By Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD
Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
Authors seem to like titles like “What the Jews Believe”. Actually the definite article presumes too much, and one cannot really speak about what the – i.e. all or even most – Jews believe. Not that this impresses the ordinary person who knows that the prayer book contains 13 principles, each beginning “I believe with perfect faith”, attributed to Moses Maimonides. Yet the formula is not by Maimonides himself, nor is the list as a whole, and Maimonides would have had problems with the words. He would also have objected to the poetical version known as Yigdal – one of nearly 90 such poems – which in some respects, especially line 5, contradicts his own list.
Yet the attempts at simplifying his list must be taken as a compliment, and however problematical they are, their inclusion in the siddur has given Maimonidean dogmatics a unique status amongst the class of people whom he called the vulgar. They have even given rise to a widespread belief that might be summed up as a 14th principle – “I believe with perfect faith that Maimonides is the last word in Jewish theology”.
The 13 principles are not a stand-alone work. They introduce Rambam’s commentary on Perek Chelek, the tenth chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin (in the Talmud, chapter 11), which asserts, “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come” but then lists certain people whose portion is forfeited. Maimonides begins his commentary thus: “What I have to mention now – and this is the correct place to mention it – is that the roots of our Torah and its fundamental principles are 13”.
This is a summary of the 13 principles:
1. God’s existence: He is an existent Being with the highest perfection of existence, and is the cause of the existence of all existent beings.
2. The unity of God: He is not one of a species, or divisible into parts.
3. The non-physicality of God: He is not a body, and physical events do not affect him.
4. The priority of God: no existent thing outside Him preceded Him.
5. The prohibition of idolatry: He must be worshipped without any mediator, and lower beings lower have no independent judgment.
6. Prophecy: there are humans with intellectual natures and moral perfection.
7. Moses, the father of all prophets: he was so high above other prophets that he attained angelic rank.
8. Revelation: the whole Torah we have is Divine and was handed down by Moses.
9. The abrogation of the Torah: nothing will be added to or taken away from the Torah, and no other Law will come from God.
10. God knows the deeds of human beings and is not unmindful of them.
11. God rewards those who obey His commands and punishes those who disobey.
12. The days of the Messiah: though he may tarry, we must wait for him.
13. The resurrection of the dead.
There is system in the principles – five about God, four about Torah, four about reward and punishment – though there is no hierarchy of importance. Maimonides often used numerical lists, which have ample precedents; narratives and codes constantly parade their favourite numbers, including 13. Midrashim about Adam having 13 canopies and Moses writing 13 copies of the Torah need not be taken literally, but show this was a popular number.
13 Divine attributes are derived from Ex. 34:6-7, and there are 13 rules of interpretation in the baraita of Rabbi Ishmael (Introduction to Sifra). These establish 13 as the standard number for religious fundamentals, possibly based on an ancient tradition. It is true that Sa’adia Ga’on, Judah Hadarsi and Judah Halevi posited ten and not 13 principles, echoing the Ten Commandments, but Maimonides preferred 13. Yet he had to tailor his list in order to fit his framework. If he had 11 items he would have needed to subdivide some in order to reach 13; with more than 13, some would have had to be omitted or combined, though a total of 14 or 15 could have been rationalised because these numbers too have a symbolic significance.
Which if any items were included or excluded depends on the motive behind the whole exercise, together with the individual status of the particular item. To help us address these issues we need to try to read Maimonides’ mind about the opening passage of Perek Chelek. His thinking seems to go like this: Every Jew has a place in the World to Come, except three: “he who says there is (in the Torah) no resurrection of the dead, he who says the Torah (written and oral) is not from heaven, and the apikoros who does not respect the sages”. Others who forfeit their place include one who reads the Apocrypha and one who pronounces the Divine name in full. Logically, if every Jew has a place in the World to Come, anyone who loses their place cannot be a Jew. The loss of one’s place is caused by wrong views or doctrines, so Jewishness depends on views and doctrines.
Maimonides’ words are, “When all these tenets of faith are in a man’s keeping, he enters the community of Israel and we must love him. Even if he commits every possible sin he is punished but keeps his place in the World to Come. If, however, he rejects any of the basic principles he has left the community, is a denier of the faith, and is a sectarian, an apikoros and ‘one who hacks the plants’”. This phrase is from the story of Elisha ben Avuyah (Shir haShirim Rabbah 1:4), who tried to draw children away from accepted belief and practice. Others say he “hacked the plants” by adopting dualism, Epicureanism or some other heresy. Maimonides says it is a duty to hate such people, though whether this was ever carried out is uncertain.
