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Monday, December 01, 2008

Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith

In the 12th century, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides formulated his thirteen principles of the Hebrew faith. They are relevant to our recent discussion of "the Judaeo-Christian tradition" in relation to Islam, for several of them are explicitly directed at one of Judaism's "younger siblings." The principles, with my commentary:

1. The existence of God
Obviously common to all three.
2. God's unity
Against Christianity (the trinity) but not Islam.
3. God's spirituality and incorporeality
Common to all three.
4. God's eternity
Common to all three.
5. God alone should be the object of worship
Hmm, tough one -- Christians would say they agree, but Maimonides probably would have said their practice didn't, what with all those statues of Mary and shrines to the saints.
6. Revelation through God's prophets
Common to all three.
7. The preeminence of Moses among the prophets
Contra both Islam and Christianity.
8. God's law given on Mount Sinai
Contra both Islam and Christianity, in that Maimonides probably meant final and complete law.
9. The immutability of the Torah as God's Law
Contra both Islam and Christianity.
10. God's foreknowledge of human actions
Shared by all three religions.
11. Reward of good and retribution of evil
Shared by all three religions.
12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah
Contra Islam and Christianity, both of which claim their founders as offering the final chapter of the Biblical story.
13. The resurrection of the dead
Shared with both sister religions.

OK, by my count, seven of the thirteen items are held in common by all three religions. Judaism differs from Islam and Christianity alike on another four. For the remaining two, Islam is closer to Judaism than is Christianity. (And recall, Maimonides lived in Muslim lands, and, if anything, would have been biased on pragmatic grounds towards disputing Islamic theology more than Christian theology.)

I present this as evidence supporting my claim that it makes more sense to speak of a "Judaeo-Islamic tradition" and a divergent Christian tradition than vice-versa. (Of course, it makes even more sense to talk of all three together as the "children of Abraham." And, of course, none of this says anything to the "truthiness" of any of the three faiths -- Christianity is to blame for wandering farther than Islam from Judaism only if we already accept Judaism is correct -- if Christianity is the true faith, then it wandered from its roots exactly as far as it had to to set things straight.)

28 comments:

  1. What say you on the materialistic basis of these three religions? I'm no expert in this area, but as I see it the vanity of human happiness is the essense of Christianity. Christianity's ascetic core appears to have more in common with Hinduism and Buddism than the Islamic/Judaic tradition.

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  2. I had to read this again, as I've recently returned from a party. I'm fine with this post when I get over its superficial sloppiness.

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  3. You are stretching things here. I like Maimonides, and maybe he did believe some of these interpretations, but let's take his points as they stand and interpret them ourselves. The four alleged points of difference are:

    "2. God's unity
    Against Christianity (the trinity) but not Islam."

    There is a difference, but Christians do believe that the Trinity is One. Its paradoxical nature doesn't necessarily contradict 2, though it could if you wanted it to.

    "5. God alone should be the object of worship
    Hmm, tough one -- Christians would say they agree, but Maimonides probably would have said their practice didn't, what with all those statues of Mary and shrines to the saints."

    You should know better than this, Gene.

    "7. The preeminence of Moses among the prophets
    Contra both Islam and Christianity."

    True, though even the Jews (as I understand it) believe that one greater than Moses will come.

    "8. God's law given on Mount Sinai
    Contra both Islam and Christianity, in that Maimonides probably meant final and complete law."

    This is a bit technical

    "9. The immutability of the Torah as God's Law
    Contra both Islam and Christianity."

    This is true, though this point deserves more elaboration.

    "12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah
    Contra Islam and Christianity, both of which claim their founders as offering the final chapter of the Biblical story."

    Catholics believe the Jewish messiah will return again!

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  4. "2. God's unity
    Against Christianity (the trinity) but not Islam."

    There is a difference, but Christians do believe that the Trinity is One. Its paradoxical nature doesn't necessarily contradict 2, though it could if you wanted it to."

    Sure, but my point is that Maimonides was surely directing this point against Christianity, rightly or wrongly!

    ""5. God alone should be the object of worship
    Hmm, tough one -- Christians would say they agree, but Maimonides probably would have said their practice didn't, what with all those statues of Mary and shrines to the saints."

    "You should know better than this, Gene."

    Doesn't matter what I think here -- I'm trying to read Maimonides as he meant himself to be read, and I think he was clearly targeting Christians here.

    ""12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah
    Contra Islam and Christianity, both of which claim their founders as offering the final chapter of the Biblical story."

    "Catholics believe the Jewish messiah will return again!"

    Oh, come on -- Jews certainly do not believe he will "come again"!

