Judaism has no pope or central religious authority that could formulate or issue a unified creed. The various "principles of faith" that have been enumerated carry no greater weight than that imparted to them by the fame and scholarship of their respective authors. Central authority in Judaism is not vested in any person or group but rather in Judaism's sacred writings, laws, and traditions. In nearly all its variations, Judaism affirms the existence and oneness of God. Judaism stresses performance of deeds or commandments rather than adherence to a belief system.
Orthodox Judaism has stressed a number of core principles in its educational programs, most importantly a belief that there is a single, omniscient and transcendent God, who created the universe, and continues to be concerned with its governance. Traditional Judaism maintains that God established a covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and revealed his laws and commandments to them in the form of the Torah. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Torah comprises both the written Torah (Pentateuch) and a tradition of oral law, much of it codified in later sacred writings.
Traditionally, the practice of Judaism has been devoted to the study of Torah and observance of these laws and commandments. In normative Judaism, the Torah and hence Jewish law itself is unchanging, but interpretation of law is more open. It is considered a mitzvah (commandment) to study and understand the law.
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, perhaps influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds what can be termed limited omniscience. [See Gersonides "Views on omniscience"]
See also Divine simplicity.
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.
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 many other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God as incorrect. This may, however, simply be an emphatic form of the common Jewish view that God is unchanging, not describable and not anthropomorphic: see next section, and negative theology.
Some rabbinic authorities disagreed with this view. Notably, Nachmanides was of the opinion that it is permitted to ask the angels to beseech God on our behalf. This argument manifests notably in the Selichot prayer called "Machnisay Rachamim", a request to the angels to intercede with God. Modern printed editions of the Selichot include this prayer.
However, this does not imply that the text of the Torah should be understood literally, as according to Karaism. 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 was passed down from generation to generation and ultimately written down almost 2,000 years later in the Mishna and the two Talmuds.
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.
Rabbinic Judaism holds that the Torah extant today is the same one that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Maimonides explains: "We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses. But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation....[Thus] every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God's Torah, which is perfect, holy and true."
Haredi Jews generally believe that the Torah today is no different from what was received from God to Moses, with only the most minor of scribal errors. Many other Orthodox Jews suggest that over the millennia, some scribal errors have crept into the Torah's text. They note that the Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries) compared all known Torah variations in order to create a definitive text. Some Modern Orthodox Jews hold that there are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen, and accept that part of the story in these places may have been edited out.
The Bible contains references to Sheol lit. gloom, as the common destination of the dead, which may be compared with the Hades or underworld of ancient religions. In later tradition this is interpreted either as Hell or as a literary expression for death or the grave in general. However most Jews today believe in a heaven as opposed to an "underworld".
According to aggadic passages in the Talmud, God judges who has followed His commandments and who does not and to what extent. Those who do not "pass the test" go to a purifying place (sometimes referred to as Gehinnom, i.e. Hell, but more analogous to the Christian Purgatory) to "learn their lesson". There is, however, for the most part, no eternal damnation. The vast majority of souls can only go to that reforming place for a limited amount of time (less than one year). Certain categories are spoken of as having "no part in the world to come", but this appears to mean annihilation rather than an eternity of torment.
Philosophical rationalists such as Maimonides believed that God did not actually mete out rewards and punishments as such. In this view, these were beliefs that were necessary for the masses to believe in order to maintain a structured society and to encourage the observance of Judaism. However, once one learned Torah properly, one could then learn the higher truths. In this view, the nature of the reward is that if a person perfected his intellect to the highest degree, then the part of his intellect that connected to God - the active intellect - would be immortalized and enjoy the "Glory of the Presence" for all eternity. The punishment would simply be that this would not happen; no part of one's intellect would be immortalized with God. See Divine Providence in Jewish thought.
The Kabbalah (mystical tradition in Judaism) contains further elaborations, though some Jews do not consider these authoritative. For example it admits the possibility of reincarnation, which is generally rejected by non-mystical Jewish theologians and philosophers. It also believes in a triple soul, of which the lowest level (nefesh or animal life) dissolves into the elements, the middle layer (ruach or intellect) goes to Gan Eden (Paradise) while the highest level (neshamah or spirit) seeks union with God.
Judaism has always considered "Tikkun Olam" (or Perfecting the world) as a fundamental reason for God's creating the world. Therefore, the concept of "life after death" in the Jewish view, while considered the eventual eternal reward or punishment for all, is not encouraged as the sole motivating factor in performance of Judaism. Indeed it is held that one can attain closeness to God even in this world through moral and spiritual perfection.
Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, describes the mainstream Jewish view on this issue: "Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people—and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual—is 'chosen' or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose."
