There is an ancient debate in the Talmudic tradition concerning the question as to the essence of Judaism and religion – faith or good deeds. Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century) cites a debate between two great Talmudic rabbis, Rav and Shmuel, on the Biblical verse which records that Abraham plants a small tree (Genesis 21, 33) – and one says that Abraham planted a tree in order to build an inn, and the other says in order to plant an orchard. Rashi does not explain the debate, but the Maharal of Prague (who lived in the 16th century) explains (in his commentary Gur Areyeh) that the debate concerns this question as to the essence of Judaism and religion – faith or good deeds.
The one who holds that Abraham was planting an orchard is arguing that both faith and good deeds are necessary elements of a religious life – but, the essence of religion is faith. The analogy that I would use to illustrate this position is that of the soul and the body in which faith is likened to the soul and good deeds to the body. Both the body and soul are necessary components of human life, but the soul represents the essence of human life. Good deeds are a necessary component of religion, but the essence and soul of a religious life is faith. According to this position, one who performs good deeds, but lacks faith, is moral but not ultimately religious.
The one who holds that Abraham was building an inn is arguing that the essence of religion is good deeds alone. Faith, like fruit (from the orchard) after a meal, may be nice or desirable, but it is not necessary or essential. The analogy that I would use to illustrate this position is that of the body and clothing in which faith is likened to clothing and good deeds to the body. According to the one who holds that Abraham was planting an orchard, faith is likened to the soul in relation to the body (good deeds); whereas, according to the one who holds that Abraham was building an inn, faith is likened to clothing in relation to the body (good deeds). Clothing is nice and desirable in that it protects the body and has aesthetic value; however, it is not essential and we could do without it, as long as we were not embarrassed by our nudity. Similarly, according to the one who holds that Abraham was building an inn, faith is seen like clothing (or fruit after a meal) as nice and desirable but not necessary – and, the essence of religion is good deeds. According to this position, one who lacks faith, but is moral, is nonetheless a truly religious person in fulfilling the essence of religion. This is not to suggest that such a position advocates atheism; rather, according to such a position faith especially in a philosophic sense of proper theological belief is not an essential aspect of a religious life.
I want to suggest that this orthoprax (correct deeds) position that the essence of religion is good deeds alone is that of Hillel (“what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”) and Rabbi Akiva (“love your neighbor as yourself”) who in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency omit any reference to God – to make clear that a faith commitment especially in a philosophic sense is not a necessary or essential element of religion. Even if my interpretation of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva is not accepted, though, the Maharal in any case attributes such a position to the one who holds that Abraham built an inn in the debate between Rav and Shmuel. That is, according to the Maharal such an orthoprax position exists within the Jewish tradition – and it is inconceivable that such a position could exist in Christianity as Christianity is a religion in the orthodox (correct belief) sense of a faith commitment.
As far as I am aware, no such extreme orthoprax position according to which the essence of religion is fulfilled through proper behavior, even without a proper faith commitment or belief in God, exists in classical Christianity. No such position is possible within Christianity because the very essence of Christianity is a faith commitment – faith in God and in Jesus as the savior. In Christianity, there is a more moderate position, similar to that of the more moderate position in the Jewish tradition, that both faith and good deeds are necessary elements of a religious life with faith being the essence of religion. But, there is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the extreme position that I have attributed to Hillel and Rabbi Akiva an extreme position such as that of Paul, the founder of the Christian Church, that one is worthy of salvation on the basis of faith alone, even without good deeds. In other words, good deeds may be something nice or desirable but are not a necessary component of a religious life. Thus, in classical Christianity the two sides of the debate faith or good deeds are in agreement that faith is a necessary component of a religious life reflecting the orthodox nature of Christianity, and the dispute is to what extent, if at all, good deeds are a necessary element.
Traditional Judaism is not a religion in an orthodox sense of a faith commitment but in an orthoprax sense of a way of life of the Jewish people. In traditional Judaism, by contrast to Christianity, the debate faith or good deeds expresses itself exactly the opposite in which both sides are in agreement that good deeds are a necessary component of a religious life reflecting the orthoprax nature of Judaism, and the dispute is to what extent, if at all, faith is a necessary element.
I want to present the spectrum of Jewish and Christian positions regarding faith and good deeds:
JUDAISM – a way of life (orthoprax) ————————->
|Moderate position (both faith and deeds are necessary)||Extreme position (good deeds alone are sufficient)|
<————————- CHRISTIANITY – a faith commitment (orthodox)
|Extreme position (faith alone is sufficient)||Moderate position (both faith and deeds are necessary)|
Parenthetically, such an extreme position as that of Paul is in my eyes simply absurd. According to such a position, a completely immoral and evil person who believes in God and in Jesus as the savior is worthy of salvation by virtue of faith alone; by contrast, a completely righteous person who does not believe in God, or even who believes in God but does not believe in Jesus as the savior, is not worthy of salvation. As far as I am aware, no such extreme position as that of Paul exists in the Jewish tradition, with one apparent and glaring exception – that of Maimonides and his “13 Principles of Faith”.
