History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris


Our story now takes us back once more to Spain.

Judaism reaches one of its great climaxes in Moses ben Maimon, "From Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses." Greater creative spirits had arisen in Israel since the Lawgiver stood on Pisgali, but none so able to grasp the spirit of Judaism in its entirety, its law and its philosophy, and to give it its comparative place in the spiritual development of man.

Twenty-five years after the birth of Ibn Daud, thirty years after the death of Rashi, and but five years after the death of Jehuda Halevi, Maimonides was born in Cordova, the Athens of Jewish and Moslem Spain. He had the advantage of a scholarly father, an adept in astronomy, mathematics and in the Talmud. Thus he was early imbued with a love of religion and with an appreciation of general culture. But the son's sphere of study took a wider range than that of his father, embracing also logic, philosophy and medicine. His was one of those master minds that assimilate all knowledge of the age. He was gifted with penetration for unlocking the obscure, with genius for classification and with indefatigable industry.

Moslem Unitarians.

The skies were not as bright in Maimonides' boyhood as in the golden days of Abder Rahman III. The usually liberal Moor was exhibiting a spell of intolerance. It will be recalled that after the one Caliphate of Cordova had broken up into many, the Almoravid became the ruling royal house. But now another Moorish tribe, the Almohades, descended upon Spain from Africa and held sway for the half century contemporaneous with the bulk of Maimonides' life.

Almohades mean Unitarians, believers in one God, and Ibn Timart was the founder of this new sect. But were not all Mohammedans such, with the watchword "Allah alone is God," differing in this respect from the trinitarian Christians? Yes and no. The idea of Allah (God) had become material and gross in the minds of the masses. In Timart then appeared upon the scene as a sort of reforming prophet and tried to give to his people a purer idea of divinity.

If that only had characterized his movement, all had been well. But his enthusiasm reached the anti-climax of fanaticism. With more than Puritan zeal he denounced not only luxury but even protested against the fine and liberal arts. Further, he relentlessly persecuted both Jews and Christians, who did not accept his creed. It was "the Koran or the sword" again. To think that the Jew, the pioneer Unitarian, mankind's apostle of monotheism (see note), should be persecuted by a sect that placed on its banner Judaism's cardinal dogma so strictly expressed in its second commandment! Logically Ibn Timart should have hailed instead of rejecting the Jew. But such are the ironies of history.

Forced Converts.

Cordova was taken in 1148 by the new Moslem invader, and with it the beautiful synagogues of Seville and Lucena. The Jews had to choose between apostacy and exile. Glad are we to record that the majority chose exile. So, about the time when Maimonides was Bar Mitzvah, his family left their native land. After years of wandering they reached Fez in Morocco, though the Almohades held sway there, too. Some Jews compromised. Outwardly these accepted "the turban," i.e., the supremacy of the prophetship of Mahomet, and attended the mosque, while secretly they lived according to Jewish law. How often was Israel forced to take that dubious stand. We shall meet it again.

A Jew of the Maghreb (Morocco) wrote to a distant rabbi asking the status of those who, to save their lives and those of their families, voiced the formula "Allah is God and Mahomet is his prophet." The reply was brutally severe — "they have no status in Judaism and their prayers would be unacceptable to God."

Maimonides' father had earlier displayed a kindlier attitude in his famous "letter of consolation." Here, while in no sense condoning the Moslem disguise he had yet said: "He who clings to the Law with but his finger tips has more hope than he who lets it go altogether."

But now Maimonides himself on behalf of the wavering Jews of Morocco answered the rabbi who preached martyrdom — at a safe distance. His letter breathed charity to his sore tried brethren. That was well. But he went further, and distinguished between heathen and Moslem coercion. The former had demanded transgression of Judaism in deed, the latter only in word.

While recognizing the tremendous difference between idolatry and Islam, we must say that this particular distinction is not well taken. For religion deals essentially with the inner life. It demands sincerity first and last. Only "he who speaketh the truth in his heart can enter God's tabernacle."

Maimonides, however, was right in stating in a case of this kind that martyrdom is meritorious, not mandatory. It is heroic to die for one's religion; but not all are heroes. The spirit of his letter in refusing to abandon those who had strayed, while urging them to seek homes where they could frankly live the Jewish life, was wise and helpful.

This famous "Letter on Apostacy" (Iggereth Hashemod), written when he was but twenty-five, was not the first product of his pen. He had already given forth an astronomical treatise on the Jewish calendar, a book on logic, a natural history and some Responsa.

Physician in Egypt.

