Must a Jew Believe Anything?
Second Edition with a New Afterword
By Menachem Kellner
The Littman Library, 2006, 204 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 30, 2010
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) composed a list of thirteen basic principles of Judaism in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek, which many Jews accept as the basic dogma of Judaism. Menachem Kellner, like Marc B. Shapiro in his The Limits of Orthodox Theology, writes that Don Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508, in his Rosh Amanah) and many others recognize that Maimonides composed his principles for the less educated public to give them information that would strengthen their belief in Judaism. Abrabanel faults those who take "Maimonides' words at face value."
Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines, in two introductory essays to the Guide of the Perplexed, 1963, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in the several books of Conversations with Yeshayahu Leibowitz published between 1995 and 2003, and other scholars posit that there is an "exoteric and esoteric Maimonides." Exoteric statements are ideas that Maimonides writes which he does not consider to be true but rather as necessary to help the less educated masses, the majority of Jews, because he feels that they will be threatened if they are told that these ideas are untrue. The esoteric statements are hints that Maimonides does not state explicitly, but which he expects the learned Jew, who knows both Jewish and non-Jewish studies, to mine from his writings and understand.
This exoteric-esoteric approach to understanding Maimonides is supported by Maimonides' own writings. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:28, he explains that there are two kinds of beliefs: true beliefs and necessary beliefs. "True beliefs" are statements that express a truth that can help one understand an idea and grow intellectually. These are what Strauss, Pines, Leibowitz and others called esoteric teachings.
A "necessary belief" is a tradition, a mistaken or wrong notion, rather than a fact. These beliefs are not taught as truths, but to fulfill a social purpose, such as instilling obedience to the Torah, regulating social relations, improving human or social qualities or alleviating fears. These are his exoteric statements.
Maimonides was not the first person to recognize the importance of teaching "necessary [but untrue] beliefs." The Greek philosopher Plato writes in his Republic and other works that the masses need to be taught untruthful myths in order to survive.