Maimonides presents his “13 Principles of Faith” in his Commentary to the Mishnah in the context of an extreme orthodox conception, such as that of Paul, the founder of the Christian Church, that faith alone without good deeds is sufficient for salvation – a position which, in my opinion, has no precedent in the Jewish tradition. Immediately after presenting his “13 Principles”, Maimonides presents such an extreme orthodox conception in stating (“Introduction to Perek Helek”, Commentary to the Mishnah):
If someone believes all these fundamental principles, and clarifies his faith in them, he is considered part of the collective unit of Israel, and it is commanded to love him, and to have mercy on him, and to observe toward him all the Divine commandments to be observed between men – love and brotherhood. Even if he has done all sins he is capable of, due to desire, and to his having been overpowered by his lower nature, he will be punished in accordance with his sins, but he has a share in the world to come. He is among the sinners of Israel. But, if someone doubts with respect to one of these fundamental principles, then he has left the collective unit and is a heretic…It is commendable to hate him, and to bring about his destruction.
I want to point out two things that stand out here as shocking and problematic – prior to discussing Maimonides’ presentation of his principles in the context of an extreme orthodox conception. First, Maimonides defines membership in the Jewish people in a completely revolutionary (orthodox) way dependent upon the acceptance of theological principles, and not according to the traditional, Halachic (legal) definition that is orthoprax according to which one is defined as a Jew by virtue of being born of a Jewish mother, or by virtue of converting. According to Maimonides’ position, if one rejects or casts doubt upon even one of the principles one’s membership in the Jewish people is cancelled (“he has left the collective unit”), even though having been born of a Jewish mother or converted, and even though such a person may be observant of Jewish law and a righteous person – a position lacking any Biblical or rabbinic precedent. Maimonides, in redefining membership in the Jewish people as being dependent upon the acceptance of his “13 Principles of Faith” (in addition to having been born of a Jewish mother or having converted), transforms the traditional, Halachic definition of who is a Jew from an orthoprax, anti-theological definition (not in any way dependent upon one’s theological beliefs) to an orthodox and theological definition (dependent upon the acceptance of his “13 Principles of Faith”).
Second, the practical consequences and sanctions regarding one who is considered a heretic are extremely harsh. Not only is it implied that the theological heretic has no share in the world to come (salvation after death), but Maimonides states explicitly that the heretic is to be exterminated (here in this world) – “It is commendable to hate him, and to bring about his destruction”. However, although Maimonides’ “13 Principles” became widely accepted in the medieval period and in the contemporary orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox) as a binding dogma, the practical consequences that he codified regarding one who is considered a heretic of being destroyed were never to my knowledge accepted by traditional medieval Jews or by contemporary orthodox Jews. As far as I am aware traditional Jews never put to death heretics in practice. In the contemporary orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox) one who is considered a theological heretic may be excluded from participation in orthodox institutions, but will certainly not be put to death.
Maimonides, as I indicated, presents his “13 Principles” in the context of an extreme orthodox position, such as that of Paul, that faith alone without good deeds is sufficient for salvation. Spiritual salvation, one’s share in the world to come, is dependent upon the adoption of theological principles of faith, with no connection to one’s behavior, as Maimonides writes regarding one who accepts the principles – “Even if he has done all sins he is capable of…he has a share in the world to come”. We can also legitimately infer the converse – even if one is righteous in behavior, one loses one’s share in the world to come, according to Maimonides, by casting doubt upon or rejecting even one of the principles. Thus, shockingly, good deeds, the essence of religion in Biblical and rabbinic conceptions, have been completely removed as a necessary element of the religious life by Maimonides in this passage! I know of no other Jewish thinker who adopts such an extreme orthodox conception, which has no precedent in the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic literature.
In my opinion, such an extreme orthodox conception in which faith alone, even without good deeds, is sufficient for salvation does not reflect Maimonides’ true philosophic position regarding the nature of Judaism. In my view, Maimonides codified a binding dogma creating an orthodox conception of Judaism as a political and religious leader of Jewish communities (and not as a thinker) only for the unlearned Jewish masses – and, Maimonides was well aware that a binding dogma is a distortion of traditional Talmudic Judaism, according to which the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are commandments of doing and not doing (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of believing or not believing.