    John, I suspect that you're goal here is to defend Christianity, while mine is merely to sort out the claims of whether or not Islam belongs in this family of religions. For my goal, the "truthiness" of Maimonides's claims are mostly irrelevant -- the question is, in terms of their own views of themselves, which of these three religions are more closely allied. I say that both Jews and Moslems -- except when blinded by political animosity -- generally see themselves as closer to each other than either are to Christians. Therefore, to speak of a "Judaeo-Christian ethic" opposed to Islam is nonsense. I AM NOT making any theological argument -- I'm am noting that a purported theological argument offered by many warhawks is really nothing but a political fiction.

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  5. "but as I see it the vanity of human happiness is the essence of Christianity."

    But that is there in Ecclesiastes as well!

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  6. Gene, my response is to your commentary and what this means in light of "our recent conversation of 'the Judeo-Christian tradition' in relation to Islam. My point is that you seem to be trying to force Christianity into a pigeonhole it doesn't so easily fit into (being further from Judaism than Islam is). If it did, your apparent agreement with Maimonides alleged description of the differences between Judaism and its "younger siblings" wouldn't be so flimsily stated. I know its just a short blog post, but you didn't even seem to aim for an objective reading of Maimonides. You certainly were not just relaying Maimonides' 13 points, you arere providing commentary in light of our discussion.

    My points were not directed at the object of Maimonides points, but at your post and your commentary of his points. I have read this points before, in less controversial contexts.

    In regard to 12, it is valid to bring up since Christians and Jews do not disagree that history will end with the coming of the Messiah. That is a relevant point, something that should at least be brought up.

    Yes, I'm Christian and you can accuse me of just wanting to defend Christianity, but give me the benefit of the doubt. I enjoy an obective discussion. I didn't question your motives, though perhaps I could have if I was feeling speculative.

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  7. I knew Ecclesiastes was coming, but I hardly see it as a rejection of materiality. One could read Ecclesiastes as, “I almost cut my hair, but I might as well be a fat hippie, get high and do some humpin’ in the tall grass.”

    Does this madness sound like a rejection of the material world: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of the vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thou labour which thou takest under the sun.”

    Should one think Ecclesiastes is the crux of the Judaic biscuit? I don’t, but I am talking about a subject far out of my domain. I’m not a religious person, so do not have a dog in this fight, so to speak. In my opinion, the essence of Christianity is found in Christ’s passion, compare it to Buddha’s enlightenment, and the attainment of nirvana. From the materialist perspective both Christianity and Buddhism are negative. Do you find the same in the Islamic/Judaic tradition? I see them as materialistically positive, but I know I’m talking out of school.

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  8. "My point is that you seem to be trying to force Christianity into a pigeonhole it doesn't so easily fit into (being further from Judaism than Islam is)"

    John, that's one immense pigeon you've got a hold of there. E.g.:
    Buddhism is further from Judaism than Islam is.
    Voodoo is further from Judaism than Islam is.
    Shamanism is further from Judaism than Islam is.
    Taoism is further from Judaism than Islam is.
    Satan worship is further from Judaism than Islam is.
    Marxism is further from Judaism than Islam is.

    Re motivation: John, I'm just trying to understand why you seem so hepped up about this. Let's make a table (if the format is all crap, I'm sorry -- it looks OK on my screen right now, but who knows what Blogger will do to it):

    # of gods # of persons per god
    Judaism 1 1
    Islam 1 1
    Christianity 1 3

    Now, it seems pretty objective that "One of these things / is not like the others" If I were a Christian, I would be tempted to say something like, "Yup, that's what makes it so special!"

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  9. "I knew Ecclesiastes was coming, but I hardly see it as a rejection of materiality."

    Well, the author of Ecclesiastes is a conflicted man. You really have to look at these things historically -- under the impact of the destruction of the Temple, the two captivities, and so on, Judaism was in flux. Ecclesiastes did not speak with one voice.

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  10. Your claim has recently been that Islam is closer to Judaism than Christianity is. Yes, the table you make is accurate; Jews and Muslims would say not recognize the Trinity, but this was not the only dimension of your criticism contained in your commentary to Maimonides, and certainly it's not evident that this is the basis by which we should sort these relgions.

    I'm not "hepped up" about this, but often your posts and comments on religion lack a certain impartiality, and someone should do you the kind service of pointing this out.

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  11. John, it's this charge of "impartiality" that I don't get. Let's say I'm writing on the history of science, and I claim (as many do) that Galileo is the father of modern physics. Then I compare Newton and Einstein, and declare that Newton's physics are closer to Galileo's than are Einstein's (surely correctly!). This is not "partiality" toward Newton -- in fact, Einstein was justified in departing more from Galileo than had Newton.

