By David Ben Yosef
The Rambam was a great halachik scholar and Jewish thinker of the 12th century who is believed by some to be the last of the geonim, who like the tsofist, were not only scholars but leaders of their communities. He wrote many works discussing varied topics from medicine to philosophy, one of his lesser known responsum is called Iggeret ha-Shemad. Addressed to the Moroccan Jewish community, this epistle was written between 1160 to 1165, a period of distress in Spain and North Africa. Maimonides was confronted with a complicated issue, what to do with Jews who were forced to convert to Islam by the Almohads (an oppressive Muslim regime)? The letter is a response to an unidentified rabbi who condemned them as heretics without taking into account their plight. In the following paper I will expound on the reasons Maimonides took a compassionate approach toward these people who he considered to be anusim (forced converts). I will discuss his views regarding the following subjects: the definition of martyrdom in traditional sources, Maimonides’ view of the Muslim persecution discussed (in the letter) and his unique but traditional approach to Jewish law regarding this subject.
The Rambam purposely uses the term shemad in his letter, describing “destruction,” “extermination,” or “religious uprooting” in relation to forced conversion and persecution. The time of the shemad in the Talmud denotes the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 C.E. and the Roman retaliation that took place as a result. There were many Jewish leaders that paid the price for their disobedience: “Hadrian’s edicts imposed capital punishment for the study of Torah, circumcision, and other practices. Rabbi Aqiba and his colleagues, according to tradition, were martyred for continuing to teach Torah.”
Maimonides addresses a complex topic, the halakhic status of the Moroccan Jewish community in question. He discusses their situation at length, explaining the issues at hand:
“1. The class of the laws related to the time of forced conversion; 2. Definition of the desecration of God’s name and the punishment; 3. The ranks of those who die a martyr’s death, and those who are forcibly converted in a persecution; 4. How this persecution differs from others, and what is to be done in relation to it; and 5. A discussion of how advisable it is one to be careful in this persecution, may God soon put an end to it. Amen.”
This detailed explanation is necessary as the rabbi who contacted the Moroccan Jews before Maimonides believed that at the moment they accepted another religion they denied the covenant and became a member of the other religious system. This other rabbi claimed that their performance of the commandments in secret were of no value. He felt that by acting as a gentile they were no longer Jews. This is of particular importance as traditional sources place someone who converts to another religion in state of karet:
“One who separates himself from the Community, even if he does not commit a transgression but only holds aloof from the congregation of Israel, does not fulfill religious precepts in common with his people, show himself indifferent when they are in distress, does not observe their fast, but goes in his own way, as if were one of the gentiles and did not belong to the Jewish people-such a person has no portion in the world to come…”
Maimonides on the other hand held the view that their situation placed them under the definition of an anus, a Jew forced to convert to another faith. He felt that the evidence of their insincere conversion was their desire to practice of Judaism in private. He writes in Iggeret:
“Now if he did not surrender himself to death but transgressed under duress and did not die, he did not act properly and under compulsion he profaned G-d’s name. However, he is not to be punished by any of the seven means of retribution. Not a single instance is found in the Torah in which a forced individual is sentenced to any of the punishments, whether the transgression was light or grave. Only he who acts voluntarily is subject as Scripture directs: “But the person…who acts defiantly…that soul shall be cut off” (Numbers 15:30).
Maimonides supported Crypto-Judaism in his time period, believing that if they kept any mitzvah they were rewarded for doing it out of love for G-d, not seeking the approval of others. Maimonides based this on the verse of Jeremiah that emphasized the idea that “G-d pardons those that he allows to survive,” considering that G-d evaluates everything we do. He rejects the claim that “if a Jew cannot realize the whole, then the part has no significance.” The Rambam shows that in ancient Israel when Jews were condemned by the prophets it was because they worshiped Baal voluntarily.
