maimonides relented because of the Quran’s teaching that “the Islam of a man who was forced to convert is not legitimate according to Islamic law” (321). The others, whether Islamic or Jewish in bias, are less facts-based: set more on smearing the other religion than on pinning down an historical event. 

Mishneh Torah: An answer to the decrepitude of Jewish scholarship in the 1100s 

Completed in 1180, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (The Review/Repetition of the Torah), also known as the Yad ha-Chazaqah (the Mighty Hand), was his magnum opus. His only work to be written in Hebrew, it was a stylistically original, systematic compendium of Jewish law, organizing both biblical and rabbinic commandments into fourteen topical sections. This forever sealed the Rambam’s worldwide reputation as a halakhic Jewish scholar. Maimonides was unabashedly confident that Mishneh Torah (hereafter, the Yad) would suffice as a hermeneutical tool for the study of Torah, contending that “a person should first study the Written Torah and then explore this text. In so doing he will know the entire Oral Torah without having to study any intermediate text” (Yad, introduction., 15). Thus, Strickman: “A person in Maimonides’ view can be a Jew in deed and in creed by studying the Mishneh Torah and following its dictates” (17). 

Kraemer identifies his motivations for compiling the Yad as “intellectual decline and cultural pessimism” due to the disciple-reducing demoralization brought on by persecution of the Jews (320). Nuland adds that Maimonides “believed the arrival of the Messiah to be near” and was writing a type of “constitution for the Jewish state that he envisioned as being on the horizon” (106). These motivations directly influenced not only Maimonides’ decision to write the Yad but also the style in which, and audience for whom, he wrote it. 

Maimonides interpreted the spiritual and scholastic condition of Judaism in his day as a fulfillment of Isaiah 29:14. He mourned: “In our time, we are plagued by a host of troubles. Everyone feels under pressure, ‘the wisdom of our wise men has failed, and the insight of our sages has vanished.’ Therefore, we have difficulty understanding the explanations halakhic rulings and responsa of the Geonim. Currently there are only a few people who fully understand the material which to the Geonim was plain and simple” (Yad, introduction., 13–14). Study of Torah and Talmud had been stunted by the persecution at the hands of fanatical Islam. Jews had, by and large, grown heavily discouraged and frustrated by seeing their fellows capitulate to Muslim aggression and coercion, which sent their energy and zeal for learning and meditation upon their own law into a downward spiral. In his Sefer ha-Qabbalah (1160–1161), Abraham ibn Daud described the dire state of Jewish learning due to persecutions engineered by Ibn Tumart of the Almohads: “After the demise of R. Joseph ha-Levi…the world became desolate of academies of learning…there were years of war, evil decrees and persecutions that overtook the Jews, who were compelled to wander from their homes…R. Joseph’s sons were unable to maintain academies and were among the first to flee to the city of Toledo. They have been making whatever effort they can to raise disciples…They are the last of the Talmudic scholars of the present age” (G. Cohen 87–88). Maimonides viewed the desolate and depressing state of Jewish scholarship as a sign of the dawning Messianic age, which he regarded as “a socio-political catalyst for intellectual advancement and culture revitalization”, hoping that freedom from Gentile oppressors would finally allow for all Jews to pursue the knowledge of their God through study (Twersky 67). This anticipation may be understood through a sociohistorical lens. It is clear that throughout human history people groups have exhibited “deep concern to preserve cultural treasures when enemies threaten [their] existence” (Phillips 39). “The demand for codification reaches its climax in the penultimate age before a social catastrophe, long after the peak of achievement in jurisprudence has been passed, and when the legislators of the day are irretrievably on the run in a losing battle with ungovernable forces of destruction” (Toynbee 51). Given that Maimonides regarded his own Jewish culture as collapsing (or having already collapsed, especially with regard to study), it may be deduced that he was preparing for a major shift in the social structure of his (and his fellow Jews’) world: the ushering in of the Messianic age during which all the earth “will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).  

The Yad manifested Maimonides’ desire to facilitate the growth of study through the simplification of organization. He recognized and ascribed to the Jewish sentiment of the superiority of the oral over the written. His stated desire in writing was so that students of the Yad would use it as a means to memorization, not to continue working with the text itself: “I divided the sections into chapters and the chapters in two short paragraphs, so that they can easily be memorized” (Yad, introduction., 15). Similarly to how the Apostle Paul describes the Law’s relation to Christians (cf. Gal. 3:23–25), Maimonides crafted the Yad as a type of pedagogue for those seeking to internalize the commandments. 

His stylistic choices took the common man into consideration: writing in Mishnaic Hebrew instead of the outdated Talmudic Aramaic, employing rhetorical questions “as a pedagogical device to capture the reader’s attention”, and enumerating sections and explanations in order to better facilitate memorization (Kraemer 318). He hoped to clarify any confusion that the common man might have about distinguishing the commandments of God from the commandments and interpretations of men. Though he “showed great respect for the authority of Talmudic decisions which, in his opinion, were accepted by all Jewish communities and were therefore binding,” he refused to cite his sources for said decisions lest the uneducated reader’s comprehension become encumbered by endless rabbinic names, titles, and authorities—a choice he deemed necessary to “reform education and methods of thought” (Heschel 94). Much of the discussion found in both the Mishna and the Talmud included topics jumbledly appearing in unexpected places. One example is how “regulations governing the wearing of phylacteries and instructions for knotting fringes on the corners of garments are incorporated into the Mishnaic tractate whose announced subject is the bringing of meal offerings in the Temple” (Davidson 192; cf. Menaḥot 32a). He simplified this in the Yad by “[rearranging] the regulations scattered through the classic rabbinic sources so that everything belonging together would be placed under the appropriate heading” (Davidson 198). Maimonides wrote in what he called “a lucid and concise style” and provided “straightforward statements based on the final judgments” (Yad, introduction., 14). He aimed directly at the final interpretation that was reached, excluding any of that interpretation’s preceding deliberation. This methodology might seem more conducive to success for modern readers of Scripture, as many might find it easier to memorize a single Bible verse than to memorize a paragraph of meticulous and discursive commentary on that verse.

Essay Continued on the Next Page