What are Jews supposed to believe in? Is Judaism a religion of belief, or is it, as some have maintained, primarily one of practice? This is an age old question and one which Maimonides in the 1100’s tried to put to rest. He laid out a code of practice and simultaneously tried to establish theological principles that came to be known as Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. The problem has been that there is little consistency within the Jewish tradition with regards the parameters of these principles. As Marc Shapiro argues in his book, “The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised,” the detailed interpretation and level of acceptance of those principles have differed greatly within traditional Jewish scholarship.
There is, however, a new set of books that are trying to address exactly this issue. Rabbi Chaim Miller is the author of the “Gutnick Chumash” which brought the teachings of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe) on the Pentateuch to the masses in an accessible form. Now he has turned his attention to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s thinking on major principles of our faith. The (to be completed) series entitled; “Rambam: The Thirteen Principles of Faith” systematically goes through all of the Thirteen Principles of Faith as enumerated by the great Medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides.
The book is set up as a guide for serious study with primary texts in Hebrew with an elucidated English translation side by side. These primary texts include excerpts from classic scholars such as Maimonides, Rabbi Judah haLevi, Rabbi Joseph Albo and many others. There are also quotes from mystical teachings and teachers such as the Zohar, Rabbi Isaac Luria and many Hasidic masters. These quotes allow for authentic learning on the subject matter.
What follows is an elucidation of these texts using the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe in the form of an essay that is easy to follow and sheds light on the primary texts previously studied. One of the important issues that this book deals with, albeit not explicitly, is the unification of the differing interpretations of the Thirteen principles of faith.
'Daring religious and theological thinking'
The Lubavitcher Rebbe spent a life time trying to unite differing interpretations within traditional Judaism and show how in fact they represent a wholesome teaching that includes different aspects. Miller’s book does an excellent job at showing how the Lubavitcher Rebbe weaves seemingly contradictory texts that impact the fundamentals of the Jewish faith into a wholesome explanation. In this sense this is an important contribution to Jewish scholarship and to the understanding of Judaism. Ultimately it is easier to believe in a faith that is consistent rather than one that is inherently contradictory.
A study of Maimonides on its own results in different conclusions than when Maimonides ideas are combined with Kabbalistc thought and Hassidism. Clearly the Lubavitcher Rebbe saw them all as inseparable and therefore the author headlined this work as Rambam on the Thirteen principles rather than Lubavitcher Rebbe on the Thirteen Principles. Thus a reader looking for an in-depth and exhaustive study of Maimonides view on the Thirteen Principles will not find it in this series. Instead they will find an excellent and detailed overview of the Late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s unification of scholarship surrounding Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith.
It would be no exaggeration to say that late Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the greatest and most important Jewish scholars not only of the last one hundred years but arguably of all times. Sadly, however much of his scholarship especially when it comes to areas of faith and theology remains inaccessible to the masses. It is true that websites such as Chabad.org and other publications have popularized some of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s most inspirational essays and talks, but much of this overlooks the his innovative and daring religious and theological thinking.
Certainly no one in the past has taken all the disparate teachings of this great scholar on faith and presented them together in one place that is accessible also to the English language reader. In doing so for the first time Miller has made a great contribution not only to Judaic scholarship but also to the ability of the layperson to understand and have confidence in the pillars of our faith.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts