Salomon Maimonís Autobiography:
On a Proposed Conversion to Christianity
My return journey to Hamburg was agreeable, but here I fell into circumstances of the deepest distress. I lodged in a miserable house, had nothing to eat, and did not know what to do. I had grown too enlightened to return to Poland, to spend my life in misery without rational occupation or society, and to sink back into the darkness of superstition and ignorance, from which I had hardly delivered myself with so much labor. On the other hand I could not count on success in Germany owing to my ignorance of the language, as well as of the manners and customs of the people, to which I had never yet been able to adapt myself properly. I had learned no particular profession, I had not distinguished myself in any special science, I was not even master of any language in which I could make myself perfectly intelligible. It occurred to me, therefore, that for me there was no alternative left but to embrace the Christian religion and get myself baptized in Hamburg. Accordingly, I resolved to go to the first clergyman I should come upon, and inform him of my resolution, as well as of my motives for it, without hypocrisy, in a truthful and honest fashion. But as I could not express myself well orally, I put my thoughts into writing in German with Hebrew characters, went to a schoolmaster, and got him to copy it in German characters. The purport of my letter was in brief as follows:
"I am a native of Poland, belonging to the Jewish nation, destined by my education and studies to be a rabbi; but in the thickest darkness I have perceived some light. This induced me to search further after light and truth, and to free myself completely from the darkness of superstition and ignorance. To this end, which could not be attained in my native place, I came to Berlin, where by the support of some enlightened men of our nation I studied for some years, not indeed after any plan, but merely to satisfy my thirst for knowledge. But as our nation is unable to make use not only of such planless studies but even of those conducted on the most perfect plan, it cannot be blamed for becoming tired of them, and pronouncing their encouragement to be useless. I have therefore resolved, in order to secure temporal as well as eternal happiness, which depends on the attainment of perfection, and in order to become useful to myself as well as others, to embrace the Christian religion. The Jewish religion, it is true, comes nearer to reason in its articles of faith than Christianity. But in practical use the latter has an advantage over the former; and since morality, which consists not in opinions but in actions, is the aim of all religion in general, clearly the latter comes nearer than the former to this aim. Moreover, I hold the mysteries of the Christian religion for that which they are, that is, allegorical representations of the truths that are most important for man. By this means I make my faith in them harmonize with reason, but I cannot believe them according to their common meaning. I therefore most respectfully beg an answer to the question whether after this confession I am worthy of the Christian religion or not. In the former case, I am ready to carry my proposal into effect; but in the latter, I must give up all claim to a religion which enjoins me to lie, that is, to deliver a confession of faith which contradicts my reason."
The schoolmaster to whom I dictated this was astonished at my audacity; never before had he listened to such a confession of faith. He shook his head in perplexity, interrupted the writing several times, and wondered whether the mere copying was not itself a sin. With great reluctance he copied it out, merely to get rid of the thing. I then went to a prominent clergyman, delivered my letter, and begged for a reply. He read it with great attention, likewise showed astonishment, and on finishing entered into conversation with me.
"So," he said, "I see your intention is to embrace the Christian religion, merely in order to improve your temporal circumstances."
"Excuse me, Herr Pastor," I replied, "I think I have made it clear enough in my letter that my object is the attainment of perfection. For this, it is true, the removal of all hindrances and the improvement of my external circumstances are a prerequisite condition. But this condition is not the chief end."
"But," said the pastor, "do you not feel any inclination of the soul to the Christian religion without reference to any external motives?"
"I should be telling a lie if I were to give you an affirmative answer."
"You are too much of a philosopher," replied the pastor, "to be able to become a Christian. Reason has taken the upper hand with you, and faith must accommodate itself to reason. You hold the mysteries of the Christian religion to be mere fables, and its commands to be mere laws of reason. For the present I cannot be satisfied with your confession of faith. You should therefore pray to God, that He may enlighten you with His grace, and endow you with the spirit of true Christianity; and then come to me again."
"If that is the case," I said, "then I must confess, Herr Pastor, that I am not qualified for Christianity. Whatever light I may receive, I shall always illuminate it with the light of reason. I shall never believe that I have fallen upon new truths if it is impossible to see their connection with the truths already known to me. I must therefore remain what I am, a stiff‑necked Jew. My religion enjoins me to believe nothing, but to think the truth and to practice goodness. If I find any hindrance in this from external circumstances, it is not my fault. I do all that lies in my power."
With this I bade the pastor goodbye.
SOURCE: Maimon, Salomon. Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography. Edited and with an Epilogue by Moses Hadas. New York: Schocken Books, 1947. Based upon the translation of †J. Clark Murray, London, 1888. Extract from Chapter XXI: pp. 88- 91. Salomon Maimon's Lebensgeschichte originally published in German, 1792/3.
Note: Title at head of text supplied by R. Dumain. This edition is an abridgment of the original edition.† The most complete and current edition of this translation is:
Maimon, Salomon. Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography, translated from the German by J. Clark Murray; introduction by Michael Shapiro. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. xxxvii, 307 pp. ISBN: 0252069773
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