Category Archives: Theology

Principles of Jewish Faith FAQ

Does Judaism have an official set of principles of faith?

“In the same sense as Christianity or Islam, Judaism can not be credited with the possession of Articles of Faith.  Many attempts have indeed been made at systematizing and reducing to a fixed phraseology and sequence the contents Of the Jewish religion. But these have always lacked the one essential element: authoritative sanction on the part of a supreme ecclesiastical body.  And for this reason they have not been recognized as final or regarded as of universally binding force.  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.  The first to make the attempt to formulate them was Philo of Alexandria….In his work “De Mundi Opificio,” lxi., Philo enumerates five articles as embracing the chief tenets of [the Jewish faith] (1):

God exists and rules; God is one; The world was created; Creation is one; God’s providence rules Creation’

“But among the Tannaim and Amoraim [rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud] this example of Philo found no followers, though many of their number were drawn into controversies with both Jews and non-Jews, and had to fortify their faith against the attacks of contemporaneous philosophy as well as against rising Christianity. Only in a general way the Mishnah, in Sanhedrin 11:1, excludes from the world to come the Epicureans and those who deny belief in resurrection or in the divine origin of the Torah.” (1)

In another demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable belief, the Talmud records that Rabbi Akiva held it heretical to read from the “outside works”.  This phrase is widely understood to refer to the apocrypha.  In truth, this identification is not so clear.  Akiva may have been referring to other books, possibly even some of the books of the Ketuvim (Writings), which eventually were canonized as part of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible]. (2)

“Abba Saul designated as under suspicion of infidelity those that pronounce the ineffable name of the Deity. By implication, the contrary doctrine and attitude may thus be regarded as having been proclaimed as orthodox. On the other hand, Akiva himself declares that the command to love one’s neighbor the fundamental the principle of the Law; while Ben Asa assigns this distinction to the Biblical verse, “This is the book of the generations of man” (Genesis v.i.; Midrash Genesis Rabbah xxiv).” (1)

The 13 Principles of Faith is the most well known Jewish creed; it was formulated by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, or Rambam (1135-1204 CE).  These principles were controversial when first proposed, and they were not accepted by most of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. (3)

Over time two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma’amim and Yigdal) became canonized in the siddur, and these principles eventually became widely held.  Today most of the Orthodox Jewish community holds these beliefs to be obligatory.  However, “even a cursory examination of Jewish literature shows that Maimonides’ principles were never regarded as the last word in Jewish theology.” (4)  Further, many of the beliefs that people attribute to Maimonides were, in fact, the opposite of what he held to be true.  Many “true believers” thus, ironically, hold beliefs that Maimonides held to be heretical.

Below we quote each of these principles as phrased in the “Ani Ma’amim”, and discuss how the modern Jewish denominations understand them.  Maimonides’ comments are taken from his commentary on the Mishnah (10th chapter of Sanhedrin) and the Mishneh Torah (Yesodey HaTorah), using the translation of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. (5)

Note that the Ani Ma’amim was not written by Maimonides, and it sometimes contradicts Maimonides’ views.  We quote the Ani Ma’amim because in practice most Orthodox Jews base their faith on its formulation.  In a separate essay we list each of the principles in Maimonides’ own words.

Readers should be aware that each of these, with the exception of the first) has been questioned and in some way by rabbinical authorities.

1. I believe that God creates and guides all creatures, and that God alone made, makes and will make everything.

Judaism affirms theism as the basis for religion, as does Islam and Christianity.  Beyond merely teaching that a god exists – which rules out atheism and agnosticism – Judaism specifically notes that only one god exists, thereby ruling out polytheism.  God is posited as a creator and a source of morality, and has the power to intervene in the world in some fashion.  The term ‘God’ thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche.  Maimonides writes “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.”
This is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, most Reform and some Reconstructionist Jews.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, did not believe in God as most people had previously understood the term. Instead he spoke of the “God-idea”.  He transvalued the word God to mean the set of natural processes within the universe that man can use to become self-fulfilled.  He also defined God as “the power in the universe that makes for salvation”, where “salvation” is defined as man’s ability to achieve self-realization and fulfillment.

Or consider the theology of Rabbi Alvin Reines, professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Reform movement’s primary seminary, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.  He teaches that theology is not the study of God, but instead is the study of the possible meanings of the term “God”.  He holds that those who do not believe in God can continue to use theistic language.  He then presents a redefinition of the word God: “The enduring possibility of being”.  Using his redefinition, he reasons that since nothing can exist without the possibility of its being, whenever we experience existence, we experience God.  Thus, everyone can be said to believe in God. (15)

This phenomenon has been termed “conversion by definition”. (6)  Rabbi Michael Samuels has noted that these reinterpretations exploit the traditional prestige of words that they have emptied of their original meaning. (7)

2. I believe that God is one, and that there is no unity that is in any way like God’s.  He alone is our God, Who is, Who was and Who always will be.

Maimonides explains  “If one even allows himself to think that there is another deity other than God, than he violates the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me”.

This is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and many Reconstructionist Jews.

Mordecai Kaplan outlines the Reconstructionist view: God is part of “the cosmos itself” which is really “a unified field of relationships”.  God is the sum of everything that is needed for “human fulfillment or salvation, both individual and collective, which is compatible with the cultural climate of contemporary life.” (8)  Kaplan also defines God as “those forces in human life and its environment which make for health, happiness and progress.” (9)

3. I believe that God is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomenon, and that there is no comparison to God whatsoever.

Maimonides explains  “In many places our holy scriptures do speak of God in physical terms.  Thus we find concepts such as walking, standing, sitting and speaking used in relation to God.  In all these cases, though, scripture is only speaking metaphorically.  In the Talmud our sages teach us that “The Torah speaks in the language of man” (Berachot, 31b).

