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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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.

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