Turning Aside: Rambam’s Test

March 6, 2011 By Christopher Orev 8 Comments

Is My Theology Truly Jewish (Or Jewish Enough)?

Liberal Jewish denominations officially reject the Orthodox contention that, in order to be a good Jew, one must embrace a traditional cosmology and accept the whole of halacha.  Nevertheless, I think it incumbent upon liberal gerim to take both theology and halacha seriously; we should know what it is that we selectively accept or reject (and why).  In this “Turning Aside” post, I address my relationship to a traditional Jewish theology and, in an upcoming post, I’ll wrestle with the 613 mitzvot, or our “Written Law.”

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During a recent “Introduction to Judaism” class, Rabbi Micah Hyman warned his students of a theological pitfall.  When discussing Judaism, he admonished us, “do not fall into the trap of catechism.”  In other words, we shouldn’t try to package Jewish belief in a tidy doctrine.  Unlike Christianity, Judaism is a religion of right practice (orthopraxy), not right belief (orthodoxy).  Most ReformReconstructionist, and Conservative rabbis will agree with the preceding statement, but one wouldn’t find such accord among Orthodox rabbis; after all, even the name of their movement implies that there must be right belief.

Despite self-identifying as a non-denominational Jew, I elected to convert under the auspices of the Conservative movement because I admire its articulation of the dynamic tension between contemporary life and ancient tradition.  Practices and modes of worship that are deemed anachronistic by many in the Reform community (e.g., laying tefillin) are relatively common among Conservative Jews; likewise, “spirit of the law” choices condemned by the Orthodox (who cleave to “letter of the law” observance) are generally acceptable within the Conservative movement.

But the Conservative movement is not monolithic; it includes a wide-range of Jewish thought and practice.  At one end of the Conservative spectrum are “Conservadox” Jews and, at the other, what I call “Reformative” Jews.  Of these two groups, I identify more with the latter.  That affiliation may surprise my secular or Reform friends.  I observe some Shabbat prohibitions, study Torahdaven each morning, and take care to contribute adequate tzedakah.  But I’m seriously lacking on Jewish dogma!  In fact, I reject any and all claims of right belief!  Recognizing, then, that my theology may be deemed heretical by some of my chosen community, I decided to set my beliefs alongside the best known declaration of Jewish doctrine.

In the Mishneh Torah, his code of halacha, the 12th century rabbi, physician, and philosopher Maimonides presented his 13 Principles of Faith.  In the Rambam’s estimation, this doctrine was fundamental to Judaism.  To reject even one of the Principles, he believed, was heresy.  In his day, Maimonides’ standards generated considerable controversy.  Not so today.  Orthodox Judaism considers the 13 Principles requisite beliefs.


Principle 1. To believe in the existence of the Creator, that there exists a Being that is complete in all ways and He is the cause of all else that exists. He is what sustains their existence and the existence of all that sustains them. It is inconceivable that He would not exist, for if He would not exist then all else would cease to exist as well, nothing would remain.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Yes, completely, though, when referring to G-d, I prefer the pronoun “It” to “He.”  My preference is in keeping, in fact, with the Rambam’s negative theology.  The great rabbi insisted that no human language could describe HaShem.  Rather, we should only describe It by stating what G-d is not (i.e., that G-d is not a multiplicity, or that G-d is not the forest).  Likewise, G-d is not male or female!

Principle 2. To believe with perfect faith that G-d is One. This does not mean one as in one of a pair, nor one like a species, nor one as in one object that is made up of many elements, nor as a single simple object which is infinitely divisible. Rather, He, HaShem, is a unity unlike any other possible unity. This second foundation is referred to when [the Torah] says, “Hear Israel! HaShem is our God, HaShem is one” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 6:4).

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

You betcha.

Principle 3. To believe that the One whom we have mentioned is not a body and His powers are not physical. The concepts of physical bodies such as movement, rest, or existence in a particular place cannot be applied to Him. Such things cannot be part of His nature nor can they happen to Him. “To whom can you compare Me? To what am I equal? Says the Holy One.” (Yeshaya [Isaiah] 40:25) If He would be a physical body He would be comparable to physical bodies. In all places where the Holy Scriptures speak of Him in physical terms, as walking, standing, sitting, speaking and anything similar, it is always metaphorical, as our Sages of blessed memory said, “The Torah speaks in the language of men.”  He is not physical and His power is not physical.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Yes, I believe that G-d is NOT a body, at least insofar as humans conceive of one.  That said, I don’t believe that G-d is wholly apart from the material universe or universes; rather, I conceive of the material universe(s) as part of HaShem, the unfathomable totality of being.  HaShem can not be compared to any physical body, but It sparks within all forms.

