Definition of a Jew
The Rambam opens His Mishna Torah with commandments that are fulfilled through intellectual acceptance of an idea, rather than through performance of a particular action. Comparably, the Gemora does not deal (overtly at the very least) with such philosophic commandments. For example, both the Gemora in the first chapter of T.B. Brachot and the Rambam in Hilchot Kreiat Shema expound upon the physical requirements of the Shema, including details about time, place and pronunciation. As well as this, both admit to a secondary mental aspect of the Shema by stating one should extend the dalid of ‘Achud’ to allow for time to contemplate God’s singular commanding omnipresence, though one is still yotzei the mizvah if this is not done (13b and 2:9 respectively). The Rambam quotes the pasuk “Vedebarta Bam” as the source for the recitation of the Shema. However, only Rambam quotes the words Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Achud as the source for a commandment that has nothing to do with the recitation of Shema, that is, the commandment to conceive of and believe in God’s unique Oneness, as can be seen in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 1:7. This idea of Oneness is much more philosophically demanding than the idea of Oneness, mentioned above, that is contemplated during the actual recitation of the Shema, and the halacha associated with it is not discussed by the Gemora. Trying to understand the Rambam’s radical insertion of philosophically derived ideas, and necessary beliefs, into the world of Halacha has fascinated and infuriated scholars since the Rambam first proposed his ideas. Even the smallest glance at the Rambam spawns numerous questions: How can beliefs be mitzvot? Aren’t the commandments only actions which at times are associated with beliefs? Where do belief mizvot stand in the hierarchy of the mizvot? Are the intellectual commandments the most important ones of all, the denial of which results in forced surrender of the title Jew? Though most mizvot do not effect one’s overall standing as a Jew, is it possible that some do? What is a Jew?
It is important to understand the political and religious surroundings of the Rambam when analyzing this issue. The Rambam was in a Muslim country, in a time hostile to the Jews. Two factors might have contributed to his desire to provide for Judaism a philosophic foundation. One is that the religions around him had such foundations and could use this fact when competing with Jews for adherents. The second is that Jews were being forced to declare allegiance to Mohammad. If one’s beliefs, rather than one’s words, defined a Jew, what we often consider stringency in the Rambam, might actually have been his attempt to save lives. However, the pledge Jews were being forced to take did not require them to say anything directly and overtly against Judaism (calling Mohammad a prophet is not a direct assault against Judaism as we do not deny that there can be non-Jewish prophets). If this pledge did require an actual denial would the Rambam be so lenient? See Hilchot Avodah Zora 3:4, Rambam’s Letter to Yemen and T.B. Sanhedrin 61a to further research this issue.