On the Orthoprax and Anti-Theological Nature of the Jewish Tradition

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The term orthodox is a Latin term not indigenous to the Jewish tradition, representing an influence of Christianity; and, literally means correct doctrine implying that religion requires correct doctrine in addition to right behavior.  In my view, the nature of the Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, if we insist upon using Latin terms, is orthoprax; which, literally means correct practice implying that Biblical religion and traditional Judaism demand right behavior (ethically and ritually) but no binding theological dogma.  There is no binding dogma in the Hebrew Bible, and the Talmudic rabbis did not formulate a binding theological creed.

 

Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma and the creation of an orthodox conception of Judaism

 

Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century), is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify a set of principles of faith within a legal framework as a binding theological dogma in codifying his “13 Principles of Faith” as commandments in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.  In my view, Maimonides was aware that a codification of a binding dogma is a distortion of Talmudic Judaism, according to which the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are positive and negative commandments of action (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of faith or belief; and, he codified his principles only for the unlearned Jewish masses as a political and religious leader (and not as a philosopher) in the main for historical reasons in order to strengthen them (as Christians and Moslems had codified principles of belief).  Maimonides is thus the first in the Jewish tradition to create an orthodox conception of Judaism, according to the literal meaning of the term.  Not only is the term orthodox as a Latin term (and an influence of Christianity) foreign to the Jewish tradition; but, the philosophic conception reflected in the term (that there are principles of belief that one must accept) is also foreign to the Jewish tradition.  Such an orthodox conception is compatible with Christianity, which is a religion in the orthodox sense of a faith commitment (faith in God and in Jesus as the messiah) but is foreign to the pragmatic spirit of traditional Talmudic Judaism, which is a religion in the orthoprax sense of a way of life of the Jewish people.

The orthodox movement emerged as a social movement in the 19th century in Europe together with the reform and conservative movements although the ideological roots of orthodoxy are in the codification of a binding dogma by Maimonides in the medieval period.  Thus, orthodox Judaism (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) represents later historical development in traditional Judaism following the Talmudic period – and, in my eyes, orthodox Judaism is not only not authentic Judaism as is believed on a widespread basis but represents a distortion of the orthoprax nature of the Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

 

The meaning of the concept of orthoprax in relation to the Jewish tradition

 

Traditional Judaism based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is orthoprax in two pragmatic and anti-theological senses.  First, traditional Judaism is orthoprax in demanding right behavior (ethically and ritually) but no formal theological dogma.  Second, traditional Judaism is orthoprax in emphasizing good deeds (ethically and ritually) as the essence of religion rather than faith.  But, the literal translation of the term orthoprax as correct deeds or practice is misleading because deeds especially in the Biblical conception of religion are most importantly ethical rather than ritual in nature.  There is a tendency to understand an orthoprax conception of Judaism in a narrow sense according to the literal meaning of the term as correct practice, as if the essence of Judaism is ritual practice.  In my eyes, this is a misconception, and the essence of Judaism and religion especially in the Biblical conception is morality and not ritual, as reflected in the verse – “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”(Deuteronomy 6, 18).  Thus, an orthoprax conception of Judaism (faithful to the Biblical conception of religion) means that Judaism demands good deeds most importantly in a moral sense, and correct deeds or practice in terms of ritual is of secondary importance.  Correct doctrine (the literal meaning of the term orthodox) is not essential to the living of a religious life in the traditional Jewish conception of religion (based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud).

It is also a misconception that the concept of faith is unimportant in an orthoprax conception of religion.  In an orthoprax conception, although the essence of religion is good deeds, this does not mean that the concept of faith is unimportant.  Rather, the question is – what is meant by the concept of faith?  The concept of faith can be understood in an orthodox or orthoprax sense.  Faith in an orthodox sense is philosophical or propositional in nature, such as Maimonides’ codification of a binding theological dogma.  Philosophic or propositional (orthodox) faith is expressed in the adoption of philosophic propositions that are held, known or believed to be true, implying a conception of religion in which the essence of religion is knowledge or belief in an abstract intellectual sense, as opposed to action.  By contrast, faith in an orthoprax sense is psychological or experiential in nature, such as the Biblical conception of faith.  In the Biblical conception, God is conceived not only as a God of creation but most importantly as a moral God who demands morality; and, faith in God in the Biblical conception is in the psychological sense of trust, loyalty and commitment (matters of the heart rather than reason), which expresses itself in good deeds implying that the essence of religion is moral character and moral action regardless of theological belief (or lack of theological belief).

Faith, in a philosophic (orthodox) sense, is an end in itself divorced from action in that the adoption of correct propositions does not necessarily express itself in proper behavior.  One may know (be convinced) or believe that God exists and yet act in an immoral manner; conversely, one may know (be convinced) or believe that God does not exist and yet act in a righteous manner.  Psychological (orthoprax) faith, by contrast, is not an end but a means to achieve the greater goal of proper behavior.  Such faith necessarily expresses itself in the greater goal of proper actions revealing psychological and moral character.  Thus, if one declares that he or she believes in God, and yet acts immorally, the immoral actions are testimony that such a person does not truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she believes in God, but moral character (in distinction to philosophic knowledge or belief) constituting faith in a psychological sense of the heart is truly revealed only in actions and not philosophic declarations.  Conversely, if one declares that he or she does not believe in God, and yet acts morally, the moral actions are testimony that such a person does truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she does not believe in God, but moral character (faith in a psychological sense of the heart) is truly revealed in actions and not philosophic declarations.

I want to emphasize that the term orthoprax does not mean that the Hebrew Bible and traditional Talmudic Judaism are not concerned with inward feeling or motivation, or that they are absent of philosophic ideas.  Rather, the Hebrew Bible and traditional Talmudic Judaism are clearly concerned with inward motivation, and filled with deeply profound philosophic ideas, but are orthoprax in nature in that they formulate no formal, binding theological creed that one must accept, and emphasize the importance of good deeds over faith (and in the Biblical conception, and in most Talmudic sources relating to the concept of faith, faith is conceived in an orthoprax and psychological rather than orthodox and theological sense).

