The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Jewish principles of faith

Judaism affirms a number of basic principles of faith that one is expected to uphold in order to be said to be in consonance with the Jewish faith. However, unlike most Christian denominations, the Jewish community has never developed any one binding catechism.

A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, though 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's principles are covered by Albo's much shorter list, the difference, and alternate lists provided by other medieval rabbinic authorities seem to indicate a broad level of tolerance for varying theological perspectives.


Jewish principles of faith


Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. The prayer par excellence in terms of defining God is the Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One", also translated as "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is unique/alone."

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, influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds what can be termed deistic tendencies. These views still exist in Judaism today.

God is One

The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical - it is considered akin to polytheism. "[God], the Cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair, nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals), nor one as in an object that is made up of many elements, nor as a single simple object that is infinitely divisible. Rather, God is a unity unlike any other possible unity. This is referred to in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." (Maimonides, 13 principles of faith Second Principle).

Interestingly, while Jews hold that such conceptions of God are incorrect, they generally are of the opinion that gentiles that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.

See also Divine simplicity.

God is all-powerful

Most rabbinic works present God as having the properties of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence (being all good). This is still the primary ways that most Orthodox and many non-Orthodox Jews view God.

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.

God is personal, and cares about humanity

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 most other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God.

Names of God

The different names of God are ways to express different aspects of God's presence in the world.

The Nature of God

God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. A corollary belief is that God is utterly unlike man, and can in no way be considered anthropomorphic. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God at all.

To God alone may one offer prayer

Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical. Maimonides writes that "God is the only one we may serve and praise....We may 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." However, since the 1800s some Hasidic Orthodox Jews have begun to teach that their leaders, called rebbes, are indeed a sort of intermediary between man and God.


Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), and much of the beliefs described in the Mishnah and Talmud, are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine", has always been a matter of some dispute. Different understandings of this subject exist among Jews.

The words of the prophets are true

This does not mean that Jews are required to read the books of the prophets literally. The Jewish tradition has always held that prophets used metaphors and analogies just like people today use them. As such, there is a wide degree of interpretation for many prophetic verses.

The status of Moses

The Torah and Talmud teach that God took the descendants of Israel out of Egypt and spoke to them at Mount Sinai. It was here that God revealed the Torah to Moses. The Jewish tradition holds that the laws therein are binding on all of Israel.

Orthodox and Conservative Jews hold that the prophecy of Moses is held to be true; he is held to be the chief of all prophets, even of those who came before and after him. This belief was expressed by Maimonides, who wrote that "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."

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 theory of Progressive Revelation.

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.

The origin of the Torah

The Torah is composed of 5 books known by their Greek names, Genesis, Exodous, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They chronicle the history of the Hebrews and also contain the commandments that Jews are to follow.

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. However, all Orthodox Jews view the Written and Oral Torah as the same as Moses taught, for all practical purposes.

Accepting the findings of biblical scholarship, archeological and linguistic research, most non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle. Instead, they may accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah comes from Moses, but maintain that the Torah extant 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. Traditionally, the Reform movement held that Jews were obliged to obey the ethical but not the ritual commandments of Scripture, although today many Reform Jews have adopted many traditional ritual practices. For more details see Richard Elliot Friedman 's "Who Wrote the Bible?" and the entry on the documentary hypothesis.

Holy Books

The Tanakh and the Talmud are the main holy books in Judaism. The Tanakh contains the Written Torah, the writings of the major prophets, and the writings of the minor prophets. The Talmud contains Judaism's oral law.

Reward and punishment

The mainstream Jewish view, clearly expressed in the Bible and rabbinic literature, is that God will reward those who observe His commandments and punish those who intentionally transgress them. Examples of rewards and punishments are described throughout the Bible, and throughout classical rabbinic literature.

In contrast, 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 eternally enjoying 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.

The common understanding of this principle is accepted by most Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews; it is generally rejected by the Reconstructionists.

According to the Kabbalah (not a universally-accepted set of doctrines) God judges who has followed His commandments and who doesn't and to what extent. Those who do not "pass the test" go to a purifying place called Sheol lit. gloom (sometimes referred to as Purgatory, sometimes Hell) 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).

The concept of "life after death" in the Jewish view is therefore fuzzy, but whatever its nature, is a reward from God, not a punishment, and is not guaranteed to everyone. Jews are encouraged to concentrate more on the life they live now than on a possible afterlife, and to ritually remember (yizkor) those loved ones who have died, as an important (and possibly the only) form of continuation for their lives.

Israel chosen for a purpose

God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish people do not simply say that "God chose the Jews." This claim, by itself, exists nowhere in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) or the Siddur (the Jewish prayer book). Such a claim could imply that God loves only the Jewish people, that only Jews can be close to God, and that only Jews can have a heavenly reward. The actual claim made is that the Jews were chosen for a specific mission; to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the Torah. Reconstructionist Judaism rejects also this variant of chosenness as morally defunct.

