Doctrine & Dogma

Neither the Bible nor the Talmud offers a systematic list of Judaism’s dogmas (official beliefs). Certain beliefs–for example, the existence of God and the eventual messianic redemption–are implicit in early Jewish texts, and the Talmud lists a number of heretical positions that would disqualify one from the World to Come; but lists of official Jewish creeds did not emerge until the Middle Ages.

Saadiah Gaon (882-942) was the first significant Jewish thinker to compile such a list, but the major figure in the pro-dogma movement was Maimonides (1135-1204), whose Thirteen Principles of Faith is still the most well known list of Jewish beliefs.

Maimonides stated his principles in an introduction to his commentary on the tenth chapter of the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin. This chapter begins with the statement that every member of Israel has a share in the World to Come except, “he who says there is no resurrection, that the Torah is not from heaven, and the apikores.” Maimonides defined an apikores as anyone who denied, or even doubted, one of the following thirteen items:

old books1) God exists

2) God is a perfect unity

3) God has no physical body

4) God preceded all being

5) God alone is to be the object of worship

6) God speaks to humans through prophets

7) Moses will never be surpassed as a prophet

8) The Torah is from heaven

9) The Torah is eternal

10) God is all-knowing

11) God rewards good and punishes transgression

12) The Messiah will redeem Israel

13) The dead will be resurrected

Aside from claiming that belief in these principles was necessary for personal salvation, Maimonides asserted that one was not a true member of the “community of Israel” until one understood and affirmed them. This may have been Maimonides’ most radical theological innovation. In rabbinic Judaism, one was considered Jewish if one’s mother was Jewish or if one converted (the conversion process included a commitment to fulfilling the commandments, but not an explicit commitment to believe in certain doctrines).

In the centuries following Maimonides’ death, several other scholars drew up lists of Jewish dogmas. In many instances, these lists differed from Maimonides’, either in substance or style. Joseph Albo (c.1380-1444), for example, believed that Judaism had only three fundamental principles, corresponding roughly to Maimonides’ first, eighth, and eleventh principles.

Why did lists of Jewish belief suddenly emerge in the Middle Ages?

Many scholars–including the 15th Century Isaac Abravanel–believe that it was a response to outside forces. The 10th century, when Saadiah was writing, saw the strengthening of two religious traditions, Islam and Karaism–a sectarian Jewish movement. Muslims and Karaites alike were monotheists who employed Greek thought to construct systematic theologies and principles of faith. Jewish thinkers were influenced to do the same.

Whatever the reason for their emergence, the notion that Judaism has official beliefs took hold, and Maimonides’ list gained mass acceptance. Two liturgical versions of the Thirteen Principles (the yigdal hymn and the ani ma’amin) retain a prominent place in traditional Jewish prayer books to this day.

And yet, with the advent of modernity, many Jewish scholars and theologians–including Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Leo Baeck (1873-1956)–rejected the idea that Judaism has dogmas. These scholars admitted that there are certain ideas implicit in Jewish texts and traditions, but they believed that formal doctrinal articulation was a medieval corruption of biblical and rabbinic Judaism.

Traditional authorities, however, have never viewed Maimonides’ principles as a departure from the rabbinic tradition. Most Orthodox Jews believe that dogma is essential to Judaism and that Maimonides’ principles are normative.

In addition, some recent scholarship has questioned the liberal/academic assumption that beliefs were not important in biblical and rabbinic Judaism. Historian David Berger has pointed out that though the talmudic rabbis did not have creeds like Maimonides’, they did believe (as noted above) that the denial of certain theological ideas would exclude one from a share in the World to Come.

While Berger views these as examples of rabbinic dogma, other scholars have viewed them as the only examples of rabbinic dogma, an anathema that could be explained by looking at the statement’s historical context.

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