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? 

  • See the first four Chapters of Sefer HaMadah. Note 1:6, where having the idea of other gods “arise in one’s thought” violates the negative commandment of not having other Gods. Also, especially consider 4:13, where the Rambam presents a hierarchy of study with Practical Halacha at the bottom and philosophy at the top.
  • Look at Hilchot Teshuva, 3:6 through to the end of the Perek. This is the famous section on those who do not merit Olam Haba. Notice in Halacha Zayin the Min is defined by what he/she says. Does this really mean they must make a verbal declaration, or is this referring to the beliefs they consider true whether they ever verbally announce it or not? The term “Omer” can have both meanings. Most likely this is referring even to thought considering what we saw above.
  • See Mishnah Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek, Mishna Aleph. This Mishna lists those who do not gain Olam Haba. The Gemora’s discussion of this mishna can be found on T.B. Sanhedrin 90a ff. See also Rambam’s Introduction to this perek, in which he lists the Thirteen Principles of faith.
  • See T.B. Kiddushin 39b, where a distinction is made between thoughts about Idolatry and thoughts regarding all other transgressions. Those who disagree with the Rambam can argue that the Gemora says God considers idolatrous thoughts like actions—meaning that if one intends to worship an idol God considers it as though this action plan was followed through—but that this Gemora is not referring to conceptual idolatrous beliefs.
  • See Perek Beit of the Shemona Prakim, where Rambam admits there is some confusion over whether or not there is a category of mitzvot that are intellectual, however he holds that there are. Though the Shmona Prakim was an earlier work, we see from the above that Rambam maintained his opinion in this matter.
  • See the Meiri, Avodah Zorah, Perek Sheni, d.h. “Na’aseh Meshomed L’ Avodah Zora”. The Meiri seems to be saying that the children of converts to another religion are not considered Jews anymore and we need not be concerned with them even in the issue of kiddushin and get, though these things must concern us regarding their parents. However, Jews who practice idolatry are still covered by the shem Jew. Are the Rambam and the Meiri comparable? While the Meiri is specifically not excluding the idolater, the Rambam says idolatry creates the status of Min. But, the exclusion of the Rambam is not really the same as that of the Meiri. The Rambam does not seem to be discussing a practical and personal exclusion, but rather establishing a religious definition. We could say Rambam asks ‘what is a Jew’, while the Meiri asks ‘who is a Jew’. On the other hand, the Meiri’s issue is not necessarily philosophical as is the Rambam’s. Meiri recognizes movement between religions, but sanctions punishment for one who tries to remove him/herself totally from religion; his interest might be in determining who we treat as dangers to society and who we do not. Be that as it may, the very possibility of Judaism being conditional gives substantial value to the ideas and beliefs to which one pledges allegiance.

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.