In the year 1165, an agonizing question confronted Moroccan Jewry. A fanatical Muslim sect, the Almohads, had seized power and were embarked on a policy of forced conversions to Islam. The Jewish community was faced with a choice: to affirm the Islamic faith or die. It was not the first nor was it the last such occasion. Throughout the Middle Ages, periods of relative tolerance alternated with phases of fierce religious persecution. Under both Christian and Islamic regimes, Jews were often forced to make a fateful choice between conversion or death.
Some chose martyrdom. Others chose exile. But some acceded to terror and embraced another faith—though inwardly remaining Jews and practicing Judaism in secret. They were the “conversos,” or as the Spanish were later to call them, the “marranos.”
To other Jews, they posed a formidable moral problem. How were they to be viewed? Ostensibly, they had betrayed their community and their religious heritage. No less seriously, their example was demoralizing. It weakened the resolve of Jews who had been determined to resist, come what may. Yet many of the conversos still wished to remain Jewish, secretly fulfill the commandments, and, when they could, attend the synagogue and pray.
One of them addressed this question to a rabbi. He had, he wrote, under coercion declared his allegiance to another religion. But he remained at heart a faithful Jew. Could he obtain merit by observing in private as many of the Torah’s precepts as possible? Was there, in other words, hope left for him as a Jew?
The rabbi’s written reply was unambiguous. A Jew who had embraced Islam had forfeited membership in the Jewish community. He was no longer part of the house of Israel. For such a person to fulfill the commandments was meaningless. Worse, it was a sin. The choice was stark and absolute: to be or not to be a Jew. If one chose to be a Jew, one must be prepared to suffer death rather than compromise. If one chose not to be a Jew, then one must not seek to reenter the house one had deserted.
We can understand and even admire the firmness of the rabbi’s stance. It is one model of what religious leadership must be. He sets out, without equivocation, the moral choice. He refuses to cloud the issue. There are times when heroism is, for faith, a categorical imperative. Nothing less will do. His reply, though harsh, is not without courage. But another rabbi disagreed.
The name of the first rabbi is lost to us. But that of the second is not. He was Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages and one of the most formidable Jewish thinkers of all time. Maimonides was no stranger to religious persecution. Born in Cordova in 1135, he had been forced to leave, along with his family, some thirteen years later when the city fell to the Almohads. Twelve years were spent in wandering. In 1160, a temporary liberalization of Almohad rule allowed the family to settle in Morocco. Within five years he was forced to move again, settling first in the land of Israel and ultimately in Egypt.
Maimonides was incensed by the rabbi’s reply to the forced convert and was moved to write a response of his own. In it, he frankly disassociates himself from the earlier ruling and castigates its author, whom he describes as a “self-styled sage who has never experienced what so many Jewish communities had to endure in the way of persecution.”
Maimonides’ reply, the “Epistle on Forced Conversion,” is a detailed treatise in its own right. What is striking, given the vehemence with which it begins, is that its conclusions are hardly less demanding than those of the earlier response. A person faced with religious persecution, says Maimonides, must leave and settle elsewhere. “If he is compelled to violate even one precept it is forbidden to stay there. He must leave everything he has and travel day and night until he finds a spot where he can practice his religion.” This is preferable to martyrdom. Nonetheless, one who chooses to go to his death rather then renounce his faith “has done what is good and proper” for he has given his life for the sanctity of God. What is unacceptable is to stay and excuse oneself on the grounds that if one sins, one does so only under pressure. To do this is to profane God’s name, “not exactly willingly, but almost so.”
These are Maimonides’ conclusions. But surrounding them and constituting the main thrust of his argument is a sustained defense of those who had done precisely what Maimonides had ruled they should not do. Above all, the letter gives conversos hope.
They have done wrong. But it is a forgivable wrong. They acted under coercion and the fear of death. They remain Jews. The acts they do as Jews still win favor in the eyes of God. Indeed doubly so, for when they fulfill a commandment it cannot be to win favor in the eyes of others. They know that when they act as Jews they risk discovery and death. Their secret adherence has a heroism of its own.
What was wrong in the first rabbi’s ruling is his insistence that a Jew who yields to terror has forsaken his faith and is henceforth to be excluded from the community. Maimonides insists that it is not so. “It is not right to alienate, scorn, and hate people who desecrate the Sabbath. It is our duty to befriend them and encourage them to fulfill the commandments.” In a daring stroke of interpretation, he quotes Proverbs 6:30: “Do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.” The conversos who come to the synagogue are hungry for Jewish prayer. They “steal” moments of belonging. They should not be despised, but welcomed.
This Epistle is a masterly example of that most difficult of moral challenges: to combine prescription and compassion. Maimonides leaves us in no doubt as to what he believes Jews should do. But at the same time he is uncompromising in his defense of those who fail to do it. He does not endorse what they have done, but he defends who they are. He asks us to understand their situation. He gives them grounds for self-respect. He holds the doors of the community open.
One could be forgiven for thinking that so complex a moral strategy would read like a study in ambivalence and equivocation. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few documents in Jewish literature that so blaze with religious passion as Maimonides’ “Epistle.”
The argument reaches a climax as Maimonides quotes a remarkable sequence of midrashic passages. The common theme of these sources is the idea that a prophet must be a defender of his people before God. God chooses as His prophets those who have the power to transform justice into mercy. To be sure, the voice of Heaven speaks in the language of justice. The people have sinned and must be punished. But at the same time, God sends His prophets to speak in the people’s defense. If the prophet adopts the perspective of justice and he too condemns the people, then he has betrayed his mission.
So when Moses, charged with leading the people out of Egypt, replied, “But they will not believe me” (Exodus 4:1), ostensibly he was justified. According to rabbinic tradition, the Israelites in Egypt had sunk into depravity. The biblical narrative itself suggests that Moses’ doubts were well founded. Before the exodus and after, the Israelites were a difficult people to lead. But the midrash says that God replied to Moses, “They are believers and the children of believers, but you will ultimately not believe.”
Isaiah, too, was justified when he called Israel a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity” (Isaiah1:4). But the rabbis interpreted the later episode in which an angel touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal as a punishment for the prophet’s slander of his people (6:5–7).
Maimonides cites a series of such passages and then rises to a crescendo: If this is the sort of punishment meted out to the pillars of the universe, the greatest of the prophets, because they briefly criticized the people—even though the people were guilty of the sins of which they were accused—can we envisage the punishment awaiting those who criticize the conversos, who under threat of death and without abandoning their faith confessed to another religion in which they did not believe?
There is nothing equivocal about Maimonides’ defense of those who yielded to pressure. Nor is there any ambivalence about his later analysis of what, in fact, is the right way to behave. He invests both with equal seriousness. There is a moral dilemma. There is a correct response. But the terms of the dilemma are such that those who choose another response are to have their integrity respected without, at the same time, having their decision endorsed.
In the course of his analysis, Maimonides turns to the biblical hero Elijah. Elijah, we recall, risked his life by being a prophet. Under the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, Baal worship had become the official cult. God’s prophets were being killed. Those who survived were in hiding. Elijah nonetheless risked a direct confrontation with the king, which resulted in the great public challenge at Mount Carmel. He faced four hundred of Baal’s representatives. Elijah was determined to settle the question of religious truth once and for all. He addressed the assembled people and told them to choose one way or another: for God or for Baal. They must no longer “halt between two opinions.” Truth was about to be decided by a test. If it lay with Baal, fire would consume the offering prepared by his priests. If it lay with God, fire would descend to Elijah’s offering.
Elijah won the confrontation. The people cried out, “The Lord, He is God.” The priests of Baal were routed. But the story does not end there. Jezebel sends a message to him: a warrant is out for his death. Elijah escapes to Mount Horeb. There he receives a strange vision. He witnesses a whirlwind that shatters rocks, then an earthquake, then a fire. But the vision leads him to understand that God is not in these things. Then God speaks to him in a “still, small voice,” and tells him to appoint Elisha as his successor.
The episode is enigmatic, and it is made all the more so by a strange feature of the text. Immediately before the vision, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah replies, “I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts” (1 Kings 19:9–10). Immediately after the vision, God asks the same question, and Elijah gives the same answer (19:13–14). The midrash turns the text into a dialogue:
Elijah: The Israelites have broken God’s covenant.
God: Is it then your covenant?
Elijah: They have torn down Your altars. God: But were they your altars?
Elijah: They have put Your prophets to the sword.
God: But you are alive.
Elijah: I alone am left.
God: Instead of hurling accusations against Israel, should you not have pleaded their cause?
The meaning of the midrash is clear. The zealot takes the part of God. But God expects something else from His prophets. They must pray on behalf of humanity.
The repeated question and answer is now to be understood in its tragic depth. Elijah declares himself to be zealous for God. He is shown that God is not disclosed in dramatic confrontation: not in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire. God now asks him again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah repeats that he is zealous for God. He has not understood that religious leadership calls for another kind of virtue”the way of the still, small voice. God now indicates that someone else must lead. Elijah must hand his mantle on to Elisha.
Once again we are struck by the moral complexity set forth by the midrash. It is clear that God was with Elijah in the confrontation on Mount Carmel. He sends His fire, and He vindicates His prophet. Elijah is one of the Bible’s religious heroes. He is not content to hide and save his life while Israel lapses into idolatry. Yet the midrash insists—and in so doing is faithful to the intimations of the text itself—that religious leadership is not so simply reducible to good or evil. To be sure, the Israelites have been unfaithful. They have “halted between two opinions.” But if they served idols, they did so at the bidding of their king and under fear of death. If Elijah believes he is the only person of faith left alive, he is wrong.
We are now far from the days of Maimonides, and farther still from those of Elijah. But their conflicts are ours. They repeat themselves whenever religious leadership must be exercised at a time when faith is under threat. There is no simple equation of idolatry in the days of Ahab, forced conversion in twelfth-century Spain, and secularization today. But in each case, a religious tradition is overwhelmed by forces antithetical to it, and faith is forced into heroic postures.
At such times, there is an almost overwhelming temptation to see religious leadership as confrontational. Not only must truth be proclaimed but falsehood must be denounced. Choices must be set out as stark divisions. Not to condemn is to condone. The rabbi who condemned the conversos had faith in his heart, logic on his side, and Elijah as his precedent.
But the midrash and Maimonides set before us another model. A prophet hears not one imperative but two: prescription and compassion, a love of truth and an abiding solidarity with those for whom that truth has become eclipsed. To preserve tradition and at the same time the unity of those addressed by that tradition is the difficult, necessary task of religious leadership in an unreligious age.
Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. An earlier version of this essay appeared under a different title in his book Faith in the Future published in London by Darton, Longman, and Todd.