Who is a “Kosher” Jew? Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” as a Binding Orthodox and Theological Dogma

I want to respond to the article by Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman “Orthodox Rabbinic Exception to the Thirteen Principles of Faith: The Dynamics of Boundary Permeability”.

My response here, which is understandable without reading the article, is written out of great respect for Rabbi Professor Berman as a true scholar regardless of agreement or disagreement. I want to begin by pointing out that his article is written in a very clear way. It is very easy to read, and it is very easy to follow his analysis and argument – and, in my view, this is unfortunately rare in the academic world. Apart from agreement and disagreement, I enjoyed his article very much, and the article is to me very stimulating in dealing with what in my eyes are very important issues.

I want to address two issues in relation to the article of Rabbi Professor Berman. The first issue concerns what is absent in his article – and, the second concerns the implications of his argument.

Concerning what is absent in the article of Rabbi Professor Berman, I want to point out two things that are glaringly absent in relation to his analysis of the place of Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” as a binding dogma in the orthodox world. First, there is no discussion of the place of dogma in the Bible and Talmudic tradition – and, this is shocking both in the case of the Bible and Talmudic tradition. Second, although his analysis concerns the place of Maimonides “13 Principles” as a binding dogma in the orthodox world, there is no discussion of Maimonides’ own position regarding dogma. I understand that his article focuses upon the 19th and 20th centuries in discussing the place of Maimonides’ “13 Principles” as a binding dogma in the contemporary orthodox world – yet, nevertheless, it is shocking that these two things are glaringly absent from his analysis.

In the case of the Bible, I want to point out that in contradistinction to the Sadducees and Karaites who rejected the Oral Torah (the Jewish rabbinic tradition) – the Jewish rabbinic tradition, although not rejecting the Written Torah (Scripture), is in some sense divorced from the Written Torah. Most Halachic (legal) and Aggadic (moral and philosophic) material of our rabbinic tradition is not the plain meaning of Scripture, and is midrash (commentary not according to the plain meaning of Scripture) – midrash Halacha and midrash Aggadah. I am not questioning the legitimacy of midrash in our tradition – and, we are not Sadducees or Karaites who attempted to live according to the plain meaning of Scripture. However, especially in the realm of Halacha, should the plain meaning of Scripture not carry at least some weight at least in terms of consideration, even if Halacha is so often established not according to the plain meaning of Scripture?

In the case of the Bible and dogma, in the plain meaning of Scripture not only is there no binding orthodox and theological dogma – but, strikingly, there is no term heresy in the Bible as far as I am aware. Is it not important at all that the adoption on a widespread basis throughout the orthodox world of a binding orthodox and theological dogma is a clear distortion of the Bible as a foundation of Judaism as a religion?

In the case of the Talmudic tradition, not only did the Talmudic rabbis not codify any binding orthodox and theological dogma – but, the commandments of Torah as a basis of Jewish law are according to the Talmudic tradition only of doing and not doing (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of believing or not believing (reflecting the orthoprax nature of Jewish law, according to the Talmudic tradition). Further, although there is a concept of heresy in the Talmudic tradition, the notion of heresy is not theological – as the Talmudic rabbis did not codify any binding theological dogma that could be the basis of a notion of theological heresy. Heresy in the Talmudic tradition is a behavioral concept referring to deviant behavior that is the result of scorn or derision of Torah (Judaism) and Torah scholars.

By the way, the overwhelming majority of contemporary, secular, Jews do not live a non-observant way of life (not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice) out of scorn or derision (להכעיס) – and, in the Talmudic conception there is therefore no basis for viewing them as heretics. A non-observant lifestyle for the overwhelming majority of contemporary, secular Jews arises out of conviction of the heart, or is simply a comfortable lifestyle (לתיאבון).

In the case of Maimonides, there is a statement toward the end of the article of Rabbi Professor Berman that is shocking – “For Maimonides, the thirteen principles are fundamental truths that are eternal and unchanging”. This statement is at best highly questionable – and, in my eyes, blatantly false. Even a cursory reading of the Guide of the Perplexed is sufficient to understand that Maimonides held very radical views regarding each of his principles that he codified as a binding theological dogma. Regarding the principle of the existence of God – Maimonides in the Guide (1, 50-59) presents a very clear agnostic position according to which we cannot know or say that God exists or does not exist.

In my view, Maimonides codifies his dogma only as a political leader (and not as a thinker), and only for the unlearned Jewish masses in order to strengthen them as Christians and Moslems had codified such dogma. As a thinker, Maimonides not only holds very radical views regarding each of his “13 Principles” – but, he is also very aware that his codification of a dogma is a distortion of the Talmudic tradition. He is very aware that his codification of his “13 Principles” is a distortion of the orthoprax nature of the Talmudic tradition according to which commandments of Torah as the basis of Jewish law are only of doing and not doing (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of believing or not believing. Maimonides also formulates a Talmudic principle, which is orthoprax in nature, according to which decisions of law can be rendered only regarding issues of thought or belief that touch upon behavior and not regarding issues of abstract thought or belief (such as his “13 Principles”) that do not touch upon behavior.