    So, why do you think my claim is favoring one (or more) of these faiths over one (or more) of the others?

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  12. John, in fact, my puzzlement can be summed up by asking, "Why do you think my comments on Maimonides involve any 'criticism' at all?" I am attempting an exercise in comparative religion, intended to refute the neocon exclusion of Islam from their self-defined "Judaeo-Christian" worldview. Comparison is not criticism!

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  13. "Christianity's ascetic core appears to have more in common with Hinduism and Buddism than the Islamic/Judaic tradition."

    Yes, true -- but historically speaking, this element of Christianity can be traced more directly to the Greek philosophers -- see Socrates's ascetic rejection of the world in Phaedo, or the doctrines of the Stoics. That is why I keep telling my students that Christianity is the result of "the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens" (a point hardly original to me, but which I had never encountered in my Catholic upbringing).

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  14. You are removing the context, Gene. First of all, it was clear that your commentary to Maimonides points was slanted toward the proposition that Christianity is indeed further from Judaism than Islam is. Now, it strikes me that since you have been trying to make this proposition for awhile you have reached the point where you are trying to use even bad arguments to make it. This strikes me as lacking partiality. You are not weighing Maimonides claims from an objective standpoint.

    Now, whether your comments are slanderous or not is not the point. Sure, if you're a lawyer you can spin something however you like it, but we're interested in truth.

    Note that you did not address most of my comments about your initial commentary of Maimonides 13 points, saying that you were merely relaying Maimonides points when you were clearly offering your own criticism.

    As regard to your comment about criticism, I was referring primarily to your textual criticism of Maimonides and the Torah/Bible, but surely it is possible to criticize something by comparison.

    Example: "You look like an ass!"

    My experience of Islam has been that it is a weaker and less beautiful copy of Christianity. The New Testament is better written than the translated passages of the Qu'ran I've read, and it is a great deal more objectionable in many dimensions than Christianity and Judaism. There are also ancestral connections between Christianity and Judaism that Islam does not have. Christianity was born among Jews and was founded by a Jew. Islam is not racially connected to Judaism and indeed much of the Qu'ran seems to be inherently anti-Jewish, with some strange stories about killing Jews if i recall.

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  15. Also note that Christianity does not accuse Jews of distorting their Holy Books as Islam accuses both Judaism and Christianity of doing.

    I think part of the problem, Gene, is that your idea of God is so abstract that you miss the importance of the concrete, intervening-in-human-history-God of all three religions.

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  16. "First of all, it was clear that your commentary to Maimonides points was slanted toward the proposition that Christianity is indeed further from Judaism than Islam is."

    Well, my claims being "slanted" is very much the bone of contention here, isn't it? You're declaring that it is "clear" that they are slanted is very much a case of begging the question, isn't it, John?

    "Now, it strikes me that since you have been trying to make this proposition for awhile you have reached the point where you are trying to use even bad arguments to make it."

    Well, I've been "trying to make it" because I think it's true -- as did the Catholic professor of Islam I listened to on a Teaching Company tape, who readily acknowledged that, for instance, Judaism and Islam are both "religions of law," while Christianity is "a religion of faith." (John -- this is a Catholic scholar saying this!)

    Since I'm "trying to make" this point based on objetive standards that I've encountered Christian, Islamic, and Jewish scholars all acknowledging, you're charge of "partiality," I must say, is based on some personal issues of your own here.

    And I see no case in which you have shown that I actually use any "bad argument."

    Why in the world do you think that, as a Buddhist, I would have any horse in this race, John? I'd say that, somehow, you've tied some aspect of your faith to the idea of Christianity being close to Judaism, and so you are not rationally capable of evaluating the evidence I present here.

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  17. "I think part of the problem, Gene, is that your idea of God is so abstract that you miss the importance of the concrete, intervening-in-human-history-God of all three religions."

    Well, yes, I admit that I accept that, as Mises demonstrated, in Human Action, the idea that an omnipotent God can "act" is absurd. That does not mean I am incapable of judging which two of three thus absurd religions are closer together.

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  18. it makes more sense to speak of a "Judaeo-Islamic tradition" and a divergent Christian tradition than vice-versa.

    Gene, what do your studies tell you of Islam's apostolic nature? It seems to me that while the Jews have never made particular efforts to force their God and religion on others, both Christianity and Islam have a pronounced history of this.

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  19. Tom, both Islam and Christianity embrace principles that contradict forcible conversion. Unfortuntately, each religion has ignored those principles at various times.

