A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

31
Letters of Maimonides

N0 spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the post-talmudic period has exercised such an influence on his own generation and on posterity as Moses son of Maimon, usually called Maimonides or Maimuni, born in Cordova in 1135. In his monumental work, 'Mishneh Torah', he created a new codification of Jewish law which gained general recognition among the dispersed people. His thirteen articles of faith, both in the original wording and in the poetic form, the popular hymn Yigdal, have outlived all later attempts to enlarge or to restrict the foundations of Judaism. And it was Maimonides whose great philosophical treatise 'Moreh Nebukim' ('The Guide of the Perplexed') established a lasting link between faith and reason, and safeguarded the Jewish notion of God against any danger of anthropomorphism.

Maimonides also marks an epoch in Jewish letter-writing. He made the most intensive use of correspondence and considered the exchange of letters as a part of his life work. His influence on the Jews of his days was due, perhaps, to an even greater degree to the extensive correspondence which he carried on with all parts of the Jewish world than to his strictly literary activity. It was above all by his letters that, as a contemporary said of him, Maimonides'made Israel again one people and brought one to the other so that they became one flesh'. (See also Introduction, pp. lx.f.) Fortunately, a considerable part of this correspondence has been preserved. A cross- section only of these glorious records can be offered by the following selection.


1. Maimonides defends the Pseudo-Apostates

This letter, in which Maimonides first introduced himself to the reading public, owed its origin, like that of his father already quoted (pp. 166ff), to the persecution of the professing Jews by the Almohades. In a Responsum circulating among the North-West African Jews in those days, an anonymous rabbinical authority had declared that a Jew who uttered the formula of Mohammedan confession could no longer be regarded as a member of the Jewish community, even if he was strictly and faithfully carrying out the duties of a Jew and offering Jewish prayers in secret. The young Maimonides, then living in Fez, felt himself touched to the quick by this pronouncement, possibly because he himself had belonged to the pseudo-Moslems ('Anusim'), at least for a short period, though this is still an unsettled question. He

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