This principle is accepted by all denominations.

4. I believe that God is the very first and the very last.

Maimonides explains  “The fourth principle involves the absolute eternity of the One.  Nothing else shares God’s eternal quality.  This is discussed many times in Scripture, and the Torah teaches it to us when it says “The Eternal God is a refuge” (Deuteronomy 33:27).

This principle is accepted by all denominations.

5. I believe that to God alone is it proper to pray, and it is not proper to pray to any other.
Maimonides writes “God is the only one we may serve and praise….We many 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.

Jewish law requires the worshiper to be aware that it is God being addressed, to “know before Whom you are standing” (Berakhot, 28b).  Merely reading from a prayer book, appreciating the beauty of the poetry, or meditating on some words, does not by itself constitute Jewish prayer.  To transform reading into praying, there must at least be a sense of standing in the presence of God and the intent to fulfill at least one of God’s commandments. (10)

This principle is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative and most Reform Jews.

In contrast, most Reconstructionist and some Reform Jews have redefined the word prayer. Instead of believing in a personal God, the word ‘God’ is redefined as a natural process or a philosophical idea, not an ontological reality. As such, what does it mean to pray? Mordecai Kaplan says “Prayer aims at deriving, from the Process that constitutes God, the power that would strengthen the forces and relationships by which we fulfill ourselves as persons.”(11)  That is, prayer is an action that allows people to understand their desires, which need to be recognized in order to be fulfilled.

Some Reconstructionists seek to abolish all references to God, even in the context of this redefined concept of prayer.  Ira Eisenstein, President Emeritus of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and an editor of the first Reconstructionist prayer book, writes:
“Prayer does not necessarily require a ‘thou’….When I   pray I confine myself to the kind of text that enables  me to achieve what Walter Kaufman calls ‘passionate  reflection’….I suggest that traditional Jewish values  become the central theme of passionate reflection. (12)

Eisenstein goes on to state that “a dialogue with some Other” does not constitute authentic prayer, and urges Reconstructionist Jews to pray “without the Thou [God]”. (12) If this is true, then prayer by all other Jews is not authentic prayer. Knowing how liberal Jews feel when told by certain Orthodox rabbis that their worship isn’t “authentic”, one wonders how a supposedly liberal rabbi can make statements with similar presumption.

This practice of prayer “without the Thou” is not a rare occurance; it is practiced by many Reconstructionists. It has been popularized by Marcia Falk, whose non-deity oriented poetry and prayers have entered new Reconstructionist liturgical works. (13)

In a direct contradiction of Maimonides’ fifth principle many Chassidic Jews pray to their deceased Rebbes, asking them to intercede on their behalf.  They argue that they are only asking the souls of the dead to act as intermediaries between them and God, but this is precisely what Maimonides attacks as heresy. Chasidic Jews view their rebbes as a  necessary intermediary in worship of God. Here is an extreme example of this:

“What’s Really Going On” By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg,  Beis Moshiach

Rosh HaShana is not only the Day of Judgment, but most importantly, the day on which we crown the King of the universe and accept His sovereignty. On Rosh HaShana, we rise above the particulars of Torah and mitzvos and go directly to the King Himself. The common theme in all our Yomim Noraim prayers is the Creation’s acceptance of Hashem’s malchus, which, according to the Divine plan, is accomplished by acceptance of Melech HaMoshiach’s sovereignty. As mentioned before, this is why it is so important to declare “Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed” before the shofar is sounded and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur after “Hashem Hu HaElokim.” This custom was instituted in the Rebbe’s presence in Beis Chayeinu in 5754. As Chassidus explains, the way to achieve hiskashrus with HaKadosh Boruch Hu is by being connected to the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach, the “connecting intermediary,” through whom we attach ourselves to the Infinite, as it states, “I stand between you and G-d, to convey to you G-d’s word.” This includes not only obeying all the Rebbe’s directives, seeking his advice and believing in his prophecies, but striving toward an essential hiskarshus with the Rebbe himself.

—–

6. I believe that all the words of the prophets are true.

Maimonides explains  “We must realize that there exist human beings who have such lofty qualities and achieve such great perfection that their souls become prepared to receive pure spiritual wisdom.  Their human wisdom can then become bound up with Creative Mind of God and receive an inspired emanation from it.  This is prophecy, and those people who achieve it are prophets.”
“All prophets have one thing in common.  They all see their prophecy only in a dream, a vision or a trance.  This is what the Torah means when it says “If there be a prophet among you, then I, God, will make Myself known to him in a vision – I will speak to him in a dream.” (Numbers 12:6)

This principle is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, most Reform Jews.

7. I believe that the prophecy of Moses was true, and that he was the chief of all prophets, both those before him and those after him.

Maimonides explains  “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.”

This principle is accepted by all Orthodox and most Conservative Jews. 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 idea of progressive revelation.  In this view, 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 better understand the will of God.  As such, the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and it is today’s generation that must assess what God wants of them.  (See the works of Gunther Plaut or Eugene Borowitz).  This principle is also rejected by most Reconstructionists, but for a different reason;  most posit that God is not a being with a will; thus no will can be revealed.

8. I believe that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses our teacher.

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….The person who says that some passages were written by Moses of his own accord is considered by our prophets and sages to be the worst sort of nonbeliever, and a perverter of the Torah….Such a person is in the category of those who say “The Torah is not in heaven”….Regarding such a person the Torah says “He has despised the word of God, his soul shall be utterly cut off.” (Numbers 15:31)

Maimonides writes that to a lesser degree, this principle also covers the Oral, as well as the Written Torah.  This includes the Mishna, early halakhic Midrashim, and the two Talmuds.  We, of course, are not supposed to believe that every word or rule in these works came directly from God.  However, Maimonides says that we have to believe that all this material is nevertheless directly based on the law that God disclosed to Moses.  Maimonides explains  “One who does not believe in the Oral Torah…is counted as an apikores (heretic).  However, this is only true when one denies the Oral Torah on the basis of his owns thoughts and opinions…this does not include the children of those who go astray or their descendants.”

