Principles of belief are subject to differing interpretation

From an ideological point of view, the origins of an orthodox conception of Judaism began in the medieval period with the formulation and legal codification by Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) of his “13 Principles of Faith” in his law code, the Mishneh Torah, as a binding, theological 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. Resurrection 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). Maimonides’ codification of his “13 principles” represents the creation for the first and only time in Jewish history of an orthodox (correct belief) version of Judaism in that Judaism demands from a legal point of view, according to such a conception, not just right behavior (ethically and ritually) but correct abstract philosophic belief. It is then a widespread misconception that orthodoxy represents authentic Judaism and that Judaism has always been orthodox (correct doctrine) in nature.  Orthodoxy in Judaism is not only a later historical development of the Jewish tradition following the Talmudic period, but it is actually a distortion of the orthoprax (correct deeds) nature of the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud – and, there is no binding theological dogma in the Bible or in the Talmud.

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, 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 (correct deeds) sense of a way of life of the Jewish people.

Even were I to accept that traditional Judaism requires belief in philosophic principles, which I do not accept; in any case, each of Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” is subject to subjective and differing interpretation – and regarding each of his principles there is a plurality of viewpoints in the Jewish tradition.  I want to make this clear in discussing the first principle of the existence of God.  The question whether one believes in God assumes that the meaning of the concept of God is clear and obvious, and also assumes that the meaning of the concept of faith is clear and obvious as well – but, I will focus here upon differing conceptions of God, and there have been through the ages in the Jewish tradition differing conceptions of God.

Maimonides himself uses the term First Existent in relation to God in his law code (his one major work written not in Arabic but Hebrew so that there is no problem of translation) – a term that does not appear in the Bible.  Even though the term First Existent is not the exact term that Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, used in relation to God, the term is nevertheless Aristotelian in spirit.  The Aristotelian term for God is First Cause or Prime Mover, and it is clear that Maimonides’ term First Existent reflects Aristotelian rather than Biblical terminology.  In the Aristotelian conception, God is not conceived as a Creator, and God is conceived as devoid of conscious will.  In the Biblical conception, God creates the universe as an act of conscious will, and even more important God demands morality as God is conceived of as having conscious moral will.  That is, in the Biblical conception, God is conceived of not only as the Creator of the universe, but most importantly as a moral God who demands morality.  In the Aristotelian conception of the medieval period in which Maimonides lived (as this was not necessarily the conception of Aristotle himself), God is conceived as a power devoid of conscious will and an impersonal source of creation or existence, as the sun is an impersonal power and source of light (and the analogy of the sun is an analogy that Maimonides himself uses in the Guide of the Perplexed) – and, the universe is conceived as eternal flowing from God as an eternal source from which the universe is emanated, as light is emanated from the sun.

By the way, when God is conceived as a power devoid of conscious will, then one does not face the difficult philosophic question as to why God does not prevent evil.  The question assumes that God has conscious moral will as in the Biblical conception, and the question then is why such an allegedly moral God does not interfere in the laws of nature or in human affairs to prevent evil.

Also, in the Jewish tradition, medieval Kabbalists (mystics) use a term for God that is not a Biblical term (like Maimonides).  Medieval Kabbalists use the term Eternal Nothingness in relation to God, and such a term does not appear in the Bible.  According to the literal meaning of the term Eternal Nothingness, God does not exist – as God is conceived of as absolute non-existence (nothingness).  According to this mystical conception, God does not create the universe as something separate from God as according to the Biblical conception; rather, existence flows in a process of emanation from Eternal Nothingness that is God (something out of Nothing).

There is no question that the mystical conception of God as well as Maimonides’ conception of God are not the Biblical conception of God in the plain meaning of Scripture.  In the Jewish tradition we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture as Sadducees or Karaites, and this is true in the realm of Halacha (law) as well as in the realm of Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings).  Thus, there is no necessary reason that Maimonides or medieval Kabbalists (mystics) must be bound in their philosophic views by the plain meaning of Scripture – unless the great innovation and distortion of Maimonides himself is accepted that the Halacha (Jewish law) requires a binding theological dogma.

The notion of dogma also assumes a static conception of Judaism as a religion.  From a historical point of view, Judaism (like other religions and cultures) has evolved and continues to evolve – and, this is true not only of Jewish practice but of Jewish belief as well, raising the question of which beliefs are to be considered fundamental and defining beliefs of Judaism.  I want to cite two examples.

First, the concept of the world to come in the sense of life after death is a central religious concept in traditional Judaism of the Talmudic and medieval periods; however, the concept of the world to come certainly cannot be described as a central religious concept for many contemporary Jews outside of the orthodox world – and, the concept does not appear even one time in the Hebrew Bible.  Are contemporary, non-orthodox Jews who do not believe in the Talmudic and medieval concept of life after death to be considered as theological heretics, even if such a belief is contrary to their contemporary attitudes, and is not to be found at all in the Hebrew Bible?