The Rambam’s definition of martyrdom
The title of the letter has also been translated as “Maimonides’ Letter on Martyrdom” since the debate is mostly about the necessity or avoidance of martyrdom during persecution. This is a complicated concept as throughout Jewish history martyrdom has become synonymous with Kiddush Hashem “sanctification of G-d’s name.” Even Maimonides in other works considers martyrdom as the most pious alternative to public transgression of Torah. The rabbi who addressed the Jews of Morocco, condemned them for not rising to the level of the three biblical heroes: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. He also did not provide for them a path for them to return to Judaism after committing the grievous sin. Nevertheless not everyone supported martyrdom:
“Whether one is permitted to suffer voluntary martyrdom is highly questionable; suicide is forbidden beyond question, and the permissibility of murder needs no discussion. Thus if the law were to be followed, the scholars of these communities would have to rule that all martyrs-qedoshim, or “holy ones” as they were called-were not only not holy, but were “self killers”…” 
To the tsofists (Eastern European Azkenazic scholars), not always supported committing suicide to avoid forced conversion is not allowed and is seen with contempt in halakhic circles. This seems odd since there is an assumption in modern day scholarship that Ashkanazic Jews were more courageous than Sephardic Jews at that time:
“For some reason or another, unlike their North European brethren, the Jews of the Moroccan community were not equal to their awesome duty. They were aware now of the gravity of their sin, but it drove them not to heroism but despair.”
Among Ashkanazim scholars who justify the death of their saints, suicide is seen as an honor, although it is clearly condemned according to halakhah even under the threat of conversion. A fascination with this type of heroism can be traced back to outside influences:
“In Christian countries, martyrdom was an ideal that Christians venerated and that Jews were likely to emulate, whereas Muslims regarded a martyr (shahid) to be someone who died in jihad, or warfare for the sake of Allah-an ideal that obviously bypassed Jews.”
Jewish Life in Muslim Spain and North Africa
North African and Spanish Jewry had a complex relationship with Islam at the time this letter was written. According to Kenneth R. Stow “in no medieval kingdom, except Spain , Jews ever compose more than one percent of the population.” and their integration and interaction with society in that region was more multifaceted that in other places. This is important because the communities of Morocco had been under Muslim rule for a while:
“for centuries, Islamic Law guaranteed the rights of Jews to practice their religion and enjoy some degree of Judicial autonomy. Such was not the case for Jews living in Christian lands where Jewish settlement and the level of Jewish judicial autonomy continued to depend on Jewish communities securing rights or privileges from the host authorities.”
When the radical Muslim group of the Almohads overpowered Morocco they not only subjugated the Jews as second class citizens but demanded their subjects recite the Shahada, a public proclamation that “there is no god, but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.” These Muslim oppressors humiliated the Jews through their proclamation of the Islamic creed that Judaism was obsolete and Islam was the only true way to serve G-d. Another factor rarely addressed is that even if they acquiesced, they were constantly under suspicion of the authorities:
“the caliph Abu Yusuf ibn Ya’qub claimed that had he been sure that Jews in his realm were sincere converts, he would have permitted them to marry and mix with Muslims. Or if he had been certain of their unbelief (kufr), he would have killed all their men, taken their children captive, and made their property booty for the Muslims.”
It is believed that Iggeret ha-Shemad was influenced by Islam in its Arabic literary style, and Maimonides could have borrowed the idea of deception as a means of survival from Islam. The Muslims “absolved prudent dissimulation”instead of being willing to die when faced with heresy. Maimonides clearly agrees with Jewish tradition stating that Jews have a sacred responsibility to keep Torah regardless of their situation, although he advances the Muslim tactic of taqiyya in special circumstances to save a community from assimilation. The Rambam feels that: “There has never yet been a persecution as remarkable as this one.” In his book, Crisis in Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, David Hartman understands the Rambam’s position to be based on the Almohads lack of interest in Jewish behavior after the Muslim proclamation is made. For him the key distinction between this form of apostasy and others was that the Almohads did not request idolatrous practices from their captives but only required a verbal acceptance of their creed.
