In the 1160's The Rambam, ie Maimonides, at around age 30, published his first monumental work, Commentary on the Mishna, the first book of that type, a comprehensive ezplanation of the Mishna according to the Gemara. Immediately, he was recognized not only as a genius, but as the single most revolutionary and controversial Jewish philosopher of the time.

Not only was the commentary, written in Arabic, a monumental compilation in and of itself, it contained two treatises on philosophy and Jewish thought, one an eight chapter introduction to the six chapter long Pirkei Avos, and the other an Introduction to the Tenth Chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, which deals with the Jewish perspective on the afterlife and belief.

The Principles

In his Introduction to the 10th Chapter of Sanhedrin in the Mishna, he starts off by saying that it is an appropriate place to discuss "Many basic principles of faith, of great value." He begins to discuss what he means by basic principles, and says that since there is a great confusion about what exactly a Jew must believe, he feels is appropriate to expalin exactly what a Jew must understand and beleive to be considered among the faithful. Anyone who does not beleive each of these things, even if it is because they are among the majority that never bothered to think about or meditate on these issues, is considered in the technical category of an "Apikorus," one who degrades or disdains the scholars of the Bible, and they would be liable to the death penalty in the time that the Temple stood.

He then procedes to list 13 Principles of faith, which are, paraphrased/quoted in part:

  1. God Exists, in perfection, and is the cause of all else. He sustains existence, and without him, nothing else is conceivable. He, however, is in no way dependant on anything else, in any way.
  2. God is One, Unique and indivisible. He has no attributes, or characteristics, only aspects through which people perceive him.
  3. God is non-physical, does not act physically, and does not change in any way. Any verse which seems to imply that he is physical in any way is simply discussing concepts in a language accessible to man.
  4. God is first, and existed alone without any other. Nothing else is comparable to this Pre-existance.
  5. He should be worshipped and praised, to the exclusion of all other objects and beings. Nothing else can be a cause other than him, so only he should be praised for what occurs. This is a warning against Idolatry in all forms.
  6. He grants to some beings a connection to him, known as prophecy, as a result of their attainment of extreme levels of perfection. This knowledge they have is from him, and the explanation of this phenomenon is too complex to explain here.
  7. He gave Prophecy to Moses, whos prophecy is unlike and above all other prophecies. There will never, and cannot be a prophecy like his again. His prophecy is differenty from others in four ways; Moses spoke to God face to face, while awake, at moses request, and without Moses weakening or becoming overpowered with fear.
  8. He gave us the Torah, and the Torah we have is the same as the one given in every way. Every verse is absolutely true, and equally important. The interpretation of the sages was passed down from that time, and was not lost.
  9. He will not replace the Torah, in whole or in part, nor change its meaning. Humans of course also may not add to or subtract from it.
  10. He knows all that occurs, and does not neglect and aspect of any persons least behavior.
  11. He Rewards and Punishes all.
  12. He gaurantees that the Messiah will come, and at that time, the kingship of the Davidic line will be restored.
  13. He will resurrect the righteous dead.

The Controversy

Many of the Rambam's contemporaries, such as the Ramban, and R. Yosef Albo, disputed these 13 prinicples, though every single on accepted every single one of them as true. One of the biggest disputes is about someone who violates on of the principles; Are they necessarily an "Apikorus"? Perhaps, many argued, it is inconsequential if a simple person is misled into thinking that, for instance, God does, in fact, have a body, since the verses seem to imply this. While a mistake, perhaps this should not be a disqualification from being considered a believing Jew.

The Rambam, however, and his disciples, conscientiously upheld every on of these points. In the dispute above, he countered in a later book, the Moreh Nevuchim, that if you believe that God has a physical body, he must be divisible, since all physical bodies are. He would also be limited, and since physical bodies occupy time, have a beginning, as well as having a finite size. Essentially, by denying and of the later eleven Principles, you indirectly, implicitly violate the first two, which everyone agrees are part of the sine qua non of being Jewish.

The other major dispute, was headed in exactly the opposite direction: How could there possibly be only 13 principles? Did a Jew not have to beleive that every letter, in every single word of the Torah was true? Was denying any single word of the Torah a lesser for of apikorsus than denying the coming of the messiah? (Both of which are clearly understood in the Talmud.)

The disciples of the Rambam, however, pointed out that clearly this was agreed to; It was one of the 13 Principles. They also pointed out that a lack of knowledge of a verse was in fact a valid excuse; If a Jew simply did not know how many Angels destroyed Sodom, he was not a heretic. Confronted with the verse, If he maintained that he thought that there were four angels, howerever, he is one. This is not true, according to the Rambam, about the 13 principles. If a Jew thought, through ignorance, that God had a body, he would be liable for the death penalty. Some of his opponents, however, argued that emphasising this aspect was still a bad idea, as it might give the impression that one must only beleive these 13 things.

The Impact

In the last 800 years, the Rambam's 13 Principles were accepted completely by all Jews. They even for part of the daily prayers that Jews say, in the form of a song composed by Rabbi Daniel ben Judah around the year 1300.

The impact that they have had on even Christian philosophical thinkers is difficult to overstate, and they form a significant part of the backbone of the heritage of Monotheism that Jews have given the world.