The concept of an explicit, paramount definition of faith does not exist in Judaism as it does in other monotheistic religions such as Christianity. Although Jews and religious leaders share a core of monotheistic principles, and there are many fundamental principles quoted in the Talmud to define Judaism (often by what it is not), it has no established formulation of principles of faith that are or must be recognized by all observant Jews. Maimonides (a.k.a. the Rambam) set down his 13 Principles of Faith in his commentary on the Mishnah, which are now generally accepted as the best formulation available of the core principles of Judaism.
The various “principles of faith” that have been enumerated over the intervening centuries carry no greater weight than that imparted to them by the fame and scholarship of their respective authors, as the only added weight is direct Prophecy, which is considered to have been lost in the 4th or 5th century BCE. Central authority in Judaism is not vested in any person or group – though the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court, would fulfil this role when it is re-established – but rather in Judaism’s sacred writings, laws, and traditions. Judaism affirms the existence and uniqueness of God and stresses performance of deeds or commandments alongside adherence to a strict belief system. In contrast to traditions such as Christianity which demand a more explicit identification of God, faith in Judaism requires one to honour God through a constant struggle with God’s identity.
Orthodox Judaism has stressed a number of core principles in its educational programs, most importantly a belief that there is a single, omniscient and transcendent God, who created the universe, and continues to be concerned with its governance. Traditional Judaism maintains that God established a covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and revealed his laws and commandments to them in the form of the Torah. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Torah comprises both the written Torah (Pentateuch) and a tradition of oral law, much of it codified in later sacred writings.
Traditionally, the practice of Judaism has been devoted to the study of Torah and observance of these laws and commandments. In normative Judaism, the Torah and hence Jewish law itself is unchanging, but interpretation of law is more open. It is considered a mitzvah (commandment) to study and understand the law.
Jewish principles of faith
There are a number of basic principles that were formulated by medieval rabbinic authorities. These principles were put forth as fundamental underpinnings inherent in the “acceptance and practice of Judaism.”
Conception of God
Judaism is based on a strict unitarian monotheism. This doctrine expresses the belief in one indivisible God. The concepts of multiple gods (polytheism) or of a God taking multiple forms (for example Trinity) are heretical in Judaism. The prayer par excellence in terms of defining God is the Shema Yisrael: “”Listen Israel, YHWH (the Existent-One) is our God, YHWH (the Existent-One) is One.”", also translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is unique/alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality. God has the power to intervene in the world. The term God thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche. Maimonides describes God in this fashion: “There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on God and is derived from God.”
The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic literature affirm theism and reject deism. However, in the writings of medieval Jewish philosophers, perhaps influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds what can be termed limited omniscience. [See Gersonides "Views on omniscience"]
God is creator of the universe
According to the Biblical account, the world was created by God in six days. While many Haredi Jews take this literally, many Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform authorities feel that the six days should be interpreted as “stages” in the creation of the universe and the earth, and that Judaism would not be in contradiction to the scientific model that states that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.
God is One
The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical – it is considered akin to polytheism. “[God], the Cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair, nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals), nor one as in an object that is made up of many elements, nor as a single simple object that is infinitely divisible. Rather, God is a unity unlike any other possible unity.” This is referred to in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Listen Israel, YHWH (the Self-Existent-One) is our God, YHWH (the Self-Existent-One) is singular.” (Maimonides, 13 principles of faith Second Principle).
While Jews hold that dualistic and trinitarian conceptions of God are incorrect, they generally are of the opinion that non-Jews that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.
God is all-powerful
Orthodox Jews believe in the omnipotent, omniscient God of the Bible – “Attribute to the Lord all glory and power” (Psalms 29)[not in citation given]. Thus, most rabbinic works present God as having the properties of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence (being all good). This is still the primary way that most Orthodox and many Unorthodox Jews view God.
The issue of theodicy was raised again, especially after the extreme horrors of the Holocaust and several theological responses surfaced. These are discussed in a separate entry on Holocaust theology. The central questions they address are whether and how God is all-powerful and all-good, given the existence of evil in the world, particularly the Holocaust.
God is personal
Most of classical Judaism views God as personal. We have a relationship with God, God has a relationship with us. Much of the midrash, and many prayers in the siddur portray God as caring about humanity in much the same way that we care about God.
On the other hand, Maimonides and many other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God as incorrect. This may, however, simply be an emphatic form of the common Jewish view that God is unchanging, not describable and not anthropomorphic: see next section, and negative theology.