For example, the question as to whether chicken should be considered as meat regarding the prohibition of the Jewish tradition of cooking and eating milk and meat together is a practical, intellectual question directly touching upon the behavior of traditional Jews – whether they will cook and eat chicken together with milk. If there is a dispute among rabbinic authorities concerning this question, the dispute must be resolved by the rendering of a legal decision as to whether chicken is considered meat in order to know how we are to act.

However, concerning abstract, philosophic questions, as reflected in Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma (whether God exists, whether God is provident, whether the Torah is the Divinely revealed word of God, whether there is such a thing as a messiah who will bring peace and justice to the world) – such questions do not directly touch upon behavior at all. The question of whether God exists need not be resolved in order to know how to act morally or according to Jewish law. One may believe that God exists, and yet live an immoral life or live a life not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice – conversely, one may deny the existence of God and yet live a righteous life or live a life observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice (as an expression of Jewish identity and culture).

Concerning the implications of the argument of Rabbi Professor Berman, I want to point out two things. First, there is an implicit acknowledgment in his article that the acceptance of Maimonides’ “13 Principles” as a binding orthodox and theological dogma is really a sociological-political issue, and not a Halachic issue – “codes of Halacha are statutory in nature…any act is assessed in light of the code and determined to be either permissible or prohibited…the thirteen principles are not even encapsulated in an agreed upon authoritative text…the rules that govern their acceptance have never been articulated…I will claim here that these rules emerge when the sources are examined through the lens of the sociology of deviance”. He argues that in effect the “13 Principles” function from a sociological point of view as a boundary marker defining legitimate orthodox Judaism in contradistinction to non-orthodox versions of Judaism (reform, conservative and secular).

However, the fundamental problem that such a sociological function of the “13 Principles” raises concerns a central principle of the ancient Jewish tradition – the unity of the Jewish people. We as Jews are to be one people and indivisible as a people. There is also an ancient Talmudic law that is an expression of this central principle of the unity of the Jewish people according to which we are not to divide the Jewish people into factions (“לא תעשו אגודות אגודות”). Actually, the “13 Principles” as a boundary marker defining legitimate orthodox Judaism serve not only to divide the Jewish people into “kosher”, orthodox Jews bound by the principles and “non-kosher”, non-orthodox Jews not bound by the principles – but, the principles even divide the orthodox world from a sociological point of view, as there are many Jews like myself who live in the orthodox world from a social point of view even though holding beliefs in contradiction to the principles.

Second, the article of Rabbi Professor Berman also implicitly assumes, mistakenly in my eyes, that ideology-theology (belief) is a legitimate form of a boundary marker in the Jewish tradition. His article in this regard ignores a fundamental difference between ideology-theology (belief) and behavior. Rav Kook, who came to the defense of a rabbi who was accused of theological heresy, cited a remarkable Talmudic source (Shevuot 26a), which makes clear the fundamental distinction between ideology-theology (belief) and behavior:

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’.

Rav in this Talmudic source, in saying that the one who had understood or remembered incorrectly 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, Rav Kook cited this source in order to make clear that we do not consciously choose beliefs as we consciously choose our behavior. In the Talmudic conception, if one eats a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat not as an act of scorn or derision (להכעיס), but because it is tasty (לתיאבון) 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 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” belief, in the Talmudic source cited by Rav 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.

Thus, belief is a matter of conviction and the heart – and, belief cannot be commanded as a matter of external authority. In the case of principles of belief, what is being asked of one who does not believe in the truth of any particular principle? Is this person to lie and say that he or she believes when he or she does not believe? Only behavior, which we consciously choose, can be subject to external authority. We can demand obedience of people in terms of behavior – we cannot demand obedience in terms of belief.

Moreover, the codification of an orthodox and theological dogma by Maimonides reflects an anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic approach – and, the necessary result of such an approach is intolerance of those Jews not bound by orthodox dogma. Here too there is a fundamental difference between ideology-theology (belief) and behavior. The anti-democratic tendency not only to express disagreement but to delegitimize those Jews not bound by orthodox dogma that is so widespread throughout the orthodox world reflects an intellectual arrogance in assuming that orthodox principles of belief represent absolute and objective truth. Instead of persuading and convincing those Jews not bound by orthodox dogma that they are wrong in an open, intellectual atmosphere of discussion and pursuit of truth – Jews not bound by orthodox dogma are delegitimized as a matter of external authority in violating binding orthodox dogma.

There is place in a democratic society for a lack of tolerance toward anti-social behavior that is in contradistinction to the laws and norms of the society – and, there is place in a democratic society for sanctions or punishment in order to prevent anti-social behavior. Such a lack of tolerance regarding anti-social behavior does not reflect intellectual arrogance because we are not claiming to grasp absolute truth but only engaging in subjective value judgment in considering anti-social behavior as unacceptable and intolerable to us. Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, there is a basis in the Talmudic tradition to consider behavior in violation of the laws and norms of Torah arising out of scorn or derision as heresy and intolerable – and this does not reflect intellectual arrogance as we are not necessarily assuming that we grasp absolute truth (as we are relating to behavior arising out of scorn rather than ideological-theological belief).

