Doctrine & Dogma

Neither the Bible nor the Talmud offers a systematic list of Judaism’s dogmas (official beliefs). Certain beliefs–for example, the existence of God and the eventual messianic redemption–are implicit in early Jewish texts, and the Talmud lists a number of heretical positions that would disqualify one from the World to Come; but lists of official Jewish creeds did not emerge until the Middle Ages

Saadiah Gaon (882-942) was the first significant Jewish thinker to compile such a list, but the major figure in the pro-dogma movement was Maimonides (1135-1204), whose Thirteen Principles of Faith is still the most well known list of Jewish beliefs.

Maimonides stated his principles in an introduction to his commentary on the tenth chapter of the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin. This chapter begins with the statement that every member of Israel has a share in the World to Come except, “he who says there is no resurrection, that the Torah is not from heaven, and the apikores.” Maimonides defined an apikores as anyone who denied, or even doubted, one of the following thirteen items:

old books1) God exists

2) God is a perfect unity

3) God has no physical body

4) God preceded all being

5) God alone is to be the object of worship

6) God speaks to humans through prophets

7) Moses will never be surpassed as a prophet

8) The Torah is from heaven

9) The Torah is eternal

10) God is all-knowing

11) God rewards good and punishes transgression

12) The Messiah will redeem Israel

13) The dead will be resurrected

Aside from claiming that belief in these principles was necessary for personal salvation, Maimonides asserted that one was not a true member of the “community of Israel” until one understood and affirmed them. This may have been Maimonides’ most radical theological innovation. In rabbinic Judaism, one was considered Jewish if one’s mother was Jewish or if one converted (the conversion process included a commitment to fulfilling the commandments, but not an explicit commitment to believe in certain doctrines). 

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