Notes from NNLS/Maimonides Foundation seminar on Maimonides 2005
Maimonides' Epistle on Forced Conversion and its Historical Context
Herbert Davidson now claims this epistle, איגרת השמד, was not authentic. Dr Weinberg isn't completely convinced, though. It is certainly written in a time of persecution.
[Background: The Almohads, Al-Muwahīdun, the proclaimers of the Oneness of G-d, were a Islamic fundamentalist movement which arose in the Maghrib in the twelfth century, and, supplanted the more tolerant Almoravid government in Spain, bringing to an end a chapter of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. The twelve-year-old Maimonides was forced to flee, along with his family, and eventually ended up in Fez (then, later, Egypt).]
The Almohads were founded by Ibn Tumart, who styled himself Al-Muwahīd. He regarded himself as a redeemer before the world to come. This was part of the messianic/apocalyptic atmosphere which affected all religions at that time. (Cf. also Maimonides' Letter to the Yemenites [which I might post my notes on at some point].)
The Almohads offered the sword or conversion (as attested to in the Cairo Geniza). But the danger depended on the time and place; one must be careful about calling it a time of persecution. Maimonides' family is often portrayed as fleeing from the Almohads when they left Spain, but where they ended up, Fez, was an Almohad stronghold!
Indeed, Maimonides went on to study with Judah ibn Shosham, an important halachist, in Fez, so it was not all bad.
There is a letter from the Maimon dayan [judge] written in Judaeo-Arabic in Fez; a consolatio written in literary language. It has no reference to date, place or time. The author tries to give hope to people who are being persecuted:
A man must strive his best secretly and publicly in whatever he must do [...] to lay hold of the cord of the law and not let loose of it for to let go of it is like one who is drowning. The waters are overwhelming, but he who grasps it gains hope from G-d.
The emphasis of this letter is also on prayer. The author says Jews may pray in any language.
Very different is the letter on apostasy attributed to Maimonides. This is only in Hebrew (one reason for thinking it is not original—Maimonides normally wrote in Judaeo-Arabic.) It is also, in a very vituperative way, rhetorical, not quite in keeping with Maimonides' style. It is not quoted by a Jew until two hundred years after the time of Maimonides. Also everyone referred to in it is anonymous—again, unlike Maimonides' style.
Its author says that a contemporary of his had inquired about ?events in this persecution in which he had been forced to convert. The letter says he had been told he denied the Torah. Maimonides says whoever gave this decision is not only foolish and stupid but blasphemous. He proves this with statements from halacha and non-legal statements.
There is a distinction between those who convert under duress and those who do voluntarily. He quotes Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud on being forced to do things against the Torah, which is based on Leviticus 15:5, וחי בהם "you shall live by them": the Talmudic Sages said this implies: and not die by them. The exceptions are of course the three cardinal sins [idolatry, adultery, and murder]. There is also a distinction made in times of גזרות המלכות [I think this means royal decrees, sc. against the Jews], e.g. the Hadrianic persecutions. Then whether in public or private you should aim for קידוש השם [sanctification of the Divine Name, here meaning martyrdom] and not give in. That made doing so [i.e. converting?] a חילול השם [profanation of the Divine Name].
Maimonides quotes this but then said there's something new in the situation occurring in his time: No action forbidden by Judaism is being asked of people forced to convert. Though they have to utter the shahāda [Muslim declaration of faith: "There is no god but G-d, and Muḥammad is His prophet"]. Provided people continue observing the halacha there is no reason why these people can't continue considering themselves Jewish.
He has been attacked for this. He concludes that one should leave these places and go to places where he can practice the Torah without persecution. He ends by quoting Jeremiah 50:20:
In those days, and in that time, saith the LORD, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found: for I will pardon them whom I reserve.
The הרות הנשמ [Mishne Torah, "Repetition of the Torah", Maimonides' great code of Jewish law] (which follows in its first part the Islamic code of law) describes, in ספר יסודי תורה ch. 5 the laws of forced conversion. (The laws for how to convert to Judaism are hidden, much later, in the material of laws of forbidden sexual behaviour.)
He discusses the ?aslsive laws from the Talmud on martyrs but for those that do commit חילול השם, even those who earn a death by the Sanhedrin or כרת [spiritual excision], though they are sinners they remain Jewish. A humane way of dealing with the material on the subject.
At the time of the Crusades the Tosafists [mediaeval commentators in France] discussing the same text in the Talmud disagree and say one is obliged to allow oneself to be killed rather than transgress. And they rule beyond the letter of the law.
It is notable that the three things Maimonides says one should do in response to forced conversion are all Qur'anic. And Maimonides calls Abraham a mahdi (the prophesied redeemer of Islam) and Moses an apostle—Islamic terms.