No modern Jewish denomination totally accepts this principle.  Orthodox Jews recognize that over the millennia, many scribal errors have crept into the Torah’s text.  The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text.  Also, there are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen – part of the story in these places has been edited out.

In general, though, Orthodox Jews view the Written and Oral Torah as virtually the same that Moses taught, for all practical purposes.

Due to advances in biblical scholarship, and archeological and linguistic research, all non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle outright.  Instead, they accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah may come from the Moses, but that the document that we have today has been edited together from several documents.  Conservative Jews tend to believe that much of the Oral law is divinely inspired, while Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend to view all of the Oral law as an entirely human creation.  For more details see Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”

9. I believe that the Torah will not be changed nor will there be another Torah from God.
Maimonides explains  “If any prophet comes to alter the Torah, we immediately know that he is a false prophet.  It does not matter whether he is Jewish or gentile, or how many signs and miracles he performs.  If he says that God sent him to add or subtract a commandment…he is a false prophet.  The same is true if he teaches that the commandments were only given for a limited time and not forever.

This principle is accepted by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, as long as one understands that this claim is understood within the system of the dual Torah, the written and the oral law.  In contrast, Reform Jews state instead that Revelation is progressive, thus Jews are not bound by the understanding of Revelation that came from the Written or Oral Torah.  This can be seen in the writings of the early Reformers, as well as modern day prominent Reform theologians such as Eugene Borowitz and Gunther Plaut.  They teach that the laws of the Torah and Talmud are no longer binding;  Instead, each Jews is empowered to interpret the word of God, and this interpretation literally creates new and separate commandments for each person. Reconstructionists dismissed the idea of mitzvot altogether, and replaced it with folk-ways that can be democratically altered by the will of the people.

10. I believe that God knows all the deeds of human beings and their thoughts. Maimonides explains  “The tenth principle is that God knows all that men do, and never turns His eyes away from them.  It denies the opinion of those who say “God has abandoned His world”.

This principle is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative and most Reform Jews.  It is rejected by some Reform and most Reconstructionist Jews, as Kaplan’s conception of God does not have the property of knowledge.

11.  I believe that God rewards with good those who observe his commandments, and punishes those who violate His commandments.

This is a case where the Ani Ma’amim states the opposite of what Maimonides actually taught; Maimonides wrote that only fools believe that God rewarded or punished people.  Maimonides believed that the only possible reward was 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.

The common understanding of this principle – against Maimonides’s view – is accepted by most Orthodox, and some Conservative and Reform Jews.

12.  I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.

Maimonides explains  “We believe that the Messiah will be greater than any other king or ruler that has ever lives….One who doubts this denies the Torah itself.  The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist.  However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much…. it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true.  The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”  This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations.  All nations will return to the true religion [monotheism, although not necessarily Judaism] and will no longer steal or oppress.  Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical – Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us.  Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles….the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.”

This principle is accepted by Orthodox Jews.  Conservative Jews vary in their beliefs, some affirming a personal messiah, while others affirm a messianic era.  Emet Ve-Emunah (14), the Conservative movement’s statement of principles, notes:

“We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be acharismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of human-kind from the evils of the world.  Through the doctrine of aMessianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibilityto bring about the messianic age.  Beyond that, we echo the words ofMaimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day….[Since no one can say forcertain what will happen in the Messianic era] each of us is free tofashion personal speculation.  Some of us accept these speculationsare literally true, while others understand them as elaboratemetaphors….For the world community we dream of an age when warfarewill be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all,as it is said in Isaiah 11: “…the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  For our people,we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius inevery area of our national life.  We affirm Isaiah’s prophecy (2:3)that ‘…Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord fromJerusalem’. ” (14)

Reform Jews generally concur with this; they are more likely to believe in a messianic era than a personal messiah. Reconstructionist Jews reject the idea that God can send a personal messiah or bring about a messianic age, but they do teach that man can use the power or process termed God to help bring about such a world.

13. I believe that there will be a resurrection of the dead whenever the wish emanates from God.

Maimonides wrote much on this topic, but in most cases he wrote about the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect; his writings were not about any resurrection of dead bodies.  This prompted hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and sparked a controversy over his true views, which has gone on unabated to this day.
Rabbinic works usually refer to this afterlife as “Olam Haba” (the world to come).  Note that some books use this phrase to refer to the messianic era, a physical realm right here on Earth; in other works this phrase refers to a purely spiritual realm.  It was during Maimonides’s lifetime, that this lack of agreement flared into a full blown theological dispute, with Maimonides himself charged as being a heretic by many Jewish leaders.
Some Jews at this time taught that Judaism did not require a belief in the physical resurrection of the dead, as the afterlife would be a purely spiritual realm.  They used Maimonides’ works on this subject to back up their position.  In return, their opponents claimed that this was outright heresy;  for them the afterlife was right here on Earth, where God would raise dead bodies from the grave so that the rsurrected could live eternally. Maimonides was brought into this dispute by both sides, as the first group stated that his writings agreed with them, and the second group portrayed him as a heretic for writing that the afterlife is for the immaterial spirit alone. Eventually, Maimonides felt pressured to write a treatise on the subject, the “Ma’amar Tehiyyat Hametim” (the treatise on resurrection).

In it he shows that contrary to the prevailing dogma, the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] is ambiguous on resurrection; most verses on this topic can be read in two ways, and these are only hints or allusions. It is only the book of Daniel that Maimonides accepts as definitively stating that “many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence”. (12:2)  This is taken as referring to a physical resurrection of the dead, which clearly would be a miracle.  However, we must take care to understand Maimonides’ understanding of “miracles”, for it is not the same as the definition used by many sages of the Talmud, nor is it the same one used by many Orthodox Jews.

