Epistle to Yemen/Introduction
THE EPISTLE TO YEMEN, probably a compilation of several shorter responsa, was written by Maimonides about 1172 in reply to an inquiry (or inquiries) by Jacob ben Netan'el al-Fayyūmi, the then head of the Jewish community in Yemen. The exchange of letters was occasioned by a crisis through which the Jews of that country were passing. A forced conversion to Islam, inaugurated about 1165 by 'Abd-al-Nabī ibn Mahdi, who had gained control over most of Yemen, threw the Jews into panic. The campaign conducted by a recent convert to win them to his new faith, coupled with a Messianic movement started by a native of the country who claimed he was the Messiah, increased the confusion within the Jewish community. Rabbi Jacob evidently sought guidance and encouragement, and Maimonides attempted to supply both.
In the course of his reply Maimonides deals at length with several subjects which were live issues in his time. In the Hebrew introduction these topics are analyzed in detail. Here only a brief summary will be presented.
Religious polemics. In his desire to refute the arguments of the apostate Jew, Maimonides devotes considerable space to demolishing his propaganda. Muslim polemics against Judaism could be subsumed under three headings: 1) By His dispensation revealed to Muhammad, God abrogated the Law of Moses, just as He had previously abrogated regulations within the Bible; 2) The Jews have forged and falsified the contents of their Law; originally many predictions of Muhammad's coming were found in it; 3) References to the prophetic mission of Muhammad in the Jewish Scriptures are nevertheless still available. Earlier Jewish scholars, both Rabbanite and Karaite, met these charges with logical as well as historical arguments. Maimonides rests his case squarely on evidence to be gleaned from the Law. He disposes of the first Muslim contention with the apodictic assertion that we have it from Moses himself that no other Law will be revealed. He counters the charge of forgery by his explanation that the Muslims resorted to it only after the discovery that nothing in the Jewish Law even suggested the coming of Muhammad. Actually the Muslims themselves realize that this charge has no basis in fact, and hurl it only because of their disappointment with the Masoretic text. However, this text is incontrovertibly authentic since the several versions of the Bible, all earlier than their Prophet, agree with it down to details. The last argument is refuted by more elaborate treatment. He demonstrates that, taken in their context, Genesis 17.20, Deuteronomy 33.2 and 18.15 cannot possibly refer to the Muslim prophet, and that any attempt to read such meaning into these passages is sheer folly. In addition, Maimonides defines the standards for determing the prophethood of any claimant. Although in this issue as elsewhere his predecessors dealt with this question, he develops it his own way. He makes it clear that credibility depends not on the nationality of the candidate but on the content of his message. Falling back on the unassailable assertion by Moses that our Torah is eternal, he rules that unless a man comes to confirm the Mosaic dispensation he does not deserve to have his claim checked. Moreover, this basic requirement is not disregarded even if the pretender displays dexterity in performing miracles; on the contrary, they are not heeded in view of his denial of the Law of Moses. Only after his avowal of faith in Moses and his Law is he to be asked for a sign. This is not necessarily a miracle and may consist of the ability to predict an event. Once these conditions are met, credence of the prophet becomes an obligation, although it is theoretically possible that he is an impostor. We cannot tell whether Maimonides replied to points raised by the apostate or took up some items in the general discussion. For this reason we do not know whether his defense of the Oral Law was directed against the attacks by the convert or whether they were written to strengthen the faith of the Yemenites against well-known criticisms of the Talmud by Muslims who may have acquired their stock arguments from the Karaites.
Maimonides' attitude to astrology. The Jewish position on astrology is not too clearly defined. Notwithstanding the Biblical prohibition, enough evidence can be found in Rabbinic literature in favor of the belief in star-gazing. Such statements are in reality a reflection of the generally wide acceptance of this "science" in the ancient world. At the same time the Talmudic authorities never hesitate in their insistence on man's freedom of will, despite the logical contradiction. In the Middle Ages, in an environment which treated astrology as a respectable pursuit, the tendency persisted to recognize the influence of the movements of the heavenly bodies on the fate of this world. But since they were aware of the Biblical injunction against the application of its conclusions, adepts employed various means to explain and justify their position, such as maintaining that only the practice and not the acceptance of astrology is prohibited. Maimonides, however, remains a consistent opponent of it in all his works. In his legal writings as well as in his letters he points out its incredibility and weakness. Replying to questions on the subject addressed to him by the communities of Southern France, he condemns astrology as sheer stupidity and as a useless pursuit. He goes so far as to declare that occupation with it instead of with military practice accounts for the fall of Jerusalem in the war with the Romans. The allegedly approving utterances of Rabbis and sages will not sway him whatever the explanation of their statements may be. In our text he similarly expresses his thoroughgoing disdain of this occult "science" by demonstrating that its predictions have always been wrong and its interpretation of events unwarranted. Both on rational and on traditional grounds it is an error, and it further results in minimizing the complete rule and justice of God's providence in the world.
Messianism. Although Maimonides counted the belief in the advent of the Messiah as an article of faith and restated it in his legal code, his view of the Messianic age is rather sober. He regards it merely as a period of peace and of the ingathering of the exiles for the higher aim of the study of Torah and preparation for life in the world to come. He discounts the likelihood of supernatural events and, basing himself on the opinion of a Talmudic sage, emphasizes the essentially natural character of the transition. But in the Epistle to Yemen his entire attitude changes. Perhaps as a result of the difficult condition of the Jews or of the critical situation in Yemen, he manifests greater excitement, warmth, and typically Jewish piety. The abstract dogma becomes a concrete hope. He sees a prelude to the Messianic age in the misery which the Jews of his day are suffering. He looks to the renewal of prophecy in the near future, and even confirms the prophetic character of a man of his time who was nevertheless mistaken in his prediction of the imminent coming of the Messiah. He glorifies the figure of the Redeemer, describes in detail the greatness of his performance and the amazement which it will create in the world. However, expectant as he is, he is equally anxious to dispel his correspondent's illusion that this or any other upstart can rise and claim Messiahship. Maimonides thus seeks to achieve two goals in his treatment of this subject. He attempts to make it clear that this pretender cannot possibly be the Messiah and at the same time to keep up the courage of the Jews by stressing the nearness of the redemption. He urges hopeful patience, illustrating by several examples from Jewish history the tragic results of haste and of irrational credulity in the claims of any pretender.
In sum, a study of the letter indicates that although Maimonides necessarily wrote in a popular vein, he nevertheless touches on some fundamental problems of his age and solves them in a manner and tone worthy of his character and his intellect.