The Thirteen Principles

Now that the month of Tamuz is here, I believe it is an appropriate time to discuss belief, Emunah.  An ideal place to start is Maimonides, who, writing in the 12th Century, was the first Jewish scholar to systematically list and explain the principles of Jewish belief.  His “Thirteen Ikarim,” principles of faith, became the most authoritative formulation and they are studied in Jewish communities around the world. A condensed version of the thirteen principles known as “Ani Maamin,” “I believe,” is printed in all standard prayer books just after the morning prayers.  The twelfth principle, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah…” has been the last words that Jews have sung and recited before going to their deaths at times of persecution.  The beautiful poem, “Yigdal Elokim Chai,” said at the beginning of the morning prayers is also based on these thirteen principles.  The first five principles concern the existence of God and beliefs about His nature.  The next four are beliefs about God’s relationship and communication with the world and the revelation of Torah, and the last four speak of reward, punishment, and humanity’s destiny.  Following are the first two principles, in my translation with a brief synopsis.

1. The Existence of God

There is a completely perfect Being, Who is the cause of everything else.  He created everything, everything exists within Him, and all continued existence depends upon Him.  If He did not exist, then nothing else could exist.  However, if nothing aside from Him existed, He would continue to exist as before, without any deficiency, because He does not need anything outside of Himself.  Everything else, whether spiritual or physical, is dependent on Him.  This principle is stated in the verse, “I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of the Land of Egypt.”

Theme —  We believe that God exists and that He is absolutely self-sufficient, not dependent in any way on human desire, belief or consensus.  This belief is the basis for our dedication to a system of absolute morality and absolute values.  If God is the source of our values, they are not subject to change and cannot be relative.  If morality is a human invention, then it is nothing more than a matter of preference and taste.  As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan says, in The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, all is permitted.” Throughout history, moral systems created by human beings have been bent and molded to fit convenience and desire.  It is significant, that three of the most ruthless murderers in history, Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, were all violently opposed to God and religion.  Judaism maintains that in order to build a consistently moral society our world view must have God at its center.

1. The Unity of God

The Creator is One and is totally unique.  His unity is not the same as the unity of a category (e.g. one species, which contains many individual animals), and is not similar to one object or body, which can be subdivided into many parts (e.g. skeleton, organs, limbs, soul, intellect).  His unity is not even the same as the number one, because it too can be divided into smaller and smaller fractionsRather, He is a totally unique Oneness, which cannot be compared to anything else at all.  This principle is based on the verse “Hear O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Theme —  We are monotheists:  there is only one God and everything in the world is under His control.  Pagans believed in gods of good and gods of evil.  As a result, they did not expect the world to be harmonious or even comprehensible, since every natural power represented a different god and all were competing with one another.  Monotheism, in contrast, sees all of existence as coming ultimately from one source, as the verse in Isaiah states, “[I am the One] Who forms light and creates darkness; Who makes peace and creates evil; I am God, Maker of all these.”  Monotheism taught people to look for uniformity and harmony in the universe.  Albert Einstein pointed out that monotheism, in fact, laid the foundation for all scientific enquiries:

Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. Without the belief in the uniformity of nature, no theoretical formula of universal character could be established.

Maimonides’ alludes to a similar idea at the beginning of the Mishneh Torah, “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdoms is to know that there is a Prime Cause that brought everything into existence.”

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