Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union. Kindle Edition.

In 1165, an agonising question confronted Moroccan Jewry. A fanatical Muslim sect, the Almohads, had seized power and was embarking on a policy of forced conversion to Islam. The Jewish community was faced with a choice: to affirm Islamic faith or die. Some chose martyrdom. Others chose exile. But some acceded to terror and embraced another faith. Inwardly, though, they remained Jews and practised Judaism in secret. They were the anusim, Crypto-Jews, or as the Spanish were later to call such converts, the Marranos. To other Jews, they posed a formidable moral problem. How were they to be viewed? Outwardly, they had betrayed their community and their religious heritage. Besides, their example was demoralising. It weakened the resolve of Jews who were determined to resist, come what may. Yet many of the Crypto-Jews still wished to remain Jewish, secretly fulfil the commandments and, when they could, attend the synagogue and pray. One of them addressed this question to a rabbi. He had, he said, converted under coercion, but he remained at heart a faithful Jew. Could he obtain merit by observing in private as many of the Torah’s precepts as possible? Was there, in other words, hope left for him as a Jew? The rabbi’s reply was emphatic. A Jew who had embraced Islam had forfeited membership in the Jewish community. He was no longer part of the House of Israel. For such a person to fulfil the commandments was meaningless. Worse, it was a sin. The choice was stark and absolute: to be or not to be a Jew. If you choose to be a Jew, you should be prepared to suffer death rather than compromise. If you choose not to be a Jew, then you must not seek to re-enter the house you deserted. We can respect the firmness of the rabbi’s stance. He set out, without equivocation, the moral choice. There are times when heroism is, for faith, a categorical imperative. Nothing less will do. His reply, though harsh, is not without without courage.

But another rabbi disagreed. The name of the first rabbi is lost to us, but that of the second is not. He was Rambam, the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages. Rambam was no stranger to religious persecution. Born in Cordova in 1135, he had been forced to leave, along with his family, some thirteen years later when the city fell to the Almohads. Twelve years were spent in wandering. In 1160, a temporary liberalisation of Almohad rule allowed the family to settle in Morocco. Within five years he was forced to move again, settling first in the land of Israel and ultimately in Egypt.Rambam was so incensed by the rabbi’s reply to the forced convert that he wrote a response of his own. In it, he frankly disassociates himself from the earlier ruling and castigates its author whom he describes as a “self-styled sage who has never experienced what so many Jewish communities had to endure in the way of persecution.” Rambam’s reply, the Iggeret HaShemad (“Epistle on Forced Conversion”), is a substantial treatise in its own right.1 What is striking, given the vehemence with which it begins, is that its conclusions are hardly less demanding than those of the earlier response. If you are faced with religious persecution, says Rambam, you must leave and settle elsewhere. “If he is compelled to violate even one precept it is forbidden to stay there. He must leave everything he has, travel day and night until he finds a spot where he can practise his religion.”2 This is preferable to martyrdom. Nonetheless, one who chooses to go to his death rather than renounce his faith “has done what is good and proper,”3 for he has given his life for the sanctity of God. What is unacceptable is to stay and excuse oneself on the grounds that if one sins,one does so only under pressure. To do this is to profane God’s name, “not exactly willingly, but almost so.”4 These are Rambam’s conclusions. But surrounding them and constituting the main thrust of his argument is a sustained defence of those who had done precisely what Rambamhad ruled they should not do. The letter gives Crypto-Jews hope. They have done wrong. But it is a forgivable wrong. They acted under coercion and the fear of death. They remain Jews. The acts they do as Jews still win favour in the eyes of God. Indeed doubly so, for when they fulfil a commandment it cannot be to win favour in the eyes of others. They know that when they act as Jews they risk discovery and death. Their secret adherence has a heroism of its own. What was wrong in the first rabbi’s ruling was his insistence that a Jew who yields to terror has forsaken his faith and is to be excluded from the community. Rambam insists that it is not so. “It is not right to alienate, scorn, and hate people who desecrate the Sabbath. It is our duty to befriend them and encourage them to fulfil the commandments.”5 In a daring stroke of interpretation, he quotes the verse: “Do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving” (Prov. 6:30). The Crypto-Jews who come to the synagogue are hungry for Jewish prayer. They “steal” moments of belonging. They should not be despised, but welcomed. This epistle is a masterly example of that most difficult of moral challenges: to combine prescription and compassion. Rambam leaves us in no doubt as to what he believes Jews should do. But at the same time he is uncompromising in his defence of those who fail to do it. He does not endorse what they have done – but he defends who they are. He asks us to understand their situation. He gives them grounds for self-respect.He holds the doors of the community open. The argument reaches a climax as Rambam quotes a remarkable sequence of midrashic passages whose theme is that prophets must not condemn their people, but rather defend them before God. When Moses, charged with leading the people out of Egypt, replied, “But they will not believe me” (Ex. 4:1), ostensibly he was justified. The subsequent biblical narrative suggests that Moses’ doubts were well founded. The Israelites were a difficult people to lead. But the Midrash says that God replied to Moses, “They are believers and the children of believers, but you [Moses] will ultimately not believe” (Shabbat 97a). Rambam cites a series of similar passages and then says: If this is the punishment meted out to the pillars of the universe, the greatest of the prophets, because they briefly criticised the people – even though they were guilty of the sins of which they were accused – can we envisage the punishment awaiting those who criticise the Crypto-Jews who under threat of death and without abandoning their faith, confessed to another religion in which they did not believe?

Sacks, Jonathan. Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible . Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union. Kindle Edition.