Jewish Thought and History

Endless Exploration: Judaism’s Only “Principle of Faith”

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Dovid Campbell

The question of dogma and belief has occupied a central place in Jewish thought, particularly since Rambam’s presentation of his Thirteen Principles.[1] The various challenges and defenses that arose in response to these Principles not only ushered in a new discipline within Jewish philosophy but also radically changed the way that Jews experience their religious commitment. The rich history here is generally well-known, and today we live with its aftermath, including the ubiquity of the Thirteen Principles in Jewish education and liturgy. What is less commonly appreciated is the unique compromise position, championed by a diverse and venerable collection of rabbis, that took Rambam’s idea of legislated belief in a new direction. In their view, it is not belief but inquiry and investigation that lay the foundation for our commitment to Judaism. In adopting this view, we will see that they not only untangled a problematic knot in Rambam’s philosophy but also aligned the study of his ikkarim (fundamental principles of faith) with a broader ideal of intellectual exploration that was central to the thought of important Torah authorities.

The Challenge
One of the earliest and most powerful challenges to Rambam’s project came from R. Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410).[2] Striking at the root, Crescas claimed that the entire notion of commanded belief was incoherent. Unlike our actions, our beliefs are not something we experience as being chosen. We do not choose to believe that cats exist or that two plus two equals four. Beliefs like these are simply the natural consequences of the facts and experiences we have acquired. It is therefore inconceivable that the Torah would legislate a commandment regarding belief, a commandment we cannot choose to obey or disobey.  

Over the centuries, Crescas has found himself in good company. R. David ibn Zimra (1479-1573), Radbaz, similarly concluded that we are “coerced” with respect to our beliefs. Radbaz considers this principle to have very practical ramifications, even exempting a preacher from punishment after he publicly shared theologically problematic views: “And the reason is clear – since his heresy is only because he thinks that what arose in his investigation is true, he is therefore coerced and exempt.”[3] In the nineteenth century, Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), Shadal, concisely expressed the same position: “Moses did not dictate articles of faith, because God does not command belief, that is, He does not command that which cannot be commanded.”[4]

Perhaps the most surprising support for Crescas comes from someone who ostensibly set out to defend Rambam’s Thirteen Principles – R. Don Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508).[5] While upholding the idea that Exodus 20:2 (“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage”) presents us with a biblical commandment, Abarbanel also concedes to Crescas that beliefs are ultimately involuntary and therefore not subject to command. His compromise position, which he attributes to Rambam himself, presents us with a radically different understanding of what the Torah expects from us.

The Exploration of Belief
Abarbanel argues that while beliefs themselves are natural consequences of perceived evidence, the acquisition and investigation of that evidence is certainly a volitional process. It is this process of inquiry, only this process of inquiry, that is commanded here by the Torah, and our efforts to arrive at ideal beliefs through this process are the sole determinants of our Divine reward (or punishment). In other words, the resulting beliefs are not our problem.[6]

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the implications of this approach. Assume two Jews, one who possesses a firm yet simple faith, an emunah peshutah, but feels no need to investigate or deepen it, and a second Jew who delves into the relevant subject matter but has not yet emerged with a strong conviction regarding the Creator’s existence. According to Abarbanel, it seems clear that Rambam would consider this second Jew to be fully in compliance with the commandment. The first Jew, like a genuinely kind person who nevertheless chooses to ignore the Torah’s laws of charity and tithing, is a sinner.

Although Abarbanel’s approach is motivated to some extent by Crescas’ challenge, he also sees it reflected in the language of Rambam himself. As formulated in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment is to know – not merely believe in – the existence of God. Such knowledge cannot be achieved without philosophical investigation.

