Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thirteen Updated Principles

OK, so I was speaking a while ago with a colleague, and we were sort of joking about Yigdal (the liturgical restatement of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith), that we hoped that it was graded on a curve, because otherwise, neither of us were sure we could get a passing grade on that test-- much less 100%.

It started out just as a joke, but it got me thinking: my supposition is that most non-Orthodox Jews probably couldn't get a score of over 60% on the "Do You Believe These 13 Principles?" quiz, and even the ones to which they're willing to answer "yes" probably have some unspoken reservations attached.

To some degree, I think that's inevitable. Two Jews, three opinions: we all know that, and that's probably a very lowball estimate when theology is involved.

Granted, I think Rambam never meant the 13 Principles to be an exact catechistic checklist, to be formalized as universal Jewish dogma (and indeed it never has been, nor do we have any such thing); and I wouldn't approve of there being such a thing anyhow.

But it would kind of be useful as a short-hand in theological conversations, I think, to have something like that as a reference point for discussion.

So with probably an earth-shaking lack of proper humility, I took it upon myself to try and update the Rambam's list. I fully admit that not only am I no Rambam, I am not even remotely close, and should anyone wish to accuse me of humongous chutzpah, I am cheerfully willing to accept such a judgment. I am also very aware that my update is predicated on the ideas both of a personal God and some form of halachic commandedness, which not all non-Orthodox Jews agree with; and I am (less cheerfully) willing to accept that as a fair criticism and leave it at that, because I actually don't see a way around God being personal, and I feel quite strongly about the need for halachah in some form or another.

To be honest, I have no idea whether it is even reasonable to expect that Jews could have as many as thirteen theological points on which they might roughly, in some way shape or form, agree with a majority. Hell, it might be a pipe dream to think we could expect more than three or four, tops. But since (chatzpan that I am) I thought it best to follow Rambam's list as well as I might, there remain 13, and some are even more or less the same.

I have to say, I have renewed respect for Rambam (if such a thing were even necessary) after engaging in this project: it's awfully hard to come up with concise statements of faith that are both specific enough to be meaningful and at the same time loose enough to permit them to be umbrellas for numerous shades of interpretation, some spaced rather far apart from each other. And, to be fair, in that interest I did change the format from "I believe with perfect faith" to just "I believe," because honestly, can anyone really claim perfect faith about anything? Never a single moment's doubt? No reservations, no exceptions, no wavering? If we're very, very lucky, maybe we could claim that about one thing. Maybe. But more than that, and either we're kidding ourselves or we're nuts, or so I would think.

In any case, here they are (though I have yet to translate them properly into Hebrew, so forgive me):

1. I believe that the Holy One Blessed Be He, is the Creator and Designer of everything that has been created; He alone is responsible for the conception and creation ex nihilo of this and any other universes, and the design and ultimate causation of everything within them, and anything besides Himself that might exist outside them.

2. I believe that the Holy One Blessed Be He, and blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no other unity in any way like His, and that He alone is God, who was, and is, and will be.

3. I believe that the Holy One Blessed Be He, has no physical body or characteristics thereof, nor anything even remotely resembling such, and that there can be no physical comparison to Him whatsoever.

4. I believe that the Holy One Blessed Be He, is the first and the last: nothing preceded Him, and nothing shall outlast Him, for He alone is eternal and not created; and all else in existence was created by Him, and endures at His pleasure.

5. I believe that the Holy One Blessed Be He is capable of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, but contracts Himself for the sake of the existence of the universe, and for the sake of the gift of free will to human beings.

6. I believe that to the the Holy One Blessed Be He, and to Him alone, it is right to pray; and that it is not right to pray to any being or object besides Him.

7. I believe in the covenant of Torah, in the form of the Written Torah that we have passed down from time of our leaving Egypt and which was canonized by Ezra the Prophet, and the Oral Torah that we have received from Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory and which we continue to create. We are bound to the Holy One Blessed Be He through Torah: we receive it, in order to follow the mitzvot within it, as it is written, “And the People said to Moshe: everything that Hashem commands, we will do and we will hear;” (Ex. 24:7) and in order to create more Torah and more fully comprehend the mitzvot, as it is taught “Rabbi Yehudah rose to his feet and said: ‘It is not in Heaven!’ (Deut. 30:12) What did he mean by ‘It is not in Heaven?’ Rabbi Yirmiyah explained: That the Torah had already been given at Sinai, and we do not pay attention to further revelatory material, but rather, as it is written, ‘We rule according to the majority [of halachic scholars].’ (Ex. 23:2)” (BT Bava Metzia 59b)

8. I believe that the covenant of Torah is eternal and irreplaceable, and while interpretations may change and halachah may evolve, there is no addition to the Written Torah, nor are there new revelations that add to the revelations of our prophets, whose day ended at the time of the raising of the Second Temple, and whose like shall not be seen again until the time of the moshiach.

9. I believe that observance of the mitzvot is incumbent upon all the People Israel, according to our various interpretations of the halachah; and that it is the duty of all Jews to learn and study Torah, both Written and Oral, all their days, so that they may know our inheritance and understand their obligations and wrestle with the infinite meanings implicit in Torah, and thus both fulfill the commandment “You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might...” (Deut. 6:5), and be worthy of the name of Yisra’el (the one who struggles with God).

10. I believe that Judaism alone is the religion for Jews, and is not to be replaced by or conflated with non-Jewish religions. Nor is it to be universalized and actively proselytized to non-Jews, who can and should have their own paths for relating to the the Holy One Blessed Be He and establishing justice on the earth.

11. I believe that the the Holy One Blessed Be He, knows perfectly who has done right and who has done wrong, and confronts all beings at some point with the accounting of their deeds, and that for evil there are some form of consequences, and for good there is some form of reward, and the one need not preclude the other, nor shall we know with certainty what either may be, so long as we live upon this earth.

12. I believe in the coming of the the time of the moshiach; that such a time shall come about after the achievement of tikkun olam: when the hungry shall be fed, and the poor shall be clothed and housed; when the helpless are helped and the downfallen upraised; when peace is made and war is no longer, as it is written, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they practice war any more,” (Is. 2:4) and when the People Israel shall once again be able to live safely in all the land that was promised to our ancestors (regardless of whose flag may fly over parts of it); and when we can agree among ourselves and our neighbor brethren upon the building of a Third Temple, on the holy mountain of Hashem-- a Temple unlike the first two, as it is written, “My House shall be a House of Prayer for all nations;” (Is. 56:7) then shall it be the time of the moshiach.

13. I believe that the soul that the Holy One Blessed Be He places within each one of us is eternal, and survives beyond the confines of this world, even if we do not know for certain to what places it may travel afterward, as it is written “I shall not die, but rather, live, and speak of the deeds of Hashem.” (Ps. 118:17)


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