The Emergence of Jewish Dogma

Medieval authorities responded to outside pressures and formulated Jewish principles of faith.

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In the following article, Menachem Kellner suggests that systematic theology was not important to the rabbis of the Talmud. While, strictly speaking, this is true--there are no self-conscious attempts to organize Judaism's beliefs in the Talmud--some scholars, David Berger in particular, reject Kellner's assertion that, in Talmudic Judaism, one's beliefs had no affect on one's Jewish identity or prospects for salvation. But that does not change the fact that the articulation of Jewish beliefs was a uniquely medieval phenomenon. This article is primarily concerned with determining the causes of this phenomenon. Finally, in his discussion of the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect, Kellner suggests that their practices did not differ much from the mainstream Jewish tradition. In fact, however, the Karaites relied primarily on biblical law without its talmudic elaborations.  Reprinted with the permission of The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization from Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought.

Why are there no orderly attempts in the Talmud to expound the beliefs of Judaism? In a certain sense, the question is anachronistic. We raise the question, I think, more because Islam and Christianity are characterized by repeated attempts to expound their theologies systematically, than because such an approach to theology is intrinsic to monotheistic faith.

 

Talmudic Religion

Talmudic Judaism was a faith which neither lent itself easily to theological systematization nor needed such a theology. Let me explain the second point first.

Now, why might a religion need to expound its beliefs in an organized fashion? One reason might be that it held that adherence to those beliefs was a criterion for being accepted as an adherent of that religion or was a criterion for salvation however that religion understood the term.

Talmudic Judaism, however, did not define a Jew in terms of his beliefs: a Jew was a person born of a Jewish mother or a person converted to Judaism (which in effect meant that he was adopted by the Jewish people as one of its own). The laws of conversion, as enunciated in the Talmud, concern themselves with the observance of the commandments to the almost total exclusion of questions relating to the affirmation of beliefs.

Personal salvation, too, did not depend upon orthodoxy in the strict sense of the term (orthos= straight; doxos=thinking) but upon submission to the will of God as expressed in the commandments of the Torah. Thus, talmudic Judaism did not need systematic theology either to define what a Jew was or how a Jew earned a share in the world to come.

Another reason why a religion might be compelled to expound its beliefs in an orderly fashion would be to attract outsiders to the fold. In such a case it would have to put its house in order, so to speak, so as to make it comprehensible to others. Talmudic Judaism, however, was not a proselytizing faith and was thus spared the need to present itself in this way to facilitate the conversion of Gentiles.

If a religion felt itself to be attacked on a theological plane by a competing faith it might feel constrained to formulate its doctrines more systematically the better to repulse the attack. But what faiths challenged rabbinic Judaism? Paganism in various forms, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.

All three were conceived by the rabbis as polytheistic, and so were hardly perceived as serious threats to Judaism on a theological plane. While individual Jews might be attracted to one or another of these faiths, it was not because they were perceived as presenting a more coherent religious picture of the universe than did the Judaism of the rabbis. These competing faiths might have challenged rabbinic Judaism, but it was not because they were more attractive theologically than was Judaism.

That, at least, was surely the opinion of the rabbis of the Talmud.

Responding to Outside Influences

Why then, do we suddenly find systematic theology among the Jews of Babylonia in the tenth century? The answer to this question, it seems to me, is related to the rise of Islam and of Karaism. Following the Muslim victories the Jews found themselves in a new situation. Suddenly they were confronted with an enthusiastically expansionist rival religion every bit as monotheistic as Judaism. Many Muslim theologians utilized the tools of Greek philosophy. Judaism had to defend itself against this external threat.

One aspect of that defense took the form of an attempt to show that Jewish beliefs were in no way inferior to those of other religions; i.e. the orderly exposition of Jewish beliefs.

At roughly the same time Judaism was sharply confronted from within by the Karaite heresy. The Karaites used Greek philosophical concepts in their arguments and forced the Rabbanites [i.e. the mainstream tradition] to do likewise. Here, too, in order to defend itself, rabbinic Judaism was forced to define itself in conceptual terms. This was all the more so with the Karaites, who claimed to be Jews and whose practices did not diverge dramatically from those of contemporary Rabbanite Judaism.

If practice did not sufficiently distinguish the Rabbanite from the Karaite then theology would have to.

We might even say that by the tenth century, confronted as it was without and within by rival faiths which it could not ignore, both of which chose to explain themselves in a theologically systematic fashion, rabbinic Judaism was literally forced to engage in the project of systematic theology. Sa'adia Gaon, the doughty opponent of Karaism and the first Jew methodically and rationally to expound the central beliefs of Judaism, was thus very much a product of his time and place.

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