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Maimonides, “Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte”

Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte (from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky. West Orange: Behrman House, 1972)
Maimonides

Thus says Moses, the son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may the Lord reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “You who have taken for his own our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give to you” (Gen. 13:17). As to the words, “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt” or “You who have done miracles to our fathers” – these you may change, if you will, and say, “You who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt ” and “You who have done miracles to Israel.” If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people'” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” “Who have taken us for Your own” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Law.

Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5).

Comment:

The audience of the letter is fairly obvious; a Gentile has converted to Judaism and is wondering how he fits in. “May a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover” – the reference is perhaps to Psalm 91, which is about the protection the Lord offers against many things, including the “many” itself (Psalm 91:7).

The audience is wondering about himself and whether he belongs with regards to seven things that are said in a “prescribed order.” There’s making proclamation to God/God of our fathers; being sanctified through the commandments; being separated; being chosen; being inherited; being delivered and finally having miracles given to one’s ancestry. The list moves in a circle to where it started, “God of our fathers.” The central element, though, is “choice.”

Inasmuch as “choice” hints at the concept of reason, it does not cease to be a theme in this letter:

…Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever…

Teaching and the opening of minds are prerequisite to the “true faith” and “unity” of God; the rejection of the idols is a rejection of what is false. The “wings of the Divine Presence” is again central, but it does not merely protect. It exercises prudence (“he gave them counsel and advice”), and establishes something like law (“ways of the Lord”). For Maimonides, Moses is the greatest prophet because he is the only lawgiver of the prophets. It seems only with the law can one establish the peace necessary for theoretical speculation and man’s true perfection.

But Abraham is himself central in this letter, perhaps because he points at the establishing of households, at bringing people to the faith and not taking a heritage for granted. Thus: “Abraham… is your father:” the paternity is direct, if that wasn’t clear from Gen. 18:19: “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.” Abraham himself was only known by God to the end that he did and commanded “righteousness” and “justice.” The implication is complicated; the moral life gives a people unity, gives them faith. But is it prior to reason, or is it rationality that is pointing back at the heart of the moral life? “Known… to the end” sounds a bit more than vaguely Aristotlean to this hearer. Note that the “land” and its “length” and “breadth” belong to the convert; he cannot deny his inheritance.

Where the convert can change the words is with regards to specific miracles. Miracles are tied to the imagination, which is a faculty lower than reason, but critical to both prophecy and politics (the issue of the Divine Law again). “The wings of the Divine Presence” now is invoked for a third and final time, and is beyond the protective, beyond the political. It stands outside of time – unlike miracles themselves – and means that the miraculous can be extended to anyone, since the Lord should do the same for all who confess Him. The rest of the letter is an argument for unity in God Himself, against more particular considerations. Milton speculated that at the end of time, there would not be any facing God, since God would be “all in all.” Alfarabi held to the necessity of a plurality of virtuous religions: one cannot say he has reversed “out of many, one” since there is unity in seeking righteousness and truth. One wonders if it is possible to say the universal character of reason – for Maimonides – is faith itself.

3 Comments

  1. Yep Abraham was the First Jew (Israelite) This is a good insight.

  2. Your commentary is illuminating. I learn something whenever I read one of your posts.

    My takeaway may not be as deep as some of the scholarly among your readers, but here it is:
    “Miracles are tied to the imagination, which is a faculty lower than reason, but critical to both prophecy and politics…”

    This seems to imply that neither prophets nor politicians appeal to their audiences with reason. In a lighter vein, it’s a miracle if a politician does anything right :)

    Does this implication serve to diminish miracles in their own right?

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  3. Ashok, this is wonderful work. It is edifying to merely grasp for the surface here, reading Maimonides.

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