Studying Maimonidean thought means coming into contact with rational ideas that are not considered mainstream in Jewish philosophy.
In his The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, Marc B. Shapiro examines the thirteen principles that Moses Maimonides outlines in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek. These thirteen principles have become basic tenets for many Jews – so significant, in fact, that two versions of the list were placed in the siddur, the daily prayer book: one is called Ani Maamin (“I believe”) and the other is the chant Yigdal (“God is exalted”). Yet, as we will see, not everyone accepts these thirteen principles, and many who reject them are well respected Orthodox Jews.
Shapiro examines traditional Orthodox sources and finds that even undisputed Orthodox Jewish authorities, great rabbis, dispute Maimonides’ beliefs radically and, at times, even vituperatively. Shapiro’s analysis shows that Orthodox Jews can hold nonconforming and dissenting views – even on fundamental issues – without being considered rebels against Judaism.
Shapiro teaches that many Jews, including rabbis, do not realize that Judaism allows a wide spectrum of beliefs. Their ignorance is caused by their narrow focus on the Talmuds, codes of Jewish law and responsa literature, while ignoring the theological literature. Shapiro cites an example of one of the greatest posekim, a recent halakhic authority, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who comes to erroneous conclusions about Maimonides’ philosophy. “He was therefore able to state that Maimonides believed in the protective power of holy names and names of angels, as used in amulets.” This is directly opposite Maimonides’ teaching in Mishnah Sotah 7:4 and the Guide of the Perplexed 1:61, 62.
Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles
Maimonides lists thirteen basic principles of Judaism; but other significant rabbis reject his list. Shem Tov ben Joseph Falaquera (c. 1220–1290), for example, identifies seven principles in one of his books and six in another – although his thirteen do not align with Maimonides’. Shimon ben Zemah Duran (1361–1444, in his Ohev mishpat) and Joseph Albo (fifteenth century, in Sefer Ha-ikkarim) list only three basic Jewish ideas that they feel every Jew must hold in order that he or she not be considered a heretic. Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410, in Or ha-shem) writes of six cornerstones of faith that he is convinced are the foundation of the Torah. David ben Yom Tov ibn Bilia (fourteenth century) lists twenty-six principles of faith. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508, in Rosh Amanah) argues that each of the 613 Torah commandments is a basic concept of Judaism. Other rabbis and great Torah scholars dispute every single one of Maimonides’ thirteen principles.
The following are Maimonides’ thirteen principles and the contrary views held by prominent rabbis.
- God exists, is eternal, is perfect in every way and is the cause of all existence, but He cannot do impossible things such as turning a triangle into a square. The Tosaphist Rabbi Moses Taku (thirteenth century), for example, was one of many who were convinced that God, who is all-powerful, can square a triangle and do other things that humans think are logically incongruous. (Tosaphists were the outstanding rabbis, principally of France and Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who wrote commentaries on the Talmud.)
- God is an absolute unity. The renowned Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres (known as Rabad, who lived around 1125–1198, during Maimonides’ lifetime) believed the opposite. He insists that there is a supreme deity (Ilat Ha’ilot) and a divine entity that was the manifestation of the Ilat Ha’ilot, the creator, called Yotzer Bereshit. We pray, he claims, to the latter. Similarly, many Jewish mystics today believe that God is composed of ten distinct divine elements, each having a separate and different function, although many of these mystics claim that God is still a unity.
- God is incorporeal; He has no body or body parts. Rabad criticized Maimonides with insulting vehemence: “There are many people greater and superior to him who adhere to such a belief [that God has a body like humans] on the basis of what they have seen in verses of Scripture and even in the words of those aggadot which corrupt right opinion about religious matters.”
- God existed prior to other beings and created the world from absolute nothing. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), in his commentary to Genesis 1:1, states that God did not create from nothing; He gave form to eternal matter. In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:13, Maimonides himself openly confesses that he could believe that matter existed eternally. Many scholars feel certain that this was his true conviction and that this and the remaining ten principles were not written because Maimonides believed them to be true, but rather to mollify and satisfy the less educated public whom he felt needed to believe these ideas. We will discuss this remarkable view below.
- Only God should be worshipped – not angels, stars or any other being. Yet most Jews request angelic assistance every Friday night when they return home from the synagogue and chant the hymn to angels called Shalom Aleichem, which states: “Bless me for peace, angels of peace.” Maimonides himself allows the unphilosophically-minded masses to recite such prayers when it is psychologically necessary for them to do so, to assuage their fear, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 7:5 even though it is not rational.