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 parlimentary 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.

The messianic age

There will be a Jewish Messiah known as Mashiach, and a messianic era with the words expressing this as formulated by Maimonides: "I believe (Ani Ma'amin) with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come" (from the Artscroll siddur, p. 181). Note that the Jewish belief regarding the messiah has little to do with the Christian definition of this term. Jewish views of the messiah as derived from the Davidic line, the messianic era, and the afterlife are discussed in the entry on Jewish eschatology.

The soul is pure at birth

Humans are born morally pure; Jews have no concept of Original sin. Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer ha'tov, a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer ha'ra, a tendency to do bad. Thus, human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. The Rabbis even recognize a positive value to the yetzer ha'ra: without the yetzer ha'ra there would be no civilisation or other fruits of human labor. The implication is that yetzer ha'tov and yetzer ha'ra are best understood not as moral categories of good and evil but as selfless versus selfish orientations.

Jews recognize two kinds 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). In a post-Temple world, Jews believe that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins.

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 hasadim (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 (charity) atone for sin.

History and development

No formal text canonized

The prime reason why no one text was formalized as "the" Jewish principles of belief is the lack of an authoritative sanction from a supreme ecclesiastical body. This is why no one formulation of Jewish principles of faith is recognized as 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. None of them had a character analogous to that given in the Church to its three great formulas (the so-called Apostles Creed, the Nicene or Constantopolitan, 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.

Gaining converts

Originally nationality and religion were the same. Birth, not profession, admitted a person to a religio-national fellowship. As long as internal dissension or external attack did not necessitate for purposes of defense the formulation of specific doctrines, the thought of fixing the contents of the religious consciousness did not insinuate itself into the mind of even the most faithful. Missionary or proselytizing religions are driven to the definite declaration of their teachings. The admission of the neophyte hinges upon the profession and the acceptance of his part of the belief, and that there may be no uncertainty about what is essential and what non-essential, it is incumbent on the proper authorities to determine and promulgate the cardinal tenets in a form that will facilitate repetition and memorizing. And the same necessity arises when the Church or religious fellowship is torn by internal heresies. Under the necessity of combating heresies of various degrees of perilousness and of stubborn insistence, the Church and Islam, were forced to define and officially limit their respective ) theological concepts.

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 acknowledgement 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:

We are not putting on an equality with us a person entering our religion through confession alone. We require deeds, including in that term self-restraint, purity, study of the Law, circumcision, and the performance of other duties demanded by the Torah.

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 principes; namely, the existence of God and the holiness of Israel as the people of God's covenant.

Is faith necessary?

The controversy whether Judaism demands belief in dogma or inculcates obedience to practical laws alone, has been discussed by many scholars. Moses Mendelssohn, in his "Jerusalem," defended the non-dogmatic nature of Judaism, while Rabbi Judah Low ben Bezalel (Maharal), among others, took the opposite side. Low made it clear that Mendelssohn's theory had been carried beyond its legitimate bounds. The meaning of the word for "faithful belief" in Hebrew, emunah, had undoubtedly been strained too far. Underlying the practice of the Law was assuredly the recognition of certain fundamental principles, culminating in the belief in God and revelation, and likewise in the doctrine of divine justice.

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.

Belief in the Oral Law

Many rabbis 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 (Tractate Sanhedrin xi. 1) excludes from the world to come the Epicureans and those who deny belief in resurrection or in the divine origin of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba would also regard as heretical the readers of Sefarim Hetsonim - certain extraneous writings that were not canonized - as well such persons that would heal through whispered formulas of magic. 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, Akiba 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".

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.

Belief in the Medieval era

Detailed constructions of articles of faith did not find favor in Judaism before the medieval era, when Jews were forced to defend their faith from both Islamic and Christian inquisitions, disputations and polemics. The necessity of defending their religion against the attacks of other philosophies induced many Jewish leaders to define and formulate their beliefs. Saadia Gaon's "Emunot ve-Deot" is an exposition of the main tenets of Judaism. They are listed as : The world was created by God; God is one and incorporeal; belief in revelation (including the divine origin of tradition; man is called to righteousness and endowed with all necessary qualities of mind and soul to avoid sin; belief in reward and punishment; the soul is created pure; after death it leaves the body; belief in resurrection; Messianic expectation, retribution, and final judgment.

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. With them Judaism stands and falls.

Maimonides's 13 Principles of Faith

The 13 Principles of Faith were formulated by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), in his commentary on the Mishna (tractace Sanhedrin, chapter 10). These principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Crescas and Joseph Albo, and they 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'amim and Yigdal) became canonized in the siddur (Jewish prayer book), and these principles eventually became widely held.

Today most of Orthodox Judaism holds these beliefs to be obligatory, and that anyone who doesn't fully accept each one of them may be a heretic. These principles deal with the following 13 subjects: The existence of God; God's unity; God's spirituality; God's eternity; God alone should be the object of worship; Revelation through God's prophets; the preeminence of Moses among the Prophets; God's law given on Mount Sinai; the immutability of the Torah as God's Law; God's foreknowledge of men's actions; retribution; the coming of the Jewish Messiah; and the resurrection of the dead.

Several scholars (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) have claimed that some of the beliefs that people popularly attribute to Maimonides were, in fact, the opposite of what he held to be true. (See the works of Professor Menachem Kellner on this topic.)

Maimonides's 13 principles never received formal official approval; until recently Jewish law has never required Jews to accept them in full. In the last two centuries however, large segments of the Orthodox Jewish community have begun to demand strict adherence to Maimonides' principles. Others reject this view, noting that his views were never considered the last word in Jewish theology.

Principles of faith after Maimonides

The successors of Maimonides, from the thirteenth to the fifteeneth century -- Nahmanides, Abba Mari ben Moses, Simon ben Zemah Duran, Albo, Isaac Arama, and Joseph Jaabez -- reduced his thirteen articles to three: Belief in God; in Creation (or revelation); and in providence (or retribution).

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.

In the fourteenth century Asher ben Jehiel 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, 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, holding, with all the kabbalists, that the 613 mitzvot are all tantamount to Articles of Faith.

The Enlightenment

In the late 18th century Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements, together known as The Enlightenment. These movements promoted scientific thinking, free thought, and allowed people to question previously unshaken religious dogmas. Like Christianity, Judaism developed several responses to this unprecedented phenomenon. One response saw the enlightenment as positive, while another saw it as negative. The enlightenment meant equality and freedom for many Jews in many countries, so it was felt that it should be warmly welcomed. Scientific study of religious texts would allow people to study the history of Judaism. Some Jews felt that this would bring much to Judaism. Others, however, believed that this might call into question some previously held dogmas about Judaism; if a few beliefs were found to be incorrect, where would one draw the line?

In response to these issues, Jews developed different denominations. The entry on Haredi Judaism discusses in more detail how and why the enlightenment led to the development of the modern Jewish denominations.

Dogma in Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is a loosely linked set of traditionalist movements that have consciously resisted many philosophical influences of the Enlightenment.

Since there is no one unifying body in Orthodox Judaism, there is no one official statement of principles. Rather, each Orthodox group claims heir to the received tradition of Jewish theology, usually affirming a literal acceptance of Maimonides's 13 principles as the only acceptable position. Some within Modern Orthodoxy take the position that these principles only represent one particular formulation of Jewish faith, and that others are possible.

Dogma in Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism developed in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the enlightenment and emancipation. In many ways it was a reaction to what were seen as the excesses of the Reform movement. For much of the movement's history, Conservative Judaism deliberately avoided publishing systematic explications of theology and belief; this was a conscious attempt to hold together a wide coalition. This concern became a non-issue after the left-wing of the movement seceded in 1968 to form the Reconstructionist movement, and after the right-wing seceded in 1985 to form the Union for Traditional Judaism.

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 have 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.

Dogma in Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism has had a number of official platforms, but in contrast to rabbinic Judaism, rejects the view that Jews must have any beliefs, other than rejecting Christianity. The first Reform Jewish platform was the 1885 Declaration of Principles, the Pittsburgh Platform. The next platform was in 1937, "The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism". The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) rewrote its principles in 1976 with its "Centenary Perspective" and rewrote them again in the 1999 "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism" (3 pages). While original drafts of the 1999 statement called for Reform Jews to consider re-adopting some traditional practices on a voluntary basis, later drafts removed most of these suggestions. The final version is thus similar to the 1976 statement. 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.

Reform Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut writes "there is no such thing as a Jewish theological principle, policy, or doctrine." This is because 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.]

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."

Dogma in Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is a very small American denomination that has a naturalist theology; this theology is a variant of the naturalism of John Dewey. Dewey's naturalism combined atheist beliefs with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion. Reconstructionism denies that God is either personal or supernatural. Rather, God is said to be the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote that "to believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society."

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:

  • Judaism is the result of natural human development. There is no such thing as divine intervention.
  • Judaism is an evolving religious civilization.
  • Zionism and aliyah (immigration to Israel) are encouraged.
  • The laity can make decisions, not just rabbis.
  • The Torah was not inspired by God; it only comes from the social and historical development of Jewish people.
  • All classical views of God are rejected. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfillment and moral improvement.
  • The idea that God chose the Jewish people for any purpose, in any way, is "morally untenable", because anyone who has such beliefs "implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others". This puts Reconstructionist Jews at odds with all other Jews, as it seems to accuse all other Jews of being racist. Jews outside of the Reconstructionist movement strenuously reject this charge.


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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04