In rabbinic sources, passages about the next world “are so numerous and varied that it is impossible to enumerate them” (Arthur Marmorstein, Studies in Jewish Theology, London, 1950, p.170). Once that interest in the afterlife had become widespread, the sages brought it into countless discussions and used the hope or deprivation of the future world as an incentive to act rightly and avoid sin. Some sayings about the next world are ethical: “He who embarrasses his fellow in public has no share in the World to Come” (BM 59a). Some are nationalistic: “He who walks four cubits in the Land of Israel is assured of the World to Come” (Ket. 111a).
Several are polemical, reflecting the problems of the time. Thus Rabbi Elazar haModa’i in Avot 3:11: “He who profanes sacred things, despises the festivals, embarrasses his fellow in public, annuls the covenant of Abraham our father or interprets the Torah wrongly: though he has learning and good deeds, he has no place in the World to Come”. Or RH 17a: “The minim (Judeo-Christians), informers and apikorsim, those who reject the Torah, abandon the ways of the community, tyrannise the people, sin and cause others to sin – they will go to gehinnom and be punished for ever”. Heretics are or act like sectarians and lose their place in the World to Come.
Maimonides worked through this material and selected 13 theological items from the many statements about the afterlife. He generally cites Biblical sources. Hence the existence of God is derived from the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2) and the unity of God is from the Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the One Lord” (Deut. 6:4). Solomon Goldman argues that this shows that Maimonides was not an innovator or originator but an anthologist or codifier. Goldman’s essay is significantly titled, “The Halachic Foundation of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles” (Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, ed. HJ Zimmels, J Rabbinowitz and I Finestein, London, 1967, pages 117-118). Maimonides acknowledged that he took material from many sources: “I have brought together for you,” he wrote, “many useful things scattered about in many collections of books”. But he was more than an anthologist. He deliberately excluded folkloristic material. He also omitted ethics and etiquette, though he brought such material into his Code. His criterion was theology; his motive, to show that incorrect theology loses one the afterlife.
The linking of the afterlife to beliefs and not behaviour, did not begin with Mishnah Sanhedrin, but Sanhedrin became its classical expression. Mishnaic theology was ad hoc. It pre-dated systematic philosophical and theological analysis. Hence we need to identify the controversies of Perek Chelek. What was bothering the sages when they deemed it heinous to deny that Torah was from heaven, that resurrection of the dead was Biblical, and that one had to respect the rabbis?
The answer is found in the conflicts of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Josephus reports that the Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic tenet that the Oral as well as the Written Law was “Torah from heaven”, denied that the resurrection of the dead derives from the Torah, and denied authority to non-priestly sages. To protect Pharisaic views, the Mishnah threatened the Sadducees with loss of the World to Come. This theological debate seems out of place in Sanhedrin, which is a textbook of criminal law, but it is probably an excursus intended to link the references to the apostate city in chapter 9 paragraph 1 and in chapter 10 paragraph 4.
Solomon Schechter’s view (“Dogmas of Judaism”, Studies in Judaism, vol. 1, 1958 ed., pp.73-104) was that Maimonides followed the Mishnah by engaging in polemic. At a time of challenge from Christianity, Islam and, internally, Karaism, he was voicing “a protest against the pretensions of other creeds”. Thus, principles 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 12 are a response to Christianity, principles 7, 8 and 9 to Islam and 8 and 9 to Karaism.
Later critics, especially Chasdai Crescas, asked why Maimonides put all his principles on the same level without distinguishing between essential tenets such as Divine unity, without which Judaism was unthinkable, and non-essential tenets such as Messiah, without which Judaism could still exist. Schechter believes that if we see Maimonides as a polemicist, the problem dissipates. Only issues about which Judaism was under attack needed attention. Without the challenges there might have been no list. Not that Christian, Islamic and Karaite claims were spelt out, but they are hinted at broadly enough, giving us, as it were, the answers without the questions. But if what we have before us is a polemic, why were non-controversial items such as the existence of God included? Schechter would say that having decided to mount a response, Maimonides wrapped it up in a comprehensive statement of the whole theological terrain, seeing the doctrines in relation to one another as part of a logical system.
Goldman would also have said that if Maimonides did not differentiate between classes of beliefs, neither did the Talmudic texts on which he based himself. Goldman assumes that Maimonides was limited to and by his sources, though in fact by means of sifting, re-casting and fleshing out the material and giving it a philosophical underpinning, he did go beyond it, providing what Leon D Stitskin calls “an intellectual independence that rejects unsupported, dogmatic doctrinal beliefs” (Letters of Maimonides, NY, 1977, page 9). It should be noted, however, that after Principle 6, Maimonides’ argumentation becomes less philosophical and more rabbinic, explaining in the Guide that some doctrines can be explained by means of logic whilst others derive their validity more from tradition (Guide 1:63).
