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Notes from Limmud 2005

Beyond Belief: Doctrine in Judaism

Dr Tamra Wright, LSJS


  • Menachem Kellner, Must A Jew Believe Anything?, Littman Library (1999). Written for a general audience.
  • Howard Wettstein, "Doctrin", Faith and Philosophy 14:4 (Oct. 1997)
  • Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, Or on Religious Power and Judaism, Berlin (1783).

Kellner identifies as Modern Orthodox, Wettstein is "more complicated". YU education, a professor of philosophy. Now a philosopher of religion within a Jewish context.


What is Belief

[Exercise: What is religion, in 12 words or less. Outcome: "Belief in a divine ethical framework of rituals and practices, for life."]

Unprovable frameworkWay of life
Belief systemAction

The above are two different ways of talking about what religion is all about. Is it internal or external? Does it talk about what you should do and why you should do it?

The first considers humans as a cognitive being, a rational animal. The second considers humans as affective.

Is Judaism more about action or belief? Action! (Say most people.) Is there any text which says otherwise? The Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith. So if action is so important, how come יגדל [a piyyut (liturgical poem) based on the Thirteen Principles of Faith] is so important and in the liturgy?

What is belief? Distinguish between belief in and belief that! The fact someone believes smoking is harmful does not contradict them being a smoker. By contrast, a woman saying she believes in her husband 100% but hiring a private detective is a contradiction. This is actually more about trust.

(Not all philosophers accept this distinction, but many do.)

Kellner believes that Judaism is about belief in, not belief that. Values, faithfulness to.

If you do a concordance search on the uses of the root אמן in the Bible [from which is derived אמונה, faith, and אמן, amen], the overwhelming preponderance of uses are about relationship, not abstract cognitive knowledge or belief.

Does Judaism have Dogma?

Does Judaism have dogma? Christianity is the great definition of a religion with dogma.

Is Barmitzvah the equivalent of a confirmation ceremony in Judaism? No. It's automatic, on reaching the relevant age! And you are Jewish whether you like it or not. The other places you might find dogma is in conversion and deathbed ritual. Kellner says it's not there in Rabbinic Judaism. It's not in conversion in the Talmud. (It does turn up, later on, in the [mediaeval law code] שלחן ארוך, but Kellner is focusing on the Talmud.)

However, there is the basic necessity of belief that G-d exists! And that He is One and one alone.

Classical Judaism does not have systematic theology. Systematic theology only develops in response to external factors. For example, the need to make Disputations, arguments with the Karaites, assimilation (especially to Islam).

Consider the issue of anthropomorphism. Maimonides insists on a noncorporeal G-d, but that is not the only take on what's written in the Bible. The classical belief becomes doctrine when its tied down tightly. The authors of the Bible and the Talmud were not philosophers and did not speak in philosophical language.

It's only with Maimonides that dogma enters Judaism. He takes אגדתא and puts it at the heart of halachic material. Though he was not the first to come up with a creed, he was the first to try and work it into the legal system.

Maimonides himself was not dogmatic about his dogma—i.e. accepting his dogma without understanding it first. You have to understand philosophically the basis of his principles to accept them.

Kellner argues that Maimonides took a wrong turn, that dogma is bad for Judaism. Once you have this, you have a way of excluding and vilifying people who are not kosher thinkers. And though some have tried to come up with ways of halachically accommodating the ones outside, Kellner argues that these ways are patronising to the non-Orthodox.

He also rejects Maimonides' own argument that all he was doing was making explicit what had always been in the system all along.

Must a Jew believe anything?

"If 'belief' is a matter of trust in G-d expressed in obedience to the Torah, my answer to the question is that a Jew must believe everything. If 'belief' is the intellectual acquiescence in carefully defined statements of dogma, the answer is that there is nothing that a Jew must belief."

Kellner, p.9


Biblical/Rabbinic Judaism Philosophical Theology
Impressionistic, poetic Uses abstract language
Anthromorphism Disparages anthromorphism
Contradictory images accepted Consistency important

Systematic theology is doomed from the start. How do you reconcile G-d as compassionate and G-d as avenger in the Bible; and likewise with other contradictions?

Theological doctrine is not a natural tool for thinking about biblical/rabbinical Judaism. The 'system of thought' model applies only with the application of force.
However, being skeptical about theological doctrine is not the same as saying that halacha, practice, is all that matters.
And saying that Jewish belief is more like poetry than philosophy is not to say that it is 'mere poetry'.

Jewish belief is more like poetry than any other kind of language that we might encounter outside of religion. He is not dismissive of Jewish belief but celebrates it.

The anthromorphic images are self-contradictory, but Wettstein celebrates this from a poetic understanding of Judaism.

The different images we have are important from the point of view of times at which we need G-d. For example, seeking G-d at the time of death of a parent one might see G-d in one role; whereas someone seeing G-d as the divine lawgiver would see G-d otherwise.


Should we think of Judaism as a system of thought? What we have been given, thinks the religious Jew, are directions for living a life of holiness—as individuals but as ones whose flourishing demands community. The essential constituent of such a life is a system of communal and individual practice, but ritual and ethical, informed by a narrative history interwoven with religious imagery. The imagery, in all its variety and inconsistency, along with the historical narrative provide many dimensions of meaning to the practices. And the practices in turn give definition to the otherwise abstract and elusive imagery. The constellation of practices, historical narrative and imagery issues in a distinctive kind of life with its own substantiual virtues and rewards. It seems reductive and misleading to represent this as a system of doxctrine, a set of well-formed beliefes, a system of thought.

Date: 2006-03-15 02:35 pm (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
This is really interesting, thanks for posting it. And relevant to our long-running discussion with eachother and with [livejournal.com profile] rysmiel.

Date: 2006-03-16 07:12 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This is very interesting and something I have always wondered about. I will read it again as didn't understand all of it on first reading. Very complex.



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