This Neo-Chasidic understanding is controversial.  Even Abraham Joshua Heschel, the celebrated 20th century rabbi credited with rekindling popular interest in Chasidism, rejects claims of G-d’s material immanence.  He writes, “The world is not of the essence of God […] The world is neither His continuation nor His emanation but rather His creation and possession.”  Heschel’s theology prioritizes G-d’s radical transcendence.  By contrast, those Jewish mystics and many Chasidim who claim that G-d is present in all beings prioritize G-d’s radical immanence.  As I see it, radical transcendence and radical immanence are not mutually exclusive.  G-d pervades all of the material universe(s) and transcends that plane of being.  (I recognize my theological cosmology as belief, not knowledge.  This distinction is important.  I entertain and respect other ideas; all good theology is abstract and provisional.)

Principle 4. I believe that the One is first. This means to believe that the One was the absolute first and everything else in existence is not first relative to Him.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Yes, without qualification.

Principle 5. I believe that it is proper to serve Him, to ascribe to Him greatness, to make known His greatness, and to fulfill His commandments. We may not do this to any lesser being, whether it be one of the angels, etc. For all these things have predetermined natures and have no authority or control over their actions. Rather, such authority and control is God’s. Similarly, it is not proper to serve them as intermediaries in order that they should bring us closer to God. Rather, to God Himself we must direct out thoughts, and abandon anything else.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Wholeheartedly!  Although I often find the words of the Shehecheyanu blessing on my lips when I witness a particularly beautiful moment, vista, or creature, I am not praying to the lovers, to the new moon, or to the raven.  I am instead offering my thanks to HaShem, the very foundation of being.

Principle 6. I believe with perfect faith that prophecy is true. That is, that a person must know that there exists amongst mankind individuals who have very lofty qualities and great perfection; whose souls are prepared until their minds receive perfect intellect.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Yes, I believe that some individuals have a heightened capacity for prophetic vision and service.  Contrary to rabbinic assertion, however, I believe that there are prophets in every age, many of them not Jewish.

  1. I believe in the prophecy ofMoshe, our Teacher, may he rest in peace. This means to believe that he is the father of all the prophets, both those that preceded him and those who arose after him; all of them were below his level. He was the chosen one from all of Mankind, for he attained a greater knowledge of the Blessed One, more than any other man ever attained or ever will attain. For he, may he rest in peace, rose up from the level of man to the level of the angels and gained the exalted status of an angel. There did not remain any screen that he did not tear and penetrate; nothing physical held him back. He was devoid of any flaw, big or small. His powers of imagination, the senses, and the perceptions were nullified; the power of desire was separated from him leaving him with pure intellect. It is for this reason that it is said on him that he could speak to HaShem, blessed be He, without the intermediary of angels.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Yes, but with some qualification.  In the context of our foundational text/myth, I believe that Moses was chosen by G-d “from all of Mankind.”  That said, I don’t exactly believe that Moses was a historical personage; I think his Tanakh character is perhaps (very) loosely based on a historical personage or persons, but I don’t believe that the Torah’s narrative is historical record.

Principle 8. I believe that the Torah is from Heaven. This means that we must believe that this entire Torah, which was given to us from Moshe, Our Teacher, may he rest in peace, is entirely from the mouth of the Almighty…for all of the Torah is from the mouth of the Almighty and it is all the Teaching of G-d (Toras HaShem), perfect, pure, holy, and true.  One who says that verses and stories like these […] were written by Moshe out of his own mind, behold! He is considered by our Sages and Prophets as a heretic and a perverter of the Torah more than all other heretics, for he believes that the Torah has a “heart” and a “shell” [i.e. an meaningful part and a meaningless part] and that these historical accounts and stories have no benefit and are from Moshe our Teacher, may he rest in peace. This is the meaning of [the category of heretic who believes that] “The Torah is not from Heaven” [which is listed in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) as one who has no share in the World to Come].

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Oh, dear, I’m in hot water now!  I do approach the Torah as sacred — indeed, holy — scripture, and I conceive of it as divine, but I also believe it is the work of human beings, of many individuals and committees working over generations to compile, edit, and add to long-told stories of their people and of neighboring peoples.  Moses, I believe, didn’t have anything to do with the text that we study today.

Why is this perspective heretical?  If one accepts my stance, one could also argue that much great literature is so divinely inspired!  Indeed, I feel that BeowulfThe OdysseyMoby Dick, and other great works are special…but there is a critical difference.  These other narratives are approached (read and interpreted) in a very different manner; I don’t read these other books each week, pouring over myriad interpretations and finding lessons for contemporary life.  Still, I accept that my position puts me atop the proverbial slippery slope.  By the Rambam’s standards, I’m very much a heretic.

