The Thirteen Principles of Faith: Chumra or Kula?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Fundamental Beliefs

In today’s conversations, acceptable Jewish beliefs are generally defined by Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles of faith that he lists in his commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1). Was that always the case? In a relatively recent book, Ani Ma’amin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, Rabbi Prof. Joshua Berman examines the history of the fundamental principles of faith and argues that only recently have they become accepted as a halakhic framework. I would like to examine this claim and largely accept it, but take it in a completely different direction. Prof. Berman sees the principles of faith as a chumra, a stringency to be used as a boundary marker as a defensive measure. I think there is another way to interpret the phenomena he reports.[1]Note that Rabbi Berman’s book consists of two distinct parts. The first addresses biblical criticism and offers tools to respond and reject it. I will here discuss only the second part, which … Continue reading

The history of fundamental beliefs of Judaism begins with the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) which lists who does and does not have a place in the afterlife. Among those who lack a place are those who reject specific beliefs, such as that the Torah is from heaven. The first comprehensive work of Jewish theology, Emunos Ve-Dei’os by Rav Sa’adia Gaon (10th cen., Babylonia), formulates a list of fundamental beliefs. Rambam (12th cen., Egypt) lists thirteen fundamental principles in his commentary on the above Mishnah which seem to have become the basis for all subsequent discussion. Certainly for centuries they were. Theologians debated whether the number should be thirteen or smaller, albeit without debating the content of the principles. Others chipped away at the margins of certain beliefs, or perhaps at the definitions. Regardless, Rambam was the dominant voice and others argued or agreed with him. To some degree, the principles were even incorporated into the liturgy. Which highlights Rabbi Berman’s question, as we will discuss shortly.

I cannot now locate it but I remember Rabbi Shalom Carmy once saying in an email list that the debate over the thirteen principles ended with Abarbanel’s publication of his defense of Rambam’s list, Rosh Amanah. I don’t think it is fair to hold Rabbi Carmy to an email from years ago that I cannot locate or reproduce verbatim. I only mention it here because the idea stuck with me and has been the yardstick by which I measure new texts that I learn. My current thinking is that he is on the one hand technically incorrect, but on the other hand he has precisely identified the key moment in history, and perhaps the key text, when everything changed. His insight, or at least my recollection and interpretation of it, is the basis of my proposed understanding of the history of the thirteen principles.

II. The End of Fundamental Beliefs

Prof. Berman points out that the responsa literature after the fifteenth century does not contain mention of the thirteen principles until the advent of Reform in the nineteenth century. Why did they disappear and why did they return in the nineteenth century? He suggests that Torah scholars rejected Rambam’s view. However, the need for a boundary marker, a way to distinguish between authentic Judaism and modern distortions, spurred nineteenth century rabbis to resurrect Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. The thirteen principles are used to write out deviationist movements that attempt to undermine Jewish tradition. I see the phenomenon in the completely opposite way. The key lies in the decade of the 1570s, 4330s in the Jewish calendar.

Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel was a Spanish and Portuguese diplomat and scholar who went into exile after the expulsions and lived in Italy until his passing in 1508. In 1494, Abarbanel published his Rosh Amanah, which systematically summarizes the literature on fundamental principles of Judaism, sets down all the questions and challenges posed to Rambam, and answers them all in a masterful defense of Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles. In this sense, he effectively ends the polemic around the thirteen principles of faith with his powerful work. However, Rav Moshe di Trani (Mabit) of Tzefas published his Beis Elokim in 1576, the third part of which serves to defend and explain Rambam’s thirteen principles. I would say that Mabit serves as the endpoint of the polemic over the thirteen principles. However, this is a mere technicality because Mabit, in this sense, was a throwback to previous generations because Abarbanel changed the conversation.

At the end of Rosh Amanah, after 22 chapters defending Rambam’s thirteen principles, Abarbanel adds two chapters of his own view. Abarbanel says that there are not just thirteen principles of Judaism but many more. Everything in Judaism, every mitzvah and every belief, whether seemingly small or large, is a fundamental belief. According to Rambam, if you reject something in Judaism other than one of the thirteen principles, you are wrong and maybe sinful but you are not a heretic. According to Abarbanel, you are a heretic and outside the fold if you reject anything. Rambam erected a fence around Judaism of 13 principles. Abarbanel built a wall.

III. Building a Higher Wall

I contend that this view, which Abarbanel articulated, became mainstream thinking for centuries to come. Rav David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz) was a younger contemporary of Abarbanel and an older contemporary of Mabit. He lived almost 100 years until 1573. He was expelled from Spain as a young adult, became the leading rabbi in Egypt and retired to Tzefas where he spent the last years of his life. He was asked about the fundamental principles of Judaism and, like Abarbanel, Radbaz answered that Judaism cannot be divided into essential and non-essential parts. Rather, everything in Judaism is a fundamental principle (Responsa, vol. 1 no. 344). This attitude took hold, as we can see from subsequent responsa.

