Medieval Philosophy and Theology



Maimonides and the Convert: A Juridical and Philosophical Embrace of the Outsider


JAMES A. DIAMOND a1
a1 University of Waterloo

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.