- God communicates to certain people through prophecy. In the final chapters of his second book of his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that prophecy is not a communication from God but a higher level of knowledge. His view even prompts scholars to ask: “Wouldn’t the Greek philosopher Aristotle also be considered a prophet under this definition?” Some Maimonidean scholars answer, “yes.”
- Moses was the greatest of the prophets. The Babylonian Talmud seems to disagree. Sanhedrin 21b states that Ezra was as great a prophet as Moses: “If Moses had not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy to have the Torah revealed to Israel through him.” The Midrash Genesis Rabbah 14:34 even contends that the non-Israelite prophet Balaam was as great as Moses: “What prophet did they [non-Israelites] have who was like Moses? Balaam the son of Beor.”
- The Torah was divinely revealed; the Torah in our hands today is exactly the same as the Torah that Moses presented to the Israelites. Maimonides knew this to be untrue. He knew of Torah texts with different readings and was responsible for deciding which was authoritative. The noted Bible commentator David Kimchi (known as Radak, 1160–1235) also recognizes that errors crept into the biblical text. He writes in his Peshat 141:
These variant words apparently developed during the first exile (586 BCE), the texts were lost, the scholars were dispersed, and the Torah scholars died. The men of the Great Assembly (led by Ezra) who restored the Torah to its former state found differences in the text and followed the reading of those which they believed to be the majority. When they were unclear about this, they wrote one version without pointing it or they wrote it in the margin and not in the text, or they wrote one version in the margin and one version in the text.
Rabbi Joseph Hertz (1872–1946) writes in his Torah commentary that the aleph in the first word of Leviticus is not part of the original text but was added at a later time. The Midrash Numbers Rabbah and Avot d’Rabbi Natan recognize that the Masorites placed dots over certain words to indicate that they doubted whether the received text was correct.
- The Torah will never be changed in whole or in part. There are many rabbis who disagree with this statement. The Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 61b, for example, contains the classic opinion of Rabbi Joseph: “The mitzvot [commandments] will be abolished in the time to come.” The medieval scholar Rabbi Joseph Albo (fourteenth century, in his Sefer Ha-ikkarim) writes that a future prophet can abolish all of the biblical commands except for the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments).
- God knows the actions of people. Maimonides does not state that God knows human thoughts. He probably meant: God knows the laws of nature, how people can act. Abraham ibn Ezra comments on Genesis 18:21, “The whole [God] knows the individual in a general manner rather than a detailed manner.” Gersonides states this idea more clearly in his Milhamot Hashem where he writes that God only knows the universal and not the particular.
- Reward and punishment exist. Maimonides makes it clear himself, in the beginning of his Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek, that reward and punishment do not occur after death: rather, they are a natural occurrence experienced by people on earth.
- The messiah will come. The Midrash Tanchuma (Acharei Mot 12) and the Midrash Tehilim 107:1 state that Jews will be saved in the future by God and not by any human. Rabbi Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a), to the contrary, states that no messiah will come in the future because the messiah that is foretold in the Bible came in the days of King Hezekiah.
- The dead will rise from their graves to live again. As recognized by Rabad (mentioned above) and others, Maimonides himself rejects this notion in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek and Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 8. As Rabad puts it: “There is no resurrection for bodies, but only for souls.” In Maimonidean terms, the intellect lives after death and is never thereafter joined with a body.
Jews Differing about Jewish Doctrine
In short, we see that while many believe that the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides summarize Judaism’s basic concepts, this notion is incorrect. Many well-respected rabbis and scholars hold different views of Judaism than those expressed in the Thirteen Principles. Thus, it should be obvious that Judaism is able to accept a wide spectrum of different beliefs. This point becomes even clearer when we recognize that Maimonides himself did not think that all of the Thirteen Principles were correct.
Was Maimonides Telling People What to “Believe”?
In his Rosh Amanah (Principles of Faith) Don Isaac Abravanel points out that Hasdai Crescas and his pupil Joseph Albo criticize Maimonides but do not understand him. Their primary complaint is that Maimonides mandates that Jews believe certain dogmas. But, they ask, how can one force another to “believe” anything? Accordingly, Crescas develops a list of six articles of Judaism and Albo three.
Abravanel explains that Crescas and Albo overlook two important points. First, Maimonides was not telling the people to believe any particular idea. He knew that people could not be forced to believe anything. He was not speaking about belief, but about knowledge. The word “belief” is not in Maimonides’ formulation in Chelek, although it plays a prominent part in the popular version in the siddur’s Ani Maamin “I believe.” The word used in the formulation in Chelek is ikkarim, “fundamentals.” In Chelek Maimonides tells his readers to study and “understand” the truth about each of the thirteen fundamentals. Second, Abravanel writes, Maimonides is not postulating “true articles of Judaism,” but rather ad hoc “necessary dogmas” that the people needed to help them survive. What are “necessary beliefs”?
