Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his blog on the Torah reading of the week (Va’etchanan 5777), presents two arguments in the Jewish tradition regarding the opening verse of the “10 statements” (and the Biblical term is “10 statements” and not “10 commandments”) – “I am the Lord your God”. The first argument is between Halachot Gedolot, a Halachic (legal) source from the period shortly after the Talmudic period, and Maimonides, the great legal scholar and philosopher who lived in the 12th century. The argument between them concerns a Halachic (legal) question of whether the verse “I am the Lord your God” is a commandment requiring belief in the existence of God – and, Maimonides as a legal scholar codifies the verse as a positive command to believe in the existence of God, while Halachot Gedolot does not. Rabbi Sacks argues that Halachot Gedolot is more faithful to the plain meaning of the verse, as the verse in its plain meaning is a declaration or statement rather than a commandment.
The second argument concerning the Biblical verse “I am the Lord your God” is between Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, a poet and philosopher who lived at the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th centuries, and Maimonides. This argument is of a philosophic nature and concerns the concepts of faith and God. Maimonides is a strict rationalist who conceives of faith as based upon reason and conceives of God in an Aristotelian sense as an unchanging source of existence, while Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is a non-rationalist who conceives of faith as beyond reason and conceives of God in an experiential sense as a God of history and the Jewish people. Rabbi Sacks argues that Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is more faithful to the Bible than Maimonides.
In my view, regarding the first argument, Halachot Gedolot is not only more faithful to the Bible than Maimonides (as Rabbi Sacks argues) but even more importantly, Halachot Gedolot is more faithful to the Talmud – and, I say more importantly because the argument here is a question of law as to whether there is a commandment in Judaism to believe in the existence of God. In the realm of law in traditional Judaism, we live not by the plain meaning of Biblical verses but by the Bible (termed the Written Torah by the Talmudic rabbis) as interpreted and understood by the rabbinic tradition (termed Oral Torah by the Talmudic rabbis) – and, the foundation of the rabbinic tradition is the Talmud. For example, the Biblical verse “an eye for an eye” is understood in the Talmud not literally as actual bodily punishment but metaphorically as monetary compensation. Halachot Gedolot is more faithful to the Talmud because the commandments of the 5 Books of Moses that are the basis of Jewish law are according to the Talmudic tradition commandments of doing (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh) and not of belief – and, this means that the nature of traditional Judaism based upon the Bible and the Talmud is orthoprax (correct deeds) requiring right behavior ethically and ritually but requiring no theological dogma. The Talmudic tradition is faithful to the plain meaning of the Bible as there are no commandments in the plain meaning of Scripture to believe in any philosophic proposition – and the Bible is absent of philosophic propositions, philosophic analysis or speculation and philosophic argument or proof.
The term orthodox literally means correct doctrine – and, it is then a widespread misconception that orthodoxy represents authentic Judaism and that Judaism has always been orthodox in nature. Orthodoxy in Judaism is not only a later historical development of the Jewish tradition following the Talmudic period but it is actually a distortion of the orthoprax (correct deeds) nature of the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud. Maimonides is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify a formal binding dogma from a legal point of view (in codifying his “13 Principles”), and thus the first to create an orthodox conception of Judaism. Just to complicate matters, in my view, Maimonides as a thinker was well aware of the orthoprax nature of traditional Judaism and that the commandments of the Jewish tradition are of doing and not of belief – and he, in my opinion, codified a binding dogma as a political leader only for the unlearned Jewish masses in the medieval period in order to strengthen them as Christians and Moslems had formulated and codified dogmas.
In my view, regarding the second argument, neither Maimonides nor Rabbi Yehuda Halevi are faithful to the Bible. Both Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi are philosophers who distort and twist Scripture in order to conform Scripture to their philosophic conceptions or preconceptions. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is actually an anti-philosophic philosopher, and in this sense he is (as Rabbi Sacks argues) closer to the plain meaning of Scripture than Maimonides whose conception of Judaism and religion is philosophic in nature. The Bible is anti-philosophic in nature – and, is entirely absent of philosophic analysis, argument and speculation. However, although Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is closer to the plain meaning of Scripture than Maimonides, nevertheless Rabbi Yehuda Halevi as a philosopher is dealing in the realm of philosophy – and, in contrast to the Bible, he engages in much philosophic argument and speculation. In addition, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi responds to philosophic questions that the Bible does not respond to at all – such as the question of the existence of God.
Whereas Maimonides as a strict rationalist bases faith (in the rationalistic sense of philosophic enlightenment), as the essence of Judaism and religion, upon philosophic knowledge and argument, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi as a non-rationalist bases faith (in the non-rationalist sense of something beyond reason), as the essence of Judaism, upon prophetic experience (a non-rational experience). That is, the existence of God for Maimonides must be demonstrated or at least supported by philosophic argument, while for Rabbi Yehuda Halevi the belief in the existence of God is based upon prophetic experience, which in his view is a more reliable source of knowledge than philosophic argument. By contrast to both Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, not only does the Bible not address the question of the existence of God, but the concept of faith or belief in God hardly appears in the Bible and is not a central concept of the Bible (except in the Book of Psalms). The essence of Biblical religion is not faith but good deeds as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” – and, the religious concern then of the Bible is orthoprax (correct deeds), and not orthodox (correct doctrine).