What would Crescas himself say to this? Professor Eliezer Schweid explains that, for Crescas, “it is not only permitted to analyze this proposition in order to verify it, but it is proper and necessary to do so. But after we prove God’s existence, we must then accept His commandments, and they will limit our theoretical purview from that point onward.”[7] In other words, Crescas views philosophical investigation as a preparatory phase that is largely curtailed by our acceptance of the commandments, while Abarbanel’s Rambam views the commandments themselves as an impetus for further investigation.[8]

Abarbanel is far from alone in his reading of Rambam. R. Masud Hai Rakkah (1690-1768), author of the Ma’aseh Rokei’ah commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, explains that “he [Rambam] did not write ‘to believe’ because the essential commandment is through true knowledge, in the manner of Avraham our forefather (peace be upon him) and in the manner of ‘know the God of your father and serve Him.’ Through this, belief will be strengthened in his heart of its own accord.”[9]

As Rambam makes clear in the opening chapter of his Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, Avraham’s true knowledge was gained through a thoughtful investigation of the natural world and its theological implications. According to R. Rakkah, this investigation is what Rambam codifies for this commandment. The attendant belief in God is a valuable product, something that comes “of its own accord.”

This explanation is cited by R. Menahem Krakowski (1869-1929) in his own Mishneh Torah commentary, Avodat Ha-Melekh, which is in turn cited by R. Yosef Kapah (1917-2000) in his explanation of this halakhah. Similarly, R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) adopts Abarbanel’s approach to the problem of commanded belief.[10] We see that this compromise position, which maintains belief as a religious ideal to strive towards while rejecting it as a legal obligation, was a preferred and recurrent approach among Rambam’s commentators.

R. Meir Leibush Wisser (1809-1879), Malbim, seems to embrace this approach as well.[11] After accepting Crescas’ challenge, he explains that Rambam was careful to codify the commandment in terms of knowledge, not belief. “And the commandment,” writes Malbim, “is to strive to know this with a clear knowledge.” To strive; but to attain is beyond what any law can command. In understanding the commandment in this manner, great rabbinic thinkers across the centuries envisioned a Judaism that requires striving, curiosity, inquiry, and exploration. And particularly within Rambam’s highly intellectualized conception of the commandment, it requires philosophy.

This last point is worthy of special attention because, while Rambam ultimately found himself among a majority that consider Exodus 20:2 to represent a biblical commandment, his is a minority position with respect to what this commandment entails. Abarbanel contrasts Rambam’s commandment of a philosophically-informed belief in God with other major interpretations, which he summarizes.[12] According to R. Moshe of Coucy (1200-1260), the verse represents a commandment to believe in the Divine origin of the Torah. According to R. Yitzhak of Corbeil (d. 1280), it is a commandment to believe in Divine providence. According to R. Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), it is an expansive commandment “to know Him and to love Him with all one’s heart and to cleave to Him constantly and not to remove one’s reverence for Him from upon one’s face.” Abarbanel aligns this interpretation with Rambam’s fifth principle of faith, that it is fitting to serve and praise God.

To the extent that all of these interpretations entail a type of belief, they are all equally vulnerable to Crescas’ challenge and all equally amenable to Abarbanel’s resolution. In other words, those who wish to fulfill this commandment according to all opinions would simply be required to broaden the types of inquiries and explorations they undertake. This would lead them not only to new branches of philosophy, but also beyond philosophy, to new realms of experience. After all, if one’s goal were to explore those subjects that might culminate in a belief in Divine providence, would philosophical analysis necessarily be the best or only avenue? Could not history, personal experience, the study of nature, or meditation, be equal or superior means?

This compromise position seems to have many advantages. It conforms to the majority position that maintains the existence of commandments of belief while avoiding the lethal blow of Crescas’ refutation. It also defines Jewish commitment not in terms of what we claim to believe but in terms of what we aspire to believe. Perhaps most importantly, it aligns these commandments of belief with what may be the overarching purpose of the commandments as a whole.