For example, Rav Yoel Sirkes (Bach, 17th cen., Poland; Responsa [Yeshanos], no. 5) was asked about a ritual slaughterer who accepts philosophy and rejects Kabbalah. Rav Sirkes does not invoke Rambam’s thirteen principles to place this man outside the fold. I am not sure whether that would even be possible. Rather, Rav Sirkes says that someone who rejects Kabbalah thereby rejects Judaism. He has a much higher fence than Rambam.

In 1702, Rav David Nieto was appointed the Chief Rabbi of the Portuguese Jews in London. He gave a sermon declaring that nature is really God. Some congregants accused him of Spinozaism, i.e. pantheism, and sent their charge to Rav Tzvi Ashkenazi in Amsterdam. Rav Ashkenazi (Chakham Tzvi, no. 18) replied that Rav Nieto was really saying that God is in everything, i.e. panentheism, which is praiseworthy. I found it noteworthy that nowhere in his evaluation does Rav Ashkenazi cite Rambam’s thirteen principles as the measure of acceptability. Rather, he evaluates a belief based on the entire corpus of the Torah. Indeed, throughout the intervening centuries from Abarbanel’s time to the advent of Reform, Jews faced many deviationist movements. These include Spinoza, Sabbateans, Frankists, Neo-Karaites (descendants of Conversos who left Spain and only accepted the Bible), Chasidism, Renaissance historians, early Haskalah. The literature opposing them quote from across the Talmud and Midrash, not Rambam’s thirteen principles.

IV. Aggadah and Fundamental Beliefs

A major event that demonstrates this trend occurred in the 1570s. In 1575, Rav Azariah de Rossi published the third part of his Me’or Einayim, titled Imrei Binah, in which he contrasts Jewish historical recollection with Roman and Greek historical texts, often rejecting the Rabbinic history in favor of other historical texts. Me’or Einayim faced steep rabbinic opposition for a variety of reasons. Many objected that he published without rabbinic approbations, which was against explicit communal guidelines. Others added that his questioning of Rabbinic history based on other historical texts could lead to heretical ideas. Still others accused him outright of heresy.[2]On the debate over Me’or Einayim, see Prof. Reuven Bonfil, Kisvei Azariah Min Ha-Edomim (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 106-119.

Rav Yehudah Loewe (Maharal of Prague) devotes the second half of the sixth section of his Be’er Ha-Golah to arguing with Me’or Einayim. Maharal argues at length with specific interpretations but also objects that anyone who lowers the stature of the non-legal portions of Talmud and Midrash (Aggadah) has no portion in the afterlife. In other words, everything in Talmud and Midrash, every part of Torah, is a fundamental principle.

We see this also in Maharal’s Nesivos Olam (Nesiv Ha-Avodah, ch. 12), where he discusses the liturgical poem “Makhnisei Rachamim.” In this poem, we ask angels to bring our prayers to God. Ostensibly, this violates Rambam’s fifth fundamental principle that only God is worthy of worship or prayer. Maharal does not even mention this principle. Rather, he argues that it contradicts the Talmud. Instead, he suggests a minor emendation to the text so it constitutes prayer to God instead of angels. This is a case where Maharal should cite Rambam but does not, even though he reaches the same conclusion. He does this because his fence around Judaism is much higher than Rambam’s.

Going back to Me’or Einayim and the 1570s, when Rav Yosef Karo was shown the book, he spent a few days reviewing it and then instructed his student and colleague, Rav Elisha Gallico, to write a letter of excommunication for Rav Karo to sign. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (18th cen., Israel; Machazik Berakhah, Kuntres Acharon, Orach Chaim, ch. 307) quotes the prepared text from manuscript. Rav Karo was ready to denounce Me’or Einayim as heresy, without mentioning Rambam’s principles. According to him, rejecting any part of the Torah, even Aggadah, is heresy. In the end, Rav Karo fell ill and died before being able to sign this letter of excommunication. However, his views seem consistent with his colleague Radbaz (who also died in the 1570s), his younger colleague Maharal, and his much older colleague Abarbanel — all of whom believed that everything in Judaism is a fundamental belief.

