Jewish Principles of Faith

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

Much of the following information comes from "The Jewish Encyclopedia" (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906-1910), under the editorship of Cyrus Adler. It is now in the public domain.

No Fixed Dogmas

In the same sense as Christianity or Islam, Judaism can not be credited with the possession of Articles of Faith. Many attempts have indeed been made at systematizing and reducing to a fixed phraseology and sequence the contents Of the Jewish religion. But these have always lacked the one essential element: authoritative sanction on the part of a supreme ecclesiastical body. And for this reason they have not been recognized as final or regarded as of 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 car- ried 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 Mohammedans. The recital of this "Kalimah" is the first of the five pillars of practical religion in Islam, and one converted to Islam must repeat it verbatim; so that among the conditions required of every believer with reference to confession is the duty to repeat it aloud at least once in a lifetime. None of the many summaries from the pens of Jewish philosophers) and rabbis has been invested with similar importance and prominence. The reasons for this relative absence of official and obligatory creeds are easily ascertained.

No Need for Creeds in Judaism

The remark of Leibnitz, in his preface to the "Essais de Theodicee," that the nations which filled the earth before the establishment of Christianity had ceremonies of devotion, sacrifices, libations, and a priesthood, but that they had no Articles of Faith and no dogmatic theology, applies with slight modification to the Jews. Originally race -- or perhaps it is more correct to say nationality -- and religion were coextensive. Birth, not profession, admitted to the religio-national fellowship. As long as internal dissension or external attack did not necessitate for purposes of defense the formulation of the peculiar. and differentiating doctrines, the thought of paragraphing and fixing the contents of the religious consciousness could 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 practise 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 i n course of time, prove the eminently practical, that is, the non-creedal character of Judaism. Compliance with certain rites -- baptism, circumcision, and sacrifice -- is the test of the would-be convert's faith. He is instructed in the details of the legal practise that manifests the Jew's religiosity, while the profession of faith demanded is limited to the acknowledgement of the nity of God and the rejection of idolatry (Yorei De'ah, Gerim , 268, 2). 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 he Law, obedience to which manifested the acceptance of the underlying re ligious principes; namely, the existence of God and the holiness of Israel as the people of his covenant.

The controversy whether Judaism demands belief in dogma or inculcates obedience to practical laws alone, aas enlisted many competent 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 the Mendelssohnian theory had been carried beyond its legitimate bounds. The meaning of the word for faithful and belief in Hebrew [emunah] had undoubtedly been strained too far to substantiate the Mendelssohnian thesis. Underlying the practise of the Law was assuredly the recognition of certain fundamental and decisive religious principles culminating in the belief in God and revelation, and likewise in the doctrine of retributive 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.

The Mishnah and the Talmud

But among the Tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah) and Amoraim (rabbis of the Talmud) this example of Philo found no followers. However, 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 (in 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 i 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 Christian century, R. Simlai, traces the development of Jewish religious principles from Moses with his 613 commands of prohibition and injunction, through David, who, according to this rabbi, enumerates ele ven; 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 the 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 we-Deot" is in reality one long ex position of the main tenets of the faithful. The plan of the book discloses a systematization of the different religious doctrines that, in the estimation of the author, constitute the sum total of his faith. They are: The world is created; 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 sould 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 the Orthodox Jewish community 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; His unity; His spirituality; His eternity; God alone the object of worship; Revelation through his 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; Resurrection of the dead.

Scholars (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) have shown that many of the beliefs that people popularly attribute to Maimonides were, in fact, the opposite of what he held to be true. See this essay for details:

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. For more information see:

The 13 principles of faith: 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, Du ran, 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 commandments of the Law are all tantamount to Articles of Faith.