By Israel Drazin
If the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) is correct that the purpose of the Torah is three-fold – to teach some truths, help people improve themselves, and aid them in developing society – and I think he is right – then it would seem to be wrong to say that what is important is faith – having ideas in my head, and not actions. No marriage would last if spouses only had good thoughts about each other but didn’t treat the other with loving acts. I find it hard to imagine that religion only wants people to think good thoughts. I also see no sense in requiring people to sit back and meditate about God. I think, like Maimonides, that religion is designed to have a practical effect upon people and society. I think it wants people to act and I think that people should be judged by what they do, not what they think.
The idea that faith is important was introduced by Paul in the beginning of the Common Era when he tried to bring pagans into Judaism. (What is today Christianity was at its outset Judaism with a conviction that Jesus is a messiah.) Paul recognized that pagans wouldn’t want to accept the normative Jewish requirement of conversion to Judaism, circumcision for men and keeping kosher among other laws. He resolved this problem by saying that Judaism only requires faith that Jesus is the messiah. But other Jews rejected this view.
Maimonides reflected Jewish thought when he said that acts are important. There is absolutely nothing in the Hebrew Bible that requires “faith.” The word isn’t even in the Hebrew Bible. Later rabbinic Judaism rejected it. True, Jews are told to recognize that there is a God, but the Torah repeatedly states, as it does in the Ten Commandments, that this understanding of the existence of God is based on reality: the Israelites were told that God exists because God took them out of Egypt. It is fundamental to Judaism that people are judged based upon the merit of their deeds, not faith, thoughts, or philosophical musings. The Mishnah Avot 3:19 teaches: People are given “freedom of choice (on how to act). The world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the preponderance of deeds.” The poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058) put it this way, “Whether a person is a Jew or non-Jew, male or female, free or slave, it is by their deeds that God judges them.”