The Tenets: Prioritizing our Studies and Values


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: I read with approval your article on Punishment and Heaven, and came across the section on “Tenets of Judaism” to which I fully agree. My question is are these “tenets” listed in the Torah? Have you simply established them, and from where?  In particular, from where is the section of the tenets where God rewards and punishes?  I am sick and tired of hearing from my fellow Jews that I can go against or question these “tenets” because God will forgive me if I am wrong, since He is merciful. 


The tenets establish a line, with no ifs, ands, or buts.  Therefore, there is no reason to question them or discuss them. Just like one and one are two. Any discussion is meaningless…end of discussion on the matter, so I say. 


I give a talk to my fellow Jews every Shabbos and would like backup information on this item.




Mesora: Judaism’s tenets, to which I refer, are Maimonides’ formulations of the central ideas in Judaism. Those who feel they may violate them based on an assumed system of justice where God forgives anyone, is baseless and defies reason. God granted mankind intelligence, certainly to be used in the most fundamental of areas: knowledge of God. Rabbi Bachya, author of “Duties of the Heart”, explains based on Torah verses that we falter when we do not engage our minds in any area of Torah. One is wrong when saying “Man can go against or question these tenets because God will forgive one who is wrong, since He is merciful.” Just the opposite is true: God will hold accountable he or she who did not use their mind and question a matter. Why else would God give man intelligence, if he was not to engage it? It is only through questioning that we learn, and that we realize new truths. We are born ignorant, and must question matters until we die. So although these tenets form a line as you say with no “ifs, ands, or buts”, these tenets are not an area where we must blindly accept…knowledge is the opposite of faith. Knowledge by definition refers to something acquired by our mind through reasoning and proofs, until we see such an idea as true. Only then have we learned, and only then are our words reflective of convictions. And conviction is the point at which man fulfills his obligation, due to his receipt of intelligence.


The tenets are not to be viewed as matters we cannot question. The converse is the truth: we MUST question them. Otherwise, we will not “agree” with them, by simple parroting. For if man simply parrots these fundamentals, he in fact does not understand them. He might as well be mumbling incoherent sounds. Man’s objective is to arrive at new truths. And we only perceive a truth when it conforms to what we view as real. This may be a lengthy process of thinking at times, but without thought, we cannot examine a newly found idea, all of its ramifications, or test its validity. It is only when we engage our minds in this type of analysis that we may eventuate at a conclusion that something is either “true” or “false”. And only upon this discovery, can we say that we “know” something. With diligent study we can arrive at Maimonides’ reasoning for listing his 13 Principles as the core principles of Judaism. It was with reasoning, and not acceptance, that Maimonides arrived at these principles himself. Certainly, Maimonides would agree what he did is proper, that is, to use reasoning as the means of arriving at these truths. His very act of formulating these fundamentals obligates his readers to use reason.


You may ask what difference the tenets play, as compared to other Torah ideas, that is, what makes a tenet a “tenet”? But this question is much broader: we are really asking how to “evaluate” Torah principles, and how to “prioritize” them. The truth is, the students of Rabbi Shimone ben Yochai did this very thing and compared the commandments, seeking to determine which ones are more important than others. (Talmud Moade Katan 9a) Their actions were proper, and even supported by King Solomon’s words: “Weigh the course of your feet, and all your ways will be established.” (Proverbs, 4:26) This means that when one is confronted with two Torah commands, he or she should judge which command is more important, and select the greater command. This Talmudic portion clearly teaches that we must know what is more central.


There are an array of facets belonging to both, the commands and the fundamentals: who they affect, who must perform them, when they are applicable, when they may be overridden, if they may be overridden, and so much more. Therefore, it is not simple to determine which command or fundamental is truly “more important” than another. We wonder, by what measurement do we determine this? Additionally, these two (commands and fundamentals) are distinct at times, and merge together in a command at others. For example, we must know the fundamental truth that the Torah is from Moses, but there is no “command” to obtain this knowledge. We must also know that prophecy exists, as this teaches us an essential idea; that God relates to man and imparts wisdom to us. But there is no command to obtain this truth either. But regarding knowledge of God, it is both a fundamental and a command, as it is the first of the Ten Commandments. Why are some ideas fundamentals, but are not “commands”? Although an intriguing question, this is large study. We do not know what God knows, and therefore we cannot answer in any absolute terms  “why” something is a command, and why another is not. But we may definitely attempt to determine what is of more primary status.




