Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Fundamental Beliefs of Judaism - The Thirteen Foundations of Maimonides

About 800 years ago, Rabbi Moses Maimonides saw the need for a formal compilation of the most fundamental Jewish beliefs. The beliefs enumerated by Maimonides were certainly not new to Judaism; on the contrary, they were all broadly accepted concepts in Judaism.

In his compilation, which he wrote as part of his commentary on the Talmud, Maimonides succeeded in creating a summary of Jewish religious doctrine that has been accepted by Jews all over the world. Brief versions of these thirteen foundations are printed in most Jewish prayer books and many Jews recite them on a daily basis. The following is a basic summation of the thirteen foundations:

  1. The First Foundation is to believe in the existence of God. God is defined as the Creator of all that exists. He is entirely independent of all that exists, but all that exists is dependent on His constant maintenance and control.
  2. The Second Foundation is that God is one. God is absolutely simple; He has no parts or divisions, and there is nothing that can be compared to Him.
  3. The Third Foundation is that God is not physical and physical concepts cannot be applied to Him.
  4. The Fourth Foundation is that God existed prior to everything else.
  5. The Fifth Foundation is that it is proper to serve God and it is improper to serve any other being, no matter its stature, even as an intermediary to God.
  6. The Sixth Foundation is that there have been—and will be—people who have received communications from God. These people are called prophets.
  7. The Seventh Foundation is that the prophecy of Moses, as embodied in the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—has absolute authority over all other prophecy. Moses achieved a higher level of prophecy than will ever be achieved by any other human being.
  8. The Eighth Foundation is that the Torah is from God. We believe that the Torah that was conveyed to us by Moses is entirely the word of God. Even Moses himself did not add anything on his own.  This is also true for the traditional explanation of the Torah, which was also received directly from God. This traditional explanation is called the Oral Torah.
  9. The Ninth Foundation is that the Torah is permanent. We may not add anything to or remove anything from the Torah. This is true for both the Written and Oral Torah.
  10. The Tenth Foundation is that God knows the deeds and thoughts of man and never turns His eyes from us.
  11. The Eleventh Foundation is that God rewards those who obey the commandments of the Torah and punishes those who violate its prohibitions. The primary domain of reward and punishment is in the afterlife.
  12. The Twelfth Foundation is that God will eventually send the Messiah. The Messiah will be a descendant of King David. He will return the Jewish people to the land of Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At this time the world will enter into a time of complete peace and security and all mankind will know God and serve Him wholeheartedly.
  13. The Thirteenth Foundation is that at some time in the future all the righteous people from all time will be resurrected.
These are the thirteen fundamental beliefs of Judaism. Maimonides’ use of the word “foundations” is very specific. Just as in erecting a building, the foundation is only the beginning; similarly, these foundations are only a starting point.

There is a wide spread notion, found in many popular books on Judaism, that Judaism makes no creedal demands upon its adherents, but demands only righteous action. This myth originated in the 18th century, and there is no support for it anywhere in traditional Jewish literature, whether in Scripture, the Talmudic and Kabbalistic literature, the writings of the medieval Jewish philosophers, or later.

Adherents to this misconception often point to the controversy surrounding Maimonides’ Foundations as evidence for their case. They assume that the critics of Maimonides were upset that he had created a list of required beliefs, when, they believe, Judaism doesn’t have any required beliefs. This is not what the controversy was about. On the contrary, the main criticism of the principles was the implication that these thirteen principles had a status above and beyond the rest of the Torah. As the critics put it, one is obligated to believe in every word of the Torah! What justification does Maimonides have in giving priority to these thirteen?

Other criticisms were based - explicitly or implicitly - on the answers given to the above challenge. Whatever the function of these thirteen principles, critics would argue that the list could be modified to better serve that function.

For further study on this topic, see the excellent book, With Perfect Faith, by J. David Bleich.

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