Maimonidean approach to Jewish Law
Maimonides’ argument is not only based on legal decrees but uses aggadic examples, he was not only a religious philosopher, but a legal theorist who incorporated biblical and talmudic stories as authoritative sources relating them to the experiences of these anusim. One example is his use the story of R. Eliezer from the Ten Martyrs of Israel, to provide encouragement to his audience of oppressed Jews in distress. This well-known piyut recited on Yom Kippur shows the difficulties that Jews face during persecution. Maimonides addresses the dilemma at hand by using a comprehensive approach. He defines Jewish identity not only as an outward expression of a religious way of life, but as a legal status that cannot be taken away by a single act, especially one done under duress. His response to their situation is not only compassionate but creative as he works within the parameters of the halakhic system. One aspect that complicates the anusim‘s struggles is that they must hide their identity and conceal their observance until the time of persecution is over. Another forgotten factor in his halakhic argument is that Judaism is not a dry legalistic process, but “in the rabbinic system, the rabbis supplement the oral law by appealing to Scripture.” The Rambam makes it clear that in this scenario we must distinguish between the reality of one faith and the political expediency of accepting another faith only through a verbal agreement. Hartman explains:
“The halakhist cannot simply apply the law in a mechanical fashion, but must boldly accept responsibility for his creative role in making decisions for a community that chooses to live by the Torah in an unredeemed world. Halakhic problems involving the bordeline situations, such as one the dealth…(by Maimonides in this letter)…demand that the halakhist listen attentively to both the Halakhah and the Aggadah of his tradition in order to gain a sense of direction that reflects the spirit of Judaism.”
One contemporary scholar that disagrees with the Rambam is Haym Soloveitchik. He feels that the Moroccan pseudo-Muslims should be willing to die as martyrs and if they have already converted they should acknowledge their double life and not be allowed to repent. He cites many of Maimonides’ apparent contradictions in Iggeret, such as his puzzling last statement:
“Everyone who cannot escape (for various reasons) and stays in this place, he must view himself as one who desecrates the Name of God though not willingly, but (by his continued presence and not fleeing) he becomes close to (desecrating it) willfully, and he is an outcast in the eyes of God and will be punished for his evil deeds. But he should always have in mind that if he performs a commandment, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reward him doubly, for he certainly performs it for the sake of Heaven only and does not seek to show off his religiosity.”
Soloveitchik sees this statement as a negation to Maimonides own premise as it is more consistent with the common view that a Jew who converts to another faith is no longer a Jew. The Rambam even expresses this idea in both Hilchot Mamrim Perek 3 Halacha 1-3 and the Mishneh Torah Avodat Kochavim 2:5: “The following types of people have no share in the World to Come, and are cut off, destroyed and excommunicated for ever on account of their very great sins and wickedness: one who converts from Judaism…”
On the other hand, Hartman explains that Maimonides does condemn willful idolatry, but in this situation he creates a path of reconciliation with G-d and the Jewish Community to those who did so under duress. The nuance of his argument is that professing Muslim articles of faith is wrong, as it falls within the realm of swearing a false oath. However, Maimonides conveys that this desecration of the divine Name is justified, not only because it is done in the midst of persecution but because the Mishnah permits a Jew to make false vows to murderers, robbers, and predatory tax gatherers.
To Maimonides, condemning a community is a form of heresy itself since forgiveness and repentance are basic tenets of Judaism. In his letter to the anusim of Morocco the Rambam uses Isaiah 55:7, a passage that applies to all Jews to comfort them:“Let the wicked abandon his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” Chapter two of Hilchot Teshuvah asks:
“What exactly is repentance? Repentance involves forsaking sins and removing such thoughts from one’s way of thinking and resolving firmly never to do it again.”
It is interesting to note that Maimonides feels that we must not publicize our sins against G-d. He quotes the psalmist “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” At the same time there is an emphasis on personal responsibility to save ones life. Maimonides writes that personal Pikuach Nefesh is of the utmost importance: “…If the tyrant does it for his personal satisfaction, be it a time of persecution or not, privately or publicly, he may violate the Torah and escape death.”
Maimonides saw this persecution as out of the ordinary, as well as a sign of messianic expectation. He considered repentance from these anusim as part of corporate return to the ways of the L-rd. As he wrote in the Mishneh Torah “Your people also shall be righteous; they shall inherit the land forever.” He considered the word ‘land’ to refer to the “Land of Life, namely the World to Come.” It is believed that this letter expounds on his hopes that the mistreatment of the Jewish people by different empires had a purpose:
“Iggeret ha-Shemad, and particularly, his Iggeret Teman, (show) that he (Maimonides) expected that the Messiah would arrive soon. In the latter work he had said that the persecutions of the Jews under Christian rule in France and Germany, and the persecutions under Moslem control, undoubtedly were the predicted Jewish agony before the advent of the Messiah.”
