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Jewish principles of faith

Judaism has always affirmed a number of principles of faith. A Jew must hold certain principles to be said to be in consonance with the Jewish faith. However, unlike most Christian denominations, the Jewish community has never developed any one binding catechism. A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, but differ in certain details. A comparison of several such formulations demonstrates a wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives.

The prime reason why no one text was formalized as "the" Jewish principles of belief is the lack of an authoritative sanction from a supreme ecclesiastical body. This is why no one formulation of Jewish principles of faith is recognized as universally binding force.

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 a character analogous to that given in the Church to its three great formulas (the so-called Apostles' Creed, the Nicene or Constantopolitan, and the Athanasian), or even 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.

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When religion and nationality were the same

Originally nationality and religion were the same. Birth, not profession, admitted a person to a religio-national fellowship. As long as internal dissension or external attack did not necessitate for purposes of defense the formulation of specific doctrines, the thought of fixing the contents of the religious consciousness did not insinuate itself into the mind of even the most faithful. Missionary or proselytizing religions are driven to the definite declaration of their teachings. The admission of the neophyte hinges upon the profession and the acceptance of his part of the belief, and that there may be no uncertainty about what is essential and what non-essential, it is incumbent on the proper authorities to determine and promulgate the cardinal tenets in a form that will facilitate repetition and memorizing. And the same necessity arises when the Church or religious fellowship is torn by internal heresies. Under the necessity of combating heresies of various degrees of perilousness and of stubborn insistence, the Church and Islam, were forced to define and officially limit their respective ) theological concepts.

Both of these provocations to creed-building were less intense in Judaism.

The proselytizing zeal, though during certain periods more active than at others, was, on the whole, neutralized, partly by inherent disinclination and part ly by force of circumstances. Righteousness, according - to Jewish belief - was not conditioned of the acceptance of 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 precluded the development of a missionary attidude. 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) - 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 acknowledgement of the unity of God and the rejection of idolatry. Judah ha-Levi ("The Kuzari," i. 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, circuscision, 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 principes; namely, the existence of God and the holiness of Israel as the people of God's covenant.

The controversy whether Judaism demands belief in dogma or inculcates obedience to practical laws alone, has been discussed by many scholars. Moses Mendelssohn, in his "Jerusalem," defended the non-dogmatic nature of Judaism, while Low, among others, took the opposite side. Low made it clear that Mendelssohn's theory had been carried beyond its legitimate bounds. The meaning of the word for "faithful belief" in Hebrew, emunah, had undoubtedly been strained too far. Underlying the practice of the Law was assuredly the recognition of certain fundamental principles, culminating in the belief in God and revelation, and likewise in the doctrine of divine justice.

The first to make the 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.

Principles of faith in the Mishnah and the Talmud

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. Only in a general way 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 Akiba 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 the Deity. By implication, the contrary doctrine and attitude may thus be regarded as having been proclaimed as orthodox. On the other hand, Akiba himself declares that the command to love one's neighbor the fundamental the principle of the Law; 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 (Shabbat 31a), embodies in the golden rule the one fundamental article of faith. A teacher of the third century CE, R. 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" (Mak., toward end). As Halakhah (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.

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.

Yehudah ha-Levi endeavored, in his "The 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. With them Judaism stands and falls. The book of Bahya ibn Pakuda ("Hobot ha-Lebabot"), while remarkable, as it is, for endeavoring to give religion its true setting as a spiritual force, contributed nothing of note to the exposition of the fundamental articles. It goes without saying that the unity of God, His government of the world, the possibilities of leading a divine life -- which were never forfeited by man -- are expounded as essentials of Judaism.

Maimonides's 13 Principles of Faith

The 13 Principles of Faith were formulated by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides (1135-1204 CE). These principles were controversial when first proposed, and they 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'amim and Yigdal) became canonized in the siddur (Jewish prayerbook), and these principles eventually became widely held.

Today most of Orthodox Judaism holds these beliefs to be obligatory, and that anyone who doesn't fully accept each one of them may be a heretic. These principles deal with the following 13 subjects: The existence of God; God's unity; God's spirituality; God's eternity; God alone should be the object of worship; Revelation through God's prophets; the preeminence of Moses among the Prophets; God's law given on Mount Sinai; the immutability of the Torah as God's Law; God's foreknowledge of men's actions; retribution; the coming of the Messiah; and the resurrection of the dead.

Several scholars (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) have shown that some of the beliefs that people popularly attribute to Maimonides were, in fact, the opposite of what he held to be true. (See the works of Professor Menachem Kellner on this topic.)