 

The widespread acceptance of Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma

 

Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” became so widely accepted in the medieval period that a concise version summarizing the principles by an anonymous author even entered into the traditional Jewish prayer book.  I will briefly summarize the subject of each of the principles according to this version:

 

  1. The Existence of God as the Creator of the universe
  2. Unity of God
  3. Incorporeality of God
  4. Eternity of God
  5. Worship of God
  6. Prophecy
  7. Mosaic Prophecy
  8. Divine Revelation of the Torah
  9. Immutability of the Torah
  10. Providence
  11. Reward and Punishment
  12. The Coming of the Messiah
  13. Revival of the Dead

 

The philosophic conception that is reflected in the codification of a binding dogma by Maimonides that Judaism demands philosophic principles of belief that one must accept characterizes the orthodox world (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) perhaps more than anything else – even though not necessarily all of the principles that Maimonides codified are accepted by all in the orthodox world or even though there may be additional principles that are accepted as binding dogma by many in addition to those codified by Maimonides (such as belief in free will and the notion of chosen people).

 

The absence of Biblical and Talmudic precedent for Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma

 

The codification of principles of faith as a binding theological dogma by Maimonides is a huge innovation (and distortion) – no such principles are found in the Bible, and the Talmudic rabbis did not codify principles of faith as a binding dogma.  There were attempts after Maimonides to formulate principles of belief of Judaism such as those of Rabbi Hasdai Crescas and Rabbi Joseph Albo.  However, they did not codify, like Maimonides, principles of faith as a binding dogma from a legal point of view – in my opinion, they formulated principles of belief from a philosophic point of view that in their conception Judaism assumes as underlying principles and that characterize Judaism.

Maimonides attempted to base his principles of faith on Biblical verses, and to base his codification of a binding dogma upon a Talmudic source.  For example, Maimonides based the first principle of the existence of God on the Biblical verse “I am the Lord, your God” (Exodus 20, 2).  But, this is not the plain meaning of the verse as the verse is not a commandment demanding belief in the existence of God – rather, the verse is a declaration (by God) in which God is presented as the God of the people Israel.  Halachot Gedolot, a Halachic (legal) source composed shortly after the Talmudic period as well as the later medieval law codes the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch, faithful to the Bible (and faithful to the Talmud) do not codify as a commandment a principle of belief that God exists.  There are no commandments or demands in the plain meaning of the Bible to believe or not to believe regarding any philosophic proposition.  As I have pointed out, according to the Talmudic tradition, the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people command action (and not belief), and are referred to as commandments of doing and not doing (מצוות עשה ולא תעשה) – and, thus, Halachot Gedolot as well as the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch are faithful to the Talmudic tradition in not codifying as a commandment belief in the existence of God, while Maimonides in codifying such a principle as a commandment contradicts the Bible and the Talmudic tradition.

Maimonides codifies the principle of the existence of God in his legal work the Book of Commandments as the first positive commandment – and he based himself upon a Talmudic source (Makkot 23b):

 

The first commandment is that we are commanded regarding belief in God, and this is to believe that there is a cause and source for all existing things – and, this is what is meant “I am the Lord, your God”.  And, at the end of tractate Makkot (23b) of the Talmud it is said that 613 commandments were given to Moses at Sinai.  From which verse do we learn this? – “Moses commanded us Torah” (Deuteronomy 33, 4).  This is referring to the numerical value of Torah, and an objection was made that the numerical value of Torah is 611, and the answer given was that “I am G‑d your Lord” and “you shall have no other gods before Me” were heard directly from God.  It is clear then that “I am the Lord, your God” is counted as one of the 613 commandments as we have explained.

 

Maimonides here is relying upon an Aggadic (non-legal) source from the Talmud based upon gematria, according to which Hebrew letters have numerical value and words have a numerical value based upon the sum total of the letters of the word.  The word Torah has a numerical value of 611, and according to the Talmudic source that Maimonides is relying upon the commandments of Torah were commanded through Moses based upon the Biblical verse “Moses commanded us Torah”.  In response to the objection that the Torah of Moses only includes then 611 commandments the Talmud says that the opening statements of the ten statements “I am the Lord, your God” and “you shall have no other gods before Me” were heard directly from God by the Israelites at Sinai and thus there are 613 commandments.  Maimonides then infers from this source that “I am the Lord, your God” is considered to be a positive commandment.

The obvious problem here is that Maimonides is inferring a legal commandment to believe in the existence of God from an Aggadic and non-legal source from the Talmud.  To be considered a legitimate legal source the language of the source must be legal language addressing a legal question – using such language as, and addressing a question of, obligatory, permissible or forbidden.  The Talmudic source that Maimonides is citing as a support is an Aggadic midrash which addresses a philosophic question regarding the essence of Judaism, and attempts to reduce Judaism to basic fundamental teachings as reflected in various Biblical verses – and, is not at all addressing a legal question of obligatory, permissible or forbidden.  Aggadic sources are by definition not binding or authoritative, and merely express opinions – and, Maimonides is inferring from an Aggadic source a legal command to believe in the existence of God, which is at best then a very questionable legal support.  Maimonides, in relying upon this Aggadic source in inferring a commandment to believe in the existence of God, is actually revealing that he has no legitimate legal source in the Talmudic literature to rely upon for his codification of a commandment to believe in the existence of God.

Maimonides also attempted to base his codification of a dogma upon a Talmudic source.  The Talmud is a commentary upon the Mishnah, which is a short work based upon the Bible that is the foundation of the Jewish tradition from a legal point of view – and in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10, 1)  it is written:

 

All of Israel have a share in the world to come…But the following have no share in the world to come:  One who says that the revival of the dead is not from the Torah, that the Torah is not Divinely revealed, and a heretic.  Rabbi Akiva says also one who reads external (apocryphal) literature, and one who attempts to cure with charms…Abba Saul said also one who pronounces the holy name as spelled.

 

I want to point out several things in relation to this source in order to make clear that there is no precedent at all in this source for the codifying of a binding theological dogma.  First, the term that I highlighted that is translated heretic (apikorus) is a Greek or Aramaic term; however, according to the Talmud, and according to Maimonides as well, the term does not refer to theological heresy (the denying of a philosophic proposition) but characteristic of the orthoprax and pragmatic nature of the Jewish tradition refers to heresy in a behavioral sense of degrading or deriding the Torah (the Jewish tradition) or a Torah scholar (as an authoritative interpreter of the Torah).  In general, heresy in the Talmud is a behavioral rather than theological concept – a point to which I will return.  I emphasize then that the term heretic in this source is not a precedent for the codification of a binding theological dogma requiring acceptance of principles of belief that must be accepted – even according to Maimonides’ own understanding of the term heretic in the source.

Second, the passage from the Mishnah is not of a Halachic (legal) nature but is an Aggadic (moral, spiritual and philosophic) teaching.  That is, the source is not an authoritative, legal source but merely a recording of various opinions concerning a philosophic issue of why a Jew may not have a share in the world to come.  The evidence that this is so is that Rabbi Akiva suggests that a Jew is denied a share in the world to come by reading external literature, which means ancient Jewish books that were excluded from the canonization of the Hebrew Bible by the Talmudic rabbis – including the Book of Ben Sira, for example.  The Talmud, which is a commentary upon the Mishnah quotes a number of times from the Book of Ben Sira, indicating that Rabbi Akiva’s opinion in the Mishnah apparently carries no formal, binding status for the Talmud – and the Halacha (Jewish law) is based upon authoritative precedent such that if this passage were Halachic (legal) in nature the Talmud would be bound by the Mishnah, as an earlier authoritative precedent.  Thus, this passage from the Mishnah does not appear (for the Talmudic rabbis) to represent an authoritative, legal source but merely a recording of various opinions as to why a Jew is denied a share in the world to come – and thus the source cannot serve as a precedent for the codification of a binding theological dogma.

Third, the passage from the Mishnah is a negative formulation of several beliefs that should not be professed in speech (as reflected in the word “says”) and several practices that should not be engaged in – constituting reasons why a Jew is denied a share in the world to come.  Maimonides, by contrast, formulates in a positive sense theological principles in a comprehensive way (13 principles covering a wide range of theological topics) that a Jew must accept as a matter of belief.  This is clearly a leap from an orthoprax passage (concerning speech and practice) that speaks of several beliefs that should not be professed in speech, or certain practices that should not be engaged in, to an orthodox formulation by Maimonides in a comprehensive way of theological principles that must be accepted as a matter of belief.

 

Clear evidence that the Talmudic rabbis did not codify a binding dogma

 

In my view, the strongest piece of evidence that not only did the Talmudic rabbis not codify any binding theological dogma but that Maimonides’ creation of an orthodox conception of Judaism in his codification of a binding dogma is a distortion of the Jewish tradition is a source in the Talmud (Yevamot 47a) relating to the conversion process.  There is no mention in the source of acceptance of theological principles as a requirement of a potential convert in becoming a member of the Jewish people – and, if Judaism did require the acceptance of theological or philosophic beliefs, then surely a potential convert would need to be notified of this in this source relating to the conversion process:

 

Our rabbis taught:  If at the present time a potential convert comes to convert, he is told:  What reason do you have that you have come to convert?  Do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?  If he replies, I know and yet am unworthy, he is accepted immediately, and is informed of some of the minor and some of the major commandments…He is also informed of the punishment of the commandments…And just as he is informed of the punishment of the commandments, so is he informed of their reward.

 

Reflected in this Talmudic source is an orthoprax conception of Judaism.  There are two things that are fundamental in this source regarding the conversion process.  First, the potential convert is warned that he or she is becoming a member of an oppressed and persecuted people.  Second, the potential convert is taught about some of the more important and less important commandments, and their reward and punishment.  According to the orthoprax conception reflected in this source, Judaism is a way of life (involving observance of commandments) of the Jewish people.  Conspicuously absent from the source is any mention of philosophic principles that one must accept.

Maimonides in his law code (laws of forbidden relations 14, 1-3) codifies this Talmudic source, and to a great extent quotes from it word for word with the glaring exception of several highly significant additions that he inserts that are not to be found in the original Talmudic source – and I have highlighted these significant additions:

 

How do we accept righteous converts?  When he comes to convert, and he is investigated and no ulterior motive is found, he is told:  What reason do you have that you have come to convert?  Do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?  If he replies, I know and yet am unworthy, he is accepted immediately.  And, he is informed of the principles of the religion, which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and we elaborate upon this at great length.  And he is informed of some of the minor and some of the major commandments, but we do not dwell upon this at length…And he is informed of the punishment of the commandments… And just as he is informed of the punishment of the commandments, so is he informed of their reward.

 

The most important thing that Maimonides adds is that the potential convert is to be taught principles of faith – he also adds that we are to elaborate at length in teaching principles of faith and that we do not elaborate at length in teaching about observance of commandments.  Maimonides thus turns the Talmudic source upside down in transforming and distorting it from an orthoprax into an orthodox source.  Maimonides transforms and distorts the conversion process from an orthoprax and pragmatic process of becoming a member of the Jewish people and taking upon oneself the traditional Jewish way of life (involving observance of commandments) into an orthodox and theological matter.  It is clear from the Talmudic source that the Talmudic rabbis did not codify principles of faith as a binding dogma (like Maimonides) – for, if they had, it would have been necessary to inform a potential convert that such principles are an essential element of Judaism.  Maimonides, in inventing the orthodox notion of Judaism requiring principles of belief as a binding dogma, is forced to distort the Talmudic source by inserting that a potential convert is to be informed of the principles of faith that Judaism allegedly (and falsely) requires.

 

Maimonides’ true orthoprax conception of Judaism as not requiring a binding dogma

 

I want to emphasize two very important issues concerning Maimonides as a thinker related to his codification of his “13 Principles of Faith”.  First, in my view, Maimonides himself is not bound by his own principles (at least according to a literal understanding of the principles) – and he codifies his principles, in my view, as a political and religious leader (and not as a philosopher) only for the unlearned Jewish masses (who have not studied philosophy).  Among other things, he codifies principles of belief for historical reasons in order to strengthen the unlearned Jewish masses – as Christians and Moslems had codified such principles of belief.  Already at the time that Maimonides lived there were those Jewish scholars who understood that he held radical viewpoints in relation to the Jewish tradition, and he was accused of theological heresy – of violating his own principles that he had codified.  The most famous case was his being accused of not believing in the revival of the dead, which is one his “13 Principles of Faith”.  Maimonides was forced to write his Letter on the Revival of the Dead in which he denies that he does not believe in the revival of the dead.  However, his denial is not very reliable as he clearly has an interest in issuing such a denial in order not to be excommunicated as a heretic (he was not in danger of being put to death as Jews in traditional Judaism have never put to death heretics, as far as I am aware) – and his denial is reminiscent of the recanting of Galileo before the inquisition.

Second, in my view, Maimonides was well aware that not only was there no precedent in the Jewish tradition for his codifying principles of belief as a binding theological dogma but also that such a binding dogma is a violation of a Talmudic legal principle that decisions of law are not to be rendered regarding issues of abstract belief that do not touch upon behavior.  Maimonides formulates this Talmudic principle in his work the Commentary to the Mishnah several times including shortly after presenting his “13 Principles of Faith” (Sanhedrin 10, 3) – “every dispute that arises between rabbis that has no practical implications regarding behavior, but is only a matter of belief, there is no room for rendering a Halachic (legal) decision in accordance with one or another”.  He also points out in his Letter on the Revival of the Dead that he formulated this Talmudic principle – and, in my view, this is a way of defending himself against accusations of heresy.  According to this Talmudic principle, Jewish law does not regulate theological matters that are abstract and divorced from behavior, and thus there is no basis to accuse him of theological heresy (even if it were true that he did not believe in the revival of the dead).

The Talmudic principle that Maimonides formulates is an orthoprax principle – as, according to the principle, the Jewish law regulates only behavior, and does not regulate abstract theological or philosophic belief that has no practical implications regarding behavior.  The principle reflects a fundamental distinction between behavior and philosophic belief.  Regarding behavior, when there is a dispute between two rabbinic authorities, in which there are two contradictory opinions, the dispute must be resolved in order to know how we are to act – for we cannot accept both opinions (in terms of behavior) and act in two contradictory ways.  However, regarding abstract philosophic thought, when there is a dispute between two authorities (or between two people), in which there are two contradictory opinions, there is no necessary reason to resolve the dispute of an abstract nature, since we may accept, and even appreciate and encourage (in broadening horizons), contradictory opinions.

An example of a belief that does touch upon behavior and regarding which a decision of law must be rendered is whether chicken is to be considered meat for the purpose of dietary laws.  Obviously, a legal decision must be rendered whether chicken is meat in order that traditional Jews will know whether chicken can be cooked and eaten together with milk.  Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” are all of them matters of abstract, philosophic thought completely divorced from behavior.  For example, regarding belief in the existence of God, there is no necessary reason whatsoever from the point of view of the Jewish law that a decision must be rendered whether God exists or not.  Such an abstract philosophic question does not directly touch upon any behavior.  It is possible that one may believe that God exists and yet act in an evil way; conversely, one may believe that God does not exist and yet act in a righteous way.  It is possible that one may believe that God exists and yet not observe a traditional framework of Jewish law and Jewish ritual practice; conversely, one may believe that God does not exist and yet observe a traditional framework of Jewish law and Jewish ritual practice as an expression of Jewish identity and culture (observing commandments of the Torah not as commandments of God but as commandments of the Torah or Jewish tradition).

The Talmudic rabbis did not formulate this orthoprax, legal principle that decisions of law are not to be rendered regarding issues of abstract belief.  Maimonides formulates the principle on the basis of the Talmud – as, in point of fact, the Talmud does not render decisions of law regarding issues of belief that do not touch upon behavior.  An example is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) in which Rabbi Hillel says that the messiah will not come (and this is not Hillel the great teacher who taught “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”, but a minor Talmudic figure).  The Talmud brings the opinion of Rabbi Hillel together with that of Rav Joseph who prays that God will forgive Rabbi Hillel implying that Rabbi Hillel has sinned in the view of Rav Joseph.  This raises a philosophic and legal question whether the term sin applies to abstract thought or belief – as the Jewish law on the basis of the Talmud is pragmatic regulating behavior and not thought or belief.  If so, what then according to Rav Joseph is the sin of Rabbi Hillel?  Rashi (the great commentator of the Jewish tradition of the 11th century) interprets that the intention of Rav Joseph is merely that Rabbi Hillel has said something which is not true.  That is, according to Rashi (who is in his interpretation faithful to the pragmatic nature of Jewish law regulating behavior and not belief), Rav Joseph is saying that Rabbi Hillel “sinned” merely in the sense of being mistaken in his thinking (in the opinion of Rav Joseph) – however, most significantly, according to Rashi, Rav Joseph is not saying that Rabbi Hillel is a heretic.

Moreover, the Talmud does not say that Rabbi Hillel is a heretic, and records the debate between Rabbi Hillel and Rav Joseph without rendering any legal decision as to who is correct faithful to the orthoprax and pragmatic nature of the Jewish law (reflected in the orthoprax, legal principle formulated by Maimonides) according to which decisions of law are not rendered regarding philosophic matters not touching upon behavior.  If we accept the orthodox conception of Judaism created by Maimonides that Judaism requires principles of belief that must be accepted, we will be forced to regard Rabbi Hillel as well as other Talmudic thinkers who expressed views in contradistinction to Maimonides’ principles of faith as heretics even though the Talmud does not view them as heretics.

Therefore, Maimonides codified a binding dogma in contradistinction to a Talmudic principle that he himself formulated – that decisions of law are not to be rendered regarding issues of abstract belief.  That is, on the one hand, Maimonides codifies a binding theological dogma reflecting an orthodox conception of Judaism; and, on the other hand, he formulates a Talmudic principle reflecting an orthoprax conception of Judaism.  There is then a contradiction in the philosophic thought of Maimonides.

In my view, Maimonides’ true conception regarding Judaism as a thinker is orthoprax as reflected in the Talmudic principle that he formulated; and, he codified a binding dogma creating an orthodox conception of Judaism as a political and religious leader of Jewish communities (and not as a thinker) only for the unlearned Jewish masses who had not studied philosophy.  Furthermore, in my view, Maimonides as a thinker held radical views in relation to Judaism and in relation to the principles of faith that he codified; and in his own philosophic conceptions he was not bound by the principles that he codified (at least according to a literal understanding of the principles) – but, this is a very broad subject and I will not try to justify my view in this regard.  In any case, even if one should not agree with my view that Maimonides’ true conception of Judaism is orthoprax, I point out two things in relation to Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma.  First, the orthoprax principle that Maimonides formulated that legal decisions are not to be rendered regarding issues of abstract philosophic belief is faithful to the Talmud whether or not it represents his true conception as a thinker (and his codification of a binding dogma is in contradistinction to this Talmudic principle).  Second, through the ages and already from the time that Maimonides lived there has been a great deal of criticism of his codification of a binding dogma both from a Halachic (legal) and philosophic point of view.

