Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought

Saadiah articulated Jewish creeds, Maimonides followed suit, and a group of 15th-century Spaniards continued the tradition.

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Both early Islam and [the medieval sectarian movement] Karaite Judaism adopted the tools of Greek philosophy and logic, which defined belief (in Greek, pistis) in explicitly propositional terms. Such religious movements could not be ignored by the Judaism of that era, and in their attempt to expound and defend Judaism in this context, medieval Jewish thinkers began to conceive of the nature of belief in propositional terms. 

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the first systematic exposition of Jewish beliefs was undertaken by Saadiah Gaon, in light of his exposure to the latest currents of Moslem thought in tenth‑century Baghdad and his involvement in the struggle against Karaism.

Once the term belief was defined in terms of specific propositions to be accepted or rejected, as opposed to an attitude of trust and reliance upon God and acceptance of his Torah, it was only a question of time until an attempt would be made to codify in creedal fashion the most important beliefs of Judaism. That two hundred years were still to elapse between the provocations of Saadiah's day and the enterprise of Maimonides is a tribute to the conservative nature of the Jewish tradition.

That Maimonides undertook the project at all is a tribute to his boldness.

jewish text over jerusalem silhouetteMaimonides' Revolution

In 1168 Maimonides completed his first major work, the commentary on the Mishnah. In the course of this work Maimonides commented on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, which reads as follows:

"All Israelites have a share in the world to come, as it is written, 'Thy people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my plant­ing, the work of my hands, wherein I glory' (Isaiah 60:21). But the following do not have a share in the world to come: he who says that resurrection is not taught in the Torah, he who says that the Torah was not divinely revealed, and the epikoros…"

By way of interpreting this text, Maimonides composed a lengthy essay in which, among other things, he defines the various terms occurring in the mishnah under discussion. It was apparently by way of defining the term Israelites in this mishnah that Maimonides listed those thirteen beliefs that, in his estimation, every Jew qua Jew had to accept.

These beliefs, known as the Thirteen Principles, may be summarized as follows: (1) that God exists; (2) that God is one; (3) that God is incorporeal; (4) that God is ontologically prior to the world; (5) that God alone is a fit object of worship; (6) that prophecy occurs; (7) that the prophecy of Moses is superior to that of all other prophets; (8) that the Torah was revealed from heaven; (9) that the Torah will never be uprooted or altered; (10) that God knows the acts of human beings; (11) that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked; (12) that the Messiah will come; and (13) that the dead will be resurrected.

Maimonides concludes his discussion with the following peroration:

"When all these foundations [of the Torah] are perfectly understood and believed in by a person, he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love him and to act towards him in all the ways in which the Creator has commanded that one should act towards his brother, with love and fraternity. Even were he to commit every possible transgression, because of lust and because of being overpowered by the evil inclination, he will be punished according to his rebelliousness but he has a portion [in the World to Come]; he is one of the sinners of Israel. But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community [of Israel], denies the fundamental, and is called sectarian, epikoros, and one 'who cuts among the plantings.' One is required to hate and destroy him. About such a person it was said, 'Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate Thee?' [Psalms 139:21]."

Conditions for Jewishness, Salvation

Maimonides here defines dogmas as beliefs that are set down by the Torah and are both necessary and sufficient conditions for being a Jew and for earning a portion in the World to Come. Maimonides reiterated this list with little change in Chapter 3 of [Mishneh Torah] Hilkhot Teshuvah ("Laws of Repentance") referred to it in later writings, and even reworked portions of it toward the end of his life. Moreover, he unflinchingly accepts the halakhic implications of his position excluding heretics from the Jewish community (see Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Avodat Zarah 2:5; Hilkhot Edut 11:10; Hilkhot Shehitah 4:14, and especially Hilkhot Rozeah 4:10).

Maimonides' teachings here include the following revolutionary claims: Judaism has dogmas and accepting the dogmas of Judaism without doubt and hesitation is a necessary and sufficient condition for being considered a Jew and for achieving a portion in the World to Come; although one may transgress commandments out of weakness or inadvertence (ba‑shogeg) without excluding oneself from the community of Israel and the World to Come, disbelief in any one of the thirteen dogmas for any reason is heresy and costs one his membership in the community of Israel and his portion in the World to Come.

Heresy is heresy, whether it is intended as such or not.

Dogma Returns

In the two hundred years following the death of Maimonides almost no attention was paid to the question of dogma in Judaism. This may be a consequence of the fact that Maimonides' spiritual legacy split after his death.

Whereas Maimonides had sought to amalgamate two paths to human felicity‑-that of rational cognition [i.e. philosophy] and that of observance of the mitzvot‑‑followers emphasized one or the other of the two paths. Those who were halakhists had no reason to be interested in purely theological questions, while the philosophers were aloof to what they regarded as narrow theological issues and, therefore, neither group took up the question of dogma.

In fifteenth‑century Spain, however, we find that although Jewish philosophers as such had all but disappeared, in the face of a renewed theological attack by the Church upon Judaism‑-expressed in polemics, disputations, and forced attendance at conversionary sermons‑-and in the wake of the profound problems presented by forced converts (the Marranos), the Jewish communal and halakhic leadership was forced to take up the theological exposition and defense of Judaism and to deal with the principles of Jewish adhesion.

Given that the terms of the dispute were more or less dictated by Christianity and given the example of Maimonides, it was only natural that many fifteenth‑century Spanish Jewish thinkers once again emphasized the issue of dogma.

The fifteenth century witnessed a plethora of competing systems of dogmatics. Hasdai Crescas, Joseph Albo, and Isaac Abrabanel each composed complete books on the subject (the only such works written by Jews until the nineteenth century).

In addition, Simeon ben Zemah Duran, Abraham Bibago, and Isaac Arama all devoted systematic and extensive attention to the question of dogma in Judaism. The issue is also treated briefly in the writings of Abraham Shalom, Joseph Jabez, Yom Tov Lippman Muelhausen, Elijah del Medigo, and David ben Judah Messer Leon.

Defining Dogma

A number of interesting points emerge from the study of these writings. First, each of these authors defines dogma differently. Crescas, for example, regards dogmas as those beliefs that cannot consistently be denied if one believes in revelation; Albo defines Judaism in geometric terms and sees the dogmas of Judaism as its axioms; Arama understands the dogmas of Judaism to be those beliefs (coupled, in his view, with associated observances) that distinguish Judaism from other religions on the one hand and from philosophy on the other.

Second, despite the abundance of competing dogmatic systems, we do not find the rise of schismatic sects within fifteenth‑century Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, in which creedal differences have been associated with sectarianism. This may be an indication that attention to dogma was understood to be more of an intellectual exercise and response to the specific needs of the time than an actual attempt once and for all time to indite [i.e. set down in writing] the essential nature of Judaism.

Third, of all the thinkers who devoted serious attention to the question of dogma in Judaism after Maimonides, only two, Bibago and Abrabanel, explicitly allied themselves with Maimonides' claim that inadvertent heresy (ba‑shogeg) was actually heresy. All the other authors seem to adopt the traditional rabbinic conception that ignorance of the law and inadvertence are exculpatory factors.

Finally, only one thinker raised the question, does Judaism indeed have dogmas?

This was Isaac Abrabanel in his Rosh Amanah, in which he answered the question in the negative, insisting that all the beliefs and teachings of Judaism are equivalent. In effect he raised every teaching of Judaism to the level of dogma, requiring absolute doctrinal orthodoxy from every Jew on every issue.

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

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Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.