The nature of God
God is non-physical, incorporeal, and eternal. A corollary belief is that God is utterly unlike man, and can in no way be considered anthropomorphic. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God at all. See Divine simplicity; Negative theology; Tzimtzum.
To God alone may one offer prayer
Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical. Maimonides writes “God is the only one we may serve and praise….We may not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements…..There are no intermediaries between us and God. All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered.”
Nachmanides was of the opinion that it is permitted to ask the angels to beseech God on our behalf. This argument manifests notably in the Selichot prayer called “Machnisay Rachamim”, a request to the angels to intercede with God. Modern printed editions of the Selichot include this prayer.
The Tanakh and the Talmud are the main holy books in Judaism. The Tanakh contains the Torah (five books of Moses), the Nevi’im (“prophets”), and the Ketuvim (“writings”). Judaism’s oral law is contained in the Mishnah, Tosefta, classical midrashim, and the two Talmuds.
Moses and the Torah
Orthodox and Conservative Jews hold that the prophecy of Moses is held to be true; he is held to be the chief of all prophets, even of those who came before and after him. This belief was expressed by Maimonides, who wrote that “Moses was superior to all prophets, whether they preceded him or arose afterwards. Moses attained the highest possible human level. He perceived God to a degree surpassing every human that ever existed….God spoke to all other prophets through an intermediary. Moses alone did not need this; this is what the Torah means when God says “Mouth to mouth, I will speak to him.” The great Jewish philosopher Philo understands this type of prophecy to be an extraordinarily high level of philosophical understanding, which had been reached by Moses and which enabled him to write the Torah through his own rational deduction of natural law. Maimonides, in his Commentary to the Mishna (preface to chapter “Chelek”, Tractate Sanhedrin), and is his Mishneh Torah, (in the Laws of the foundations of the Torah, ch. 7), describes a similar concept of prophecy, since a voice that did not originate from a body cannot exist, the understanding of Moses was based on his lofty philosophical understandings. However, this does not imply that the text of the Torah should be understood literally, as according to Karaism. Rabbinic tradition maintains that God conveyed not only the words of the Torah, but the meaning of the Torah. God gave rules as to how the laws were to be understood and implemented, and these were passed down as an oral tradition. This oral law was passed down from generation to generation and ultimately written down almost 2,000 years later in the Mishna and the two Talmuds.
For Reform Jews, the prophecy of Moses was not the highest degree of prophecy; rather it was the first in a long chain of progressive revelations in which mankind gradually began to understand the will of God better and better. As such, they maintain, that the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and it is today’s generation that must assess what God wants of them. This principle is also rejected by most Reconstructionist Jews, but for a different reason; most posit that God is not a being with a will; thus they maintain that no will can be revealed.
The origin of the Torah
The Torah is composed of 5 books called in English Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They chronicle the history of the Hebrews and also contain the commandments that Jews are to follow.
Rabbinic Judaism holds that the Torah extant today is the same one that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Maimonides explains: “We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses. But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation….[Thus] every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God’s Torah, which is perfect, holy and true.”
Haredi Jews generally believe that the Torah today is no different from what was received from God to Moses, with only the most minor of scribal errors. Many other Orthodox Jews suggest that over the millennia, some scribal errors have crept into the Torah’s text. They note that the Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries) compared all known Torah variations in order to create a definitive text. However, even according to this position that the scrolls that Jews possess today are not letter-perfect, the Torah scrolls are certainly the word-perfect textus receptus that was divinely revealed to Moses. Indeed, the consensus of Orthodox rabbinic authority posits this belief in the word-perfect nature of the Torah scroll as representing a non-negotiable prerequisite for Orthodox Jewish membership. Although even in Modern Orthodox circles there are some Rabbis (e.g. Professor Marc Shapiro) that point out the numerous rabbinic sources from the Talmudic, Post-Talmudic, and medieval ages that claim that there were some changes to the text, which include whole verses, that were made deliberately during the Mishnaic era, and even during the times of the first temple. Professor Shapiro lists the many medieval Rabbis discuss changes and additions that occurred during the time of Ezra the Scribe in his work ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised’.
The words of the prophets are true
The Nevi’im, the books of the Prophets, are considered divine and true. This does not imply that they are always read literally: Jewish tradition has always held that prophets used metaphors and analogies, and there are many commentaries explaining and elucidating metaphorical verses.
Many Orthodox Jews view the Written and Oral Torah as the same as Moses taught, for all practical purposes. Conservative Jews tend to believe that much of the Oral law is divinely inspired, while Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend to view all of the Oral law as an entirely human creation. Traditionally, the Reform movement held that Jews were obliged to obey the ethical but not the ritual commandments of Scripture, although today many Reform Jews have adopted many traditional ritual practices. Karaite Jews traditionally consider the Written Torah to be authoritative, viewing the Oral Law as only one possible interpretation of the Written Torah. Most Modern Orthodox Jews will agree that, while certain laws within the Oral Law were given to Moses, most of the Talmudic laws were derived organically by the Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras.
God’s Relationship with Man
Judaism’s focus is more on how God defines man than on trying to define God. There is therefore a focus on what people are expected to be or do far more than on spelling out theological beliefs.
The soul is pure at birth
Humans are born morally pure; Judaism has no concept analogous to original sin. Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer ha-tov (יצר הטוב), a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer hara (יצר הרע), a tendency to do evil. Thus human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. The rabbis even recognize a positive value to the yetzer ha-ra: without the yetzer ha-ra there would be no civilization or other fruits of human labor. The implication is that yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra are best understood not only as moral categories of good and evil but as the inherent conflict within man between selfless and selfish orientations.
Judaism recognizes two classes of “sin”: offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). (See Jewish views on sin.)
A classical rabbinic work, Avoth de-Rabbi Natan, states: “One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. “Woe to us,” cried Rabbi Yehosua, “for this house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins!” Answered Rabban Yochanan, “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemiluth ḥasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated: “I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). Also, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that “Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one’s table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]” (Talmud, tractate Berachoth 55a). Similarly, the liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah atone for sin.
Reward and punishment
The mainstream Jewish view is that God will reward those who observe His commandments and punish those who intentionally transgress them. Examples of rewards and punishments are described throughout the Bible, and throughout classical rabbinic literature: see Free will In Jewish thought. The common understanding of this principle is accepted by most Orthodox and Conservative and many Reform Jews; it is generally rejected by the Reconstructionists.
The Bible contains references to Sheol, lit. gloom, as the common destination of the dead, which may be compared with the Hades or underworld of ancient religions. In later tradition this is interpreted either as Hell or as a literary expression for death or the grave in general. However most Jews today believe in a Heaven as opposed to an Underworld.
According to aggadic passages in the Talmud, God judges who has followed His commandments and who does not and to what extent. Those who do not “pass the test” go to a purifying place (sometimes referred to as Gehinnom, i.e. Hell, but more analogous to the Christian Purgatory) to “learn their lesson”. There is, however, for the most part, no eternal damnation. The vast majority of souls only go to that reforming place for a limited amount of time (less than one year). Certain categories are spoken of as having “no part in the world to come”, but this appears to mean annihilation rather than an eternity of torment.
Philosophical rationalists such as Maimonides believed that God did not actually mete out rewards and punishments as such. In this view, these were beliefs that were necessary for the masses to believe in order to maintain a structured society and to encourage the observance of Judaism. However, once one learned Torah properly, one could then learn the higher truths. In this view, the nature of the reward is that if a person perfected his intellect to the highest degree, then the part of his intellect that connected to God – the active intellect – would be immortalized and enjoy the “Glory of the Presence” for all eternity. The punishment would simply be that this would not happen; no part of one’s intellect would be immortalized with God. See Divine Providence in Jewish thought.
The Kabbalah (mystical tradition in Judaism) contains further elaborations, though some Jews do not consider these authoritative. For example it admits the possibility of reincarnation, which is generally rejected by non-mystical Jewish theologians and philosophers. It also believes in a triple soul, of which the lowest level (nefesh or animal life) dissolves into the elements, the middle layer (ruach or intellect) goes to Gan Eden (Paradise) while the highest level (neshamah or spirit) seeks union with God.
Judaism has always considered “Tikkun Olam” (or Repairing the world) as a fundamental reason for God’s creating the world. Therefore, the concept of “life after death,” in the Jewish view, is not encouraged as the sole motivating factor in performance of Judaism. Indeed it is held that one can attain closeness to God even in this world through moral and spiritual perfection.