V. A Return to Fundamental Beliefs

I contend that this became the standard approach after Abarbanel (with the exception of Mabit) and remained so for centuries. When Reform appeared in the early nineteenth century and the leading rabbis had to formulate their opposition to radical deviation while balancing that with the quick-paced scientific and social developments of the time, they resurrected Rambam’s thirteen principles as a leniency. They adopted Rambam’s lower fence rather than the regnant higher fence of Maharal, Bach and others. When today we cite Rambam’s thirteen principles as the boundary of acceptable Jewish beliefs, we are being inclusive. This seems counterintuitive based on standard descriptions of Jewish intellectual history, including that offered by Prof. Berman in his Ani Ma’amin. However, I suggest that my explanation of the historical trends better fits the data. There were two major trends of thought — everything is a fundamental beliefs or only specific beliefs are fundamental. The latter approach is based in Medieval Jewish philosophical literature, which went out of fashion in the sixteenth century as the former approach took hold. It resurfaced again in the nineteenth century.

Not everyone accepts this approach based in the definition of Rambam’s thirteen principles. Many still take the broader approach and insist that any deviation from Rabbinic beliefs, any rejection of Aggadah or Talmudic science or any canonical text, constitutes heresy. They are, in fact, following the view that dominated for centuries. However, a large portion of traditional Torah scholars, among them great halakhic decisors, follow Rambam’s thirteen principles as a general guide.[3]I discuss this more in my article, “Crossroads: Where Theology Meets Halacha” in Modern Judaism, October 2004. I find that Rav Netanel Wiederblank, in his Illuminating Jewish Thought series, … Continue reading

None of this is to say that we can choose which beliefs are acceptable based on what is politically or socially convenient. We follow what is true because it is true. Leading rabbis face difficult decisions and must follow the path they believe is true, despite the challenging consequences. Rabbi Berman shows is that there was a historical discontinuity in this area. I offer a different explanation of the reason for this discontinuity and its implications. I recognize that my thoughts here are tentative and subject to further refinement. I look forward to serious suggestions.

Endnotes

1Note that Rabbi Berman’s book consists of two distinct parts. The first addresses biblical criticism and offers tools to respond and reject it. I will here discuss only the second part, which address the reception of the thirteen fundamental principles of faith.
2On the debate over Me’or Einayim, see Prof. Reuven Bonfil, Kisvei Azariah Min Ha-Edomim (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 106-119.
3I discuss this more in my article, “Crossroads: Where Theology Meets Halacha” in Modern Judaism, October 2004. I find that Rav Netanel Wiederblank, in his Illuminating Jewish Thought series, follows a similar path in great detail and clarity.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. First, I think it is imprecise to say we have made the discourse about “acceptable Jewish beliefs are generally defined by Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles of faith that he lists in his commentary to the Mishnah”. The Rambam’s original formulation would have us write off many Chassidim and members of other communities, both Ashkenazi and Sepharadi. Some (many?) schools of Qabbalah have developed their ideas in ways the Rambam’s words would deem heretical. The vast majority of us say “Borchuni leShalim every Friday night, and “Machnisei Rachamim” in selichos, even though the Rambam’s formulation bans the idea of making requests of angels.

    I would say instead, the version that got “canonized” by halakhah is more like the less precise Ani Maamin or Yigdal. Not, the version in the Commentary on the Mishnah, introduction to pereq Cheileq.

    Second, I would like to note that R Yosef Albo in the Iqarim has a similar list to the Rambam’s. He famously only has 3 iqarim, but this is more because he defines “iqar” as “postulate”. But R Albo also has beliefs he calls “shorashim”, roots, which are also definitional of what Judaism is.

    Between iqarim and shorashim, there are 11 mandatory beliefs. Comparing these 11 to the Rambam’s 13, R Albo’s third iqar, the concept of Divine Justice, includes Hashem knowing our actions, thoughts and motives, so that it covers the same range of ideas as both the Rambam’s 10th ikkar (such knowledge) and 11th (Divine Justice itself).

    In terms of substance, rather than structure, there are only two differences:

    1- According to the Iqarim, belief in mashiach (the Rambam’s 12th iqar) is an anaf, a branch on the Tree of Life, but not necessary for its survival. So, the Rambam declares a person who doesn’t believe in mashiach a heretic and has no place in the World to Come (Teshuvah 3:6), the Iqarim does not. (Although both agree that the ultimate resurrection of the dead is an essential belief.)

    2- R’ Albo’s fourth shoresh from his first iqar is that Hashem is uniquely perfect. The Iqarim does include the worthiness of Hashem as a focus of worship as part of His uniqueness. I can not tell is this is part of the shoresh, or an anaf of it. (Which would be prohibited either way, but as idolatry, not heresy.)

    More than that, the manner in which the Rambam groups disbelief in one of his 13 principles in Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:7-8, which disbelief would render one what type of heretic — whether a min, an apiqoreis, or a kofer — parallels the Iqarim’s groupings of iqarim and their shorashim.

    I think that similarity too, coming from Castile, a community whose rabbinate preached a very different worldview than the Rambam’s, had a lot to do with this list becoming the basis of halachic rulings about heresy, disbelief and apostacy.

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