Maimonides and the Jews of Yemen

Jan. 23 2018

Moses Maimonides’ epistle to Yemen is now considered one of his most important works, one that shows the great philosopher and jurist playing a pastoral role as he addresses the needs and fears of a community in crisis. Shortly before the time of its writing, a charismatic Muslim leader had seized Yemen from the Fatimid caliphate; upon his death, his son and successor began persecuting Yemenite Jews. Dor Saar-Man explains how these circumstances led to Maimonides’ famous letter, and its legacy:

[I]n the year of 1172, a Yemenite Jew . . . presented himself as the messiah, . . . and many Jewish communities started to believe the messiah was actually coming soon and even started to change some of their practices and prayers accordingly. . . . Rabbi Yaakov ben Nathaniel of Yemen wrote to Maimonides with fear about the hard times the community was going through and wondered whether that new person might be the true messiah. Maimonides . . . replied at length, with empathy and attention.

In his detailed response, Maimonides tried to console Rabbi Yaakov and asked him to pray diligently and to keep in mind that troubles come and go and will eventually pass. He urged him not to surrender to persecutions and forced-conversion decrees, as these had happened in the past and yet the Jews prevailed. Maimonides referred to both Islam and Christianity as false religions and urged the Yemenite Jews not to conduct calculations of the end of times. . . . As for the messianic pretender, Maimonides clearly stated that he was a false messiah, a madman not to be trusted. . . .

The messianic enthusiasm in Yemen died out a few years later. . . . Saladin occupied Yemen and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, and everything returned to normal. The Yemen epistle, however, retained its significance and influence for centuries. . . . More than any other Jewish community, the Yemenites studied Maimonides’ work and accepted his theories. In time, two sub-groups were formed among them: the Shami, who partly assimilated into the Sephardi culture and adopted the Sephardi liturgy, and the Baladi, who followed Maimonides, especially the halakhic rulings set forth in his code, the Mishneh Torah.

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More about: History & Ideas, Moses Maimonides, Yemen, Yemenite Jewry

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times