2000–01 Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh

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RaMBaM, Iggeret Ha-Shemad

Summary: The tosafists’ reinterpretation of Talmudic law and justification of the extreme acts of their fellow Ashkenazim was not readily accepted by many of their co-religionists in other geographical locales: a figure no less prominent than Maimonides was a vocal dissenter.72 The Jews of Spain, or Sefarad, when faced with similar circumstances, chose, on the whole, to outwardly convert and secretly remain faithful to their true religion. The martyrdom of the German communities was as repugnant to Spanish Jewry as was the conversion option to the former. This theological dispute was not overlooked, nor did it disappear, and for centuries afterwards, it was the source of much bitterness between the groups.

In Iggeret Ha-Shemad, the RaMBaM addressed a particular Moroccan community facing religious persecution at the hands of the Almohads who desired to convert them to Islam. Vocally opposing a certain rabbinic figure who had instructed this community to chose martyrdom rather than profess belief in Islam, the RaMBaM argued that although an individual who did submit to the sword under such circumstances would be performing an act of kiddush ha-Shem, the halakhah would, in fact, dictate against such an act.

Points to raise: Into what genre of halakhic writing do we place Iggeret Ha-Shemad? Iggeret Ha-Shemad is not exactly a responsum (ShUT), but it was addressed to a particular community facing a particular situation.73 How objective is this type of pesak halakhah? Is it applicable to different communities facing different situations? What is the status of Iggeret Ha-Shemad in the halakhic corpus? Compare Iggeret Ha-Shemad to the RaMBaM’s pesak in the presumably objective, detached Mishneh Torah [Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, Chapter 5].

Consider RaMBaM’s selective citation of aggadic material. For example, he recounts the stories from Avodah Zarah that deal with Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Meir’s evasion of the Roman authorities by making ambiguous statements and pretending to commit serious transgressions of halakhah. He neglects to recount the story of Hananiah ben Teradyon’s martyrdom, which appears in the same sugya.74 How is aggadeta used in the context of pesak halakhah? Is selective citation of non-halakhic material from the Talmud a violation of integrity?

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