Occasionally someone says to me or my wife, “oh, you must have such strong faith!” Usually this phrase is in response to our religious practice, which they imply is directly predicated on the Word of God. It is predicated on the idea Judaism has some kind of Creed. Creed comes from the Latin word Credo, but we’ll get to why that is important later. A Creed statement ignores the human capacity to perform rationally incoherent actions. It negates the ability to doubt the existence of God, or believe in a God that works through science. Judaism does not have an official Creed. Even the Shema.
Some of my friends have a strong belief in God but no Jewish practice (“spiritual but not religious”). Others identify as “atheist orthodox,” (“religious but not spiritual”). They have no belief in God whatsoever, but practice a strict Jewish observance out of their need for community, continuity, or to please their family. This contradiction can exist because Judaism has no official creed. The implication that the two agenda items, religion and spirituality, are directly correlated, or that humans are internally consistent, is simply false. We feel differently about both religion and spirituality on a daily basis.
In Ashkenazic-Jewish circles, the assumption is that you join a synagogue where the type of ritual mirrors your level of faith. In Sephardic or Mizrachi communities, one might join an orthodox synagogue but eat pork at a restaurant. This discrepancy has to do with the evolution of Jewish “Movements” in response to the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe. It is starting to change as more Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews join Reform, Liberal, and Masorti synagogues.
Within Judaism, talking about faith or using a creed is usually a power-play. It is borrowed from Christian society. An old friend of mine who became associated with Chabad often says “I believe in perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, though he may tarry.” This phrase is now a popular song in the Jewish community:
What do people mean by faith? Why is this statement a power-play? By repeating this Creed-type phrase, he implies that his Chabad practice is not open to review or critique as it is entirely predicated on something he believes to be absolutely true. Since the rest of his practice is built upon faith in this one statement, he can work backwards and rationalize everything else he does.
Lets look at a parallel track. I mention them since Catholicism is the ultimate example of a Creed based religion. When Christianity was expanding throughout the Roman Empire, several bishops gathered in Nicaea (325 CE) to create a distilled and unified Christian message. They had to negotiate between all the various forms of Christianity that existed in order to create a simpler and more unified message. They did, the Nicene Creed. There have been several versions of it, but essentially it is a distilled message that has to be repeated. In its Latin form, it started with Credo in unum Deum, we believe in One God, etc. Thus in English, Creed. If you attend a Mass, it will usually be recited by the community at some point. If you ask a Catholic to recite the basis of the faith (and they’ve been through catechism) they might recite the Creed.
Upon closer inspection, Catholicism, and indeed all forms of Christianity, do have a parallel legal track that would be comparable to the Talmud. No where in the New Testament does it actually outline the rituals of the Mass, when the bishop has to take off his hat during the service. Catholicism has a complex theology and cosmology. Catholicism has a huge amount of legal texts, its own system of courts, and an administrative system taken from the Romans. With all the complexities of the evolution of the religion, the bishop smoothly performs his liturgical functions. A young child learns the Creed in school, but not the nuances of, say, the Synoptic Problem. The Synoptic Problem is the Christian equivalent of the Documentary Hypothesis, ie that there are major discrepancies in the Biblical Text.
Like chess, you might watch the bishop move without understanding the evolution of the game. You’ve already bought into the system of rules and hierarchy of pieces before you every ask why the bishop moves diagonally. If ask why the bishop moves diagonally while learning the rudiments of chess, your chess instructor will likely respond, “we’ll get to that later, right now we just need to concentrate on learning the rules of the game.”
Judaism, like Catholicism, has also tried to create creeds, although none have really stuck. Maimonides came up with a 13 part creed about 900 years ago, which is known as Yigdal:
Notice that while Yigdal is not commonly sung in American Reform synagogues during the year, it is often used during the High Holidays, There is a theological shift between High Holiday and Shabbat liturgy. Simply put, the High Holiday liturgy emphasizes reward and punishment, which is predicated on faith in an anthropomorphic God than standard Shabbat liturgy. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also have the highest synagogue attendance, so the liturgy tends to have more gravitas. Maybe this shift is to instill faith in the congregation through fear and trembling…which brings us to our point…
Whether it be Yigdal, Ani ma’amin (which is based on a line from Yigdal), or the Nicene creed, a simplified faith statement has a purpose. It creates a foundation for all other religious observances to be built upon. It is the ultimate justification. If you can claim that a behavior is predicated on a creed statement, it cannot be discredited. It allows you to avoid specific questions about religious practices.
When someone says “oh you must have such strong faith,” they often don’t want to know why I do what I do. They don’t want to ask me any questions. They want to attribute it to faith and leave it at that.