The Emergence of Jewish Dogma

Medieval authorities responded to outside pressures and formulated Jewish principles of faith.

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In the following article, Menachem Kellner suggests that systematic theology was not important to the rabbis of the Talmud. While, strictly speaking, this is true--there are no self-conscious attempts to organize Judaism's beliefs in the Talmud--some scholars, David Berger in particular, reject Kellner's assertion that, in Talmudic Judaism, one's beliefs had no affect on one's Jewish identity or prospects for salvation. But that does not change the fact that the articulation of Jewish beliefs was a uniquely medieval phenomenon. This article is primarily concerned with determining the causes of this phenomenon. Finally, in his discussion of the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect, Kellner suggests that their practices did not differ much from the mainstream Jewish tradition. In fact, however, the Karaites relied primarily on biblical law without its talmudic elaborations.  Reprinted with the permission of The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization from Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought.

Why are there no orderly attempts in the Talmud to expound the beliefs of Judaism? In a certain sense, the question is anachronistic. We raise the question, I think, more because Islam and Christianity are characterized by repeated attempts to expound their theologies systematically, than because such an approach to theology is intrinsic to monotheistic faith.


Talmudic Religion

Talmudic Judaism was a faith which neither lent itself easily to theological systematization nor needed such a theology. Let me explain the second point first.

Now, why might a religion need to expound its beliefs in an organized fashion? One reason might be that it held that adherence to those beliefs was a criterion for being accepted as an adherent of that religion or was a criterion for salvation however that religion understood the term.

Talmudic Judaism, however, did not define a Jew in terms of his beliefs: a Jew was a person born of a Jewish mother or a person converted to Judaism (which in effect meant that he was adopted by the Jewish people as one of its own). The laws of conversion, as enunciated in the Talmud, concern themselves with the observance of the commandments to the almost total exclusion of questions relating to the affirmation of beliefs.

Personal salvation, too, did not depend upon orthodoxy in the strict sense of the term (orthos= straight; doxos=thinking) but upon submission to the will of God as expressed in the commandments of the Torah. Thus, talmudic Judaism did not need systematic theology either to define what a Jew was or how a Jew earned a share in the world to come.

Another reason why a religion might be compelled to expound its beliefs in an orderly fashion would be to attract outsiders to the fold. In such a case it would have to put its house in order, so to speak, so as to make it comprehensible to others. Talmudic Judaism, however, was not a proselytizing faith and was thus spared the need to present itself in this way to facilitate the conversion of Gentiles.

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