There is a place in a democratic society for defining boundary markers, and determining who is a legitimate member of any society. However, in the case of the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and Talmudic literature, boundaries were established according to behavior and not on the basis of theology.

In the ancient Talmudic period, the Sadducees were without question legitimate members of the Jewish people according to Jewish law, and the debates between the Sadducees and Talmudic rabbis were of an ideological nature. The Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) and rejected rabbinic authority. The Sadducees were clearly seen as heretics by the Talmudic rabbis – however, this was on the basis of the self-definition of the Sadducees who defined themselves as outside the rabbinic tradition.

Contemporary non-orthodox movements do not reject the rabbinic tradition but merely reject an orthodox conception and version of traditional, rabbinic Judaism – and the contemporary non-orthodox movements do not consider themselves bound by Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” that so characterize orthodox Judaism. On a widespread basis today throughout the orthodox world the non-orthodox movements are delegitimized as being outside of the rabbinic tradition in spite of their own self-definition as rabbinic movements that represent non-orthodox approaches to the rabbinic tradition.

I want to cite a Talmudic source that relates to the approach of the Talmudic rabbis to the Sadducees (Yoma 1, 5):

My master, High Priest, we are the messengers of the Beit Din (court), and you are our messenger and the messenger of the Beit Din (court). We make you swear, by He Who caused His name to dwell in this House, that you will not change a thing from what we have told you. He would separate from them and cry, and they would separate from him and cry.

The background to this source is that in the early Talmudic period when the Temple was still standing most of the priests who served in the Temple were Sadducees – and rabbis are speaking with the High Priest in this source on the eve of Yom Hakippurim. On Yom Hakippurim the high point of the Temple service is when the High Priest enters alone into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple, in performing a sacred ceremony. The problem is that there was disagreement between the Sadducees and the Talmudic rabbis regarding how to perform the ceremony in the Holy of Holies – and thus the rabbis here are worried that the High Priest may be a Sadducee and perform the ceremony not as the rabbis have taught him but according to the practice of the Sadducees (and no one can enter the Holy of Holies to check how the High Priest will perform the ceremony). The rabbis make the High Priest swear that he will perform the ceremony as they have taught him.

What stands out in this source is that even though the Sadducees were considered by the Talmudic rabbis to be a heretical sect in relation to the rabbinic tradition, and outside the fold of rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis do not demand of the High Priest who is suspected of being a Sadducee to change his philosophic conception of Judaism – and, the rabbis in this specific case merely find a technical solution of making the High Priest swear that he will perform the ceremony as they have taught him. Significantly, they do not make the High Priest swear that he is not a Sadducee – and, they do not replace him with someone who they trust, or who has sworn, is not a Sadducee. Implied is that if the High Priest is indeed a Sadducee, the rabbis are respectful, or at least tolerant, that the High Priest believes in the ideology of the Sadducees (and will remain a Sadducee even after performing the Temple service on Yom Hakippurim), and the rabbis insist in this specific case only regarding behavior that he perform the ceremony of Yom Hakippurim according to the rabbinic practice.

In contrast to the Sadducees, the Samaritans were not regarded by the Talmudic rabbis as legitimate members of the Jewish people, in spite of the claim of the Samaritans that they were descendants of the Israelites of the northern kingdom of Israel during the Biblical period. According to the Biblical account (Kings 2, 17, 24-41), the Samaritans were not Israelites, and were brought to the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians when it was conquered by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE. The Assyrians apparently had a cruel policy of forced transfer of populations when they conquered a certain territory. In the case of the northern Israelite kingdom, the Assyrians transferred the Israelites to some other area and imported the Samaritans to the northern kingdom of Israel. It is inconceivable then that Samaritans would have served in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem as priests, and certainly not as High Priest – and, inconceivable that the Talmudic rabbis would have allowed the Samaritans to serve on the Sanhedrin (high court). The Samaritans were simply not regarded as legitimate members of the Jewish people from a Halachic point of view. However, regarding the Sadducees, there was no question whatsoever in terms of their legal status. Without doubt they were legitimate members of the Jewish people – and, most of the priesthood was composed of Sadducees, the High Priest was often a Sadducee and the Sadducees served on the Sanhedrin (high court).

The use then of Maimonides’ “13 Principles” as a boundary marker to define legitimate orthodox Judaism, and delegitimize Jews not bound by orthodox dogma, is a distortion of the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and Talmudic literature. Such an approach leads to divisiveness among the Jewish people, and even divisiveness within the orthodox world from a social point of view. The unity of the Jewish people is a fundamental principle of the Jewish tradition such that we are forbidden to divide the Jewish people into factions (“לא תעשו אגודות אגודות”).

 

 

 

 

 

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

Leave a Reply