JD Bleich (With Perfect Faith: The Foundations of Jewish Belief, NY, 1983, Introduction) disagrees with Goldman and to some extent with Schechter. He questions whether Maimonides really held that membership of the Jewish people depends on credal affirmation. Yes, Maimonides does say in the final note to the Principles that if a person accepts orthodox belief he “enters” the Jewish community, implying that hitherto he was not really Jewish. The passage even says that if a person rejects these principles he loses the name Jew. Though these statements seem to undermine the Bleich argument, Bleich agrees that Judaism does not leave one free to accept or reject given articles of faith and he accepts that Maimonides held right opinions to be the pathway to heaven. This applies at all times, but in certain ages it is necessary to state or re-state credal truths, for example at times of religious laxity or when there is a challenge from outside.
Marc Shapiro points out in Torah u-Madda Journal (vol. 4, 1993) and in The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ 13 Principles Reappraised, 2004, that each of Maimonides’ principles met with opposition, however slight, but that is another discussion. More relevant is Shapiro’s argument that Maimonides saw a need to educate other Jews in the light of the challenges of the times, but the Principles did not necessarily express Maimonides’ own thinking. They were a voice of official orthodoxy, but as Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines have shown, Maimonides’ personal views, especially in the Guide, were probably more esoteric and more flexible.
Maimonides acknowledged that one had to read between the lines to find, if one might put it so bluntly, two types of food – one, generally Aristotelian, for the intellectuals; another as a sop for the vulgar (Jacob Haberman, Maimonides and Aquinas: A Contemporary Appraisal, NY, 1979, especially chapter 5; see Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Glencoe, 1952; Shlomo Pines, Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, Introduction, Chicago, 1963). If the Principles express the official line, how do we describe their status? In particular, are they dogmas?
Leo Baeck’s Essence of Judaism (1948 ed., NY, pp. 12-13) argues that dogma is more a Christian than a Jewish concept. A dogma, according to Baeck, has three characteristics. It is a definite formula of conceptions; it is declared binding by an established authority; salvation depends on it. To Baeck, Judaism does not need dogmas or a consecrating act of faith. Membership depends on covenant, not creed; pious conduct, not theology. It does not deny salvation to those whose belief is weak. Its tenets are headlines; it likes doctrinal discussion to be fluid, without final conclusions or binding formulas. Even if it wanted dogmas, it lacks the legislative bodies to establish and impose them. What it has is not creeds but “classical phrases – sacred words that ring with the tones of revelation and tradition”.
Baeck’s view is probably shared by most post-Maimonidean Jews, but it is not Maimonidean. Maimonides placed greater store on theology than Baeck did. The Introduction to the 13 Principles takes it for granted that there is an authority in Judaism, though it is not a legislature but a literature, i.e. the Torah, with essential principles that are indispensable for anyone who wants to be counted within the community or to inherit the World to Come. These sound like dogmas, but the name “dogma” is inappropriate.
Dogmas presuppose a binding authority which determines beliefs irrespective of their intellectual underpinning; for Maimonides, the doctrines based on the Torah are both credible and rational. Dogmas imply, “Believe and you will be saved”; for Maimonides, doctrine must go with study and practice. Dogmas are rigidly defined; for Maimonides, beliefs have room for intellectual manoeuvring. Dogmas imply that one moment of commitment brings salvation; for Maimonides, the mind must be constantly trained and elevated in order to reach the truth and open the gates of immortality.
Nonetheless, the 13 Principles are still the nearest thing Judaism has to dogma. But they are not Maimonides’ last word on the subject. Apart from his re-working of at least two principles, numbers 4 and 13, his later writings offer other comprehensive statements, sometimes also numbering 13.
Hilchot Teshuvah 3:6 has a separate (some would say “more Jewish”) list of 13 categories who lose their place in the World to Come: “These have no portion in the World to Come but are cut off and judged eternally for their great wickedness and sinfulness – the minim; the apikorsim; those who deny the Torah, the resurrection of the dead or the coming of the Redeemer; those who rebel against God, cause the many to sin, separate themselves from the community, brazenly sin in public, betray Jews to the gentile authorities or intimidate the people other than for the sake of God; murderers; slanderers; and the one who extends his foreskin in order not to appear circumcised.”
