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The Jewish Creed

by Isaac Leeser

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, is the Lord one."

One of our great luminaries* has said, "Ancient Judaism, therefore, had no symbolic books, no articles of faith. No one was permitted to swear to symbols, no one was called upon to swear to articles of faith; nay, we have no conception of what are called adjurations of religious belief, or test-oaths, and we must consider them as inadmissible, according to the spirit of true Judaism. Maimonides was the first to conceive the idea of condensing the religion of his fathers into a certain number of principles, in order, as he gives us to understand, that religion, like all other sciences, might have its fundamental ideas, from which all the others are deduced. From this merely accidental thought have originated the thirteen articles of the Jewish catechism, and we owe to them likewise the hymn Yigdal, and several good works of Chisdai, Albo and Abarbanell. These, however, are also all the consequences which they have had hitherto. They have not yet, thank God, been forged into fetters of belief. Chisdai contests them, and proposes some alterations; Albo contracts their numbers, and will admit but three fundamental articles, which agree pretty nearly with those which Herbert of Cherbury, at a later period, proposed as the basis of a catechism; and there are still others, especially Loria and his disciples, the modern Cabbalists, who will not acknowledge any fixed number whatever of fundamental doctrines, because they say: 'In our law all is fundamental.' Nevertheless, this controversy has been conducted, as all controversies of this kind ought to be, with earnestness and zeal, yet without hatred and bitterness; and although the thirteen articles of Maimonides have been received by the greater part of our nation, yet I know of no one who has declared Albo a heretic, because he endeavoured to reduce their number, and to refer them back upon rational principles of much greater universal applicability."

*Mendelssohn in his Jerusalem.

We certainly agree in the main with the views here advanced, that in the Jewish religion there is permitted the utmost latitude of placing the foundation of belief upon any given number of fundamental principles, whether they be the thirteen of Maimonides, the three of Albo, or any other, be they more or less numerous, which any one may hereafter offer to our acceptance, with proofs drawn from Scripture. Our readers, however, must not imagine, that this diversity of opinions or freedom in offering the same is at all productive of any real difference of belief; on the contrary, the belief of all believers in the Jewish religion is the same, the contest being merely as to what principles should be supposed the basis upon which the code of Moses rests for its support. If, for instance, it is asserted that the Jewish religion has for its foundation the

  1. Belief in the existence of God;

  2. Belief in the existence of a revelation by this God; and

  3. Belief in rewards and punishments for obedience or disobedience to this revelation from God,

it does not say, that the expectation of the coming of a redeemer is a matter on which we are permitted to speculate; but simply that the legislation on Sinai is not based upon the reign of the "prince of peace," because, if it were the will of God to govern the world without the mission of this august personage, He could do so, for aught we could allege. But without a belief in the Deity there could evidently be no religion; without a revelation there could be no responsibility; and finally, without rewards and punishments there could exist no incentive for religious observance. Nevertheless, there may be truths other than these necessary principles, ideas founded upon the truth of God, and upon those institutions which He established of his own free accord, and which, therefore, have become matter of fact or certainty, because the Lord so willed it. Of this kind are the mission of Moses, the promise of a Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead.

Let us explain a little. Although it was necessary that God should give a law, this does not say that He was compelled to deputize Moses; but having done so, and given us a record of the fact, our denying or speculating upon the matter would be an act of unbelief, and one which, if it could not expose us to be punished by men, since matters of belief are not cognizable by earthly judges, would still make us liable to be punished by the Being who himself sent his prophet with his message of love and mercy; because where a man wilfully rejects the light that is offered him, and placed of his own free choice obstacles in his way, by which the attainment of righteousness becomes more difficult, he offends against the Author of his being and of the religion which alone can render his life happy and his death tranquil. From this it follows, that, since the Bible declares Moses to have been the chosen messenger of God, and pre-eminently endowed with divine wisdom more than any other man, we are bound to place implicit credence upon this assertion, and act according to the obligation thus imposed, that of obeying the doctrines handed down by Moses, which this conviction, of right, should ask of us, since no one equal to him ever received a commission to repeal what he handed to us as the will of God.

So likewise the doctrine of the Messiah. As we hinted above, it might have been that, had God not promised it, the world would not have needed a special messenger who is to restore the universal peace which was forfeited at the first sinning of man; this, assuming it to be the intention of the Most High, might be within the range of possibility by a thousand methods all within the scope of God's power. But the prophets teach us a doctrine different from this; they tell us that a time will come when something wonderful is to happen to the peculiar people who were established, many ages before that time, the preservators of the laws and code promulgated through Moses. The establishment of universal peace, in short, is to be accomplished through a peculiar personage descended from the Israelitish nation, who is to effect for the same a restoration of the ancient commonwealth first established at the going out of the original fathers of this people from Egypt, by means of peculiar laws and statutes embraced within the code, called the law of Moses, and accompanied by certain rites and ceremonies which anciently constituted the public worship of the Most High in the chief city of the Hebrew state. 

