Maimonides and the Convert: A Juridical and Philosophical Embrace of the Outsider
By James A. Diamond
Medieval Philosophy and Theology, Vol. 11 (2003)
Introduction: Within the long tradition of halakhic stares decisis, or Jewish responsa literature, one can find no more intricate a weave of law and philosophy than that crafted by the twelfth century Jewish jurist and philosopher, Moses Maimonides, in response to an existential query by Ovadyah, a Muslim convert to Judaism. Ovadyah’s conversion raised particular concerns within the realm of institutionalized prayer and the rabbinically standardized texts that were its mainstay. The liturgy that had evolved was replete with ethnocentric expressions that rendered it highly resistant to the entry of outsiders anxious to become full-fledged members of the club. How can the convert utter the phrase “God of our fathers” when his biological ancestry belies its pronouncement? What right does he have to lay claim to a divine election, “who chose us,” which was motivated by a preference for one “nation” over others? Can he appeal to a God who is particularized as a national liberator, “who took us out of Egypt,” when enslavement and exodus were confined to a specific locale and time within a national historical consciousness? And finally, God’s intrusion into history on Israel’s behalf “who performed miracles for our fathers,” is a shared collective memory about which the convert cannot reminisce. This was no mere halakhic question as to whether he could legitimately adopt these communal liturgical expressions. Ovadyah was also posing a deep existential suspicion that he would never be able to consider himself an authentic insider of the religious community he had joined, in all likelihood, at great personal risk.
The problem of a fixed liturgy geared to common origins is particularly acute for the convert for a number of reasons. Firstly it is the most pervasive and dominant feature of the Jewish ritual system of mitzvoth. The entire daily cycle is measured in terms of prayer intervals and blessing opportunities. The observant Jew’s calendar is governed by its frequency and appointed times. Secondly, the Rabbis considered it a “worship of the heart,” which replaced the most prominent feature of ancient Judaism, the Temple sacrificial cult. Praise, supplication, entreaty, appreciation, contemplation, virtually every facet of one’s relationship with God is articulated through prayer. What the Rabbis had in mind by “worship of the heart” is philosophically identified by Maimonides as the apex of human religious activity, “setting thought to work on the first intelligible and devoting oneself exclusively to this as far as this is within one’s capacity.” Despite its esoteric formulation of pure contemplation in the Guide, concrete prayer is valued as a step in the evolution toward its realization. Therefore, to diminish access to its domain for any Jew within a Jewish context is to impede the process of achieving the single minded “devotion” Maimonides determined as a perfected “worship of the heart.”