The next two paragraphs define the minim, the apikorsim and the deniers of the Torah, positing a hierarchy of religious offences with the minim as the worst category. A min says there is no God, accepts that there is a Ruler but says there are two or more, accepts God’s rule but says that He has physical form, or worships a heavenly body or other entity as an intermediary between him and God. An apikoros denies the existence of prophecy; denies that God communicates with the hearts of human beings; disputes the prophetic status of Moses, or maintains that the Creator is not aware of the deeds of men. Minim and apikorsim link up with the 13 Principles in that the one category denies the earlier principles which present philosophically necessary doctrines about God whilst the other denies the later principles concerning the relationship between God and man.
A denier of the Torah is one who says that even one word of the Torah is not from God, rejects rabbinic interpretation or says that the Torah came from God but He has replaced one commandment with another or nullified the Torah. This is also a denial of part of the 13 Principles, though not necessarily the first section dealing with the existence and nature of God. Other categories in Hilchot Teshuvah deal with community norms, not theological issues as such. We will return to communal norms when we ask why adherence to the community does not figure in the Principles. In the meantime let us find what criteria Maimonides used in deciding what to include in the Principles and what to omit.
Goldman argues that Maimonides was constrained by rabbinic statements attaching the loss of the afterlife to the denial of accepted tenets. We have already seen that this may be too narrow an approach, like that of Schechter who thinks Maimonides compiled his list to answer contemporary challenges. When Maimonides added material about non-controversial issues, we stated above that he did in order to provide a broad conceptual context. We must now ask why he attached his Principles to Perek Chelek. Could he not have written an independent credal work, however short?
Probably because at that stage of his life he was a relative unknown and little notice would have been taken of a document compiled by such a person. A Mishnah commentary gave a scholar more influence and was more likely to be heeded, and it let him formulate general statements by way of forewords to Mishnaic sections. The 13 Principles are one example: another is the Eight Chapters on Ethics which introduce his analysis of Mishnah Avot.
But his Principles are far more sophisticated and systematic than the theological paragraphs of Perek Chelek. Maimonides was a philosopher; the Mishnaic sages were not, despite their capacity for rigorous analysis of legal principles and rules. Between the tanna’im and Maimonides’ era, Jewish philosophy had undergone development and diversification, and Maimonides himself was part of a philosophical age in which Greek thinking had been transmitted by means of Islam. His philosophical writing was bound to be more mature than Perek Chelek. A further difference with the tanna’im lies in their respective methods of treatment of the afterlife.
For Maimonides, the link between beliefs and the World to Come was more serious and intrinsic than for the sages. The rabbis probably did not use the link for philosophical purposes but in order to scare people into behaving correctly. Maimonides thought it was crucial to Jewish thinking. For him, the World to Come was the ultimate goal; despite the theological climate of the time, one got to the next world through correct opinions. The 13 Principles were a ladder on which to reach the heights of understanding.
What did Maimonides leave out of his Principles? There are two types of omission: incomplete statements and total exclusions. Two Principles are particularly incomplete. Number 4 avers that nothing came before God but makes no specific mention of ex nihilo creation. It does not specifically espouse either creatio ex nihilo (a doctrine increasingly seen as axiomatic) or the eternity of matter. The options are set out in the Guide, but it could be said that Principles drawn up for ordinary people are not the appropriate forum for a philosophical analysis which would confuse anyone who wanted a simple statement. However, on this issue Maimonides’ personal view may have differed from the rabbinic norm and he endorses the rabbinic view only so long as the Aristotelian argument cannot be conclusively demonstrated (see the discussion in Howard Kreisel, “Moses Maimonides”, in History of Jewish Philosophy, ed. DH Frank and O Leaman, London/NY, 1977, pp. 256-277; Aviezer Ravitzky, “The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed: Between the Thirteenth and the Twentieth Centuries”, in Studies in Maimonides, ed. I Twersky, Harvard, 1990, pp. 159-207).
But even though ex nihilo creation might be deemed unnecessary in the Principles because it was implied or because its place was really in a philosophical book, Maimonides apparently did add it in a marginal note later in his life when he wrote that creation followed “absolute non-existence”. The details are in Menachem Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (Oxford, 1986, p.54). This piece of information shows that Maimonides re-thought his original material and took heed of the comments of others, but why did he alter one Principle and leave others unchanged? It may be that by now he was famous and could not afford to abbreciate an important subject (Kellner, op. cit., pages 54-58).