Israel chosen for a purpose
God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish people do not simply say that “God chose the Jews.” This claim, by itself, exists nowhere in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible). Such a claim could imply that God loves only the Jewish people, that only Jews can be close to God, and that only Jews can have a heavenly reward. The actual claim made is that the Jews were chosen for a specific mission, a duty: to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the Torah. Reconstructionist Judaism rejects even this variant of chosenness as morally defunct.
Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, describes the mainstream Jewish view on this issue: “Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people—and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual—is ‘chosen’ or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be ‘peculiar unto Me’ as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.”
More on this topic is available in the entry on Jewish views of religious pluralism.
The messianic age
There will be a Jewish Messiah known as Mashiach, a king who will rule the Jewish people independently and according to Jewish law. The Jewish vision of Messianic times has little to do with the Christian definition of this term. Jewish views of the Messiah as derived from the Davidic line, the Messianic era, and the afterlife are discussed in the entry on Jewish eschatology.
History and development
A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, and there is some dispute over how many basic principles there are. Rabbi Joseph Albo, for instance, in Sefer Ha-Ikkarim counts three principles of faith, while Maimonides lists thirteen. While some later rabbis have attempted to reconcile the differences, claiming that Maimonides’ principles are covered by Albo’s much shorter list, alternate lists provided by other medieval rabbinic authorities seem to indicate some level of tolerance for varying theological perspectives.
No formal text canonized
Though to a certain extent incorporated in the liturgy and utilized for purposes of instruction, these formulations of the cardinal tenets of Judaism carried no greater weight than that imparted to them by the fame and scholarship of their respective authors. None of them had an authoritative character analogous to that given by Christianity to its three great formulas (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene or Constantinopolitan, and the Athanasian), or to the Kalimat As-Shahadat of the Muslims. None of the many summaries from the pens of Jewish philosophers and rabbis has been invested with similar importance.
Conversion to Judaism
Unlike many other religions, Judaism has not made strong attempts to convert non-Jews, although formal conversion to Judaism is permitted. Righteousness, according to Jewish belief, was not restricted to those who accepted the Jewish religion. And the righteous among the nations that carried into practice the seven fundamental laws of the covenant with Noah and his descendants were declared to be participants in the felicity of the hereafter. This interpretation of the status of non-Jews made the development of a missionary attitude unnecessary. Moreover, the regulations for the reception of proselytes, as developed in course of time, prove the eminently practical, that is, the non-creedal character of Judaism. Compliance with certain rites – immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), brit milah (circumcision), and the acceptance of the mitzvot (Commandments of Torah) as binding – is the test of the would-be convert’s faith. He or she is instructed in the main points of Jewish law, while the profession of faith demanded is limited to the acknowledgment of the unity of God and the rejection of idolatry. Judah ha-Levi (Kuzari 1:115) puts the whole matter very strikingly when he says:
- We are not putting on an equality with us a person entering our religion through confession alone. We require deeds, including in that term self-restraint, purity, study of the Law, circumcision, and the performance of other duties demanded by the Torah.
For the preparation of the convert, therefore, no other method of instruction was employed than for the training of one born a Jew. The aim of teaching was to convey a knowledge of halakha (Jewish law), obedience to which manifested the acceptance of the underlying religious principles; namely, the existence of God and the mission of Israel as the people of God’s covenant.
Are principles of faith inherent in mitzvot?
The controversy whether the practice of mitzvot in Judaism is inherently connected to Judaism’s principles of faith has been discussed by many scholars. Moses Mendelssohn, in his “Jerusalem,” defended the non-dogmatic nature of the practice of Judaism. Rather, he asserted, the beliefs of Judaism, although revealed by God in Judaism, consist of universal truths applicable to all mankind. Rabbi Leopold Löw, among others, took the opposite side, and considered that the Mendelssohnian theory had been carried beyond its legitimate bounds. Underlying the practice of the Law was assuredly the recognition of certain fundamental principles, he asserted, culminating in the belief in God and revelation, and likewise in the doctrine of divine justice.
The first to attempt to formulate Jewish principles of faith was Philo of Alexandria. He enumerated five articles: God is and rules; God is one; the world was created by God; Creation is one, and God’s providence rules Creation.