Now, depending on the measuring rod used, an evaluation will yield different results. To start, the most basic Torah categories are 1) true ideas and 2) correct morality, or “thoughts” and “values”. This very distinction of truths versus morals and which are more important in each was not simply left to the fortunate ones among us to decide. The Ten Commandments actually serve this purpose. We may have wondered why God gave these Ten Commandments, if He also gave the entire Torah that includes them. But the Ten Commandments are not redundant. They are “ordered fundamentals”. The first five address our relationship with God, i.e., truths, while the second five address correct morality, or our relationship with mankind. Additionally, both sets (explaining why they were written on two tablets and not one) are ordered in decreasing importance. Knowledge of God precedes idolatry, which precedes using God’s name in vain, which precedes the Sabbath, which precedes honoring parents. We understand that Knowledge of God must come first, and then based on this truth, idolatry must not be followed. Then we must not disrespect Him, using His name in vain. We enable others to learn about God by mimicking His creation and His rest, so we rest on the Sabbath. Finally, we instill in ourselves a path to accept His authority by respecting His ‘partnership’ in our existence, our parents. But our approach to Him by respecting parents (authority) is of less importance than our public affirmation for the world of His role as Creator (Sabbath).


The order of the second tablet is: Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not kidnap; do not bear false testimony; and do not desire what is your neighbor’s. The prohibition of murder must precede all other acts, as this destroys society’s members. Next, adultery destroys not the person, but the harmony and the family unit, and kidnapping affects only one person by location and domination, and it is also not permanent, as is adultery. These three are all ‘actions’, so lying in court, which is “words”, is less significant than action, and our own feelings of “desiring our neighbor’s home or wife” is in our hearts, and of even lesser significance and affect so it comes last. With two sets of five, in the Ten Commandments, God imparted to us both; what are fundamentals, and an order of importance. In fact, Saadia Gaon stated that these commands are the headings for all the remaining commands. In truth, these are ten “Sayings”, (Aseress haDibros) not ten “Commandments”, as the second command actually includes more than one: do not accept other gods; do not create idols; do not bow to them; do not worship them. And the command of the Sabbath includes not only “remembering” the Sabbath, but also a negative command of “not working”.


We derive more than ten ideals from these laws. We learn the most primary concept: man must acknowledge his Creator over all else. And even though reason demands there is a Cause for the universe, we learn that a “law” is necessary. This means that man is obliged to acknowledge God, and not from reason alone, but also religiously. With this, comes the realization that we know not what he is, as Moses told the people, “you only heard a voice but saw no form” on Sinai. Thus, idolatry is false, and any assumption about what God is must be false, as no one knows what He is. Isaiah too taught that nothing compares to God. Thus, when “God blew a soul into man”, this does not mean God breathes or that he places a “part of Himself” in man. God does not equate to anything, including the phenomenon of division. Hence, God has no parts, and man’s soul is created, not a “piece” of God. That is heretical. We learn that an attitude of praise (not taking Him in vain) must prevail towards God, and this may be engendered if one studies the world and sees all the good He has bestowed on mankind. We learn that thanks and appreciation are essential, but this is predicated on the idea that a “relationship” exists. The fact that God relates to man and does good, gives reality to praying to Him: we may voice our needs to the One who already demonstrated that He wishes us good. The numerous stories in the Torah bear this out with emphasis. The command to observe Sabbath also carries with it the theme of education others, and not just Jews, as Maimonides teaches, we set ourselves as visual examples by abstaining from work while all others labor on the Sabbath. This distinction calls their attention, and when they inquire why we rest, we are enabled to respond and teach about God, who created and rested. God’s name becomes publicized.