In Iggeret ha-Shemad the Rambam allows the Jewish community of Morocco to transgress but makes repentance available to them. He alleviates their pain out of concern for their emotional well-being, finding halakhic grounds for them to be restored to the community. Maimonides shows that there is a difference between a court finding someone guilty and personally accusing someone of being a heretic or idolater, since we are not able to judge the religious character of each person.
His stance is the same as his father’s who in Iggeret ha-Nehamah, writes to the Moroccan Jews encouraging them by saying that:
“Their suffering is (not) a sign of rejection by God, but to be firmly aware of the truth of their religion, of the primacy of Moses amongst the prophets, and of the immutable nature of his revelation.”
The Moroccan community seeking an answer from the sages was a cry out for forgiveness in the midst of assimilation, something that every Jew has struggled with throughout the ages. The Rambam emphasizes teshuvah, as he also communicates in the Mishneh Torah “Only through repentance will Israel be redeemed.” His willingness to reincorporate the anusim into the rest of the Jewish civilization was a godly act of chessed in connection to the biblical prophets, as Hosea 6:6 and the Midrash Avot D’Rabbi Nathan proclaim “Loving-kindness I desire, not sacrifice.” In his letter Maimonides attests to the striking aspect of anusim throughout time, as in the midst of persecution and possible death they maintained commitment to Judaism for its own sake and not dependent upon the acceptance or rejection that they might have faced from other Jews.
Cano, Maria Jose & Dolores Ferre. Cinco Epistolas de Maimonides. Spain: Riopiedras Ediciones, 1988.
Faur, Jose, Law and Justice in Rabbinic Jurisprudence: A Maimonidean Perspective (Cardozo Law Review 14 1993), 1657-1679.
Kraemer, Joel L. Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds. New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010.
Soloveitchik, Hayim Maimonides’”’Iggeret Ha-Shemad” – Law and Rhetoric,’ Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume, (Jewish Quarterly Review, 1980) p.281-299.
Soloveitcheik Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example. Religious Law and Change AJS Review, Vol 12, No.2 (autumn, 1987) p.205-221.
Stow, Kenneth R. Alienated Minority: the Jews of Medieval Latin Europe. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Zeitlin, Solomon. Maimonides A Biography. New York: Bloch Publication Company, 1955.
 Soloveitcheik , Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example, 207.
 Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, 104.
 Hartman, Crisis in Leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides”, 24.
 Ibid. 22.
 Ibid. 20.
 Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Teshuvah 3.20.
 Hartman, Crisis in Leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides”, 29.
 Jeremiah 50:20.
 Hartman, Crisis in Leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides“, 58.
 “Yad,” Yesode ha-Torah, v. 1-3 & Sanhedrin. 74a, b.
 Soloveitchik, Religious Law and Change: The medieval ashkenazic example, 209.
 Ibid. 208.
 Soloveitchik, Maimonides’”’Iggeret Ha-Shemad” – Law and Rhetoric, 308.
 Kraemer Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, 105.
 Stow, Alienated minority: the Jews of medieval Latin Europe, 6.
 Jackson, Passamaneck, Piatelli & Rabello, An Introduction to the history and sources of Jewish, 360.
 Kraemer Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, 93.
 Cano & Ferre, Cinco Epistolas de Maimonides, 50.
 Kraemer Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, 105.
 Isaiah 49:3.
 Kraemer Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, 105.
 Hartman, David Crisis in Leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides”, 31.
 Ibid. 48.
 Faur, Law and Justice in Rabbinic Jurisprudence: A Maimonidean Perspective, 1659.
 Ibid. 1659.
 Hartman, Crisis and leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides, 48.
Soloveitchik, Maimonides’”’Iggeret Ha-Shemad” – Law and Rhetoric,’ 314.
 Ibid. 317.
 Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 3:6
 Hartman, Crisis and leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides, 51.
 Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, 111.
 Soloveitchik, Maimonides’”’Iggeret Ha-Shemad” – Law and Rhetoric,’ 312-313.
 Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2.
 Psalm 32:1 & Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 2:5.
 Hartman, Crisis and leadership: “Epistles of Maimonides, 25.
 Isaiah 60:21
 Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 3:5
 Zeitlin, Maimonides A Biography, 83-84.
Soloveitchik, Maimonides’”’Iggeret Ha-Shemad” – Law and Rhetoric,’310.
 Book of Knowledge 7:5
 Hosea 6:6 and the Midrash Avot D’Rabbi Nathan