Maimonides writes that God never violates the laws of nature.  Rather, all divine interaction is by way of angels.  Maimonides also states that the layman’s understanding of the term “angel” is ignorant in the extreme; the Bible’s and Talmud’s references to “angels” are really metaphors for the various laws of nature, or the principlies by which the physical universe operates, or kinds of platonic eternal forms. Thus, if a unique event actually occurs, even it is perceived as a miracle, it is not a violation of the world’s order [“Perush ha-Mishnah” (Commentary on the Mishnah), Avot 5:6]

In contrast to the dogma of his day, Maimonides believes that miracles are not permanent.  Thus, any dead who are resurrected must eventually die again.  Maimonides thus disassociated the resurrection of the dead from both the afterlife as well as from the Messianic era.

Note that Maimonides says nothing of a universal resurrection.  All he says it is that whatever resurrection does take place, it will occur at an indeterminate time before the world to come, which he repeatedly states will be purely spiritual.  He writes “It appears to us on the basis of these verses [Daniel 11:2,13] that those people who will return to those bodies will eat, drink, copulate, beget, and die after a very long life, like the lives of those who will live in the Days of the Messiah.”  This clearly states that (a) the resurrection is not the world to come, and (b) it has nothing to do with the messianic era.
In a move that infuriated his critics, chapter two of the letter on resurrection refers to those who believe that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies;  he refers to one with such beliefs as being an “utter fool” whose belief is “folly”:  “If one of the multitude refuses to believe [that angels are incorporeal] and prefers to believe that angels have bodies and even that they eat, since it is written (Gen. 18:8) `they ate’, or that those who exist in the World to Come will also have bodies – we won’t hold it against him or consider him a heretic; we will not distance ourselves from him, nor will he regard one who speaks thus to be an utter fool.  Let us hope that no fool will go farther than this in his folly.”

One can now see why so many people regarded Maimonides as heretical.  At that time, many Jews believed that the physical resurrection was identical to the world to come;  thus denial of a permanent and universal resurrection was considered tantamount to denying the words of the Talmudic sages.  However, instead of denying the resurrection, or maintaining the current dogma, Maimonides posited a third way: That resurrection had nothing to do with the messianic era (here in this world) nor to do with Olam Haba (the purely spiritual afterlife). Rather, he considered resurrection to simply be a miracle that the book of Daniel predicted;  thus at some point in time we could thus expect some instances of resurrection to temporarily occur, which would have no place in any eschatological scheme.

Emet Ve-Emunah, the statement of principles of Conservative Judaism, affirms “that death does not mean extinction and oblivion.  This conviction is articulated in our tradition in two doctrines:  The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the continuing existence after death, and through eternity, of the individual soul.  In the course of Jewish history both of these doctrines have been understood in varying ways.  For some of us these are literally true, while for others these are interpreted as metaphors….In sum, if God is truly God, if His power is the ultimate fact in the world, then His ability to touch us is not cut off by the grave.” (14)

Reform Judaism has generally denied that there is an afterlife.  The Pittsburgh Platform declared that the afterlife (i.e. Gan Eden and Gehenna) has no place in Judaism .  However, this and later statements also posited that the human soul is immortal.  How the soul can exist after the death of a body without any form of afterlife is not dealt with, as the Reform creed of immortality was usually held to be more symbolic than literal.  Rabbi Howard Jaffe writes that “Reform Judaism, while not taking any ‘official’ position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing.”  In the past decade a small but growing number of Reform Jews have begun to suggest that Reform Jews re-embrace some traditional Jewish afterlife concepts.

Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the idea that there is an immortal soul.  For an excellent study and overview of the Jewish concept of immortality, the soul, and the afterlife, see Simcha Paull Raphael’s “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” (Jason Aronson Inc.)

Principles of faith after Maimonides

“Maimonides wrote this creed while still a young man.  He never referred to it in his later works.  Some believe that this is a clear sign that he changed his mind on this issue, and never intended them to be a binding set of principles.”(1) In practice, his 13 Principles did not gather universal acceptance.  However, a succinct poem based on them eventually made its way into the Siddur [Jewish prayerbook] where it still is sung from each day (Yigdal).

“The successors of Maimonides, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century – Nachmanides , Abba Mari ben Moses, Simon ben Zemah, Duran, Albo, Isaac Arama, and Joseph Jaabez – reduced his thirteen articles to three: (a) Belief in God  (b) Creation (or revelation) and (c) providence/retribution.” (1)

“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-Tov 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 Yedaiah Penini, in the last chapter of his “Behinat ha-Dat,” enumerated no less than thirty-five cardinal principles.  In the fourteenth century Asher ben Yehiel of Toledo raised his voice against the Maimonidean Articles of Faith, declaring them to be only temporary, and suggested that another be added to recognize that the Exile is a punishment for the sins of Israel.  Isaac Abravanel, in his “Rosh Emunah,” took the same attitude towards Maimonides’ creed.  While defending Maimonides against Hasdai and Albo, he refused to accept dogmatic articles for Judaism, holding, with all the Kabalists, that the 613 commandments of the Law are all tantamount to Articles of Faith.” (1)

