Reconciliation Between Rationalism and Jewish Belief Systems in North Africa and Moslem Spain and Maimonides

Mind and Soul Jewish Thinking in Morocco

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

Reconciliation Between Rationalism and Jewish Belief Systems in North Africa and Moslem Spain and Maimonides

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

Moshe Ben Maimon, Rabbi, known as Maimonides or Harambam. Cordoba, Spain; Fez, Morocco; Fostat, Egypt (1135-1204).

Linkages between Babylon and North Africa

Transmition of knowledge has been the key to Jewish continuity and survival across generations. As mentioned in Harif’s profile, researchers who often emphasized the lack of information on North African Jewry tended to neglect linkages between Babylon and North Africa. Specifically, following the death of Rav Hay, Babylon declined as a center of learning while other Academies rose to prominence. Rabenu Nissim and Rabenu Hananel transplanted Babylonian learning traditions to Kirouan, turning it into an important center of rabbinical learning in North Africa. Rabbi Isaac Alfasi’s (Harif), studied in Kirouan with Rabenu Nissim and Rabenu Hananel, among the last to study in Jewish centers of learning in Babylon.

Linkages between Moroccan and Spanish Jewries and Mutual Influence

Rabbi Isaac Alfassi (Harif) left Fez to Spain and established a rabbinical centre of learning in Lucena, where Baruc Albaliah, Yehuda Halevy and Yossef Ben Meir Migash studied. Maimun, Maimonides’ father studied with Rabbi Yossef Migash and exposed his son to both rabbinical learning and secular erudition.

Maimonides, born in Cordoba in 1135, acquired rabbinical accreditation under the tutelage of Yossef Migash. Maimonides was groomed to assume rabbinical leadership in Cordoba but increasing hostilities between Christians and Moslems in Spain led his family to move to Fez, Morocco, where relative stability still reigned in spite of the rise of the fundamentalist Mouahidoun movement. Maimonides moved to Fez (1160) not only to escape religious persecution but also to continue his rabbinical and medical studies with Rabbi Yehuda Hacohen Eben Shoshan.

As demonstrated above, teachers and students moved back and forth between Moslem Spain and North Africa. Thus transmission of rabbinical knowledge could not be clearly demarcated as ‘Spanish’ or ‘North African’. Linkages were intense and mutual influences – significant.

The devastation of the Spanish and Western North African Jewry

The fundamentalist Mouahidoun movement spread all across Morocco and North Africa like a storm. Ibn Toumert offered Jews conversion or death (1125). Then Abd El Moumin of Sousse launched a campaign to conquer Maghreb for Islam (1141-1147). In the beginning of his campaign, he used inter-faith debates to convince Non-Muslims to convert, but when the soft approach failed, Jews had to choose between conversion and death. Some chose death, Rabbi Yehuda Hacohen Eben Shoshan among them. Yet many Jewish refugees managed to move to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Yemen, among other countries. By 1160 hardly any Jews survived in North Africa between Tangier in the West to Mahdiah in the Eastern Maghreb. The devastation of the Spanish and Western North African Jewry was complete as witnessed in the poetry of Rabbi Abraham Eben Ezra.

Conversion to Islam and related Controversy

Although a segment of the population followed Eben Shoshan’s example and chose death rather than conversion, most Jews converted to Islam in order to live. Many converts continued to practice Judaism covertly. Rabbinical rulings indicate that efforts were made to keep converts property and inheritance in Jewish hands whenever and wherever feasible.

Maimonides diverged with his teacher, Eben Shoshan. He comforted converts to Islam, encouraged them not to despair, maintain Jewish beliefs covertly and move to places of refuge as soon as possible (“In secret or in the open, learn Torah and pray to the heavens and do not despair if your knowledge of Hebrew is gone, for God listens to you in every language and from every place.” (Maimonides’s Conversion Letter known as Igeret Hashemad).

Maimonides managed to survive in Fez but even he could no longer stay there in spite of his privileged relationship with the king. Maimonides then moved to the more tolerant east as did most refugees. He spent a few months visiting holy sites in Palestine, but as conditions did not favor permanent settlement there, he moved to Egypt where he assumed a rabbinical post as well as a medical position at the royal court (1165). Maimonides did not forget Jews in distress in Western North Africa. He called upon Jews to collect funds to release prisoners as well as assist converts to move to places of refuge where they could practice Judaism overtly.

Reconciliation between Rationalism and Jewish Belief Systems in North Africa and Spain

Maimonides became one of the leading philosophers of the Middle Ages. He was a doctor, mathematician, astronomer, community leader and rabbi. Following Rabbi Isaac AlFassi’s approach, Maimonides reviewed the Talmud with the purpose to re-compose it within a manageable legal and rational framework (Mishneh Torah). He later wrote ‘A Guide to the Perplexed’ (Moreh Nevoocim) in which he reconciled the Jewish belief system with rationalism (Aristotelian thinking). Maimonides’s philosophical approach influenced Baruc Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn as well as Christian (Saint-Thomas d’Aquino and Eckhart) and Moslem thinkers. He also published medical treaties of great significance.

Some reviewers tend to emphasize Maimonides’s rational approach and distinguish it from subsequent ‘mystical’ approaches underlying the work of North African rabbis such as Avi Hatsira Yaacov (see relevant chapter). But in reality, the difference was only in emphasis. Avi Hatsira did not reject rational thinking. He only argued that Judaism as a belief system cannot be derived from rules of nature or rationalism. Both could easily live with theological and rational derivations side by side. In fact, Maimonides’s formulations of the thirteen articles of the Jewish Creed are based on theological rather than rational considerations. Even “Mishneh Torah” opens with “The principle of principles and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a primal Being…” and ends with “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” In this sense, there is no difference between Avi Hatsira and Maimonides. Both are believers. Beyond belief, they were open to debating every subject. Like all distinguished learned men in North Africa and Andalusia, they were open to combining Talmudic learning with erudition in secular domains such as astronomy, philosophy, poetry, medicine, diplomacy and business. For this reason Babylonian Jews looked up to their North African and Andalusian brethren.

Maimonides dedicated his last great work “The Guide of the Perplexed” to his student Joseph Ibn Aknin of Ceuta (Morocco) in 1195. He died in 1204 in Egypt, worn out by professional (medicine) and communal (Nagid) duties as well as his labor of love: reconciling Talmudic learning with secular erudition. He is buried in Tiberias, Israel.


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