Principle 9. I believe that this Torah, and no other, was transcribed from the Creator and we may not add to it or remove from it, not in the Written Torah or in the Oral Torah, as it says, “…you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 13:1).

<Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Concerning the prohibition on adding to or removing from the Torah, I’m in accord.  But do I believe that it was “transcribed from the Creator”?  Only in a metaphorical sense.

Principle 10. I believe that G-d knows the actions of mankind and does not turn His eyes from them.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Well, because the G-d I believe in is NOT an interventionist or personal deity (although it’s clear that the ancient Israelite‘s god was), I’m iffy about the language the Rambam uses.  Harking back to Principal 3, Maimonides refers to “the language of men.”  If I read Principle 10, then, as a metaphor for G-d’s omnipresence, yes, I agree.  Unfortunately (for my Rambam scorecard), this Principle is generally understood to assert G-d’s knowing all (i.e., omniscience).  While I accept omniscience in the abstract, G-d “knows” my thoughts only insofar as I “know” the actions and thoughts of an atom in my body (i.e., experience without awareness).  Simply put, it ain’t exactly the sort of knowledge that I think Rambam intended.  As a result, I reluctantly reject this Principle.

Principle 11. I believe that G-d rewards those who obey the commandments of the Torah and punishes one who violates its prohibitions. The greatest reward is the World to Come, and the greatest punishment is kareis (spiritual excision, “cutting off”).

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

Very generally, yes.  I take the mitzvot seriously, even those that I do not (yet) include in my Jewish life, and I do feel that there is “punishment” for not “obeying” them.  In my view, this punishment has nothing to do with the afterlife, however!  Instead, as Dennis Prager asserts, “I am convinced that the punishment for missing Shabbat is missing that Shabbat!”  In other words, the immediate punishment for not observing the mitzvot is the lost opportunity to experience the attending joy and good will.  And for “spirtual excision”?  Broadly speaking, observance of the mitzvot cultivates mindfulness and heightened spiritual awareness.  Therefore, not “obeying” them can separate you from integrated, holistic experience.  Just as the Dog Whisperer maintains that a well-trained and well-behaved dog is also a happier, more complete animal, so, too, is the human animal made more complete by the framework of the mitzvot.

Principle 12. I believe in the time of the Moshiach (literally, the anointed, or Messiah). The Jewish Messiah is an exceptional human sent by G-d, not a man-god as in Christian salvation for sin theology. This means to believe and be certain that he will come, and not to think that he is late in coming. One shouldn’t set a time for him, and you should not make calculations in Scripture to determine the time of his coming. Included in this principle is that there is no king to the Jewish people except from the House of David and the seed of Solomon alone. Anyone who disagrees with the status of this family denies G-d and His prophets.

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

No.  I reject the notion that the Davidic family enjoys special status.  More importantly, I reject the concept of Utopian Messianism.  That said, I appreciate that the ancient Israelites’ eschatological belief in the “end of days” was a significant religious development and one that led to what is, for me, one of the most important principles of contemporary Judaism.  Messianism allowed the Israelites to view all of history as endowed with spiritual meaning or sacred import; life was understood to be a lead up to the grand finale, but the here-and-now would influence the endgame.  Therefore, Israelites and early Jews came to understand this world as imbued with G-d, even though they distinguished between this world and the World to Come.  As Emil Fackenheim wrote in Quest for Past & Future, “the Jewish faith in salvation […] made its followers act as if all depended on them, and pray as if all depended on God.”  Indeed, that is very much my own approach.

Principle 13. I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead. The resurrection of the dead is a foundation from the foundations of Moshe, our Teacher. There is no faith and no connection to the Jewish religion for one who does not believe this. But the resurrection is only for the righteous alone, not the wicked. “The wicked, even during their lifetimes they are called dead; the righteous, even during their deaths they are called living.”

Do I agree with or accept this principle?

No.  In fact, I believe the opposite, that resurrection is a delusion.  But belief and knowledge are not to be confused and, if pressed, I must admit that I don’t know there is no resurrection or afterlife.  To further complicate the matter, with respect to an individual’s legacy (genetic, intellectual, ethical, and otherwise), I do believe that there is “life after death,” but it seems clear that this metaphorical take on resurrection isn’t what Maimonides had in mind!