Footnotes

(1) “The Jewish Encyclopedia” New York: Funk and Wagnalls 1906-1910.  Entry on Maimonides’ Principles of Faith.
(2) “Apocrypha”, Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing
(3) Menachem Kellner, “Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought”, Oxford Univ. Press, 1986
(4) Marc B. Shapiro, “Maimonides Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?” The Torah U-Maddah Journal, Vol.4, 1993, Yeshiva University
(5) Aryeh Kaplan “Maimonides’ principles: The Fundamentals of Jewish Faith” in “The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Volume I”, Mesorah Publications, 1994
(6) “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism”  Louis Jacobs, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990
(7) Michael Samuels “The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God”, Jason Aronson, 1996
(8) “The Reconstructionist” Mordecai Kaplan, Oct. 2, 1964, pp. 14-15
(9) “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, Mordecai Kaplan, 1962, p.294
(10) “To Pray As a Jew” Hayim Halevy Donin, First quote, p.18, second quote, p.19,20.
(11) “Questions Jews Ask”, Mordecai Kaplan, 1956 p.103
(12) Ira Eisenstein, “Prayer as Passionate Reflection” Reconstructionism Today Vol.2(2) Winter 1994-95, p.9-10.
(13) Marcia Falk “Book of Blessings” Harper SanFrancisco, 1996.  Although Falk’s book was published in 1996, many of her non-God oriented blessings were written a few years before;  these were widely circulated in photocopy form in many Reconstructionist havurot.  Some of these new non-God oriented prayers are now in many new Reconstructionist praerybooks.  See her end notes for her explanation of why she feels Jews must remove the traditional concept of God from prayer, and replace it with self-oriented meditations.
(14) The Rabbinical Assembly  “Emet Ve-Emunah: Statements of principles of Conservative Judaism”, JTSA, New York, 1988
(15) Alvin J. Reines “Hylotheism: A theology of pure process” in “Jewish Theology and Process Thought” Edited by Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, The State University of New York Press, NY 1996.

References———-Eugene Borowitz  “Reform Judaism Today”, Behrman House. (Originally published by UAHC Press, 1977)  An omnibus volume that discusses the evolution of Reform Judaism.  Covers the Reform vision of God, Torah, and Israel; what it means to be a Reform Jew today, and the place of Reform in the spectrum of Jewish rituals and practices.
Alfred J. Kolatch “This is the Torah”, Jonathan David Publishers, 1994
Moses Maimonides “The Guide for The Perplexed” Dover Publications, Inc.
W. Gunther Plaut “The Growth of Reform Judaism” World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1965.
Simcha Paull Raphael “Jewish Views of the Afterlife”, Jason Aronson Inc., 1994
“The Complete Artscroll Siddur – Nusach Ashkenaz” Ed. Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Second Edition, 1986 Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY
Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme  “Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses”, Jason Aronson, Inc., 1993
“Platform on Reconstructionism” Published in the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.
——————————————–

Copyright 2001, Robert D. Kaiser
While I maintain a copyright on this work, I encourage free distribution and reproduction of single copies of this paper.  This may only be done if I am given attribution as author, and that the distribution be done for free.  While I retain copyright on this document as a whole, and the original material therein, the copyright on all individual quotes within belongs to whoever originally wrote them, which I have attempted to denote as accurately as possible. Corrections are welcome.

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Christological statements in the Zohar

Judaism is traditionally monotheistic, and rejects Christian concepts of the Trinity. Christianity is a trinitarian monotheistic: they hold that God exists as three hypostases, but is one being, having a single divine nature. The members of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will.

Kabbalah Sefirot Tree

he Zohar: Pritzker Edition

But over the milennia Jewish theology and literature has developed in many different ways. In the 15th century a book began to be published called the Zohar (זֹהַר‎, “Splendor” or “Radiance”.) This was described as the work of a Spanish Jewish writer named Moses de León, who in turn said that he found a secret cache of works written by Shimon bar Yochai (“Rashbi”), a rabbi of the 2nd century CE.  Most Jews at the time didn’t accept that this was literally correct, but within another 2 centuries the Zohar became to be seen as the most authoritative and ancient work of Jewish mysticism. By the 19th century large segments of Orthodox Judaism held that it was an article of faith that the Zohar was legitimate. However, much of it is written in an unclear fashion, and even it’s adherents and commentators have a hard time understanding what the precise teachings are.

Most controversial were the sections of the Zohar which paralled almost exactly the Christian concept of the Trinity.

Moses de Leon himself had a hard explaining why the Christian terminology for the trinity is incorrect, while his Kabbalistic/Zohar explanation of the trinity is correct.

Today, at least in public, Orthodox Jewish Kabbalists claim this is a “misunderstanding” of the Zohar – but not only is it correct, we have textual evidence that the Zohar texts used by Christian missionaries are correct. Later Zohar texts used by rabbinic Jews were altered to more quietly allude to neo-Christian, Trinitarian teachings. Attached below are quotes from Studies in the Zohar, By Yehuda Liebes.

Example 1

‘The Ancient of Days has three heads. He reveals himself in three archetypes, all three forming but one. He is thus symbolized by the number Three. They are revealed in one another. [These are:] first, secret, hidden ‘Wisdom’; above that the Holy Ancient One; and above Him the Unknowable One. None knows what He contains; He is above all conception. He is therefore called for man ‘Non-Existing’ [Ayin]'”
– Zohar, iii. 288b

Example 2

And this teaching from Zohar (II, 53b)

Hear, O Israel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai is one. These three are one. How can the three names be one? Only through the perception of faith: in the vision of the Holy Spirit, in the holding of the hidden eye alone. The mystery of the audible voice is similar to this, for though it is one yet it consists of three elements – fire, air and water, which have, however, become one in the mystery of the voice. Even so, it is with the mystery of the three-fold Divine manifestations designated by Adonai Eloheinu Adonai – three modes which yet form one unity. This is the significance of the voice which man produces in the act of unification, when his intent is to unify all, from the Infinite (Ein-Sof) to the end of creation. This is the daily unification, the secret of which has been revealed in the holy spirit.