Second, moral atheism as a philosophic position (involving the denial of the existence of God while living a moral life) has become far more widespread in the contemporary world than in the Biblical, Talmudic or medieval periods.  The concept of faith in God has undergone evolution within Judaism.  Faith in God in the Hebrew Bible is not conceived in a philosophic sense (consisting of the philosophic belief or proposition that God exists) but in a psychological and experiential sense (characterized by an attitude of commitment and loyalty to God necessarily expressing itself in proper behavior without necessarily assuming the existence of God or philosophic belief in the existence of God).

The religious concern of the Bible is not an orthodox (correct belief) concern with the holding of correct philosophic beliefs and propositions but an orthoprax (correct deeds) concern with moral character and moral behavior.  Such an orthoprax concern is exemplified by the story of the midwives in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 1, 17).  The righteous behavior of the midwives in refusing to carry out the immoral command of Pharaoh, King of Egypt to murder Israelite male children, makes them worthy of being described (Exodus 1, 17) as displaying fear of God.  The Biblical paradigm of religion (whether we are speaking of the concept of faith in God, or the concepts of fear, love and service of God) is a psychological-behavioral (orthoprax) paradigm in which the essence of religion is moral character and moral action.  Therefore, the midwives in displaying fear of God (a moral character trait of the heart) can likewise be seen as displaying true faith in God (in a psychological sense of loyalty, a moral character trait of the heart) as well.  Their theological and philosophic beliefs are simply not a concern in the passage.  It is clear that it is their righteous behavior, in spite of whatever philosophic beliefs they held (even if they believed in a pantheon of gods from a philosophic point of view), that provides the testimony, according to the Bible, that they are truly religious people in displaying the fear of God (and true faith in God in a psychological and experiential sense as well).

Thus, on the basis of our Biblical heritage, a contemporary Jew who denies the philosophic proposition that God exists, but who lives a righteous and moral life, rather than being viewed as an atheist and heretic, would be seen as one who truly believes in God (in spite of his or her philosophic declarations to the contrary).  In the Biblical conception faith is conceived of as a matter of the heart (moral character), and not as a matter of holding proper philosophic propositions (and, conversely, one who believes in the existence of God but lives an immoral life would be viewed as lacking true faith in the Biblical sense of moral character).  On the basis of our Biblical heritage, the belief in God in the philosophic sense of a metaphysical proposition that God exists would be viewed as not having the status of a formal dogma, and as having no relevance regarding the essence of a religious life, which in the Biblical conception is moral character and moral behavior.

Regarding moral atheism, I also want to cite a Talmudic midrash (rabbinic commentary on a Biblical verse):

It is written “they have abandoned Me and have not observed My Torah” (Jeremiah 16, 11) – “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”, for by being involved (through study and observance) with it (the Torah) the light within it will return them to the right way.

The midrash consists of two parts.  In the first part (“if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”), God declares that it would be better to abandon God (not to believe in God) but to observe the Torah (implying that more important than faith in God is good deeds).  Thus, the midrash is expressing a pragmatic conception that the essence of Judaism is good deeds rather than faith in God – in dealing with people who don’t believe in God and live an immoral life.  In the second part of the midrash, the midrash expresses the view that faith in God is the essence of a religious life – for, by being involved with Torah (the study and observance of Torah) people who do not believe in God will return to the right way of faith in God (as the situation is not ideal in the first part of the midrash in which faith is lacking when God says “if only Me they would abandon”).  The midrash is paradoxical as the first part implies that good deeds are more important than faith in God, while the second part implies that faith in God (as the ultimate end of a religious life) is more important than good deeds.  There is no contradiction, though, as the midrash holds that ideally, as expressed in the second part, that faith in God, rather than good deeds, is the ultimate end of a religious life – and, in the first part, in the unfortunate and actual situation where one is forced to choose between faith and good deeds, it is good deeds that take precedence (just as in the case of an unhealthy person physically and mentally or emotionally, the health of the body will take precedence over that of the mind only because physical health is a more urgent matter than mental or emotional health).

The pragmatic conception of the midrash is in contradistinction to the orthodox conception reflected in Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma (according to which one who denies the existence of God is a theological heretic).  Regarding one who does not believe in God but lives a life of Torah (good deeds), the midrash expresses an attitude of tolerance and optimism in that through study and observance of Torah such a person will ultimately come to faith in God.  But, if not, there is no hint in the midrash that one who does not believe in God is a heretic even though according to the midrash faith in God is the essence of religion.

Both examples that I have cited (the concept of the world to come and moral atheism) raise the question as to who defines and decides which are the fundamental and defining beliefs of Judaism in light of the fact that Judaism has continually evolved, and continues to evolve.  Are we to accept in the contemporary world a medieval formulation of dogma as that of Maimonides that not only may conflict with the attitudes and sensibilities of so many contemporary Jews, but is also a distortion of our orthoprax heritage as reflected in the Bible and Talmudic literature in which there is no binding theological dogma?

Jeffrey Radon

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