Belief in the Oral Law
Many rabbis were drawn into controversies with both Jews and non-Jews, and had to fortify their faith against the attacks of contemporaneous philosophy as well as against rising Christianity. The Mishnah (Tractate Sanhedrin xi. 1) excludes from the world to come the Epicureans and those who deny belief in resurrection or in the divine origin of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva would also regard as heretical the readers of Sefarim Hetsonim – certain extraneous writings that were not canonized – as well such persons that would heal through whispered formulas of magic. Abba Saul designated as under suspicion of infidelity those that pronounce the ineffable name of God. By implication, the contrary doctrine may be regarded as orthodox. On the other hand, Akiva himself declares that the command to love one’s neighbor is the fundamental principle of the Torah; while Ben Asa assigns this distinction to the Biblical verse, “This is the book of the generations of man”.
The definition of Hillel the Elder in his interview with a would-be convert (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a), embodies in the golden rule the one fundamental article of faith. A teacher of the 3rd century, Rabbi Simlai, traces the development of Jewish religious principles from Moses with his 613 mitzvot of prohibition and injunction, through David, who, according to this rabbi, enumerates eleven; through Isaiah, with six; Micah, with three; to Habakkuk who simply but impressively sums up all religious faith in the single phrase, “The pious lives in his faith” (Talmud, Mak., toward end). As Jewish law enjoins that one should prefer death to an act of idolatry, incest, unchastity, or murder, the inference is plain that the corresponding positive principles were held to be fundamental articles of Judaism.
Belief during the medieval era
Detailed constructions of articles of faith did not find favor in Judaism before the medieval era, when Jews were forced to defend their faith from both Islamic and Christian inquisitions, disputations and polemics. The necessity of defending their religion against the attacks of other philosophies induced many Jewish leaders to define and formulate their beliefs. Saadia Gaon’s ”Emunot ve-Deot” is an exposition of the main tenets of Judaism. They are listed as : The world was created by God; God is one and incorporeal; belief in revelation (including the divine origin of tradition; man is called to righteousness and endowed with all necessary qualities of mind and soul to avoid sin; belief in reward and punishment; the soul is created pure; after death it leaves the body; belief in resurrection; Messianic expectation, retribution, and final judgment.
Judah Halevi endeavored, in his Kuzari to determine the fundamentals of Judaism on another basis. He rejects all appeal to speculative reason, repudiating the method of the Motekallamin. The miracles and traditions are, in their natural character, both the source and the evidence of the true faith. In this view, speculative reason is considered fallible due to the inherent impossibility of objectivity in investigations with moral implications.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides or “The Rambam” (1135-1204 CE), lived at a time when both Christianity and Islam were developing active theologies. Jewish scholars were often asked to attest to their faith by their counterparts in other religions. The Rambam’s 13 principles of faith were formulated in his commentary on the Mishnah (tractace Sanhedrin, chapter 10). They were one of several efforts by Jewish theologians in the Middle Ages to create such a list. By the time of Maimonides, centers of Jewish learning and law were dispersed geographically. Judaism no longer had a central authority that might bestow official approval on his principles of faith.
Maimonides’ 13 principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Crescas and Joseph Albo. They evoked criticism as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (Rabbi S. of Montpelier, Yad Rama, Y. Alfacher, Rosh Amanah). The 13 principles were ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. (Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, Menachem Kellner). Over time two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma’amin and Yigdal) became canonized in the Jewish prayerbook. Eventually, Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith became the mostly widely accepted statement of belief.
Importantly, Maimonides, while enumerating the above, added the following caveat “There is no difference between [the Biblical statement] ‘his wife was Mehithabel’ [Genesis 10,6] on the one hand [i.e. an "unimportant" verse], and ‘Hear, O Israel’ on the other [i.e. an "important" verse]… anyone who denies even such verses thereby denies God and shows contempt for his teachings more than any other skeptic, because he holds that the Torah can be divided into essential and non-essential parts…” The uniqueness of the 13 fundamental beliefs was that even a rejection out of ignorance placed one outside Judaism, whereas the rejection of the rest of Torah must be a conscious act to stamp one as an unbeliever. Others, such as Rabbi Joseph Albo and the Raavad, criticized Maimonides’ list as containing items that, while true, in their opinion did not place those who rejected them out of ignorance in the category of heretic. Many others criticized any such formulation as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (see above). As noted however, neither Maimonides nor his contemporaries viewed these principles as encompassing all of Jewish belief, but rather as the core theological underpinnings of the acceptance of Judaism.
Several Orthodox scholars write that the popular Orthodox understanding of these principles are not at all what Maimonides held to be true. See books noted below by Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner.
