The Principles of Joseph Albo

Judaism has only three main pillars of faith

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

A Spanish philosopher (fifteenth century), Joseph Albo was the author of Sefer Ha-Ikarim (Book of the Principles), an eclectic work based on the ideas of earlier teachers such as his own mentor Hasdai Crescas, but important as the last great system of medieval Jewish philosophy. In this work, part theology, part apologetics, Albo sets out the principles of the Jewish religion by which Judaism differs from other religions, especially Christianity.

Simplifying the Principles

In the course of his analysis Albo observes that, in religion, only that without which the religion would lose its distinctiveness can be considered to be a principle. Contrary to Maimonides, who states that there are thirteen principles of faith in Judaism, Albo holds that Judaism has only three principles. These are: belief in the existence of God; belief that the Torah is from Heaven (i.e. belief in revelation, that Judaism is a revealed religion); belief in reward and punishment.

There are other beliefs to which a Jew is obliged to give his assent, belief in the coming of the Messiah for example, but since Judaism can be conceived without it, this belief cannot be said to be a principle of the faith. One who denies belief in the coming of the Messiah, though he is in grievous error, cannot be read out of Judaism as Maimonides declares. (The apologetic note is here clearly sounded: Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not stand or fall on belief in the Messiah.) Moreover, according to Albo, a person can only be termed an unbeliever if he willfully rejects a principle which he knows to be laid down by the Torah. It is the act of rebellion against the clear doctrine of the Torah that constitutes unbelief.

"But one who upholds the Torah of Moses and believes in its principles, yet when he undertakes to investigate these matters with his reason and when he scrutinizes the texts, is misled by his speculation and interprets a given principle otherwise than it is taken to mean at first glance; or denies the principle because he thinks that it does not represent a sound theory which the Torah obliges us to believe; or erroneously denies that a given belief is a fundamental principle, which, however, he believes as he believes other dogmas of the Torah which are not fundamental principles; or entertains a certain notion in relation to one of the miracles of the Torah because he thinks that he is not thereby denying any of the doctrines which it is obligatory upon us to believe by the authority of the Torah–a person of this sort is not an unbeliever. He is classed among the sages and pious men of Israel, though he holds erroneous theories. His sin is due to error and requires atonement."

Elaborating the Basics

It is hardly possible for a Jewish thinker to go further in tolerance of freedom of thought. Although Albo’s unbeliever of the class he describes is in error, he is like any other person who sins in error and can still be counted among the "sages and pious men of Israel." Albo, in fact, extends his three basic principles to others derived from them, so that including the three he first mentions there are eleven basic principles. These are: the existence of God; the unity of God; His incorporeality; His independence of time; His perfection; prophecy; the authenticity of God’s messenger, the prophet; revelation; God’s knowledge, providence; and reward and punishment.

Although only these are principles, according to Albo’s definition, there are six further dogmas the willful rejection of which, with full knowledge that it is a dogma of Judaism, renders a person a heretic who has no share in the World to Come. These are: belief in creation ex nihilo; the superiority of Moses’ prophecy; the immutability of the Torah; that human perfection can be attained by fulfilling even a single one of the commandments of the Torah; the resurrection of the dead; the coming of the Messiah.

Although this might be seen as Albo taking back with one hand what he has given with the other, it has to be realized that Albo, as he remarks, is thinking only of a willful rejection of a belief which a person knows to be taught by the Torah. For all that, Albo’s distinction between a principle and that which is not a principle remains purely in the realm of semantics, without any practical consequences.

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