Liebnes writes :

It is interesting to note that R. Moses de Leon also grapples in the above passage with the problematics of the ten sefirot — why they are not threefold as is the Unity of God (and not only why they are not considered one — a philosophical question) — apparently because the tripartite formulations were of such obvious importance to him. Indeed, in writing his response to the questioner in his work confirming the unity of three,13 de Leon also responds to this latter question:

And as to what you have said concerning the sefirot (divine emanations), that they are ten and not three or more, you have made your point very clear. Nevertheless, all the sefirot are contained within the mystery of the triune singularity, as our sages teach us (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 3): “The world was created through ten sayings, and of three are they comprised —wisdom, understanding and knowledge14 — forming a single source of reality”, {ibid., p. 134)

Indeed, Abner of Burgos also relied on this triad of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, in order to verify the authenticity of the Christian trinity. Y. Baer, in referring to Abner’s words,15 drew a parallel between them and the words of the Zohar in the Midrash ha-Ne^alam in Zohar Hadash to Genesis (Mossad Ha- Rav Kook edition, 4a) and in III:290a-b (Idra Zuta), and the commentary of R. Azriel of Gerona on the passage in his Commentary to the Aggadoth, claiming that not only could such (trinitarian) quotes be used for Christological interpretations, “but that the aforementioned Kabbalist writers had made use of  the idea of the Christian Trinity in their works.”

Later Liebes writes

In the passage cited by Heredia, we find strong emphasis placed upon the mystery surrounding the second element of the Trinity — the son. While it is true that there is no reason to doubt the Christian origin of this element, in my opinion the use of this element in no way implies a forgery. It is quite possible that these words came from the author of the Zohar himself, for allusions to such concepts are to be found in other passages of the book, as we shall see further on in this study. But first let me remark that even at this point we do have a partial proof of the authenticity of this passage: the very beginning of Heredia’s passage does appear in extant editions of the Zohar in III:263a.24 In this Zohar passage, concerning the first of the three divine names in the verse Shema‘ Yisrael, we have the following statement:

“And this is called the father.” While it is true that the term “father” is regularly applied in the Zohar to the sefirah of hokhmah (wisdom), as it is clearly alluded to here, it is nevertheless unusual for the Zohar to simply enumerate the different names of the divine spheres unless they fit within a specific framework of discourse. Thus, only if we assume that Heredia’s addition referring to “son” is authentic will the use of the term “father” seem appropriate within this discourse.

Moreover, it seems to me that if someone wishes to falsify a document, he will forge an entire passage, so as not to be caught in the act of falsifying material, rather than attach a forged section to an authentic passage. This is so especially after we have noted that there are other passages in the Zohar discussing the triune qualities of the Shema,
which the forger certainly would have known (It is hard to imagine that his forgery just happened to chance on the same idea that appears in the Zohar in these places). Why Heredia didn’t hinge his forgery on one of these passages, which would have suited his purposes better than the one in question — a passage discussing five elements rather than the three found in the Shema — is a serious question to ponder.

All these considerations have convinced me that the passage Heredia brings is an authentic Zohar passage, which was apparently later abridged because of its Christian connotation and then woven into another discourse on the Shema.

This change was very likely made by the author of the Zohar himself, who was frightened by his own daring after the first version of his work had been disseminated. Other such instances of this phenomenon — different recensions of the same passage, all written by the author of the Zohar — have been well attested.

 

Here is a 25 page article (PDF format) Christian Influences in the Zohar, Yehudah Liebes

Infinite loop for rewriting God’s name

The prohibition against blotting out the name of God is concerned only with the four letter personal name, Yud Hey Vav Hey, the tetragrammaton. Its transliterated in English as Y-H-V-H.

The original law was that one should not take this name in a vain oath; this there was prohibition against writing it. Later we developed a rule against writing any Hebrew name of God. Much later, a rule against writing any English name of God.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik disagreed with this. His lesson on this subject is well known: He walked into a classroom, wrote the name “God” on the blackboard, and then erased it.

How, then, could so many feel that we should not write “God”, but rather “G-d”? The very idea is self-defeating: Most Jews never write the tetragrammaton; they use the Hebrew word “Adonai” (Lord) instead. But then people stopped using this word, and instead began substituting HaShem (“The name”) or “God”. Later, these were replaced with “G-d” and “H-Shem”.

Yet each of these letter combinations means exactly the same thing! YHVH means Adonai, means God, means G-d, means HaShem, means H-Shem.

We get an infinite loop that never ends.

What next? HaShem, to H-Shem, to H-Sh-m?

One cannot talk about God unless one has some kind of noun. Once you decide on some new way to type the name (i.e. G-d, HaShem, H-Shem, Ad-nai, etc.), that new way of typing becomes a *new* name of God. So the practice of repeatedly changing characters is a recursion loop; people feel pious, yet its just not a rational practice.

This topic has been the subject of a teshuvah (respona) by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The rabbis, basing themselves on Deut. 12:3-4 deduced that it is forbidden to erase the name of God from a written document. Since any paper upon which God’s name was written might be discarded and thus “erased”, the Rabbis forbade explicitly writing the name of God, except in Holy Books. And provisions were made for the proper disposal of such books.

However, it is clear from the Talmud, (Shevuot 35a-b) that the prohibition applies only to seven Biblical names of God and not to other names or attributes of God which may be freely written. The prohibition was later codified by Maimonides (see Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 6:1-2).

Shabbeti b. Meir Hakohen states that the prohibition of erasure of the Divine names applies only to the names in Hebrew but not in the vernacular (see Siftei Kohen to Sh. Ar, YD 179:8, and Pithei Teshuvah to YD 276:9).

However, Yehiel Michael Epstein, in his Arukh Hashulhan (HM 27:3), opposes the practice of writing the Divine Name even in the vernacular in correspondence. As a result the custom has grown among some ritually strict Jews not to write the word God or any other name of God in full, even in the vernacular. The practice of using circumlocutions or hyphenations in the vernacular is not universal even among the most observant Jews.