Principles of faith after Maimonides
The successors of Maimonides, from the 13th to the 15th century — Nahmanides, Abba Mari ben Moses, Simon ben Zemah Duran, Joseph Albo, Isaac Arama, and Joseph Jaabez — narrowed his 13 articles to three core beliefs: Belief in God; in Creation (or revelation); and in providence (or retribution).
Others, like Crescas and David ben Samuel Estella, spoke of seven fundamental articles, laying stress on free-will. On the other hand, David ben Yom-Tob ibn Bilia, in his “Yesodot ha- Maskil” (Fundamentals of the Thinking Man), adds to the 13 of Maimonides 13 of his own — a number which a contemporary of Albo also chose for his fundamentals; while Jedaiah Penini, in the last chapter of his “Behinat ha-Dat,” enumerated no less than 35 cardinal principles.
Isaac Abravanel, his “Rosh Amanah,” took the same attitude towards Maimonides’ creed. While defending Maimonides against Hasdai and Albo, he refused to accept dogmatic articles for Judaism, criticizing any formulation as minimizing acceptance of all 613 mitzvot.
In the late 18th century Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements, together known as The Enlightenment. These movements promoted scientific thinking, free thought, and allowed people to question previously unshaken religious dogmas. Like Christianity, Judaism developed several responses to this unprecedented phenomenon. One response saw the enlightenment as positive, while another saw it as negative. The enlightenment meant equality and freedom for many Jews in many countries, so it was felt that it should be warmly welcomed. Scientific study of religious texts would allow people to study the history of Judaism. Some Jews felt that Judaism should accept modern secular thought and change in response to these ideas. Others, however, believed that the divine nature of Judaism precluded changing any fundamental beliefs.
The groups accepting outside influence on the practice of Judaism are known as Conservative and Reform Judaism. The Jews who did not accept any fundamental changes in rabbinic Judaism became known as Orthodox. The entry on Reform movement in Judaism discusses in more detail how and why the enlightenment led to the development of the modern Jewish denominations.
Because of the magnitude of the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical theological views on God’s goodness and actions in the world. Some question whether people can still have any faith after the Holocaust. Some theological responses to these questions are explored in Holocaust theology.
Principles of faith in Modern Judaism
Principles of Orthodox Judaism
Orthodox Judaism considers itself to be in direct continuity with historical rabbinic Judaism. Therefore, as above, it accepts philosophic speculation and statements of dogma only to the extent that they exist within, and are compatible with, the system of written and oral Torah. As a matter of practice Orthodox Judaism lays stress on the performance of the actual commandments. Dogma is considered to be the self-understood underpinning of the practice of the Mitzvot.
Owing to this, there is no one official statement of principles. Rather, all formulations by accepted early Torah leaders are considered to have possible validity. Nevertheless, the 13 principles of Maimonides have a certain priority over other formulations: they are often printed in prayer books, and in many congregations a hymn (Yigdal) incorporating them is sung on Friday nights. (The inclusion of Yigdal, however, is not exclusive to Orthodox Judaism.)
Principles of Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism developed in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the enlightenment and emancipation. In many ways it was a reaction to what were seen as the excesses of the Reform movement. For much of the movement’s history, Conservative Judaism deliberately avoided publishing systematic explications of theology and belief; this was a conscious attempt to hold together a wide coalition. This concern became a non-issue after the left-wing of the movement seceded in 1968 to form the Reconstructionist movement, and after the right-wing seceded in 1985 to form the Union for Traditional Judaism.
In 1988, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism finally issued an official statement of belief, “Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism”. It noted that a Jew must hold certain beliefs. However, the Conservative rabbinate also notes that the Jewish community never developed any one binding catechism. Thus, Emet Ve-Emunah affirms belief in God and in God’s revelation of Torah to the Jews; however it also affirms the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of these issues. Atheism, Trinitarian views of God, and polytheism are all ruled out. All forms of relativism, and also of literalism and fundamentalism are also rejected. It teaches that Jewish law is both still valid and indispensable, but also holds to a more open and flexible view of how law has and should develop than the Orthodox view.
Principles of North American Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism (North America) has had a number of official platforms, but in contrast to rabbinic Judaism, rejects the view that Jews must have any specific beliefs. The first Reform Jewish platform was the 1885 Declaration of Principles, the Pittsburgh Platform. The next platform was in 1937, “The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism”. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) rewrote its principles in 1976 with its “Centenary Perspective” and rewrote them again in 1999. While original drafts of the 1999 statement called for Reform Jews to consider re-adopting some traditional practices on a voluntary basis, later drafts removed most of these suggestions. The final version is thus similar to the 1976 statement.