Divine Tour Guides
In a recent paper, I argued that a surprisingly diverse body of Rishonim and Aharonim approached the Torah as a system of exploration.[13] In their view, our engagement with the commandments is meant to encourage and direct our exploration of reality. By traveling this world with the Torah as our tour guide, we expose ourselves to transformative spiritual experiences.

What exactly is the nature of these experiences? Rishonim such as Ralbag (1288-1344) considered our immortality to be born from our attainment of intelligible concepts – the scientific and philosophical facts of reality – and they understood the Torah to be guiding us to such facts. Sometimes this guidance takes the form of symbolic representation, such as parallels between the structure of the Tabernacle and the cosmos, and sometimes it is simply a matter of steering our attention. In his commentary to Parashat Emor, Ralbag suggests that being confronted with the diversity of plant life in the commandment of the arba’ah minim (the four species) should inspire our study of botany. Under this model, Jewish philosophy may share its subject matter and conclusions with other philosophical systems; what is unique is its methodology of introducing us to them.

Other sages stressed the commandments’ role in producing a more participatory form of knowledge. It is our experiential encounter with Divine instruction that illuminates the mundane and reveals its theological significance. While there is a notable difference in emphasis, these two approaches are not at all opposed and share much in common. Fundamentally, they both view the commandments as a sort of guidance system, revealing the presence of underlying meaning without explicitly defining it. Jewish philosophy becomes not a philosophy of Judaism but a philosophy through Judaism.

To cite an example of this second, participatory approach, R. Yehuda He-Hasid (1150-1217) offers the following explanation for the purpose of Creation:

Hashem said to Himself, “I will create the universe—not because I have need of it, but so that My creations will rejoice in Me when I am revealed to them in My wisdom. And those who know Me and do My will—I will reveal to them My unity and My secrets, and their souls will exalt in Me…”[14]

According to R. Yehuda He-Hasid, the general purpose of Creation is our rejoicing in the revelation of Divine wisdom. There is also a second level, the revelation of His unity and secrets, which is reserved for those who know God and fulfill His will, i.e. those who observe the commandments. But how exactly do the commandments bring us to this second level of revelation, and what do they have to do with the more general purpose of Creation, the revelation of Divine wisdom? In the following passage, R. Yehuda He-Hasid seems to address these questions:

And if you will say, since He did not create for His own need, why did He command them to perform mitzvot?—we can reply: It was for the righteous, so that they would serve Him and praise Him from every individual species that He created. He created day and night—we praise Him by day and by night. It is the way of honor to give a master from the first that he bestowed upon him, as it is said, “And you shall honor Hashem from the first.” And He commanded regarding the seeding of mixed species—to testify that each is separate, and this demonstrates His unity. One who mixes seeds is as if he denigrates that which the Creator desired. And He commanded regarding sacrifices—it is the way of honor for a servant to appear with a pleasant gift for his master. And for this reason, He distanced the blemished from His service, as in the priests and the sacrifices, as it is said, “Offer it now, if you please, to your governor.”[15]                 

We see that R. Yehuda He-Hasid ties the purpose of the commandments to our recognition of “every individual species that He created,” and this gives us an answer as to how the commandments further our appreciation of Divine wisdom. After all, every human is already aware of the cycle of day and night, but the commandments tied to this cycle encourage a heightened awareness and appreciation of its existence. R. Yaakov Yisrael Stahl, in his commentary to this work, notes that R. Yehuda has been careful to include examples from every realm of reality in this brief passage: the celestial (day and night), the botanical (seeding of mixed species), the zoological (the sacrifices), and the human (the priests). R. Yehuda He-Hasid is therefore alluding that our experience of reality, as mediated by the commandments, must be truly encompassing.[16]

This passage also makes explicit the connection between the commandments and the revelation of Divine unity that was indicated earlier. When one observes the numerous distinctions within reality that are highlighted by the commandments, such as the laws of mixed species, he recognizes a complex but unified natural order and, by extension, a unified Orderer.