Conclusion: The practice of writing in the vernacular the full word God and other names of God has clear precedent and justification in the Halakha.

What makes Judaism Jewish?

What makes Judaism, well, Jewish?

Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible read through the lens of our oral law.

Koren Mishnah closeup of page

While originally transmitted orally, the oral law was ultimately recorded in the Mishnah, the classical Midrash compilations, and later extrapolated on in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.

Why do we need an oral law? The Torah wasn’t written in a vacuum; it existed within a culture, so cultural/historical context is necessary to understand it.  Reading a book through the lens of a culture’s context, their oral law, in broad strokes is agreed upon as necessary even by secular historians. All the more so, then, for Jewish people who want to live by Torah.

Separate question: How much of the oral law came from the time of the Torah itself is debatable, but whenever the Torah was redacted into its current form, it absolutely had a context.

Joseph Telushkin writes:

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (Deut 6:4).
…Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

There are other benefits from realizing the existence of context: The oral law rescues us from biblical fundamentalism. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18–21 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son… and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town…Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death.”

Only fundamentalists imagine that one should do this. In contrast, rabbinical Judaism teaches that this text was never meant literally: It was a divine rhetorical device, explaining the seriousness of such a transgression. In practice, if there was a rebellious child, one would follow the oral law, written down in

* Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה
* Tosefta תוספתא
* classical Midrash מדרש compilations
* Talmud Yerushalmi (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, Jerusalem Talmud)
* Talmud Bavli ( תַּלְמוּד בבל Babylonian Talmud)

The Mishnah, Makkot 1:10 says that capital punishment should almost never happen. Jeremy Kalmanofsky translates:

סנהדרין ההורגת אחד בשבוע נקראת חובלנית. רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר אחד לשבעים שנה.
רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו בסנהדרין לא נהרג אדם מעולם. רבן שמעון בן
גמליאל אומר אף הן מרבין שופכי דמים בישראל.
A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called bloodthirsty. R. Elazar b.
Azariah said: even once in 70 years. R. Akiba and R. Tarfon said: had we been in
the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Shimon ben
Gamaliel said: then these sages would have created more murderers in Israel.

Investigation must following certain rules of evidence, and if certain standards are not met then the death penalty may not be given.

Even if one witnessed an armed man chase another into an enclosed space, then later saw him, bloody sword in hand, standing above the corpse of the other man, dead of stab wounds, this would constitute inadmissible conjecture, not hard enough evidence for conviction [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b; Midrash Mekhilta d’Kaspa #20].

Excerpted from Participating in the American Death Penalty,  by Jeremy Kalmanofsky.

This isn’t a modern day reform – according to Judaism, these evidentiary laws were part of the Torah’s system by design. That’s why we can’t “just read the Torah.” People advocate this have never actually read the Bible, for if they did they would find hosts of laws that they personally would find unfulfillable or objectionable – and almost all of the prayers, songs, ceremonies and rituals that they do enjoy, would not even be found there.

 

Responding to American Gods

Monotheism is incredibly different from polytheism (“paganism”). In Judaism, all forms of polytheism are understood as avodah zarah/idolatry. Monotheism is even more different from paganism when we have a non anthropomorphic view of God.

Still, in polytheism there are some interesting stories told about the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse gods. For the most part we don’t have anything like that. Since we are interested in truth, and believe that God is unitary, that makes sense. But we miss out on some of the storytelling.

Is anyone familiar with the book “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman? It was recently made into a TV series ( it is very well-reviewed, but has some graphic themes which are not family friendly) In this story pagan gods of ancient times are actually real, and were somehow created by human thoughts and belief. To continue their existence, these gods need belief and sacrifice from human worshipers. The show revolves around a conflict between the classical ancient gods, and newly-created deities, gods based on media and the internet and modern-day beliefs.

As Jews, how do we respond to the show? Is it theologically permissible to watch such a show? If so, is there anything we can learn from it? Does it illustrate why we need to be monotheists? Does it offer points or counter points that offer interesting discussion?

We’re discussing this book on our forum Coffeehouse Torah Talk: A havurah for Jewish learning.

American gods

Neil Gillman “On Knowing God”

One of the preeminent Jewish theologians of the 20th century is Rabbi Neil Gillman

Rabbi Neil Gillman On Knowing God

“What does it mean to experience God?  It would seem that we do not see/experience God as we see/experience an apple…. But is the difference between seeing God and seeing an apple an intrinsic difference?  That is, do we require a dual epistemology, one for knowing natural objects and another for knowing God?  Or is there one basic way for humans to experience, and hence, to acquire knowledge of everything?”

“I claim that a single epistemology is sufficient.  To substantiate that claim, I begin by suggesting three possible analogies for the epistemological process involved in knowing God: seeing the New York Knick’s passing game, seeing an ego, and seeing a quark [a sub-atomic particle, which all protons and neutrons are made of].”

“In each of these instances, what we see is a patterned activity.  in the first, seeing a passing game is different from seeing Patrick Ewing.  We clearly see Ewing as we see an apple; we know what he looks like or we identify him by the name and number on his shirt.  But seeing the passing game involves seeing an in-between activity, a patterned relationship in which the ball is moved back and forth between five players.  A passing game is never static, never immobile; it is intrinsically dynamic….But it is perfectly clear that we do see a passing game, and then pass judgements on its quality: sharp, ragged, sloppy, etc….(all, it should be noted, metaphors)…there is a passing game out there; it is not an invention of basketball coaches and players.”