But we also must note that these commandments were not given in a vacuum. The very fact that these laws were “given” teaches God’s awareness of man and His concern for our good. This in turn demands that we maintain a justice system, as God desires the good for more than just myself, but for all men, as is seen by His wish that all men follow His law.


Maimonides understood the need to clarify the fact that there are “Torah fundamentals” in addition to commands, and formulated his 13 Principles. We owe him a great debt of gratitude. These are the most primary ideas we must obtain regarding God and reality. These also are to function as the foundations of our remaining knowledge. For example, knowledge of the laws of Succah is not as important as knowledge if what God is, and is not. For by living in a Succah, we seek to fulfill God’s command. However, if our notion of God is incorrect, then so is our performance of Succah, or any law for that matter. One cannot be described as fulfilling “God’s will”, if one’s idea of God is that He is physical, or a man, or something else which is false. Similarly, if one places a mezuza thinking it protects him, he misses the point. But this error is traceable to an incorrect idea of life: he feels his body and physical health and wealth surpass his knowledge of God in importance. Therefore, he looks to the Torah’s commands to insure what he values, instead of looking to what the Torah values. He projects his wishes onto the Torah, thinking he is living in line with God’s true intent. His error is borne out of his lack of knowledge of Judaism’s fundamentals. The fundamental he is missing is that our purpose is knowledge, not wealth or health. Of course these latter two are important, but only when they serve the former - when they drive towards securing a life of knowledge. But in themselves as ends, the Torah places no importance.


We thereby learn, that simply following the commands, but not spending time thinking, learning, and inculcating the Torah’s fundamentals and underlying truths, we may waste our lives. The words of the Rabbis are indispensable for this crucial task.




This first example addresses the former category, ideas. An example of the latter (morality) is as follows: We find many Jews who are devoted to attending Temple every morning, but may be dishonest business people. Here too we find a disproportionate approach to Judaism: this type of character lacks inner perfection and a sense of justice, as he is happy to cheat others. He lives an unbalanced lifestyle, and has not apprehended what is more fundamental. For some reason, he prioritizes Temple attendance over honesty. Perhaps social venues are more important to him than his private life with God; he needs others to see him in Temple each week. He needs approval. But this uncovers his flaw: he respects man more than God. Or, perhaps he does not view death as a reality, as he possesses no fear of punishment in the next life, so he steals. Again, his activities display his underlying lack of knowledge of Torah fundamentals: as punishment, death, and the next world are all fundamental truths. His ability to steal from others may be indicative of his lack of these fundamentals. Alternatively, this crook may cheat as a means of revenge, again, displaying his value system as needing to satisfy the infantile ‘revenge’ emotion. A fundamental is missing in him: he feels that his inner emotional needs must be catered to, instead of mastering them, and living in accord with the command not to take revenge. However, honesty is far more important than attending Temple. For without honesty, man is corrupt, Additionally, the Rabbis teach, the fulfillment of a command cannot erase a sin, and God takes no bribes. As the Rabbis say, “a mitzvah does not extinguish a sin.” The only means to vacate one’s self of a sin, is to see his error, regret his act, and commit to never returning down that sinful path. (Sforno, Deut. 1:17) The reason the Rabbis wrote this is because they were addressing a real phenomenon: people do think by doing a command, they are forgiven for a sin. But this is false.


A person would be wise to confront himself or herself and honestly examine if he or she is lacking any fundamentals. “And you shall know today, and return it to your heart, that God is God in heaven above and on Earth below, there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:29) God demands of us that we must learn, but then we must place it on our heart - we must see it as a truth and feel convinced. This conviction only occurs after we engage our minds and use reasoning, removing all possibilities of fallacy and removing all our emotional doubts. Then, and only then, do we “know” anything. And when we do, and we possess this conviction, we are moved by this realization of reality. We were designed to enjoy truth over all else. We were designed to have the most pleasant lives. But we must prioritize our learning, and immediately reflect to determine if we really know the fundamentals of Judaism. To start this path for you, we have reprinted Maimonides 13 Principles in this issue. I also urge your read of Duties of the Heart, especially the author’s introduction. These two areas should serve only as a starting point.