Principles of the Jewish Faith by Louis Jacobs

Availability: Amazon, San Jose

Comments from our member, Dianne Portnoy

It is interesting to note that the principles of Jewish faith have always received fresh interpretations so that the picture of a completely static system of beliefs handed down from age to age reaching back to Sinai is, in no event, false. Judaism is a dynamic, not a static faith. Rabbi Jacobs discusses the continuity between past and present and how these values must be preserved, and how the eternal values of the faith be expressed. We can either try to reject totally all the insights of the historical school, without much hope of success, and go back to dogmatism without roots in Jewish history, or we can try to build a Jewish theology based on firm historical foundations.

Having been introduced to the conception of Judaism as a dynamic rather than static faith, with its institutions developing in and through the historical process of the Jewish people and the various nations with whom it came in contact, we are convinced that there are truths here it would be obscurantism to deny. It is Judaism as a living faith, not only as a happy hunting ground for the student of antiquities that we require. There are dogmas in Judaism, but we must try, at least to take up the matter, what are these dogmas and if and how they can be re-interpreted for the Jew of today.

The real impetus to creed formulation was given in the Middle Ages when Jewish thinkers had to face the challenge presented by Greek philosophic thought, by Christianity and by Islam. It then became essential to define Judaism and to dwell on its unique features. It is somewhat ironic that the earliest formulations of Jewish creeds in the Middle Ages were by Karaites, themselves sectarians and rebels against Rabbinism. They were the first Jews to come into close contact with non-Jews systems. Later Rabbinic formulations had the additional motive of combating Karaism.

The most important formulation of articles of faith by a Rabbinate is that of Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) in his commentary to the Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin. This book, Principles of the Jewish Faith, is an attempt to examine in turn each of the thirteen principles of Maimonides and to try to discover the permanent truth in each, which recognizing that in such a re-interpretation questions the facts are involved, namely, the facts discovered through the pious labors of thousands of researches into Jewish sources and origins.

Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith:

  1. Belief in the existence of God –
    The differences between the modern and mediaeval approach lie not in the belief itself but in the reasons for holding it.
  2. Belief in God’s unity –
    Is Israel’s special contribution to religion with the enriched the idea of ethical monotheism.
  3. Belief in God’s incorporeality
  4. Belief in God’s eternity –
    A being that is not eternal would not be God.
  5. Belief that God alone is to be worshipped –
    This is a compelling as it ever has been
  6. Belief in prophecy –
    Hebrew Prophets are the men who brought God to the world.
  7. Belief in Moses as the greatest of the prophets –
    Value lies in the affirmation behind it that no other religious leader under God’s guidance, succeeded in bringing to men religion to supersede Judaism.
  8. Belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses –
    According to scholarship, the Bible contains the Word of God but its own words are human.
  9. Belief that the Torah is immutable –
    Affirms Judaism is an eternal faith – with internal changes.
  10. Belief that God knows the thoughts and deeds of men –
    We are stewards in the world God created.
  11. Belief that God rewards and punishes –
    The interpretation does not conceive God as vindictive. But rather share in God’s goodness.
  12. Belief in the advent of the Messiah –
    Belief in a more direct divine intervention than an automatic human progress.
  13. Belief in the resurrection of the dead –
    Belief in immortality of the soul.

This being the very briefest outline of the text, an additional thought: The non-fundamentalist Jew who will consider the arguments of the text is as much a person of faith as the fundamentalist. That s/he has less simple and direct answers to some of the religious problems of Jewish life than the fundamentalist is to be expected.