Furthermore, the term faith in the Biblical conception (and in the Book of Psalms) is not in the orthodox (correct belief) sense of a philosophic proposition (such as belief in the existence of God) but in the orthoprax (correct deeds) sense of a psychological feeling or attitude of the heart (a matter of moral character) that is necessarily connected to moral action. For example, regarding the verse about Abraham “and he believed in the Lord” (Genesis 15, 6) where the context is that God has promised Abraham that he will have a son who will continue his lineage, Abraham is expressing his own trust in God to fulfill the promise made to him. The verse is revealing Abraham’s psychological and moral character (and nothing about Abraham’s theological beliefs), as indicated in the continuation of the verse, in which Abraham’s faith is “counted to him for righteousness”. If the verse was describing the faith of Abraham in a philosophic sense, then his faith would be counted to him as truth or knowledge, and not righteousness. Abraham’s faith is an expression of his moral character and righteousness – the verse “And he believed in the Lord” is an expression of Abraham’s optimistic attitude of hope and trust, and his refusal to despair (in not having children), revealing his righteous character as a person.
The verse “I am the Lord your God” is usually understood in a theological sense as a monotheistic expression. However, this is not the plain meaning of the verse. Indeed, the Bible, in the opening statements of the ten statements and in general, presupposes the existence of other gods of other peoples rather than denying their existence. The statement “I am the Lord your God” declares that YHVH (the great unpronounceable Biblical name of God) is the God of Israel to whom the people Israel are to be loyal among the many gods that are presumed to exist; while the second statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples – and, in the continuation of the statement (Exodus 20, 5) the terms that appear in prohibiting idolatry are to serve (or worship) and to bow down, which are behavioral and not theological concepts (and the term faith or belief is conspicuously absent from the ten statements). Abraham refers to YHVH as the “most high God” (Genesis 14, 22) implying that YHVH is the greatest God among a pantheon of gods. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Biblical term is Reed Sea and not Red Sea), it is written, “Who is like unto You, O Lord (YHVH) among the gods?” (Exodus 15, 11) – and, the verse presupposes the existence of other gods who cannot be compared to YHVH. In addition, in the ten statements YHVH is referred to as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20, 5) who demands exclusive service and loyalty. Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?
The opening verse of the ten statements “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” is shocking. The Bible opens with a story in which God is depicted as the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe and the obvious question that arises in the opening of the ten statements is why God is presented merely as the God of Israel and redemption (who has redeemed the people Israel from slavery) rather than as the Creator and Ruler of the universe! I want to suggest that the true revolution of the Bible, which I emphasize is not monotheism, is reflected here in the opening statement of the ten statements.
From the story of the creation we can infer only that God is necessarily powerful in having created the entire universe, but not that God is necessarily moral. It may be (from a purely logical point of view) that an evil and powerful god (or evil and powerful gods) created the universe. Indeed, in the opening account of creation there is no moral demand from God to human beings. The great revolution of the Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the opening statement of the ten statements in which God is presented not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe (as a God of power), but as the God of Israel who demands morality in redeeming the people Israel from slavery and oppression (“I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). From this, that God acts within history to redeem the people Israel from oppression, we infer that God necessarily demands morality. Immediately following this declaration in the opening of the ten statements come the moral demands and commandments of God that are incumbent upon the people Israel.
In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice, and ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion. The great revolution of the Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of as a God who demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature and who acts in within nature in order to redeem – and, God in the Biblical conception is then not only a God of creation and power, but in the main a God of revelation and redemption. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character and moral action rather than ritual practice – and, ritual is not in order to appease God but in order to transform ourselves morally and spiritually as human beings. The verse “I am the Lord your God” is not a theological statement but a psychological-moral statement demanding loyalty of the Jewish people to YHVH who as a God of revelation and redemption demands morality as the essence of religion.
Thus, for both Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi the essence of Judaism is faith in a philosophic sense of intellectual belief (especially belief in the existence of God) – and, the disagreement between them is only concerning the basis of such philosophic belief (for Maimonides the basis of faith being philosophic knowledge and argument, while for Rabbi Yehuda Halevi the basis of faith being prophetic experience). By contrast, the essence of religion in the Biblical conception is not faith in a philosophic sense (and the term faith is used only in a psychological-moral sense in the Bible) – the essence of religion in the Biblical conception is good deeds as reflected in the verse “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”.
Although Rabbi Sacks, in my view, presents the legal argument between Halachot Gedolot and Maimonides and the philosophic argument between Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides very accurately; nevertheless, he ignores, in my view, the most crucial aspect of these arguments regarding their implications concerning the nature of traditional Judaism as a religion. Both of the arguments presented by Rabbi Sacks ultimately concern a larger issue of the essence of Judaism and religion – faith or good deeds. Concerning the legal argument, Rabbi Sacks ignores that Maimonides in presenting an orthodox conception of Judaism (as a political leader and not as a thinker) distorts the orthoprax nature of Talmudic Judaism, while Halachot Gedolot is faithful to the orthoprax nature of Talmudic Judaism. Concerning the philosophic argument, Rabbi Sacks ignores that both Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides in not only conceiving of faith as the essence of religion but also in conceiving of faith in a theological sense (rather than in a psychological-moral sense as in the Biblical conception) distort the orthoprax nature of the Bible in order to conform the Bible to their philosophic conceptions or preconceptions. Thus, the nature of traditional Judaism based upon the Bible and the Talmud is orthoprax (correct deeds) and not orthodox (correct doctrine) in two senses – traditional Judaism, faithful to the Bible, requires no binding theological dogma, and emphasizes the importance of deeds over faith.
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/ .