The idea that the Torah serves as a guide or “prod” for our proper engagement with this world is also present in the writings of Hazal. In Hagigah 3b, we are taught the following:

Why are words of Torah compared to a goad (Ecclesiastes 12:11)? To tell you that just as this goad directs the cow to its furrows, to bring forth life to the world, so too do words of Torah direct their learners from the paths of death to the paths of life.

Besides the metaphor of the goad, it is fascinating to note that this gemara presents the “bringing forth of life” as arising from our involvement with this world, from our alignment with the “furrows” of reality that we, like cows, might not naturally recognize. In other words, the Torah spurs and directs our progress, but life depends on our engagement with the values of lived experience.[17]

To cite a final and even more ancient source for this vision of Judaism, we can turn to Philo of Alexandria, “Judaism’s first philosopher”[18] and author of our “oldest recorded midrash.”[19] A contemporary of Hillel and Shammai who used his eloquence and erudition to paint a vibrant picture of Judaism, Philo’s work remains unknown to most Jews today. This is particularly unfortunate considering his focus on many of the religious, philosophical, and cultural questions that are at the heart of modern Jewish discourse.

In his discussion of Avraham’s “Covenant Between the Parts,” Philo notes that many ridicule this passage and consider it nothing more than the description of a sacrifice, without deeper meaning.[20] “But such people,” says Philo, “are (in the class) of those who judge and evaluate the whole by only one part, and do not, on the contrary, (judge) the part by the whole.” To understand this passage, we need to understand the intention of the Torah as a whole, since “the Legislation is in some sense a unified creature.”

What, then, is this intention? Philo sees it as a system of enlightenment that “describes the various forms of knowledge,” including natural, and particularly moral, philosophy.[21] But this description of knowledge often takes a veiled form, “through which not only are the traces of the truth followed out but they are also hidden.” The Torah simultaneously reveals and conceals, illuminates and obscures. In other words, it is not a textbook but a guide, prompting our own conscious efforts at discovery.

Throughout his works, and particularly in his allegorical interpretations, Philo made it clear that his explanations were likely possibilities.[22] Though he certainly had confidence in his ability as an exegete and as a philosopher, his general approach was to open doors of philosophical thinking, not close them.[23] Much like Ralbag and R. Yehuda He-Hasid, Philo approached the Torah as a catalyst for philosophical thought and reflection.

Within this context, the compromise position taken by Rambam’s interpreters fits perfectly. The Torah is a system of exploration through and through, from its commandments of belief to those involving speech and action. In the former, the Torah presents us with a destination and demands that we undertake a journey towards that place of ideal belief. In the latter, the Torah prescribes encounters, practices of mindful experience, and bids us to contemplate what those encounters can teach us about the world and about ourselves. Such a vision offers a profound integration of the Torah’s legal and philosophical components. More importantly, it yields a Judaism that is dynamic, non-dogmatic, and endlessly adventurous.  

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear Saba, R. Shlomo Jakobovits zt”l – a brilliant scholar, an exceptional pedagogue, and an ever-curious spirit.

[1] Rambam (1138-1204) first presented his Thirteen Principles of Faith in his Commentary to the Mishnah, in his introduction to Perek Heilek. These principles also seem to be reflected in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, particularly in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah and Hilkhot Teshuvah.

I would like to thank Lehrhaus editor, R. David Fried, for greatly improving this essay through his valuable suggestions, and R. Dr. Sam Lebens for the many illuminating conversations that helped me to refine and clarify these ideas.

[2] Crescas’ challenge, originally appearing in Ohr Hashem 2:2:5, is cited and explained by Abarbanel in his Rosh Amana, chapter 4. All citations of this work are to the 1988 reprint of the Koenigsberg, 1861 edition. My intention is to limit the analysis to Abarbanel’s understanding of Crescas. Crescas’ philosophy is complex, and his general understanding of the commandments hinges largely on whether we attribute to him a hard or soft determinism or perhaps even a limited free will doctrine with respect to our mental states. See note 8 below, particularly the recent work by Professor Segal.  

