By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was fascinated by the concept you mentioned in last week’s column; the 13 core principles that form the foundation of Judaism. I know this is a lot to ask, but would you consider covering those principles in more detail? I realize this would take way more than one or two columns, but I, for one, would look forward to spending the next 13 weeks to get a better understanding of the principles so briefly outlined.
— Marcie L.
I am more than happy to fulfill your request and attempt to elucidate R’ Maimonides’ principles and would appreciate the feedback of other readers if they, too, would be interested in embarking on this odyssey!
The first principle is the belief in God. I often say that we could have a room full of people who, when asked if they believe in God, will all raise their hands. When we ask them, however, how they define their belief in God, we may quickly find that many people in that room consider the other guys’ definitions to be heresy in their eyes, and not a belief in God at all! It is therefore incumbent upon us as Jews to have a grasp on our own definition of God.
Maimonide’s commentary states: “The first principle involves belief in the existence of God. There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on Him and is derived from Him. It is inconceivable that He did not exist. If He did not exist, everything else would also cease to exist and nothing would remain.”
“If, however, we could imagine that nothing else existed, He would not cease to exist. He would not be diminished in any way. Only God is totally self-sufficient and, therefore, Unity and Mastery belong only to Him. He has everything that He needs in Himself and does not need anything else at all. Everything else, however, whether it be an angel, a star, or anything associated with them above or below, all depend on Him for their very existence.”
“The Torah teaches us this first principle in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God (Exodus 20:12)”
Just as a note, I’m using the translation from the Arabic and Hebrew from Maimonides’ Principles, by Aryeh Kaplan.
This definition, which clarifies the Jewish notion of God, opens up many new questions and inspires much discussion. What do we mean when we say God is perfect in every way? If God does not need the creation, why did He create the world?
The source of this principle requires an even deeper understanding of something else. The continuation of the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.” Why does God not introduce Himself as the creator of the universe, rather focuses on one isolated event; the exodus from Egypt? Furthermore, how is it possible for God to command us to believe in Him? We either believe in Him already or we don’t; whoever doesn’t believe in God wouldn’t heed His commandments anyway!
Nachmanides, another great 13th century commentator, disagrees with Maimonides’ consideration of the belief in God as a commandment; he contends the belief in God is the foundation of our entire faith and cannot merely be considered one of the 613 commandments. All of this brings up another question: How do we understand these two perspectives?
As you see, we would need many more columns just to discuss this first principle, the questions raised in this column and more! Let it suffice to share the basic definition and discuss these questions among ourselves; hopefully one day we’ll discuss it all, which, of course, will lead us to new questions. That’s the Jewish way!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.