In the meantime home and fortunes had changed. He had left the intolerant atmosphere of Fez; later we find him in Palestine, and eventually he settled in Fostat, the port of Cairo, Egypt. In 1166 his elder brother was drowned and his wealth with him. Maimonides now became the sole support of the family. How did he gather the means — as a teacher of the Law? No! he lived up to that fine rabbinical maxim, "The Law must not be used as a crown or a spade," and he vented his contempt on all who did. Although it was his life work it was a labor of love. He and his brother had been diamond merchants. Now he devoted himself to the more congenial calling of physician. In medicine alone he had written many works on haemorrhoids, poisons, antidotes and asthma — largely summaries of the great masters from Galen down.

Indeed it was to his ability as a doctor that he won eminence in the non-Jewish world. Even King Richard of England wanted him as his physician. For the third Crusade had brought the "lion-hearted" king to the East. His Saracen (Eastern Mohammedan) opponent was Saladin, whom fate and ability had raised to the Egyptian throne and made vizier of the Caliph. His star still in the ascendant, his supremacy steadily spread through Asia until we find him Caliph of Bagdad. In all lands where he held sway, Jews found a safe asylum. He is one of the world's great men. Both Sunnites and Shiites (orthodox and reform Moslem) forgot their differences and came under his banner. This was a strange contrast to the dissensions in the Christian camp in this Crusade. No wonder the armies of the Cross were so hopelessly defeated.

Egypt was a great Jewish centre at this time. Its communities under a nagid (prince) were allowed to live their own life undisturbed. When Maimonides settled there, natural fitness placed him at the head of Egyptian Jewry — a post he accepted without compensation. He brought a truer knowledge of Judaism among them and breathed new life into the community. He reconciled Rabbanites with Karaites, throwing in his influence with the former. For the Karaite movement had not fulfilled the promise of its early days of becoming the banner bearer of learning light and rational interpretation of Jewish Law.

So Maimonides made Cairo a great centre for Judaism and Saladin made it a centre for Mohammedanism.

Writings of Maimonides.

We must now consider the three great works of Maimonides, to which he owes his immortality and which gave a new impetus to Jewish theological thought.

First, his commentary on the Mishna called "Light" (Hebrew, Maor). It was written in Arabic which, as already pointed out, was the native tongue of Eastern Jews. Now the Gemara itself is a commentary on the Mishna, forming together with it — the Talmud. But the Gemara is so much more than a commentary that a concise, clarifying exposition was yet an unfulfilled need. Maimonides' clear insight made him the ideal commentator. He showed at once reverence yet independence and the critic's all-important quality — discrimination.

But the Maor is not only a commentary on the text, but also a general survey of each theme as a whole. (See chapter on "Rashi" on this point) Here and there he furnishes scientific data and ethical instruction in which he brought to bear all his varied knowledge. Then, too, he commented on the Law in the light of later Jewish practice.

A Jewish Creed.

This broad and exhaustive treatment led him to formulate a complete Jewish creed.

This was strangely new. Judaism had never been expressed in a system of beliefs before. Deed had always been its center of gravity. Its tendency was to grant liberty of belief, but to demand conformity of action. Of course, certain fundamentals were implied. Prime importance of belief in God was involved in the rabbinic dictum, "Die rather than proclaim belief in a false divinity." The second commandment shows that idolatry, not atheism, was the fear then. People worshiped many, rather than none. Belief in "the world to come" was implied in the teaching, "Who denies future life will be denied future life," But a complete summary of belief, "such and such is Judaism" was an innovation. Perhaps the suggestion of formulating it came unconsciously from the Church, whose Councils from time to time formulated specific articles of creed, and drew hard lines between orthodoxy and heresy.

So Maimonides may have felt it necessary to define Judaism in order to distinguish it from Christianity on the one hand, and Islam on the other, and to answer the missionaries of both. In reading Maimonides' "Thirteen Articles," we can see that they were so worded as to bring out the distinction between Judaism and the two great religions which had been derived from it.

We here give them in brief with some of Maimonides' comments:

  • First: — The Existence of God, on whose being all other beings depend.
  • Second: — The Unity of God, whose oneness is allness; if one God suffices, a second is superfluous. If one God is not sufficient. He cannot be perfect, and therefore cannot be divine. (This is really an argument against the Trinity.)
  • Third: — God's Spirituality — not subject to motion, rest, time or space.
  • Fourth: — God's Eternity. God is the First Cause, the ever-active Intellect. (Here we see the influence of Aristotle's philosophy.)
  • Fifth: — Prayer to God only (as against prayer to saints or departed souls).
  • Sixth: —The Truth of the Prophets. (See next chapter on his definition of prophecy.)
  • Seventh: — The Supremacy of the Prophet Moses for All Time. (This is a distinct challenge to Mahomet's claim, The Prophet, superseding all others.)
  • Eighth: — The Whole of Our Law was given to Moses. (Possibhly a defense of the traditional oral rabbinic law and a reply to the Karaites.
  • Ninth: — The Permanence of the Law. (This is an answer to the Christian claim that the coming of Jesus abrogated the Mosaic Law.)
  • Tenth: — God's Omniscience.
  • Eleventh: — God Rewards the Obedient and Punishes the Transgressor. What is the highest reward — life hereafter; what is the gravest punishment — annihilation (mark, not hell).
  • Twelfth: — The Coming of the Messiah. We are looking forward to an age rather than to a man.
  • Thirteenth: — The Resurrection. (Opinions differ as to whether Maimonides implied here only immortality of the soul or also revival of the body. It was the discussion of this question that first led him to draw up a Jewish creed.)