[3] Responsa 4:187 (no. 1258). Radbaz may actually be going further here than other authorities, who seem to make a distinction between attaining proper beliefs and retaining heretical ones. See note 6 below.

Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Hebrew are my own.

[4] Translated from the Italian by Daniel A. Klein in “A Letter to Almeda: Shadal’s Guide for the Perplexed,” Hakirah 10 (2010), 230. Shadal’s position seems to be largely tied to his unique understanding of the Torah’s goals for humanity. In the same letter, he maintains that one who keeps the commandments out of a “love for order” but lacks faith in the revelation of Moses is nevertheless “worthy of salvation,” and he takes issue with Rambam’s metaphysical approach to human perfection (234-235).

[5] See Rosh Amana, chapters 11 and 17.

[6] Abarbanel’s attribution of this position to Rambam is somewhat surprising given what Rambam writes in his Shemonah Perakim, chapter 2. (I thank my friend, R. Matt Schneeweiss, for drawing my attention to this.) There, after noting the complexity of the issue, Rambam seems to maintain that the intellect is indeed subject to commandments in the form of correct beliefs, despite the fact that these lack a “ma’aseh mitzvah.” It may be that Abarbanel found sufficient ambiguity in Rambam’s position to permit his interpretation.

More problematic may be Abarbanel’s claim that an unintentional heretic, one who arrives at heretical beliefs through honest but mistaken speculations, nevertheless loses his reward in the World to Come (Rosh Amana, ch. 12; Rambam himself makes this point in Moreh Nevukhim 1:36). This seems to fly in the face of his claim that we are only held accountable for our efforts in investigation, not our resulting beliefs. Perhaps the answer lies in Abarbanel’s comparison of heretical belief to poison. Though Divine reward is determined by our efforts in investigation, heretical belief intrinsically separates us from that reward, just as poison naturally separates us from life. The rationale for this distinction requires investigation, but even according to this approach, it seems to be only heretical beliefs that are fatal, not agnostic or skeptical positions.

[7] See The Classic Jewish Philosophers, trans. Leonard Levin (Brill, 2007), 375.   

[8] Though beyond the scope of this essay, this debate is intertwined with Crescas’ and Rambam’s differing views on the nature of human perfection. For a fascinating explanation of how the commandments facilitate our love of God within Crescas’ deterministic system, see Professor Aaron Segal’s “Crescas, Hard Determinism, and the Need for a Torah” (forthcoming in Faith & Philosophy).

[9] Ma’aseh Rokei’ah to Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:1.

[10] Likkutei Sichos, vol. 26, 114-123.

[11] Commentary to Exodus 20:2.

[12] See Rosh Amana, chapter 7.

[13] “Imitations and Semblances: How the Mitzvos Direct Our Exploration of Reality,” Hakirah 33 (2023), 257-279. Among the authorities discussed are Rambam, Abarbanel, and R. Moshe Isserles (Rema).

[14] ibid., 270. The passage is from R. Yehuda He-Hasid’s Imrot Tehorot Hitzoniot u-Penimiot, recently published with commentary by R. Yaakov Yisrael Stahl (Jerusalem, 2006).

[15] ibid., 271.

[16] R. Yehuda He-Hasid’s Imrot Tehorot reveals his extensive study of natural philosophy, particularly in its moral and theological aspects. See also Sefer Hasidim §589 (§14 in Parma edition).

[17] R. Yoshiyahu Pinto (1565-1648) acknowledges this implication in his commentary on the Ein Yaakov, but is deeply disturbed by the idea of characterizing the Torah as a guidance system towards life, instead of as life itself. He therefore constrains the Gemara’s teaching, insisting that we are only discussing the unique case of a sinner being guided to repentance. But this interpretation is not at all suggested by the simple language of the Gemara, and it seems unnecessary given the sources we have presented.