Maimonides's 13 principles never received formal official approval; until recently Jewish law has never required Jews to accept them in full. In the last two centuries however, large segments of the Orthodox Jewish community have begun to demand strict adherence to Maimonides' principles. Others reject this view, noting that his views were never considered the last word in Jewish theology.

Principles of faith after Maimonides

The successors of Maimonides, from the thirteenth to the fifteeneth century -- Nahmanides, Abba Mari ben Moses, Simon ben Zemah, Duran, Albo, Isaac Arama, and Joseph Jaabez -- reduced his thirteen articles to three: Belief in God; in Creation (or revelation); and in providence (or retribution).

Others, like Crescas and David ben Samuel Estella, spoke of seven fundmental 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 thirteen of Maimonides thirteen 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 thirty-five cardinal principles.

In the fourteenth century Asher ben Jehiel of Toledo raised his voice against the Maimonidean articles of faith, declaring them to be only temporary, and suggested that another be added to recognize that the Exile is a punishment for the sins of Israel . 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, holding, with all the cabalists, that the 613 mitzvot are all tantamount to Articles of Faith.

Judaism after The Enlightenment

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, freethought, 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 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 welcomes. Scientific study of religious texts would allow people to study the history of Judaism. Some Jews felt that this would bring much to Judaism. Others, however, believed that this might call into question some previously held dogmas about Judaism; if a few beliefs were found to be incorrect, where would one draw the line?

In response to these issues, Jews developed different denominations. The entry on Ultra-Orthodox_Judaism discussed in more detail how and why the enlightenment led to the development of the modern Jewish denominations.

Dogma in Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is a loosely linked set of traditionalist movements that have consciously resisted the influences of modernization and the Enlightenment.

Since there is no one unifying body in Orthodox Judaism, there is no one official statement of principles. Rather, each Orthodox group claims heir to the received tradition of Jewish theology, usually affirming a literal acceptance of Maimonides's 13 principles as the only acceptable position. Some within Modern Orthodoxy take the position that these principles only represent one particular formulation of Jewish faith, and that others are possible.

Dogma in Conservative Judaism

Like Orthodoxy, the Conservative movement developed in Europe and the United States in the 1800s, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the enlightenment and emancipation. 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 have 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 the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of these issues. Atheism, Trinitarian views of God, and polytheism are all ruked 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.

Dogma in Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism has had a number of official platforms, but in contrast to rabbinic Judaism, rejects the view that Jews must have any beliefs, other than rejecting Christianity. 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 the 1999 "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism" (3 pages). 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; laypeople need not accept all, or even any, of the beliefs stated in these platforms.

Reform Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut writes "there is no such thing as a Jewish theological principle, policy, or doctrine." This is because 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.]

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."

Dogma in Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is a very small 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 naturalists or humanists. 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. Some traditional Jews have claimed that this position borders on being anti-Semitic.

  • Revelation - the idea that God can reveal His will to man - is dismissed as false supernaturalism. Mordecai Kaplan instead posits a new definition of this term: "Revelation consists in disengaging from the traditional context those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them into our own ideology...the rest may be relegated to archaeology." (Source: "The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion").

Jewish belief and identity

While Orthodox Judaism believes that following the commandments given in the Torah is central to Judaism, it does not believe that a person's lack of obseravance removes their Jewishness. Such a person is held to be a Jew, although one who is not practicing Judaism.

The historic definition of 'Jewishness' requires only that one be born of a Jewish mother, or that one converts to Judaism in accord with Jewish law. Today, American Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism also include those born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers if the children are raised as Jews. Whether Jewishness is preserved irrespective of one's actions is the subject of dispute.

A number of evangelical Protestant Chrisitan groups teach that it is possible to belive in Jesus as the Messiah and still remain an adherent of Judaism (see Jews for Jesus and messianic Judaism), but all sectors of the Jewish community reject this position outright.


"Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed" Kenneth Seeskin, Behrman House, 1991

"Philosophies of Judaism" by Julius Guttmann, trans. by David Silverman, JPS. 1964. An authoritative history of Jewish philosophy and theology, from the Hebrew Bible to the beginning of the 20th century.

The Rabbinical Assembly "Emet Ve-Emunah: Statements of principles of Conservative Judaism", JTSA, New York, 1988

"American Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective" Jeffrey S. Gurock 1996, Ktav.

"Maimonides' principles: The Fundamentals of Jewish Faith", in "The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Volume I", 1994, Mesorah Publications

"Judaism As a Civilization" Mordecai M. Kaplan[?], The Jewish Publications Society, 1994

"A Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism" Michael A. Meyer, Wayne State Univ Press, 1995,

"Platform on Reconstructionism" Published in the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.

Much of this information comes from "The Jewish Encyclopedia" (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906-1910)

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