In my view, Maimonides formulates such an extreme orthodox conception of Judaism in connection with his “13 Principles of Faith” only for the unlearned masses who are in his conception incapable of adopting theological principles as a matter of conviction and on the basis of philosophic study. Thus, he not only codifies his principles in his law code, in the context of an authoritarian conception, as a matter of binding law and obedience to authority; but, presents them in the context of an extreme orthodox conception in making one’s salvation dependent upon the adopting of principles of belief regardless of behavior. In Maimonides’ formulation and codification of his principles the emphasis for the unlearned masses is not upon conviction but upon obedience to external authority of the legal system motivated by hope of reward (salvation) and fear of punishment (to be put to death as well as no salvation).
Traditional Judaism due to the orthoprax nature of the Jewish tradition as a way of life is characterized by a pragmatic strain emphasizing the importance of good deeds to a religious life. In my opinion, such a pragmatic strain is lacking in classical Christianity due to its orthodox nature as a faith commitment, and this pragmatic strain characterizes even the moderate position of traditional Judaism according to which both good deeds and faith are necessary elements of a religious life with faith being the essence of religion. I will cite a midrash (rabbinic teaching) that exemplifies, in my view, the pragmatic nature of the moderate position within the Jewish tradition:
It is written “they have abandoned Me and have not observed My Torah” (Jeremiah 16, 11) – “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”, for by being involved (through study and observance) with it (the Torah) the light within it will return them to the right way.
The midrash consists of two parts. In the first part (“if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”), God declares that it would be better to abandon God (not to believe in God) but to observe the Torah (implying that more important than faith in God is good deeds). Thus, the midrash is expressing a pragmatic conception that the essence of Judaism is good deeds rather than faith in God – in dealing with people who don’t believe in God and live an immoral life. In the second part of the midrash, the midrash expresses the view that faith in God is the essence of a religious life – for, by being involved with Torah (the study and observance of Torah) people who do not believe in God will return to the right way of faith in God (as the situation is not ideal in the first part of the midrash in which faith is lacking when God says “if only Me they would abandon”). The midrash is paradoxical as the first part implies that good deeds are more important than faith in God, while the second part implies that faith in God (as the ultimate end of a religious life) is more important than good deeds. There is no contradiction, though, as the midrash holds that ideally, as expressed in the second part, that faith in God, rather than good deeds, is the ultimate end of a religious life – and, in the first part, in the unfortunate and actual situation where one is forced to choose between faith and good deeds, it is good deeds that take precedence (just as in the case of an unhealthy person physically and mentally or emotionally, the health of the body will take precedence over that of the mind only because physical health is a more urgent matter than mental or emotional health).
The pragmatic conception of the midrash is in contradistinction to the orthodox conception reflected in Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma (according to which one who denies the existence of God is a theological heretic). Regarding one who does not believe in God but lives a life of Torah (good deeds), the midrash expresses an attitude of tolerance and optimism in that through study and observance of Torah such a person will ultimately come to faith in God. But, if not, there is no hint in the midrash that one who does not believe in God is a heretic even though according to the midrash faith in God is the essence of religion.
I want to make clear a fundamental difference then between traditional Judaism and Christianity in light of the midrash. According to Christianity, one who performs good deeds but refuses to believe in Jesus as the messiah cannot be considered to be a true member of the Christian community of believers, and worthy of salvation. According to classic Christian doctrine, a person who remains adamant and refuses to believe in Jesus as the messiah until the very end is damned eternally, even though such a person lives a righteous life morally. By contrast, reflected in the midrash and characteristic of traditional Judaism is a pragmatic attitude regarding a moral atheist, with no condemnation as a heretic – it is better to abandon God than the Torah! Ideally, it would be better for such a person to believe in God; but, given the reality that such a person does not believe, the midrash expresses a pragmatic recognition that such a person is most importantly a moral person – and, there is no hint in the midrash of eternal damnation should the ultimate end of faith in God not be achieved through study and observance of Torah.
By the way, part of the Christian polemic against Judaism was that Christianity is a universal religion of love and forgiveness while Judaism is a religion that is tribal and chauvinistic. It is ironic that Christianity that proclaimed itself as the religion of love and forgiveness spoke so harshly of eternal damnation for one who does not believe in Jesus. There is no notion in the Hebrew Bible of eternal damnation, and in traditional Talmudic Judaism the notion of eternal damnation, if the concept exists at all, is certainly not a central concept (if the concept exists, it exists only in sources that would be exceptional proving that the concept is not central in the Talmudic literature).
Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – https://www.amazon.com/Reconciling-Contradictory-Abraham-Orthoprax-Anti-Theological/dp/1946124176/ .