The following is largely based on Marc Shapiro’s “Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?” published in The Torah U-Madda Journal, volume 4 (1993).
Maimonides wrote his Thirteen Principles of Faith in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Talmud Sanhedrin.
According to Maimonides, anyone who denies–or even doubts–any of these principles is a heretic with no place in the World to Come. Yet, these principles were hardly undisputed. Many scholars who preceded and succeeded Maimonides held contrary beliefs.
Below, is a list of the Thirteen Principles with references to some of these divergent beliefs. Unless otherwise noted, all the scholars mentioned are medieval authorities.
God exists; God is perfect in every way, eternal, and the cause of all that exists. All other beings depend upon God for their existence.
Some medieval authorities believed that God created the world from eternal matter (see Principle 4). Thus, according to these scholars, it would not be true to say that God is the cause of all that exists.
God has absolute and unparalleled unity.
God is incorporeal–without a body.
In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides asserts that anyone who believes that God is corporeal is a heretic. In reference to this, Abraham ben David Posquieres (also known as Rabad) comments that people greater than Maimonides have believed that God has a physical form. Rabad himself does not subscribe to this view, but objects to the claim that those who do are heretics.
In addition, Moses ben Hasdai Taku, a tosafist (medieval commentator on the Talmud), believed that God could take a physical form. Finally, Samuel David Luzzatto, a 19th-century scholar, defended the idea that God has a body, claiming that an embodied God was the only God conceivable to most people.
Ironically, Maimonides himself seemed to share this view. In the Guide of the Perplexed (I, 46) he writes: “For the multitude perceive nothing other than bodies as having a firmly established existence and as being indubitably true.”
God existed prior to all else. (In a later version of the Thirteen Principles, Maimonides included the notion that God created the world from nothing [creation ex nihilo].)
In his commentary to Genesis 1:1, Abraham Ibn Ezra suggests that the word bara (created) implies cutting or setting a boundary. Scholars such as Joseph Tov Elem and David Arama understood this to mean that Ibn Ezra believed that God sculpted the world from eternal matter. Gersonides also believed that the world was created from eternal matter.
God should be the only object of worship and praise. One should not appeal to intermediaries, but should pray directly to God.
Some of the selihot prayers–prayers of repentance recited on fast days and during the High Holy Days–and the third paragraph of the Shalom Aleichem hymn, sung prior to the Shabbat kiddush, are directed to angels. In addition, one of the Geonim–the leaders of Babylonian Jewry from the 7th to 11th centuries–defended the use of angels to intercede with God (Ozar ha-Geonim, Shabbat 4-6). He added that angels could sometimes fulfill the petitions of a prayer without consulting God.
Jacob Emden (1697-1776) is among some of the others who have approved of petitioning angels to intercede on ones behalf. Nissim Gerondi (Ran) maintained that there is one specific angel whom one may pray to.
Prophets and prophecy exist.
Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived. No prophet who lived or will live could comprehend God more than Moses.
Nahmanides and Gersonides believed that the Messiah would gain more knowledge of God than Moses. Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1813), the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his Likutei Amarim, notes that Moses’ prophetic abilities weren’t as great as those of Isaac Luria, the renowned medieval kabbalist.
The Torah is from heaven. The Torah we have today is the Torah that God gave to Moses at Sinai.
This principle assumes that there is and has always been one text of the Torah and that the Masoretic text–the text established by ben Asher in 930 CE–is this text.
The Talmud (Baba Batra 14b-15a; Makot 11a) relates that Joshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah. Abraham Ibn Ezra believed that Joshua wrote the last 12 verses. The Midrash Tanhuma, a rabbinc text, cites cases of tikkun soferim, instances where the scribes of the Great Assembly (the leaders of the Jews during the Persian exile) emended the Bible–including the Torah.
Menahem ben Solomon ha-Meiri mentions the “Masoretic works” instead of a singular “Masoretic text.”
Solomon ben Aderet (Rashba) discussed when we should change our Torah to accord with the Talmud’s version (which differs from the Masoretic text). Aryeh Loeb Guenzberg (18th century) opined that the commandment that every Jew write a Torah scroll no longer applies because of our doubts about how certain words are to be written. Similarly, Moses Sofer (1762-1839) believed that there’s no need to say a blessing before writing a Torah because, perhaps, the Talmud’s version is correct and the Torah being written is invalid.
The Torah will never be abrogated, nothing will be added to it or subtracted from it; God will never give another Law.
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.
God knows the actions of humans and is not neglectful of them.
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.
God rewards those who obey the commands of the Torah and punishes those who violate its prohibitions.
The days of the Messiah will come.
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).”
The dead will be resurrected.
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.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.