 

Halachic (legal) and philosophic criticism of Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma

 

From a philosophic point of view, the great thinker in the Jewish tradition to criticize Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma is Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (who lived in the 14th century).  Rabbi Crescas argues that we do not consciously choose our philosophic beliefs in pointing out that the term mitzvah (commandment), which is the basis of Jewish law, applies only regarding behavior and not belief – and, therefore, philosophic beliefs cannot be commanded as a matter of law.

Incidentally, Maimonides is well aware of this issue and that his codification of a binding dogma is at least very problematic.  He briefly discusses the issue in his philosophic treatise the Eight Chapters (at the beginning of the second chapter) in which he allows for the possibility of using the term commandment in relation to abstract, rational truth – but, he is aware that this is problematic in that there is no action, and he is clear that the term commandment properly applies only regarding voluntary action:

 

Know that transgressions and commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah have their origin only in two of the faculties of the soul – the sensitive (the senses) and the passionate (feelings) – and, to these two faculties alone are ascribed all transgressions and commandments.  Indeed, the nutritive (physiological drives) and imaginative (images) faculties do not give rise to commandment or transgression, for in connection with neither is there any conscious or voluntary act, and a person cannot consciously suspend their functions nor reduce any of their activities.  The proof of this is that the functions of both these faculties, the nutritive and the imaginative, continue to be operative when one is asleep, which is not true of any other of the soul’s faculties.  However, regarding the rational faculty, there is some confusion, but I maintain that commandment and transgression may also originate in this faculty, in believing a true or a false doctrine – although there is no action which may be termed as a commandment or a transgression, and it is in this regard that I said above that to these two faculties (the sensitive and the passionate) alone are ascribed transgressions and commandments.

 

Reflected in this argument of Rabbi Crescas is a fundamental distinction between behavior and philosophic belief – regarding behavior we choose how to act as a matter of conscious choice (leaving aside the difficult philosophic question as to whether we really do, and to what extent, have freedom of choice regarding our behavior); while, regarding beliefs we do not consciously choose what we believe.  Our philosophic beliefs can change as a result of our development as a human being, or when we are persuaded to change them – but, we do not change or choose beliefs as a matter of conscious choice.  This distinction has enormous implications from a legal point of view.  If we consciously choose our actions, then we can as a matter of law and external authority command and obligate one to act in a certain way or refrain from some particular action, and legitimately expect obedience to the legal system of external authority.  However, if we do not consciously choose our philosophic beliefs, then we cannot as a matter of law and external authority command one to believe something that one does not believe, or command one not to believe something that one does believe.  How can one be obligated as a matter of external authority to believe what one does not believe (or to not believe what one does believe)?  Is such a person to lie?  This would be in violation of Jewish law forbidding us from lying (except in exceptional cases)

Obedience to external authority can be legitimately expected only regarding behavior, and not regarding abstract belief – as abstract belief is a matter not of external authority but of persuasion and conviction.  Thus, according to the argument of Rabbi Crescas, a legal system such as the Jewish law cannot regulate abstract philosophic thought as a matter of external authority, and there is no place for the codification of a binding dogma as Maimonides codified.  The legal implications of this argument of Rabbi Crescas are exactly those of the orthoprax Talmudic principle that Maimonides formulated according to which decisions of law are not to be rendered regarding issues of abstract belief – Halacha (Jewish law) regulates only behavior and not abstract philosophic belief.

From a Halachic (legal) point of view, the great thinker in the Jewish tradition to criticize Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma is Ravad (Rabbi Abraham ben David) who lived at the same time as Maimonides (the 12th century).  Regarding the third principle of Maimonides’ “13 Principles”, which is the incorporeality of God, Ravad comments on Maimonides’ defining one who believes in the corporeality of God as a heretic (laws of repentance 3, 7):

 

Why has he (Maimonides) called such a person (who believes that God has a physical form) a heretic?  There are many people greater and better than him (Maimonides) who hold such a belief on the basis of what they have seen in verses of Scripture and even more in the words of those aggadot (rabbinic commentaries) which corrupt right opinion.

 

Clearly, Ravad does not believe that God has physical form, and he agrees with Maimonides from a philosophic point of view in stating explicitly that such people who do believe that God has physical form are corrupted in their thinking – as a result of literally understanding Scripture and rabbinic commentaries describing God in anthropomorphic (human) terms.  However, Ravad’s criticism of Maimonides is that such people cannot be defined as heretics on the basis of “wrong” beliefs, and may be considered only as mistaken in their thinking (“Why has he called such a person a heretic?”).

Ravad’s comment regarding Maimonides implies an orthoprax conception – “there are many people greater and better than him (Maimonides) who hold such a belief (that God has physical form)”.  In what sense are such people greater and better than Maimonides?  The term greater refers to superiority in learning.  However, such superiority in learning cannot refer to learning in the realm of philosophy, as Ravad himself acknowledges that such people are mistaken in their thinking philosophically.  Thus, Ravad must be referring to learned Jews in the realm of Talmud and Halacha (law) who are perhaps even more learned than Maimonides, and yet have mistaken conceptions regarding God from a philosophic point of view.  The term better has moral connotations, and in all likelihood Ravad is speaking of simple Jews, who have not studied philosophy, and may not be Talmudic or Halachic scholars as well – and yet may be better than Maimonides in terms of their good deeds despite their mistaken conceptions philosophically.  Therefore, implied in Ravad’s comment regarding Maimonides is an orthoprax conception in which study and observance of Halacha (law), and the performance of good deeds, are of greater value and importance than correct philosophic belief.

In my view, Ravad is very faithful to the Talmud in his criticism of Maimonides – “why has he called such a person (who believes that God has a physical form) a heretic?”.  In the Talmud, heresy is not a theological but a behavioral concept – according to which even deviant ritual behavior, such as the eating of a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat, may be regarded as heresy.  Whether the eating of a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat constitutes heresy or not depends upon the circumstances and intention involved.  If one eats the non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat merely because it is tasty (לתיאבון) and one cannot control one’s impulses, then the act is in no way considered heresy, but is simply a violation of the dietary laws of the Torah.  Such an act is considered to be an act of wrongdoing (legally), but not heresy.  However, if one eats the non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat as an act of scorn or derision (להכעיס), then the act is considered to be heretical.  Thus, Ravad may be arguing that one who believes God has physical form does so not as a matter of scorn or derision but due to lack of philosophic study and knowledge – and such a person should be viewed then merely as mistaken and not as a heretic.