[18] Philo is given this title by R. Shlomo Goren, who goes on to call Philo “a Jew given over in heart and spirit to the Jewish nation and to everything sacred to it.” See his Torat Ha-Philosophia (HaIdra Rabba, 1998), 112. It is worth surveying Philo’s overwhelmingly positive reception within Jewish history. R. Avraham Zacuto, in his Sefer Yuhasin, mentions Philo as “a great sage.” Numerous rabbis of Renaissance Italy, including R. David Provencal and R. Yehuda Moscato, refer to him as “the sage, Rabbi Yedidya,” and R. Simha Luzzatto, chief rabbi of Venice, champions Philo as “a man not only of remarkable erudition in the Greek language, but also of incomparable learning in human as well as divine doctrines.” See Simone Luzzatto, Discourse on the State of the Jews: Bilingual Edition, trans. Giuseppe Veltri and Anna Lissa (De Gruyter, 2019), 203. Chief Rabbi of Moravia, Nahum Trebitsch, in his approbation for an 1838 Hebrew translation of Philo’s works, similarly reveres Philo as “one of the gedolim and men of renown… a great philosopher and magnificent advocate, in addition to his wisdom in our holy Torah.”

[19] This is the subtitle of Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Belkin’s The Midrash of Philo (Yeshiva University Press, 1989), a work revealing abundant parallels between Philo’s exegesis and the midrashic tradition. Belkin has demonstrated that Philo was undoubtedly connected to the mesorah of Hazal; see his Philo and the Oral Law; the Philonic Interpretation of Biblical Law in Relation to the Palestinian Halakah (Harvard University Press, 1940). R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg similarly recognized Philo as a reliable transmitter of authentic tradition. When discussing the existence of Torah and ethical law before Mount Sinai, he cites a tradition from “the ancient sage, Philo the Hebrew” (Ha-Ketav Ve-haKabbalah to Genesis 20:6). Philo himself notes his reliance on “some of the elders of the nation; for I always interwove what I was told with what I read” (On the Life of Moses, 1.4).

[20] Questions on Genesis, 3.3. Translations of Philo’s works are from the Loeb Classical Library edition: F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, and Ralph Marcus, eds., Philo (Harvard University Press, 1929–1962).

[21] According to Marcus, Philo uses the word “gnostic” (i.e., concerned with knowledge) to convey this intention. Yonge, translating from Aucher’s Latin, has “scientific.” Philo goes on to demonstrate how the various sacrificial animals correspond to “the parts of the universe,” before offering a more ethically-oriented interpretation. For Philo, even the study of nature must culminate in the acquisition of virtue (see On the Change of Names, 73).

[22] It is quite common for Philo to begin his exegesis with the word “Perhaps…” For Philo’s general approach to literal vs. allegorical interpretation and his encouragement of the reader’s allegorizing, see On the Confusion of Tongues, 190.

[23] How does Philo’s unified vision of the Torah approach the subject of principles of faith? At the end of his treatise On the Creation, Philo lists five beliefs (including beliefs in God’s existence and providence) that some have called “the first creed in history.” See Erwin R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (Yale University Press, 1962), 37. However, Professor David T. Runia argues compellingly that these beliefs are not “a creed or articles of faith in which one must believe before one can belong to Judaism,” but rather necessary premises for a proper understanding of Scripture (David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria, on the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses: Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Brill, 2001), 394. A full analysis of Philo’s views here would need to take into account his allegorical approach, the place of theology in his concept of eudaimonia, and his relative free will doctrine – likely yielding a position that shares elements with both Crescas and Abarbanel.    

Dovid Campbell is the creator of, a project exploring the Torah's role in revealing the moral beauty of the natural world. He holds a degree in microbiology from the University of Arizona and multiple certificates in the field of complex systems. His writings on Jewish philosophy have appeared in Hakirah, Tradition, and He can be reached at