Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought

Saadiah articulated Jewish creeds, Maimonides followed suit, and a group of 15th-century Spaniards continued the tradition.

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Maimonides concludes his discussion with the following peroration:

"When all these foundations [of the Torah] are perfectly understood and believed in by a person, he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love him and to act towards him in all the ways in which the Creator has commanded that one should act towards his brother, with love and fraternity. Even were he to commit every possible transgression, because of lust and because of being overpowered by the evil inclination, he will be punished according to his rebelliousness but he has a portion [in the World to Come]; he is one of the sinners of Israel. But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community [of Israel], denies the fundamental, and is called sectarian, epikoros, and one 'who cuts among the plantings.' One is required to hate and destroy him. About such a person it was said, 'Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate Thee?' [Psalms 139:21]."

Conditions for Jewishness, Salvation

Maimonides here defines dogmas as beliefs that are set down by the Torah and are both necessary and sufficient conditions for being a Jew and for earning a portion in the World to Come. Maimonides reiterated this list with little change in Chapter 3 of [Mishneh Torah] Hilkhot Teshuvah ("Laws of Repentance") referred to it in later writings, and even reworked portions of it toward the end of his life. Moreover, he unflinchingly accepts the halakhic implications of his position excluding heretics from the Jewish community (see Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Avodat Zarah 2:5; Hilkhot Edut 11:10; Hilkhot Shehitah 4:14, and especially Hilkhot Rozeah 4:10).

Maimonides' teachings here include the following revolutionary claims: Judaism has dogmas and accepting the dogmas of Judaism without doubt and hesitation is a necessary and sufficient condition for being considered a Jew and for achieving a portion in the World to Come; although one may transgress commandments out of weakness or inadvertence (ba‑shogeg) without excluding oneself from the community of Israel and the World to Come, disbelief in any one of the thirteen dogmas for any reason is heresy and costs one his membership in the community of Israel and his portion in the World to Come.

Heresy is heresy, whether it is intended as such or not.

Dogma Returns

In the two hundred years following the death of Maimonides almost no attention was paid to the question of dogma in Judaism. This may be a consequence of the fact that Maimonides' spiritual legacy split after his death.

Whereas Maimonides had sought to amalgamate two paths to human felicity‑-that of rational cognition [i.e. philosophy] and that of observance of the mitzvot‑‑followers emphasized one or the other of the two paths. Those who were halakhists had no reason to be interested in purely theological questions, while the philosophers were aloof to what they regarded as narrow theological issues and, therefore, neither group took up the question of dogma.

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Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.