There is another Principle concerning which he took action, but in a different fashion. This is his abruptly stated 13th Principle, the resurrection of the dead. He attached argumentation and analysis to other principles, but with this one he simply stated, “We have already explained this”. Great controversy resulted. The critics claimed that he did not really believe in resurrection. As a result he composed an unusually passionate work, “Epistle on Immortality”, in which he defended himself and integrated the concepts of Messiah and afterlife. He could have spelled all this out in a note to the 13th Principle, either when he wrote it or in a marginal note like the one on creation, but he probably relied on the fact that his Introduction already discussed the World to Come in great detail.
A second type of omission deals with doctrines that figure elsewhere in his works but are excluded from the Principles. Two require attention – free will, which he calls a principle and a pillar in Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 5, and Jewish identity, which he emphasises in a number of places.
Inserting free will into the 13 Principles might seem unnecessary if we follow Schechter’s theory of Maimonidean polemic because in his day the scriptural faiths had a broad measure of agreement on this issue. But the Principles do include other less controversial subjects such as the existence of God, so there must be other reasons for the omission of free will.
The doctrine could be implied in Principles 10 and 11 (“God knows the deeds of human beings”; “God rewards those who obey His commands and punishes those who disobey”). Maimonides himself admits that there is hardly any point in reward or punishment unless a deed was freely chosen. Free will could also be implied in the principle of prophecy, since all the prophets exhort the people to take responsibility for their own deeds. Yet if other axioms can be spelled out, why not free will?
Is it that free will is fluid and its relationship to Divine knowledge and determinism not entirely certain? Maimonides, like other philosophers, thought that even though humans have control over their actions, this is the will of God: “In the same way that the Creator willed that all things should have the tendencies which He desired, so did He desire that man should have free will and of his own accord and by the mind with which God endowed him he should do all that man is competent to do” (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:4; Guide, 3:17; cf HA Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy, Cambridge Mass./London, 1979, pp. 232-233).
Nonetheless, Maimonides may have been less positive towards human freedom than the rabbis. He is both an Aristotelian rationalist and a rabbinic traditionalist (see Ravitzky, loc. cit.; Leo Strauss, “The Literary Character of the Guide to the Perplexed”, Essays on Maimonides, ed. SW Baron, NY, 1941). Goldman would say that since rabbinic texts do not list denial of free will amongst the causes for the loss of the afterlife, Maimonides’ omission of free will from the Principles is basically required by his source material.
A second omission is Jewish identity, though in Hilchot Teshuvah he criticises anyone “who separates himself from the community of Israel… as if he did not belong to the Jewish people”. Does this statement, echoing Avot 2:4, “Separate not yourself from the community”, not warrant recognition in the 13 Principles? Apparently not; and what he says on this passage in Avot does not help us either way (Moses Maimonides: The Commentary to Mishnah Avot, ed. A David, NY, 1968, pp. 31-32). Yet whatever term one uses for Jewish identity – Election, Chosen People, Covenant, Community – Maimonides insists that a Jew must be loyal to his people and not turn his back on them. Further, Hilchot De’ot 6:3 says that one should love every fellow Jew. So why omit the concept from the Principles? Perhaps it is implied in the seventh Principle (the status of Moses) and the eighth (revelation). Goldman would say that it iwas left out since the Talmud does not call it a prerequisite for the World to Come.
Menachem Kellner argues that Maimonides was more a universalist than a nationalist and in contrast to Judah Halevi did not see Jewishness as superior other than philosophically: “He plays down the special character of the Jewish people,” says Kellner, “and affirms that the difference between Jew and Gentile is theological and not essential… and… that in the end of days the distinction between Jew and Gentile will disappear” (Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People, Albany, 1991, p.6).
But this goes too far. The Principles are clearly a Jew speaking to Jews. If Jewish identity is omitted it is not that the author does not believe in it. On the contrary: he holds that beliefs identify the Jew. Jewish identity, measured by doctrine, is the principle of the Principles. Others may and do disagree, denying that being a Jew is defined by doctrinal tests (Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything?, Portland, Oregon, 1999). But Maimonides’ position is clear: a Jew must espouse the opinions in the Principles in order to be a Jew and merit the World to Come. His Principles do not need to spell out Jewish identity because it is implicit in the very existence of the document.
But does this mean that any human being whose mind can reach the truths of the Principles is – philosophically at least – a Jew? This seems a possible conclusion once the criterion of Jewishness is made to be doctrine and not descent.
All this being said, a later generation must be grateful to Maimonides. His formulation may not be the last word in Jewish theology but it stimulates thinking in an age when theological issues are back on the agenda. It may also not be the definitive answer to the complex question of Jewish identity but it is an option that must be considered. In the early 13th century some who disagreed with Maimonides wanted to burn his works; today’s generation want to rediscover and read him.
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