The God who revealed himself to man and made known through his accredited messengers these his intentions; and consequently they have become a matter concerning which no one can consistently entertain any doubt who truly believes in the truth of the biblical records transmitted to us through a long line of ancestors. It will not do to assert, that because the Jewish religion might be true without the coming of the Messiah, we will not believe in his coming; for since the promise has been made, it has become an integral portion of the things concerning which we have been instructed, and as such it has become a matter of credence, as being the intention of the Lord, just as the Sabbath and other commandments have become matters of duty from no other reason than that they have been ordained as the will of God.

How would it do for a believing Israelite to criticise the biblical ordinances, and dispute their obligatory force, simple because he could love God and serve his fellow-men without observing them? We would certainly say, that it is but a poor exhibition of faith to doubt of the positive duties which the Bible enjoins, although they might not have been necessary truths; and with as much reason must we say, that to presume even to cast a shadow of doubt upon the hope of Israel in the ultimate fulfillment of all the good the Lord has promised unto his people through means of the son of David, simply because this mission is not an event absolutely necessary to the existence of the divine law, is a refusal to be taught by the Lord, the only Source of all wisdom and truth.

Let us turn to the doctrine of the resurrection. Again we will say, that this idea is not one without which religion could not have existed; on the contrary, if life were only limited to a mere earthly existence, and all the reward and punishment were merely confined to the duration of our days on earth, (much more now, as we are taught to believe that the spirit will not die at the death of the body:) the Lord would still have the means of rewarding or punishing with temporal or spiritual visitations, as the case might be, whatever acts are done in conformity with or in opposition to his declared will. It was therefore not necessary that the body should likewise rise from the dust to become instinct with immortal life, like unto the spirit which dwells within it. But all this does not gainsay that the Lord so promised it through his veritable prophets, that he would restore in the coming future לעתיד לבא the souls to the bodies of the departed, and to reward some with everlasting bliss, and punish the guilty with shame and everlasting contempt. That no one is able to explain the time when, and the manner how, this wonderful event is to be accomplished, is no hindrance to the faithful believer; he submits his reasoning power where he finds his intellect insufficient to explain the wondrous might of the Creator. This does not make him believe impossibilities, or things which from their very nature cannot be true; but it induces him to believe where he must see the power of God able to effect the end, although to him the means are not self-evident. We therefore again say, that to deny the resurrection is denying a principle laid down by the prophets, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; and consequently such unbelief is not becoming to, nay, is criminal in any one, how much more so in a teacher of religion, who professes to be guided by the code of Israel.

We do not mean at present to do more than to introduce the subject to the notice of our readers; but we mean to recur to it very soon. All we meant to exhibit was, that the difference in respect to the number of fundamental articles does not affect the belief demanded of a son of Israel; and that it is one thing to say such a matter is not fundamental, and quite another to assert that we do not admit its truth and cogency for ourselves as believers. In very truth, we, for one, hold that the whole of the Scriptures is fundamental; and therefore we believe that all that is taught therein is necessarily true, and matter of conscientious belief with us. Whatever we cannot, with our present light, understand and explain, we set down as for the moment only not apparent to our intellect; but this does not say, that with an increase of light our views may not likewise become expanded, and we be able to stand amazed at the brilliancy of the effulgence of divine truths, where now we stand uninformed and bewildered, though nothing doubting, as becomes inquirers after truth, as scholars in the temple of our God and Teacher.

The articles of Maimonides, therefore, in whatever light considered, are the pillars of the faith, and may be termed the columns which support the roof of the noble structure of our belief. They are true, whether regarded by us as fundamental or accessory; and as such they are not to be doubted or disputed by any one who wishes to claim affinity with Israel. It is certainly true, as Mendelssohn says, that one cannot be called a heretic for not believing the whole of them fundamental; but he certainly would be wanting in true faith were he to deny or disbelieve the whole or any one of them. If such is the case with individuals, it must be so in a greater degree with teachers of religion; and though no test-oath can be demanded before entering upon office from any Israelite; still, since the whole Bible is fundamental, and consequently all the doctrines thence deducible are necessarily true, no one ought to presume to teach otherwise, nor should the people elect any one who teaches or proclaims publicly doctrines inconsistent with the thirteen articles, or who openly denies their truth. At a future day we mean to prove, by biblical texts, the correctness of the received creed, as embraced in the Yigdal; for the present we must close, this introductory article having already increased under our hands to a much greater length than we had at first designed.