The Limits of Orthodox Theology
Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised
By Marc B. Shapiro
The Littman Library, 2004, 221 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 30, 2010
Studying Maimonidean thought means coming into contact with rational ideas that are not always considered mainstream in Jewish philosophy. How common is it for different and even conflicting beliefs to be simultaneously accepted as Jewish?
Marc B. Shapiro addresses this question in his easy to read and very informative The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised. He examines the thirteen principles of faith that Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) outlines in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek. These thirteen principles have become basic tenets for many Jews – so significant, in fact, that two versions of the list were placed in the siddur, the daily prayer book: one is called Ani Ma'amin ("I believe") and the other is the chant Yigdal ("God is exalted"). Yet, although it may surprise many people who think that the thirteen principles are sacrosanct, not everyone accepts these thirteen principles, and many who reject them are well respected Orthodox Jews.
Shapiro examines traditional Orthodox sources and finds that even undisputed Orthodox Jewish authorities, great rabbis, dispute Maimonides' beliefs radically and, at times, even vituperatively. Shapiro's analysis shows that Orthodox Jews can hold nonconforming and dissenting views – even on fundamental beliefs – without being considered rebels against Judaism.
Shapiro teaches that many Jews, including rabbis, do not realize that Judaism allows a wide spectrum of beliefs. Their ignorance is caused by their narrow focus on the Talmuds, codes of Jewish law and responsa literature, while ignoring the theological literature. Shapiro cites an example of one of the greatest recent halakhic authorities, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who comes to erroneous conclusions about Maimonides' philosophy. "He was therefore able to state that Maimonides believed in the protective power of holy names and names of angels, as used in amulets." This is directly opposite Maimonides' teaching in Mishnah Sotah 7:4 and the Guide of the Perplexed 1:61, 62.