The Principles of Joseph Albo

Judaism has only three main pillars of faith

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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."

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.