Tradition Today: A Jewish creed

Does Judaism have a creed and if so, what is it? That is a question that has been endlessly debated.

10 commandments 88 (photo credit: )
10 commandments 88
(photo credit: )
Does Judaism have a creed and if so, what is it? That is a question that has been endlessly debated, not only in modern times. Many have contended that Judaism is a religion of deed and not creed. What you do is important, not what you believe. There is much truth to that, but perhaps it would be better formulated as "what you believe is important only when it is translated into your deeds." Exactly what those beliefs are, how many are there, how essential are they, these have been the difficult questions. When even the great Maimonides attempted to formulate Judaism's basic beliefs into a creed of 13 essential things that every Jew must believe, he quickly discovered that that not everyone agreed with him. Even though his formula eventually found its way into the liturgy through the poetic hymn "Yigdal," there was never complete agreement that these particular 13 articles of faith were the official dogmas of Judaism. Solomon Schechter's famous essay "The Dogmas of Judaism" presents an excellent summary of the problem. Schechter hesitated to formulate any specific Jewish creed, but he did contend that belief is central to Judaism even though it is difficult if not impossible to make a final delineation as to what is absolutely necessary and what is not. As he put it, "We usually urge that in Judaism religion means life; but we forget that a life without guiding principles and thoughts is a life not worth living." It seems to me that long before Maimonides or his predecessors formulated lists of dogmas, the sages in their creation of the liturgy attempted to give us a basic creed, a series of beliefs that they felt constituted the heart of Judaism. They did this by formulating the collection of three biblical paragraphs known as the Shema and the blessings with which they surrounded it and requiring us to recite it morning and evening. Each of these three paragraphs represents a basic belief of Judaism, important enough that it should be repeated time after time, day after day. It is inconceivable to me that these sections were chosen randomly or for some external stylistic reasons. We know that they are ancient, existing during the days of the Second Temple at the very least, although originally they were preceded by the Ten Commandments, the importance of which is so obvious as to need no explanation or justification. What doctrines or dogmas were the sages seeking to emphasize when they singled out these particular paragraphs? Briefly, the first paragraph, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, commands Israel to accept the one and only existing God whose name was revealed to Moses at the burning bush in the four Hebrew letters yod heh vav heh from the root meaning "existence" and to love that God. It is, therefore, a proclamation of monotheism, of belief in one God, creator of all, sovereign of all. The second paragraph, Deut. 11:13-21, teaches obedience to the will of that God - observance of God's mitzvot - and the idea of reward and punishment. Our actions have consequences, they matter to God. God is not divorced from the world He created, but active within it. The third paragraph, Numbers 15:37-14, emphasizes the idea of redemption, that God brings about the freedom of Israel (and others, as Amos taught), bringing us out of slavery into freedom, out of exile into our own land. God is not only creator, God is also redeemer. Each of these ideas is reflected and explained in the blessings with which the Shema has been surrounded. The first blessing expounds on God as the creator of all; the second on God who has revealed Himself to us through the Torah and the mitzvot. The third blessing (said after the recitation of the Shema) emphasizes the third paragraph by detailing the story of the exodus from Egypt, the story of the first redemption. Put together, these form not an extensive formula of Jewish beliefs, but a brief credo expressing the essence of Judaism's teaching. Obviously each part of this requires greater exploration and explanation, i.e. interpretations that may vary. But in brief they could be formulated as follows: We believe in the One God, creator of heaven and earth, whose will has been revealed to us through the Torah and its mitzvot as interpreted by the sages, and who redeemed us from Egyptian slavery, redeems us now and will redeem both Israel and all humanity and bring us to the perfected world - the sovereignty of God. We live in a skeptical age, an age in which belief in God is very much under fire. Among Jews, especially among Israelis, there is a high degree of disbelief. However it would be a mistake to believe that everyone identified as "secular" is an atheist or even an agnostic. Many, however, are put off by some of the beliefs that they are told are absolutely essential to being a "religious" Jew. Perhaps it would be wise for such people to consider two facts: first that being a religious Jew does require some beliefs, some adherence to dogmas, if you will, but second that the number of such beliefs is smaller than you might think. The Shema is a good example. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.