Did Maimonides Accept All Thirteen Principles?
Menachem Kellner writes that Don Isaac Abravanel (in his Rosh Amanah) and many others recognize that Maimonides composed his principles for the less educated public to give them information and to strengthen their belief in Judaism. Abravanel faults those who take “Maimonides’ words at face value.”
Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines, Yeshayahu Leibovits and other scholars posit that there is an “exoteric and esoteric Maimonides.” Exoteric statements are ideas that Maimonides writes which he does not view as true but rather as necessary to help the less educated masses, the majority of Jews, because he recognizes that they will feel threatened if they are told their long-held ideas are untrue. The esoteric statements are hints that Maimonides does not state explicitly, but which he expects the learned Jew, who knows both Jewish and non-Jewish studies, to mine from his writings and understand.
This exoteric-esoteric approach to understanding Maimonides is supported by Maimonides’ own writings. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:28, he explains that there are two kinds of truths: true truths and necessary truths. “True truths” are statements that express a truth that can help one understand an idea and grow intellectually. These are what Strauss, Pines, Leibowitz and others called esoteric teachings.
A “necessary truth” is a tradition, a mistaken or wrong notion, rather than a fact. These truths are not taught because they are correct, but to fulfill a social purpose, such as instilling obedience to the Torah, regulating social relations, improving human or social qualities or alleviating fears. These are his exoteric statements.
Maimonides was not the first person to recognize the importance of teaching “necessary [but untrue] truths.” The Greek philosopher Plato writes in his Republic and other works that the masses need to be taught untruthful myths – called “noble lies” – in order to survive.
Examples of “Necessary truths”
Maimonides gives many examples of “necessary truths.” He states, for example, that the Torah teaches that God becomes angry with those who disobey God, even though this is only a “necessary truth.” God does not really become angry. The Torah transmitted the idea that God becomes angry because it is “necessary” for the masses to believe that God is angry if they disobey God in order that they control and improve their behavior.
Similarly, the belief that God responds immediately to prayer is not a “true truth” but rather a “necessary” one, expressed so that the masses feel better and are less fearful.
Maimonides used necessary truths when he wrote to the persecuted Jews of Yemen, in his Letter to Yemen. In his letter, he assures the Yemenite Jews that the messiah will be coming soon to relieve their suffering, even though he was convinced that this matter was impossible to predict.
What Was the Value of the Thirteen Principles?
Raphael Jospe advances the very interesting idea that although Maimonides did not accept that all thirteen of his principles were true, he wrote them for the masses to help them gain some knowledge of God and thereby have at least some part of the world to come.
The first Mishnah in the tenth chapter (some say eleventh chapter) of Sanhedrin states that, “all Israelites have a share in the world to come.” How is this possible according to Maimonides who holds that the world to come is a continuation of life of the developed mind, and that most people do not develop their minds?
Maimonides resolved the problem, according to Jospe, by teaching his readers three sets of ideas within the “Thirteen Principles.” The first set concerns truths about God. People who study and understand about God will have the world to come. The second set emphasizes observance of the Torah. When Jews observe the Torah, they are led to understand more about God, and this helps develop their minds. The third set teaches about reward and punishment. The desire for reward and the fear of punishment leads Jews toward the observance of Torah, the second set, which, in turn, leads them to knowledge about God. Thus, while maintaining that life after death is dependent upon knowledge, Maimonides was able to help Jews gain knowledge through his Thirteen Principles and in this way assure that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come.”
Many teachings of rational scholars are more reasonable and truthful than the common notions held by the Jewish majority, which are frequently based on superstitions or a lack of sufficient study. Yet Judaism does not mandate that a Jew believe anything. Even Maimonides’ thirteen basic principles of Judaism are rejected by great rabbinic rabbis, including individuals who are perfectly reasonable, intelligent, and educated Torah authorities, who have different ideas.
However, once it is understood that Maimonides taught his Thirteen Principles not as real truths to enlighten people, but as “necessary truths” to help create a viable and disciplined Jewish society and help Jews feel good about their lives, readers of his “principles” will realize the great contribution that the master made to Judaism. Additionally, when the reader accepts the interpretation of Professor Jospe, he or she will also see and appreciate how Maimonides did his utmost to assure the world to come for all people.
 Rosh amanah (Principles of faith).
 In two introductory essays to the Guide of the Perplexed, 1963.
 In the several books of Conversations with Yeshayahu Leibovits published between 1995 and 2003.
 Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages.