The Thirteen Principles of Faith

Maimonides' theological principles were never unanimously embraced.

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Objections

Joseph Albo suggested that, in theory, if a prophet came whose mission could be verified in the same way Moses' could, then commandments--except for the Ten Commandments--could be abolished.

Principle 10

God knows the actions of humans and is not neglectful of them.

Objections

According to Ibn Ezra, "The Whole [God] knows the individual in a general manner rather than in a detailed manner." Some interpreted this to mean that God knows the general actions of humans, but not the particular details. Gersonides developed this idea fully: God knows universals, but not particulars.

Principle 11

God rewards those who obey the commands of the Torah and punishes those who violate its prohibitions.

Principle 12

The days of the Messiah will come.

Objections

The talmudic Rabbi Hillel (not to be confused with the earlier Hillel) stated that: "There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah (Sanhedrin 99a)."

Principle 13

The dead will be resurrected.

Conclusion

In Judaism, disagreement is not anomalous. However, whereas in the legal tradition we can speak of a mahloket l'shem shamayim--a debate in the name of heaven (God)--according to Maimonides, debate is not possible when it comes to dogmatic principles. The consequences of diverging from Maimonides' principles are severe.

After listing and describing his Thirteen Principles, Maimonides states: "When all these foundations are perfectly understood and believed in by a person he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love and pity him…But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community [of Israel], denies the fundamentals, and is called a sectarian, apikores, and one who 'cuts among the plantings' [a reference to the talmudic heretic Elisha ben Abuyah]. One is required to hate him and destroy him."

According to this assessment, revered authorities--such as Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, Rabad, ha-Meiri--whose works are studied to this day, would fall into the latter category. They would be considered heretics who not only have no redemption in the afterlife, but who are not true members of Israel and who deserve nothing but our scorn. 

What are we to conclude from this?

Probably not that these scholars were heretics, nor that Maimonides' principles were incorrect or untrue (for in most cases, even the divergences from Maimonides were relatively minor). If we can conclude anything from this analysis, it is that the Thirteen Principles of Faith--as articulated--were never normative, never as defining and consequential as Maimonides believed them to be.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.