According to CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over these platforms; lay people need not accept all, or even any, of the beliefs stated in these platforms. Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) President Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin wrote a pamphlet about Reform Judaism, entitled “What We Believe…What We Do…”. It states that “if anyone were to attempt to answer these two questions authoritatively for all Reform Jews, that person’s answers would have to be false. Why? Because one of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to this particular belief or to that particular practice.” Reform Judaism affirms “the fundamental principle of Liberalism: that the individual will approach this body of mitzvot and minhagim in the spirit of freedom and choice. Traditionally Israel started with harut, the commandment engraved upon the Tablets, which then became freedom. The Reform Jew starts with herut, the freedom to decide what will be harut – engraved upon the personal Tablets of his life.” [Bernard Martin, Ed., Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought, Quadrangle Books 1968.]
Principles of Reconstructionist Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism is an American denomination that has a naturalist theology; this theology is a variant of the naturalism of John Dewey. Dewey’s naturalism combined atheist beliefs with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion. Reconstructionism denies that God is either personal or supernatural. Rather, God is said to be the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote that “to believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society.”
Most Reconstructionist Jews reject theism, and instead define themselves as religious naturalists. These views have been criticized on the grounds that they are actually atheism, which has only been made palatable to Jews by rewriting the dictionary. A significant minority of Reconstructionists have refused to accept Kaplan’s theology, and instead affirm a theistic view of God.
As in Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism holds that personal autonomy has precedence over Jewish law and theology. It does not ask that its adherents hold to any particular beliefs, nor does it ask that halakha be accepted as normative. In 1986, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations (FRC) passed the official “Platform on Reconstructionism” (2 pages). It is not a mandatory statement of principles, but rather a consensus of current beliefs. [FRC Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.] Major points of the platform state that:
- Judaism is the result of natural human development. There is no such thing as divine intervention.
- Judaism is an evolving religious civilization.
- Zionism and aliyah (immigration to Israel) are encouraged.
- The laity can make decisions, not just rabbis.
- The Torah was not inspired by God; it only comes from the social and historical development of Jewish people.
- All classical views of God are rejected. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfillment and moral improvement.
- The idea that God chose the Jewish people for any purpose, in any way, is “morally untenable”, because anyone who has such beliefs “implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others”. This puts Reconstructionist Jews at odds with all other Jews, as it seems to accuse all other Jews of being racist. Jews outside of the Reconstructionist movement strenuously reject this charge.
- Blech, Benjamin Understanding Judaism: The Basics of Deed and Creed Jason Aronson; 1992, ISBN 0-87668-291-3.
- Bleich, J. David (ed.) With Perfect Faith: The Foundations of Jewish Belief Ktav Publishing House, Inc.; 1983. ISBN 0-87068-452-3
- Boteach, Shmuel Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge: Basic Concepts of Hasidic Thought Jason Aronson; 1995. Paperback. ISBN 0-87668-557-2
- Dorff, Elliot N. and Louis E. Newman (eds.) Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader Oxford Univ Press; 1998. ISBN 0-19-511467-1.
- Dorff, Elliot N. Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants (Revised edition) United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1996
- Platform on Reconstructionism FRC Newsletter, Sept. 1986
- Fox, Marvin Interpreting Maimonides, Univ. of Chicago Press. 1990
- Robert Gordis (Ed.) Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism JTS, Rabbinical Assembly, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1988
- Julius Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism Translated by David Silverman, JPS, 1964
- Maimonides’ Principles: The Fundamentals of Jewish Faith, in “The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Volume I”, Mesorah Publications 1994
- Kaplan, Mordecai M. Judaism as a Civilization Reconstructionist Press, New York. 1935. Jewish Publication Society; 1994
- Kellner, Menachem Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Maslin, Simeon J., Melvin Merians and Alexander M. Schindler, What We Believe…What We Do…: A Pocket Guide for Reform Jews UAHC Press, 1998
- Shapiro, Marc B. “Maimonides Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?” in The Torah U-Maddah Journal, Vol. 4, 1993, Yeshiva University
- Shapiro, Marc B. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; 2004, ISBN 1-874774-90-0.