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  20. Gene, now I know you're not being objective. You being a Buddhist doesn't mean you have no horse in this race. The very fact that you as an academic have made this point means that the idea itself is your horse in the race! You're being slightly disingenuous, Gene. I don't mind discussing what aspects of my faith are tied to interpretation of the connection between Judaism and Christianity, but it is a separate discussion! You have still not responded to my point by point commentary to your commentary. Your not even presenting more evidence that I could irrationally ignore even if I wanted to.

    I would also be happy to discuss why I don't think Mises' argument applies to God in anything more than an economic sense (in addition, I don't know how you would reconcile this with what I understand to be your personal interpretation of intelligent design). All of this is a tangent to the post and my comments about your post. I'm afraid I have to agree with Bob that in general, Gene, it seems like you are too caught up trying to win some argument than sort out the truth.

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  21. John, I am a neophyte in discussing these matters -- I have been engaged in a forced march through the ideas of these religions in an effort to successfully teach my clas on "Death and Dying." Neverhtheless, I can assert thast the scholars I have been listening to in my car rides, one a Jew and the other a Catholic, both agree with my classification scheme in which Islam is closer to Judaism than is Christianity.

    Why is that conclusion so disturbing to you? If, in fact, Christianity is the true faith, why should any Christian care how closely its tenets mirror those of some other false faiths? I just don't get why my contentions here have upset you so much.

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  22. First of all, one Catholic and Jewish scholar do not speak for the respective religions, generally speaking (we might make an exception for Maimonides and an Aquinas with the appropriate cautions).

    As to what disturbs me, as you say, it's not the result of your classification but the arguments you give for sorting them the way you do, which I find shockingly simplistic from someone who should have a decent understanding of Christianity. The lack of objectivity that I accused you of is about the lack of mention of a Christian perspective on many of these points. If you want to make your point, don't reference an audiobook written by a Catholic scholar, but maybe some Church Doctors or Scripture.

    The notion of sorting religions based on their similarities you must realize has inherent difficulties. Whatever your standpoint, you are biased to rate certain aspects more than others. Ultimately I think a more naunced approach is called for.

    So, for example, based on my own understanding I agree that Judaism and Islam are more religions of law than of faith (though again Christians believe that Jesus offered the final revelation of what the law of God was (basically, that it is more than just the letter). This is a *very* important point, one that can get lost in almost legalistic sounding philosophical discussions.

    As I pointed out earlier, the historical continuity between Judaism and Christianity is a tie lacking in Islam, especially since Judaism put such a stress on race (as Catholics believe that Jews were responsible for guarding the relationship with God during the dark years before Christ).

    There is a huge difference if you treat these religions as abstract webs than as very personal, experience based historical perspectives.

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  23. "As to what disturbs me, as you say, it's not the result of your classification but the arguments you give for sorting them the way you do, which I find shockingly simplistic from someone who should have a decent understanding of Christianity."

    John, it was a fucking blog post, not a doctoral dissertation.

    "The notion of sorting religions based on their similarities you must realize has inherent difficulties."

    And you might add here, "As you, Gene, noted in your original post"!

    "As I pointed out earlier, the historical continuity between Judaism and Christianity is a tie lacking in Islam..."

    1) Are you unaware that Muslims claim just such a tie as well?

    2) There is historical continuity between Judaism and Marxism. Does that make Marxism close to Judaism?

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  24. No one is demanding a dissertation, but realize when you rattle off a post and pretend it to be an objective comment on the positionings of various religions, you may get feedback and criticism. Why not answer or accept the criticism rather than ignore it and accuse the critic of having a motive other than truth.

    As to 1) there is a difference between how Judaism perceives its historical connection to Islam vs. Christianity. Christianity evolved in its midst, Islam did not. I'm aware Muslims believe Mohammed is continuing where Moses left off.

    This discussion should make you at least pause before you pretend there is some sort of fixed perch you can sit on when you judge three faiths, two of which claim to be the true continuation of the third. Your answer will depend on what perspective you take and what criteria you judge by.

    2) A perfect example of switching context to evade a legitimate point.

    I don't think this discussion is productive any longer, Gene. I'll let you have the last word and let our exchange speak for itself.

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  25. I don't think I've ever before seen the phrase "# of persons per god." Now that's analytical theology!

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  26. Gene is correct: Judaism is theologically closer to Islam than to Christianity. There is no debate among Jewish scholars that Islam is monotheistic. There is debate among Jewish scholars about whether Christianity is polytheistic, and therefore a form of idol worship, and therefore a great big no-no.

    One of the interesting things I learned growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community is that it is permitted for a Jew to pray inside a Mosque, but forbidden for a Jew to even enter a Christian chapel. (Though this prohibition seems to be loosening over time.)

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