Ravad formulates his criticism of Maimonides only in regard to the principle that God has no physical form, and not as a general philosophic position.  I personally do think that Ravad intended his criticism to be of a general nature, and the reason that he formulated his criticism only regarding the specific principle of incorporeality of God is that in the 12th century it was only concerning this principle among Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” that there were traditional Jews who held “wrong” opinions on a widespread basis.  The rest of the principles were widely accepted by traditional Jews in the medieval period.  In any case, from a logical point of view, there is no reason that Ravad’s argument should not apply regarding all of Maimonides’ principles.  Further, it is inconceivable that one would believe any philosophic proposition as a matter of scorn or derision – as we do not consciously choose our beliefs, and our philosophic beliefs are held as a matter of conviction.  Thus, if one believes anything (even including that God does not exist) as a matter of conviction in contradistinction to Maimonides binding dogma, such a person should be viewed as mistaken and not as a heretic.

Moreover, there are great thinkers in the Jewish tradition who base themselves on Ravad and do formulate a general argument regarding theological heresy.  For example, Rabbi Abraham Kook (who lived in the early 20th century) came to the defense of a rabbi who was accused of theological heresy and Rabbi Kook based himself on Ravad.  Rabbi Kook cited a remarkable Talmudic source (Shevuot 26a):

 

What is an example of such a case (of the taking of an oath against one’s will)?  It is as in the incident of Rav Kahane and Rav Asi, who had been standing before Rav.  One took an oath that this was the statement of Rav and the other took an oath that this was the statement of Rav.  When they came before Rav they established his statement (of Rav) in accordance with one of them (Rav Kahane or Rav Asi).  The other said to him (Rav):  ‘I have therefore sworn falsely’.  Rav replied to him:  ‘Your heart forced (compelled) you’.

 

The case here is one in which two rabbis, Rav Kahane and Rav Asi, hear a statement of their teacher, Rav – and, each (Rav Kahane and Rav Asi) has a different understanding or memory of what Rav said.  Each swears an oath that Rav’s statement was according to his understanding or memory.  They verify with Rav that one of them understood or remembered correctly – and, the one who understood or remembered incorrectly asks Rav what he is to do given that he has sworn an oath falsely, in violation of the Torah.  Rav, in saying that he had been forced by his heart, is implying that there is no wrongdoing (legally or morally) and he is thus exempt from any punishment.

In my opinion, Rabbi Kook cited this source in order to make clear the fundamental difference between behavior and belief – similar to the argument of Rabbi Crescas that we do not consciously choose beliefs as we consciously choose our behavior.  Regarding behavior, I repeat that according to the Talmud if one eats a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat not as an act of scorn or derision, but because it is tasty and one cannot control one’s impulses, then the act is not to be regarded as heresy.  However, the act of eating the forbidden meat is nonetheless regarded as an act of wrongdoing (legally) and a violation of the Jewish law – and the person is in no way exempt from punishment because he or she could not control his or her impulses.  A person is expected to control one’s impulses.  By contrast, in the case of “wrong” thinking, in the Talmudic source cited by Rabbi Kook, Rav is arguing that the rabbi who mistakenly believed as a matter of conviction with all of his heart (“your heart forced you”) that he understood or heard Rav correctly is not guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever (legally or morally), and is entirely exempt from punishment.  Such a person may be considered mistaken or wrong from a factual point of view (in not understanding or hearing correctly), but there is no wrongdoing either in a formal, legal sense of a violation of law or in a moral sense.

In citing this Talmudic source, Rabbi Kook is, in my view, making clear this fundamental difference between deviant behavior and “wrong” belief; and he understands that this fundamental difference is implied in the criticism of Ravad of Maimonides – those Jews who mistakenly believe as a matter of conviction that God has physical form are in no way guilty of wrongdoing either from a legal or moral point of view, and thus cannot be considered heretics, but are to be viewed merely as mistaken in their thinking (in holding a wrong opinion).  From a logical point of view, this argument of Rabbi Kook applies regarding all of Maimonides’ principles – if one believes anything (even including that God does not exist) as a matter of conviction in contradistinction to Maimonides’ dogma, such a person should be viewed merely as mistaken and not as a heretic.

 

The Talmudic concept of heresy is a behavioral rather than theological concept

 

The concept of heresy according to the Talmud is a behavioral and not a theological concept.  Even in the case of Elisha ben Abuya who is called “the other” in the Talmud because he is regarded as a heretic, his heresy is in a behavioral rather than theological sense.  There are only a few stories and passages in the Talmudic literature relating to Elisha ben Abuya.  But, in the various sources in the Talmud there is always a behavioral side that is emphasized – such as being guilty of moral depravity.

In a similar way, the concept of idolatry in the Bible is a behavioral and not a theological concept.  In a remarkable passage (Deuteronomy 4, 15-19) Moses tells the Israelites that they are not to worship forces of nature that God has allotted to the other peoples to worship – “Take therefore good heed to yourselves … lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you should be misled to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord, your God, has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven“.  The passage is a Biblical precedent for theological tolerance.  The religious terms used in the passage (worship and service) are behavioral rather than theological, indicating that the passage is concerned with behavior and not abstract theological belief.  Implicit in the passage is the idea that worship of the sun, moon and stars is permissible for non-Israelites as long as such worship does not degenerate into abominable behavior.

By the way, there is a Talmudic concept of “an infant that was captured”, which refers to inadvertent sin or wrongdoing due to ignorance about Judaism – as if the Jew who is technically guilty of sin or wrongdoing had been captured as an infant and raised without Jewish education.  On a widespread basis in the orthodox world such a concept is applied to non-observant Jews who do not live a traditional lifestyle observant of Jewish law and ritual practice – in order not to define them as heretics.  Although the motivation for applying such a Talmudic concept to contemporary non-observant Jews is positive (in order not to define them as heretics); nevertheless, in my eyes, such a solution for not considering contemporary non-observant Jews as heretics is insulting and condescending in reflecting intellectual arrogance, and it reflects an anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic approach that is widespread throughout the orthodox world – especially regarding those non-observant Jews (even if they are a minority among non-observant Jews) who do not lack in basic Jewish education.  Such a solution does not flow from a commitment to pluralism; rather, the underlying assumption of such a solution is that if such non-observant Jews did not lack basic Jewish education, then there would be no room for a non-observant lifestyle in Judaism.

In my view, there is a solution on the basis of the Talmud for not considering contemporary non-observant Jews as heretics that does not reflect such insult, condescension or intellectual arrogance.  We simply need to recognize that there is no basis in the Talmud for delegitimizing as heresy a non-observant way of life (not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice) unless we judge in a negative and unfavorable light that such a non-observant lifestyle arises out of scorn or derision (להכעיס) regarding Judaism.  If we judge in a positive and favorable light that a non-observant lifestyle arises out of conviction of the heart, or is simply a comfortable lifestyle (לתיאבון) for so many non-observant Jews, then there is no basis in the Talmud for considering such a non-observant lifestyle heresy.

 

The Question whether one believes in God is a Christian question in spirit

 

Not only is in general the concept of a binding theological dogma a Christian concept reflecting an orthodox conception of religion that is foreign to the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud; but, also in particular the question whether one believes in God is a Christian question in spirit because the underlying assumption of the question is that faith in God is a crucial religious issue.  Indeed, in Christianity faith in God is a crucial issue because Christianity is a religion in the orthodox sense of a faith commitment (faith in God as well as in Jesus as the messiah).  By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion in the orthoprax sense of a way of life of the Jewish people – and a traditional Jewish way of life does not necessarily presuppose faith in God.

Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are regarded as the two greatest of the Talmudic rabbis, and when they formulated the essence of Judaism Hillel argued that the essence of Judaism is the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva pointed to the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”.  It is simply astounding to me that people whether of a religious or secular background do not notice how shocking their formulations are – their formulations of the essence of Judaism, and of what it means to be religious, are completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God.  This is even more striking in the case of Rabbi Akiva because the continuation of the Biblical verse that he cites as the essence of Judaism is “I am the Lord”.  Rabbi Akiva quotes only the beginning of the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency.  Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency simply on the basis of one’s own conscience and experience – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”.

There is an ancient debate in the Jewish Talmudic tradition concerning the question as to the essence of religion – faith or good deeds.  Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century) cites a debate between two great Talmudic rabbis, Rav and Shmuel, on the Biblical verse which records that Abraham plants a small tree (Genesis 21, 33) – and one says that Abraham planted a tree in order to build an inn, and the other says in order to plant an orchard.  Rashi does not explain the debate, but the Maharal of Prague (who lived in the 16th century) explains (in his commentary Gur Areyeh) that the debate concerns this question as to the essence of religion – faith or good deeds.

The one who holds that Abraham was planting an orchard is arguing that both faith and good deeds are necessary elements of a religious life – but, the essence of religion is faith.  The analogy that I would use to illustrate this position is that of the soul and the body in which faith is likened to the soul and good deeds to the body.  Both the body and soul are necessary components of human life, but the soul represents the essence of human life.  Good deeds are a necessary component of religion, but the essence and soul of a religious life is faith.  According to this position, one who performs good deeds, but lacks faith, is moral but not ultimately religious.

The one who holds that Abraham was building an inn is arguing that the essence of religion is good deeds alone.  Faith, like fruit (from the orchard) after a meal, may be nice or desirable, but it is not necessary or essential.  The analogy that I would use to illustrate this position is that of the body and clothing in which faith is likened to clothing and good deeds to the body.  According to the one who holds that Abraham was planting an orchard, faith is likened to the soul in relation to the body (good deeds); whereas, according to the one who holds that Abraham was building an inn, faith is likened to clothing in relation to the body (good deeds).  Clothing is nice and desirable in that it protects the body and has aesthetic value; however, it is not essential and we could do without it, as long as we were not embarrassed by our nudity.  Similarly, according to the one who holds that Abraham was building an inn, faith is seen like clothing (or fruit after a meal) as nice and desirable but not necessary – and, the essence of religion is good deeds.  According to this position, one who lacks faith, but is moral, is nonetheless a truly religious person in fulfilling the essence of religion.  This is not to suggest that such a position advocates atheism; rather, according to such a position faith especially in a philosophic sense of proper theological belief is not an essential aspect of a religious life.

I want to suggest that this position that the essence of religion is good deeds alone is that of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva who in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral behavior omit any reference to God (“what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and “love your neighbor as yourself”) – to make clear that a faith commitment especially in a philosophic sense is not a necessary or essential element of religion.  Even if my interpretation of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva is not accepted, though, the Maharal in any case attributes such a position to the one who holds that Abraham built an inn in the debate between Rav and Shmuel.  That is, according to the Maharal such a position exists within the Jewish tradition – and it is inconceivable that such a position could exist in Christianity as Christianity is a religion in the orthodox sense of a faith commitment.

In Christianity, there is a more moderate position, similar to that of the more moderate position in the Jewish tradition, that both faith and good deeds are necessary elements of a religious life with faith being the essence of religion.  But, there is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the extreme position that I have attributed to Hillel and Rabbi Akiva an extreme position such as that of Paul, the founder of the Christian Church, that one is worthy of salvation on the basis of faith alone, even without good deeds – good deeds may be something nice or desirable but are not a necessary component of a religious life.  Thus, in classical Christianity the two sides of the debate are in agreement that faith is a necessary component of a religious life reflecting the orthodox (correct doctrine) nature of Christianity, and the dispute is to what extent, if at all, good deeds are a necessary element.  In traditional Judaism, the debate expresses itself exactly the opposite in which both sides are in agreement that good deeds are a necessary component of a religious life reflecting the orthoprax (correct practice) nature of Judaism, and the dispute is to what extent, if at all, faith is a necessary element.

I want to present the spectrum of Jewish and Christian positions regarding faith and good deeds:

JUDAISM – a way of life (orthoprax) ————————->

Moderate position (both faith and deeds are necessary)Extreme position (good deeds alone are sufficient)

<————————- CHRISTIANITY – a faith commitment (orthodox)

Extreme position (faith alone is sufficient)Moderate position (both faith and deeds are necessary)

Parenthetically, such an extreme position as that of Paul is in my eyes simply absurd.  According to such a position, a completely immoral and evil person who believes in God and in Jesus as the savior is worthy of salvation by virtue of faith alone; by contrast, a completely righteous person who does not believe in God, or even who believes in God but does not believe in Jesus as the savior, is not worthy of salvation.  As far as I am aware, no such extreme position as that of Paul exists in the Jewish tradition, with one apparent and glaring exception – that of Maimonides and his “13 Principles”.