More on this topic is available in the entry on Jewish views of religious pluralism.
Judaism recognizes two classes 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). (See Jewish views of sin.)
A classical rabbinic work, Avoth 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 gemiluth ḥasadim (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]" (Talmud, tractate Berachoth 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 atone for sin.
A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, and 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' principles are covered by Albo's much shorter list, alternate lists provided by other medieval rabbinic authorities seem to indicate a some level of tolerance for varying theological perspectives.
Though to a certain extent incorporated in the liturgy and utilized for purposes of instruction, these formulations of the cardinal tenets of Judaism carried no greater weight than that imparted to them by the fame and scholarship of their respective authors. None of them had a character analogous to that given in the Church to its three great formulas (the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene or Constantinopolitan, and the Athanasian), or even to the Kalimat As-Shahadat of the Muslims. None of the many summaries from the pens of Jewish philosophers and rabbis has been invested with similar importance.
Both of these provocations to creed-building were less intense in Judaism.
The proselytizing zeal, though during certain periods more active than at others, was neutralized, partly by disinclination and partly by force of circumstances. Righteousness, according to Jewish belief, was not conditioned of the acceptance of the Jewish religion. And the righteous among the nations that carried into practice the seven fundamental laws of the covenant with Noah and his descendants were declared to be participants in the felicity of the hereafter. This interpretation of the status of non-Jews precluded the development of a missionary attitude. Moreover, the regulations for the reception of proselytes, as developed in course of time, prove the eminently practical, that is, the non-creedal character of Judaism. Compliance with certain rites - immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), brit milah (circumcision), and the acceptance of the mitzvot (Commandments of Torah) as binding - is the test of the would-be convert's faith. He or she is instructed in the main points of Jewish law, while the profession of faith demanded is limited to the acknowledgment of the unity of God and the rejection of idolatry. Judah ha-Levi (Kuzari 1:115) puts the whole matter very strikingly when he says:
For the preparation of the convert, therefore, no other method of instruction was employed than for the training of one born a Jew. The aim of teaching was to convey a knowledge of halakha (Jewish law), obedience to which manifested the acceptance of the underlying religious principles; namely, the existence of God and the mission of Israel as the people of God's covenant.
Judaism is different than many other religions in that it does not ask its followers to actively attempt to get others to convert to Judaism. Judaism welcomes people who want to convert because they want to, not because someone else told them they had to. Jews believe that anyone on earth who is righteous and good can be close to God, regardless of religion.
The first to make the attempt to formulate Jewish principles of faith was Philo of Alexandria. He enumerated five articles: God is and rules; God is one; the world was created by God; Creation is one, and God's providence rules Creation.
The definition of Hillel the Elder in his interview with a would-be convert (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a), embodies in the golden rule the one fundamental article of faith. A teacher of the 3rd century, Rabbi Simlai, traces the development of Jewish religious principles from Moses with his 613 mitzvot of prohibition and injunction, through David, who, according to this rabbi, enumerates eleven; through Isaiah, with six; Micah, with three; to Habakkuk who simply but impressively sums up all religious faith in the single phrase, "The pious lives in his faith" (Talmud, Mak., toward end). As Jewish law enjoins that one should prefer death to an act of idolatry, incest, unchastity, or murder, the inference is plain that the corresponding positive principles were held to be fundamental articles of Judaism.
Judah Halevi endeavored, in his Kuzari to determine the fundamentals of Judaism on another basis. He rejects all appeal to speculative reason, repudiating the method of the Motekallamin. The miracles and traditions are, in their natural character, both the source and the evidence of the true faith. In this view, speculative reason is considered fallible due to the inherent impossibility of objectivity in investigations with moral implications.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides or "The Rambam" (1135-1204 CE), lived at a time when both Christianity and Islam were developing active theologies. Jewish scholars were often asked to attest to their faith by their counterparts in other religions. The Rambam's 13 principles of faith were formulated in his commentary on the Mishnah (tractace Sanhedrin, chapter 10). They were one of several efforts by Jewish theologians in the Middle Ages to create such a list. By the time of Maimonides, centers of Jewish learning and law were dispersed geographically. Judaism no longer had a central authority that might bestow official approval on his principles of faith.
Maimonides' 13 principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Crescas and Joseph Albo. They evoked criticism as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (Rabbi S. of Montpelier, Yad Rama, Y. Alfacher, Rosh Amanah). The 13 principles were ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. (Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, Menachem Kellner). Over time two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma'amin and Yigdal) became canonized in the Jewish prayerbook. Eventually, Maimonides' 13 principles of faith became the mostly widely accepted statement of belief.
