Maimon ben Joseph's Letter of Consolation
ABOUT the year 1158 Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, member of the Rabbinical Court of Cordova, an eminent talmudist, astronomer and mathematician, accompanied by his daughter and two sons, Moses and David, arrived in Fez, the capital of Morocco. He and the members of his family were refugees from the bitter persecution to which in the middle of the twelfth century the Jews of Spain along with the Christians and dissident Moslems were subjected at the hands of the Almohades (Moslem Unitarians), the followers of Abdallah ibn Tumart. The whole peninsula having fallen under their sway, no other choice was left to those who did not leave the country but martyrdom or acceptance of Islam. Many Jews embraced Islam, at least in public, salving their consciences with the reflection that the strict monotheism of Ibn Tumart was after all not so far removed from Judaism. Maimon had tried to save himself and his family from this desperate alternative by wandering from Cordova hither and thither, and sailing at length to North Africa. The reason why he chose Fez, the centre of the power of the Almohades, as his abode is unknown, but it was just on this dangerous spot that he even raised his voice in order to strengthen the spirit of the afflicted Jews.
In 1160 he composed a letter in Arabic which, as he says in the introduction, he 'sent to one of his brethren that it might be a source of consolation for himself, and of delight for many souls which were perplexed on account of the sorrows of captivity...for day succeeded night, and night day, and still men were slain for their obedience to God and for their adherence to His law'. Maimon's 'Letter of Consolation' tries to heal the wounds of his people, to bring them comfort and confidence. Its language is subtly adopted to the perplexed spiritual outlook of those to whom it was addressed; the author did not hesitate to use Moslem terms, as for instance calling Abraham the Mahdi of God (an expression indicating the leader whose coming is expected by the Mohammedans), or speaking of Moses as the apostle. What Yellin and Abrahams have said about a special passage of the letter we may apply to the whole work: it is 'one of the finest expressions of tolerance which medieval literature can show'.
The following reproduction of the letter is a considerably abridged version of the original.