Originally published in JJSO 28:2 (1986), pp. 154-7.
Abraham Halkin and David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, x + 292 pp., The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1985, $15.95.
The three famous Epistles of Maimonides—On Martyrdom; To the Yemen; and On Resurrection—are here translated from the Arabic with learned notes by Abraham Halkin. David Hartman provides a general Introduction and, after each Epistle, a theological and philosophical analysis.
In the first half of the twelfth century, the Muslim sect, the Almohads, had seized power in North Africa, compelling all peoples under their rule to make a formal declaration in which they had to accept Islam as the true religion and Mohammed as the prophet of God. Those refusing to make the declaration were sentenced to death. Many members of the Moroccan Jewish community, fearing the consequences of a refusal, did make the formal confession of faith but they continued to practise Judaism in the privacy of their homes since, provided it was not obtrusive, that was allowed. A rabbi (we are not told who he was) had taught that since these people had not opted for martyrdom they were no better than idolaters so that their Jewish observances were not only futile but were positively sinful. Seeking to encourage these secret Jews, Maimonides compiled his Epistle on Martyrdom in which he advises those who can escape to free lands to do so but, while stating that those who were prepared to suffer martyrdom were great heroes and holy men, he ruled that martyrdom is not demanded in such circumstances. To profess Islam is not to adopt an idolatrous faith, argues Maimonides, and as for the Talmudic rule that in times of religious persecution martyrdom is required, even where idolatry is not the issue, he argues that this persecution is different from all others because the rulers are fully aware that the profession of Islam is only a formal requirement, the Jews continuing to practise their own religion in secret.
The Epistle to Yemen seeks to afford comfort to the Jews of that distant land who had begun to question whether their lowly estate under Islamic rule would ever come to an end. They feared that they were in danger either of acknowledging that Islam had really superseded Judaism in the divine economy or of clutching in desperation at the straw of Messianic pretension, that this or that claimant to the role of Messiah was the true Messiah, sent by God to bring their troubles to a close in glorious vindication.
The third Epistle, the Essay on Resurrection, was written towards the end of Maimonides’s life in order to defend himself against the charge that, by his comparative silence on the question, he did not believe in the physical resurrection of the dead, substituting for it a belief in the immortality of the soul. Maimonides states categorically that he does believe in the resurrection of the body, since to deny a traditional belief so widely held would be heretical; but he adds that resurrection will not be for ever. The resurrected bodies will eventually return to dust, the soul alone enjoying the presence of God for all eternity.
The tone and content of these Epistles has long been a puzzle to commentators. The Epistle on Martyrdom seems to be in flat contradiction to the Halakhah, including Maimonides’s own Halakhic rulings. The Epistle to Yemen seems to stress the miraculous elements in Messianism which, in his other works, Maimonides seeks to play down. His Essay on Resurrection seems to adopt the kind of crude eschatology he had been at pains to contradict all his life. Worried by the contradictions, J. L. Teicher went so far as to declare that the Essay on Resurrection is not Maimonides’s work at all but a forgery, and H. Soloveitchik suggests that the Epistle on Martyrdom substitutes rhetoric for sober Halakhic assessment.
Hartman’s solution is similar to that offered by some scholars on the contradictions between Maimonides’s Code and his Guide for the Perplexed: they were addressed to different audiences. Hartman, very skilfully and with much learning, advances the thesis that in these three Epistles, Maimonides was writing not as a philosopher in his ivory tower but as a statesman concerned with the situation of more or less simple Jews in a real predicament. As Hartman puts it (p. 6): ‘Here is no erudite intellectual expounding complex philosophical arguments for the sake of “a single virtuous man” but a committed leader who enters the marketplace of the community and is prepared to suffer personal hardships for the sake of the welfare of the whole. Also in the Epistle on Martyrdom and the Essay on Resurrection, we do not meet the teacher of the few, but rather the compassionate and concerned leader of the many. Both aspects of Maimonides—his intellectualism and his statesmanship—are in truth integral components of the rich personality of this philosopher-halakhist’. This interpretation of the Epistles explains the title of the book: Crisis and Leadership.
Hartman is convincing but occasionally overplays his hand. For instance, on the Epistle on Martyrdom, he argues (pp. 10; 51-52; 86) that Maimonides’s willingness to tolerate compromise was in many respects an application of the rabbinic principle: ‘The Torah spoke only with respect to the yetzer ha-ra’. This principle is stated in the Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) in connection with the captive woman (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14)—that is, that the Torah permits the soldier to take a captive woman as his wife since, in his passion, he would take her in any event so that it is better for it to be permitted. Maimonides does not, in fact, quote this and for very good reason. How can one draw the conclusion from the interpretation of a particular law as a concession to human weakness that (in Hartman’s words, p. 10): ‘Torah is not a law for ideal people living in idyllic conditions, but rather a normative system that guides people in imperfect situations and through personal crises of the will and spirit’? If that were the case, why is the principle only mentioned in this one case? In fact, it is not a legal principle at all but a homily on the law of the captive woman. The implication appears to be that, on the contrary, since in this one case, where the yetzer ha-ra (the passions) would gain control in any event, the Torah permits it, then it follows that all the other laws of the Torah brook no concessions and the yetzer ha-ra must be controlled. Maimonides was undoubtedly influenced by extra-legal motivations but what he tried to do was to interpret the Halakhah creatively so that it was in accord with the other values he sought to foster. This is, in fact, what Hartman seems to be saying but the example he chose is not helpful to his case.
In another context Hartman, discussing whether a Jew can legitimately be said to have observed a mitzvah if he does not believe in God, remarks (p. 61): ‘The answer to this question is not a foregone conclusion, especially if one seriously considers the midrashic statement: “Would that they (Israel) had forsaken Me (God) but kept my Torah”’. This midrashic statement is often quoted by people opposed to the notion that Judaism has a theology and they understand it in the way Hartman does, namely, that God is, as it were, willing to tolerate unbelief in His existence as long as His people keep the Torah. ‘If one seriously considers’ the midrashic statement, however, it becomes clear that what the rabbis of the Midrash mean is that even if one has an ulterior motive, carrying out religious observances not for God but out of self-interest, this is still acceptable to God since, as the Rabbis say, out of the impure motivation will come the pure. The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash never discuss theoretical atheism and could not possibly have made God say that He does not mind if a person is an atheist as long as he keeps the Torah. There may have been a school which taught: ‘Believe what you like as long as you keep the mitzvot’ but such an opinion would have been intolerable, indeed, unintelligible, to the ancient rabbis and, most certainly, to Maimonides.
Perhaps when all is said and done and when Halkin, Hartman, and other scholars have published their illuminating comments, it should be recognised that even a genius of systematization like Maimonides can sometimes succumb to inconsistency. The lines of Walt Whitman may not be entirely inapt when put into the mouth of Maimonides:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)