“Similarly, to see an ego is not see an apple.  An ego is not an entity which we can see if we dig deep enough into a human being…To see an ego is to see one specific, complex, pattern of human behavior, that dimension of the person’s behavior which reveals stability and balance.  Here too the frame is limited: the individual human being and his/her life experience.  Here again the experience is interactional: the psychologist and I see the same behavior, but the former brings forth a wealth of professional training and experience…that enables him to see what I can’t see.”

“To the question “Did Freud discover the ego or invent it?” the answer is clearly both.  Freud discovered the pattern, at least partially because he was looking for it and knew what to look for.  But then he identified it, gave it a name, and fitted it into his broader psychodynamic theory (or myth).  But Freud discovered the ego because it was out there to be discovered.  The ego itself is not a fiction….”

“Finally, seeing a quark.  Again, seeing a quark is not like seeing an apple.  But a trained nuclear physicist brings his interpretive structure (theory or myth) to look at the computer print out of the activity that took place in his super-collider and then claims to see a quark.  I look at the same print-out and see a chaotic mass of numbers; he sees a quark.  Or, what he interprets what he sees as a quark, or he sees through the print-out to the “invisible” quark.  Again, the experience is interactional;  without the theoretical structure, the physicist would be like me, seeing nothing of significance….Does the physicist invent the quark or discover it?  Again the answer is both:  he discovers the pattern, but because his theory provides him with a name and a way to identify it when it is there, he can then see the quark.  But the quark pattern is out there to be discovered; it is not a fictitious creation of the physicist.”

“Seeing God is like seeing any of these patterns, probably most like seeing an ego, in the sense that God is a pattern of activity that is “in” history and nature, as an ego is “in” a person…Again the experience is interactional: the believer brings his interpretive structure (the Torah’s religious myth) to his seeing, and see the pattern that we call God.  Do we discover God or do we invent God?  Both.  We discover the patterns and then identify them, name them, and the names our are inventions, just as we invent the names ‘ego’ and ‘quark’.  But if the patterns are discoverable, they are out there to be discovered.”

-> from “On Knowing God”, Conservative Judaism, Volume LI, No.2, Winter 1999.

Gillman writes :

My Seminary education had successfully subverted any literalist understanding of the central Jewish revelational event as described in Exodus 19-20. I was taught that the Torah was a composite document, edited around the 5th century C.E., borrowing from the literature of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. That “critical” approach to the study of the Bible also questioned the historicity of the biblical narratives, including the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. The evidence for these conclusions struck me as persuasive.

In addition, I had begun to question the very possibility of any human attempt to capture God’s nature or activity in literal terms. I could no longer believe that God literally “descends” on Sinai or “speaks” the words of Torah. If God were truly God, then God could not literally “speak.”

But then what was Torah? Whence its sanctity? Its authority? More broadly, what was the epistemological status of any theological claim? Finally, as a rabbi, how could I justify teaching and advocating the bulk of Jewish practice which, I continued to believe, remained central to any authentic understanding of Judaism? It was in this context that I reverted to the notion of myth.

To this day, my use of the term troubles many of my students. The main problem is that, in American parlance, a myth is synonymous with a fiction, a fairy tale, or worse, a lie – as in the common practice of contrasting “the myth” with “the facts” or “the reality.” That conventional use of the term haunts me whenever I use it.

When I teach “revelation,” I provide my students with a wide range of options, including the traditionalist literal understanding of the issue, along with the more liberal positions from the writings of Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, and Rosensweig. I also teach my own position – that the biblical account of the event at Sinai should be understood as myth. This is what I mean by the term….

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (Sh’ma website)

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (BJPA website)

How to learn about Judaism

We have had many people join, coming from non-Jewish backgrounds. As adults, it is hard to even understand Judaism, when everything one reads is first viewed through a lifetime of Christian theological assumptions. So the only way to learn about Judaism is to put Jesus aside, and study Jewish sources.

What do Jews believe about the Bible? Read “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible” Joseph Telushkin.

What do Jews believe about God? Read “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion” Abraham Joshua Heschel. A profound work that reflects on how man can apprehend God and have an encounter with the ineffable, and the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine.

What is Jewish theology – what are the ways in which we believe? Check out “Great Jewish Thinkers: Their Lives and Work”, Naomi E. Pasachoff
This short (200 page) introduction to Jewish thinking. Presents the lives and work of classical Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides (Rambam), Mystics such as Moses de Leon (author of the Zohar), Isaac Luria and Israel Ben Eliezer – The Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism.) Modern Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Theodore Herzl (founder of modern Zionism), Ahad Haam, and also 20th century Jewish philosophers

How has halakhah developed over time? “A Tree of Life: Diversity, Creativity, and Flexibility in Jewish Law” Louis Jacobs. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

What does it mean for a Jew to believe in God? How can we use words to describe God? Is God “one”? The Unity of God

What is God?

What are the many different ways that religious Jews have traditionally understood God?

Major ways of understanding God

Revelation: Judaism affirms that the Bible is, in some way, the product of divine revelation. But what does that even mean? How can God “speak” to people? Here is an overview of several Jewish responses.

Revelation

What about Bible prophecies? Most non-Jews were raised in a culture where they were assured that the Bible made specific prophecies about the future, and they all came true. But outside of the most strictly Orthodox communities, most religious Jews have never read the Bible in this way: The Bible is a not a sci-fi manual already laying out the future.

Supposed Bible prophecies about the future

Why study Judaism’s oral law? Isn’t the Bible alone, enough? Not at all, and here is why:

Mishnah: the beginning of Judaism’s oral law

Judaism is NOT identical with the religion of the Bible. Judaism is based upon the way in which the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the Bible, and for good reasons. Here is why and how Judaism differs from more fundamentalist faiths.

Tradition and change in rabbinic literature

These online introductory essays are unlike most other websites: They don’t push the view of one specific theology. Instead, they include a range of traditional Jewish views, and note differences in interpretation by those in the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform communities.