For the Rambam, my belief that resurrection does not exist is alone enough to sever my “connection to the Jewish religion.”  As I mentioned earlier, rejection of (or even doubts harbored about!) any one of the 13 Principles is, in his view, unacceptable.  He writes,

“When all these foundations are perfectly understood and believed in by a person he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love and pity him…But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community [of Israel], denies the fundamentals, and is called a sectarian, apikores. […] One is required to hate him and destroy him.”

Hate and destroy?  Wow.  That’s difficult for this would-be convert to accept, especially given my overall performance on Maimonides’ Jew-Or-Not-A-Jew scoresheet?

Strong ‘Yes’: 5/13  Qualified ‘Yes’: 4/13  Qualified ‘No’: 1/13  Strong ‘No’: 3/13

Based on my responses, I’m not a Jew in the eyes of the Rambam.  What does this mean for my (hopefully) pending conversion under the auspices of the Conservative movement?  Probably not a lot.  ”Two Jews, three opinions,” as the saying has it.  Few “Reformative” Jews would find anything abhorrent about my beliefs; by contrast, some of the more “Conservadox” may insist that my theology is not sufficiently Jewish.  Fortunately, that determination is not officially theirs to make; instead, it’s in the hands of my sponsoring rabbi and the beit din.

If I experience resistance to my beliefs, I can point out that more than a few celebrated contemporary rabbis espouse similar theology.  Moreover, such theological disagreements are classically Jewish!  This debate is a mahloket l’shem shamayim, a disagreement in the name of the Heavens (or for the sake of G-d’s glory).  As such, the different takes on G-d and on Jewish cosmology are good Torah; I’ve no reason to be ashamed of my difference of opinion, provided I respect those Jews who believe differently than I do.

In the course of an email exchange about Jewish notions of G-d, Rabbi Hyman wrote that G-d is “better posed than prosed, or framed but not nailed.”  No matter how certain we may sometimes feel, all conceptions of G-d are incomplete.  So, too, with respect to theology.  Referencing Moses’ glimpse of G-d in Exodus, Chapter 33 (“…[Moshe] will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”), Rabbi Hyman observed that we’re all just “looking for G-d’s shadow.”  I like this formulation; all good theology is a sidelong glance.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes, of course.  Some beliefs are obviously “out of bounds” (e.g. animismpolytheism, or Jesus as moshiach).  Importantly, though many Orthodox Jews will protest, also prohibited are claims to “truth” or knowledge.  Instead, we are called to act on our beliefs, but to pray, to wrestle with HaShem, “knowing” only the unfathomable depth of our ignorance.


Related content:

  1. Turning Aside: Finding Judaism (Part III)
  2. Turning Aside: The Orchard’s Harvest
  3. Conversion
  4. Turning Aside: Signposts & Channelmarkers
  5. Turning Aside: Finding Judaism (Part II)

Filed Under: ArticlesTurning AsideUncategorized Tagged With: ConservativehalakhaJewish identityJudaismOrthodoxRambamReformtheologywho is a Jew

About Christopher Orev

Originally from the rural Delmarva Peninsula, Christopher is an artist and writer who recently moved from New York City to San Francisco. His artwork has been exhibited in the U.S. and abroad, and his articles have appeared in art magazines and online journals. Alongside art and Judaism, ecology and natural history are areas of special interest. His formal course of conversion began in September 2010, and he expects to emerge from mikvah, a new Jew, before 5771 spirals into 5772


  1. 1
     Shim’on says:

    Wow, Christopher. Just wow. What a great piece. Thank you!

  2. 2
     Debbie B says:


    You would have enjoyed the talks by the speaker at my minyan’s Shabbaton this weekend which touched on a few of your points above. The titles of his talks were: “Truth in the Torah and the Turth of the Torah” and “Do We Lear Morality from the Torah or Bring Morality to the Torah?”

    The speaker was very definitely Conservative in outlook, and did not realize that my minyan is not a typical “Conservative” congregation in a number of ways, particularly in having always had a few Orthodox members. This is a common mistake made by outside speakers who come to my minyan. My minyan is both very traditional in observance beliefs and very progressive in some other aspects, with a range in beliefs by the members. I wonder if perhaps someone should warn our speakers about that. The Orthodox members have usually had some special reason to affiliate with us instead of an Orthodox congregation which would fit them better in terms of observance and theology. One Orthodox couple that are former members are lesbian. One current Orthodox member has an autistic son and other children who are very “different” and not easily accepted in Orthodox congregations.

    Anyway, I think the speaker made the Orthodox members uncomfortable by assuming that everyone in the audience would agree with a historical positivist view of Tanakh and as well as a view that the Written Torah (Tanakh) has a much more important place in Jewish law than the Oral Torah (Talmud). But he had some good ideas and presented them well.


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