Importantly, Maimonides, while enumerating the above, added the following caveat "There is no difference between [the Biblical statement] 'his wife was Mehithabel' [Genesis 10,6] on the one hand [i.e. an "unimportant" verse], and 'Hear, O Israel' on the other [i.e. an "important" verse]... anyone who denies even such verses thereby denies God and shows contempt for his teachings more than any other skeptic, because he holds that the Torah can be divided into essential and non-essential parts..." The uniqueness of the thirteen fundamental beliefs was that even a rejection out of ignorance placed one outside Judaism, whereas the rejection of the rest of Torah must be a conscious act to stamp one as an unbeliever. Others, such as Rabbi Joseph Albo and the Raavad, criticized Maimonides' list as containing items that, while true, in their opinion did not place those who rejected them out of ignorance in the category of heretic. Many others criticized any such formulation as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (see above). As noted however, neither Maimonides nor his contemporaries viewed these principles as encompassing all of Jewish belief, but rather as the core theological underpinnings of the acceptance of Judaism.
Several Orthodox scholars write that the popular Orthodox understanding of these principles are not at all what Maimonides held to be true. See books noted below by Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner.
In the last two centuries, some segments of the Orthodox Jewish community have demanded acceptance of Maimonides' principles. Others have rejected this view, stressing the centrality of deeds, of performance of commandments, as the basis of normative Judaism.
Others, like Crescas and David ben Samuel Estella, spoke of seven fundamental articles, laying stress on free-will. On the other hand, David ben Yom-Tob ibn Bilia, in his "Yesodot ha- Maskil" (Fundamentals of the Thinking Man), adds to the thirteen of Maimonides thirteen of his own — a number which a contemporary of Albo also chose for his fundamentals; while Jedaiah Penini, in the last chapter of his "Behinat ha-Dat," enumerated no less than thirty-five cardinal principles.
Isaac Abravanel, his "Rosh Amanah," took the same attitude towards Maimonides' creed. While defending Maimonides against Hasdai and Albo, he refused to accept dogmatic articles for Judaism, criticizing any formulation as minimizing acceptance of all 613 mitzvot.
Those denominations accepting outside influence on the practice of Judaism are known as Conservative and Reform Judaism. The Jews who did not accept any fundamental changes in rabbinic Judaism became known as Orthodox. The entry on Reform movement in Judaism discusses in more detail how and why the enlightenment led to the development of the modern Jewish denominations.
Owing to this, there is no one official statement of principles. Rather, all formulations by accepted early Torah leaders are considered to have possible validity. Nevertheless, the thirteen principles of Maimonides have a certain priority over other formulations: they are often printed in prayer books, and a hymn (Yigdal) incorporating them is sung on Friday nights.
In 1988, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism finally issued an official statement of belief, "Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism". It noted that a Jew must hold certain beliefs. However, the Conservative rabbinate also notes that the Jewish community never developed any one binding catechism. Thus, Emet Ve-Emunah affirms belief in God and in God's revelation of Torah to the Jews; however it also affirms the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of these issues. Atheism, Trinitarian views of God, and polytheism are all ruled out. All forms of relativism, and also of literalism and fundamentalism are also rejected. It teaches that Jewish law is both still valid and indispensable, but also holds to a more open and flexible view of how law has and should develop than the Orthodox view.
According to CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over these platforms; lay people need not accept all, or even any, of the beliefs stated in these platforms. Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) President Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin wrote a pamphlet about Reform Judaism, entitled "What We Believe...What We Do...". It states that "if anyone were to attempt to answer these two questions authoritatively for all Reform Jews, that person's answers would have to be false. Why? Because one of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to this particular belief or to that particular practice." Reform Judaism affirms "the fundamental principle of Liberalism: that the individual will approach this body of mitzvot and minhagim in the spirit of freedom and choice. Traditionally Israel started with harut, the commandment engraved upon the Tablets, which then became freedom. The Reform Jew starts with herut, the freedom to decide what will be harut - engraved upon the personal Tablets of his life." [Bernard Martin, Ed., Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought, Quadrangle Books 1968.]
Most Reconstructionist Jews reject theism, and instead define themselves as naturalists or humanists. These views have been criticized on the grounds that they are actually atheism, which has only been made palatable to Jews by rewriting the dictionary. A significant minority of Reconstructionists have refused to accept Kaplan's theology, and instead affirm a theistic view of God.
As in Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism holds that personal autonomy has precedence over Jewish law and theology. It does not ask that its adherents hold to any particular beliefs, nor does it ask that halakha be accepted as normative. In 1986, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations (FRC) passed the official "Platform on Reconstructionism" (2 pages). It is not a mandatory statement of principles, but rather a consensus of current beliefs. [FRC Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.] Major points of the platform state that: