Part of the Thelema & Religion series
Judaism affirms a number of basic principles of faith that one is expected to uphold in order to be said to be in consonance with the Jewish faith. However, unlike most Christian denominations, the Jewish community has never developed any one binding catechism.
A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, though there is some dispute over how many basic principles there are. Rabbi Joseph Albo, for instance, in Sefer Ha-Ikkarim counts three principles of faith, while Maimonides lists thirteen. While some later rabbis have attempted to reconcile the differences, claiming that Maimonides's principles are covered by Albo's much shorter list, the difference, and alternate lists provided by other medieval rabbinic authorities seem to indicate a broad level of tolerance for varying theological perspectives.
Jewish principles of faith
Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. The prayer par excellence in terms of defining God is the Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One", also translated as "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is unique/alone."
God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality. God has the power to intervene in the world. The term God thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche. Maimonides describes God in this fashion: "There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on God and is derived from God."
The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic literature affirm theism and reject deism. However, in the writings of medieval Jewish philosophers, influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds what can be termed deistic tendencies. These views still exist in Judaism today.
God is One
The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical for Jews to hold; it is considered akin to polytheism. Interestingly, while Jews hold that such conceptions of God are incorrect, they generally are of the opinion that gentiles that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.
God is all-powerful
Most rabbinic works present God as having the properties of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence (being all good). This is still the primary ways that most Orthodox and many non-Orthodox Jews view God.
The issue of theodicy was raised again, especially after the extreme horrors of the Holocaust and several theological responses surfaced. These are discussed in a separate entry on Holocaust theology. The central questions they address are whether and how God is all powerful and all good, given the existence of evil in the world, particularly the Holocaust.
God is personal, and cares about humanity
Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, writes that "God shows His love for us by reaching down to bridge the immense gap between Him and us. God shows His love for us by inviting us to enter into a Covenant (Brit) with Him, and by sharing with us His Torah". Hasidism seems to endorse this view to some degree. On the other hand, Maimonides and most other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God.
Names of God
The different names of God are ways to express different aspects of God's presence in the world. See the entry on The name of God in Judaism.
The Nature of God
God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. A corollary belief is that God is utterly unlike man, and can in no way be considered anthropomorphic. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God at all.
To God alone may one offer prayer
Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical. Maimonides writes that "God is the only one we may serve and praise....We may not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements.....There are no intermediaries between us and God. All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered." However, since the 1800s some Hasidic Orthodox Jews have begun to teach that their leaders, called rebbes, are indeed a sort of intermediary between man and God.
Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), and much of the beliefs described in the Mishnah and Talmud, are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine", has always been a matter of some dispute. Different understandings of this subject exist among Jews. In particular, Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the idea that religious writings are inspired by God. Instead it maintains that they represent the development of Judaism as a religious civilisation and are therefore valuable even though written only by humans.
The words of the prophets are true
This does not mean that Jews are required to read the books of the prophets literally. The Jewish tradition has always held that prophets used metaphors and analogies just like people today use them. As such, there is a wide degree of interpretation for many prophetic verses.
The status of Moses
The Torah and Talmud teach that God took the descendants of Israel out of Egypt and spoke to them at Mount Sinai. It was here that God revealed the Torah to Moses. The Jewish tradition holds that the laws therein are binding on all of Israel.
Orthodox and Conservative Jews hold that the prophecy of Moses is held to be true; he is held to be the chief of all prophets, even of those who came before and after him. This belief was expressed by Maimonides, who wrote that "Moses was superior to all prophets, whether they preceded him or arose afterwards. Moses attained the highest possible human level. He perceived God to a degree surpassing every human that ever existed....God spoke to all other prophets through an intermediary. Moses alone did not need this; this is what the Torah means when God says "Mouth to mouth, I will speak to him."
However, this does not imply that the text of the Torah should be understood literally. The rabbinic tradition maintains that God conveyed not only the words of the Torah, but the meaning of the Torah. God gave rules as to how the laws were to be understood and implemented, and these were passed down as an oral tradition. This oral law ultimately was written down almost 2,000 years later in the Mishna and the two Talmuds. The founders of Reform Judaism replaced this principle with the theory of Progressive Revelation.
For Reform Jews, the prophecy of Moses was not the highest degree of prophecy; rather it was the first in a long chain of progressive revelations in which mankind gradually began to understand the will of God better and better. As such, they maintain, that the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and it is today's generation that must assess what God wants of them. (For examples see the works of Rabbis Gunther Plaut or Eugene Borowitz). This principle is also rejected by most Reconstructionist Jews, but for a different reason; most posit that God is not a being with a will; thus they maintain that no will can be revealed.
The soul is pure at birth
Humans are born morally pure; Jews have no concept of Original sin. Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer ha'tov, a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer ha'ra, a tendency to do bad. Thus, human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. The Rabbis even recognize a positive value to the yetzer ha'ra: without the yetzer ha'ra there would be no civilisation or other fruits of human labor. The implication is that yetzer ha'tov and yetzer ha'ra are best understood not as moral categories of good and evil but as selfless versus selfish orientations.
Jews recognize two kinds of "sin," offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). In a post-Temple world, Jews believe that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins.
A classical rabbinic work, Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan, states: "One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. "Woe to us," cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated: I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). Also, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]." (Tractate Berachot, 55a.) Similarly, the liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (charity) atone for sin.
- Wikipedia. (2004). Jewish principles of faith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_principles_of_faith). Retrieved Sept. 25, 2004.