Although no synod endorsed the validity of these "Thirteen Articles of Creed," they have been accepted as the official expression of the Jewish belief, and as such are incorporated in the ritual in prose and in verse (the hymn Yigdol). Not that they passed entirely unquestioned; later theologians reduced the number of Judaism's essentials.

Summary of Jewish Law.

The second great work of Maimonides was of similar character to the first, "Light," but of vaster scope. It was a summary of all Talmudic law and was called "Yod Hachazaka" (see note). His work on the Mishna was a commentary; his work on the entire Tahmud was a codification. For not only, as has been already pointed out, does the Talmud contain law (Halacha), but in addition thereto much miscellaneous material summarized under the general title, Agada (narrative). But, furthermore, even the Halacha is not systematized, but arranged when it is arranged at all, on a somewhat arbitrary plan. So it is really hard to find a particular law in its intricate mazes of discussion.

Maimonides therefore conceived the gigantic task of collecting all the laws contained in the Bible, Talmud and the later Geonim and classifying them in a Code. This great work, consisting of a thousand chapters, and which absorbed so many of his best years, was preceded by an introductory summary of the affirmative and negative precepts.

Maimonides begins his book of law with God, the source of law; this he expands into a philosophy of religion. This divinity behind the precept is never lost, and it exalts the most trivial injunction into an act of divine service. Not that he presented all law on one level. He distinguished between the literal and the figurative and between the biblical law and the rabbinic deduction. At times he ventures to drop the superstitious customs that often grow around laws like barnacles on a ship, and also to omit precepts that had become obsolete.

Yet this great work had the fault of its virtues. In leaving out all the Talmudic argument that led up to a law he certainly simplified it for the layman, but thereby presented it as a dogmatic decision rather than a logical deduction. Dogmatism was distinctively repugnant to the Jewish sense. As far as possible he would know why he is asked to obey this law or that. As long as the Halacha was connected with its chain of discussion, it was pliable and even open to modification by later rabbis. But set down apart, it becomes crystalized and unchangeable. Its life depends on fluidity, the opportunity for new interpretation.

Maimonides wanted to save the Law from endless commentary, yet his "Yod" gave rise to commentaries of its own. Compare this experience with that of the Karaites, compelled to draw up new rites and rules, the very thing they had organized to avoid.

So not all Israel accepted Maimonides' deductions unquestioned, as a final court of appeal. Still it was very popular and spread throughout the whole Jewish world, though the printing press was not yet at hand to manifold copies. Poets sang its praises and even Christian and Moslem scholars gave it appreciative study.

It is remarkable that both in formulating a creed and in summarizing the Law, this most progressive of men endeavored to give to both Jewish belief and practice a finality that would have prevented their growth and advance.

We will now consider in a separate chapter the greatest product of his great mind. It is rather recommended to advanced pupils.


Saladin:—Lessing wrote Nathan der Weise to challenge Christianity's claim to the monopoly of religious truth and worth. He therefore skillfully chose this epoch of the Third Crusade, when the Moorish East was most civilized and Christian Europe most barbaric.

Walter Scott, in his Talisman, also contrasts Saladin favorably with Richard Coeur de Lion.

The Great Hand:—Maimonides' Mishna Torah, i.e., "Second Law," is also called Yod Hachasaka ("The Great Hand") for the following reason: Yod numbers "Fourteen." The work contained fourteen books; the phrase, "great hand," is applied by Moses to the power of God, who did much for Israel through "the hand of Moses"; this work was written by a Moses (Maimon). Hence the work consists of "fourteen" books of "Moses" Maimonides, and deals with the Law and Power ("hand") of God. This is a good example both of the customary use of a Bible phrase for the title of a book and of the fantastic explanation.

Unity of God:—Greek, Monotheism; Latin, Unitarianism. See Studies in Judaism, ch. vi; "The Dogmas of Judaism," Also: "Judaism and Unitarianism," M. H. Harris, in Sermons of American Rabbis. See Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. ii, article on Maimuni's father's "Letter on Apostacy."

Theme for Discussion:—The difference between Judaism and Christian Unitarianism.