Maimonides’ presentation of an extreme orthodox conception

 

Maimonides presents his “13 Principles of Faith” in his Commentary to the Mishnah in the context of an extreme orthodox conception, such as that of Paul, the founder of the Christian Church, that faith alone without good deeds is sufficient for salvation – a position which, in my opinion, has no precedent in the Jewish tradition.  Immediately after presenting his “13 Principles”, Maimonides presents such an extreme orthodox conception in stating (“Introduction to Perek Helek”, Commentary to the Mishnah):

 

If someone believes all these fundamental principles, and clarifies his faith in them, he is considered part of the collective unit of Israel, and it is commanded to love him, and to have mercy on him, and to observe toward him all the Divine commandments to be observed between men – love and brotherhood.  Even if he has done all sins he is capable of, due to desire, and to his having been overpowered by his lower nature, he will be punished in accordance with his sins, but he has a share in the world to come.  He is among the sinners of Israel.  But, if someone doubts with respect to one of these fundamental principles, then he has left the collective unit and is a heretic…It is commendable to hate him, and to bring about his destruction.

 

I want to point out two things that stand out here as shocking and problematic – prior to discussing Maimonides’ presentation of his principles in the context of an extreme orthodox conception.  First, Maimonides defines membership in the Jewish people in a completely revolutionary (orthodox) way dependent upon the acceptance of theological principles, and not according to the traditional (orthoprax), Halachic (legal) definition in which one is defined as a Jew by virtue of being born of a Jewish mother, or by virtue of converting.  According to Maimonides’ position, if one rejects or casts doubt upon even one of the principles one’s membership in the Jewish people is cancelled (“he has left the collective unit”), even though having been born of a Jewish mother or converted, and even though such a person may be observant of Jewish law and a righteous person – a position lacking any Biblical or rabbinic precedent.  Maimonides, in redefining membership in the Jewish people as being dependent upon the acceptance of his “13 Principles of Faith” (in addition to having been born of a Jewish mother or having converted), transforms the traditional, Halachic definition of who is a Jew from an orthoprax, anti-theological definition (not in any way dependent upon one’s theological beliefs) to an orthodox and theological definition (dependent upon the acceptance of his “13 Principles of Faith”).

Second, the practical consequences and sanctions regarding one who is considered a heretic are extremely harsh.  Not only is it implied that the heretic has no share in the world to come (salvation after death), but Maimonides states explicitly that the heretic is to be exterminated (here in this world) – “It is commendable to hate him, and to bring about his destruction”.  However, although Maimonides’ “13 Principles” became widely accepted in the medieval period and in the contemporary orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox) as a binding dogma, the practical consequences that he codified regarding one who is considered a heretic of being destroyed were never to my knowledge accepted by traditional medieval Jews or by contemporary orthodox Jews.  As I indicated, as far as I am aware traditional Jews never put to death heretics in practice.  In the contemporary orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox) one who is considered a heretic may be excluded from participation in orthodox institutions, but will certainly not be put to death.

Maimonides, as I indicated, presents his “13 Principles” in the context of an extreme orthodox position, such as that of Paul, that faith alone without good deeds is sufficient for salvation.  Spiritual salvation, one’s share in the world to come, is dependent upon the adoption of theological principles of faith, with no connection to one’s behavior, as Maimonides writes regarding one who accepts the principles – “Even if he has done all sins he is capable of…he has a share in the world to come”.  We can also legitimately infer the converse – even if one is righteous in behavior, one loses one’s share in the world to come, according to Maimonides, by casting doubt upon or rejecting even one of the principles.  Thus, shockingly, good deeds, the essence of religion in Biblical and rabbinic conceptions, have been completely removed as a necessary element of the religious life by Maimonides in this passage!  I know of no other Jewish thinker who adopts such an extreme orthodox conception, which has no precedent in the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic literature.

In my opinion, such an extreme orthodox conception in which faith alone, even without good deeds, is sufficient for salvation does not reflect Maimonides’ true philosophic position regarding the nature of Judaism.  I repeat that, in my view, Maimonides’ true conception as a thinker regarding Judaism is orthoprax as reflected in the Talmudic principle that he formulated according to which Jewish law regulates only behavior and not abstract, philosophic thought; and, he codified a binding dogma creating an orthodox conception of Judaism as a political and religious leader of Jewish communities (and not as a thinker) only for the unlearned Jewish masses.  Furthermore, in my view, Maimonides as a thinker held radical views in relation to Judaism and in relation to the principles of faith that he codified; and in his own philosophic conceptions he was not bound by the principles that he codified (at least according to a literal understanding of the principles).

In my view, Maimonides formulates such an extreme orthodox conception of Judaism in connection with his “13 Principles of Faith” only for the unlearned masses who, not having studied philosophy, are in his conception incapable of adopting theological principles as a matter of conviction.  Thus, he not only codifies his principles in his law code, in the context of an authoritarian conception, as a matter of binding law and obedience to authority regardless of circumstances or intention (regardless of whether or not one is scornful of the Torah or rabbinic authority); but, presents them in the context of an extreme orthodox conception in making one’s salvation dependent upon the adopting of principles of belief regardless of behavior.  In Maimonides’ formulation and codification of his “13 Principles” the emphasis for the unlearned masses is not upon conviction but upon obedience to external authority of the legal system motivated by hope of reward (salvation) and fear of punishment (to be put to death as well as no salvation).

I want to summarize regarding Maimonides’ codification of a binding theological dogma.  The concept of a binding dogma, reflecting an orthodox conception of religion, is a distortion of the Jewish tradition (based upon the Bible and the Talmud), which is orthoprax and anti-theological in nature.  The concept of a binding dogma reflects a Christian conception in assuming that the essence of religion is a faith commitment and reflects a philosophic conception of faith in an abstract, intellectual sense divorced from behavior – both of which are foreign to the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of the Jewish tradition.  In the Talmud there is a debate whether the essence of religion is faith or good deeds; but, in those Talmudic sources in which faith is conceived as the essence of religion there is a pragmatic aspect reflecting the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of the Jewish tradition in that faith is conceived in a psychological and instrumental sense as a means leading to moral behavior rather than as an end in and of itself.  Most significantly, the Talmudic rabbis did not codify any binding theological dogma.  Thus, according to the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud, there is no requirement to believe in any philosophic or theological proposition – such as the existence of God, Divine providence, Divine revelation, the coming of the messiah or any other philosophic or theological proposition.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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