Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Are "Necessary Beliefs" True?

One of the most difficult ideas for traditional Jews to accept is the idea supposedly attributed to Rambam that there are such things as “necessary beliefs” in Judaism. In other words, there are things that are intrinsically incorrect and untrue but we are told to believe them because they help us in the fulfillment of our goal. It is how MN 3:28 is understood by most traditional commentators such as Shem Tov, Efodi, and Narboni and even more by modern scholars. This idea is used to explain some difficult Rambam statements elsewhere and is almost a credo. This idea goes against the grain of almost everything Rambam teaches which is anchored in the idea that finding Truth is the goal of humanity. I have struggled for years with this supposed Rambam position and, after many repeated readings of the chapter in different contexts, believe that I am finally starting to see the light.

Rambam in MN 3:28 explains that although the purpose and goal of the Torah is to make us into a people that “know” about God as opposed to just believe things about Him, the Torah does not teach us how to arrive at that knowledge. It just sets out God’s uniqueness, omniscience, omnipotence, will and eternity leaving it to us to prove those beliefs to ourselves.

Thus, Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. All these points are ultimate ends, but they can only be understood fully and accurately after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge.” (MN3:28)

There are certain Truths that we have to work towards understanding them. These are Truths that we need to know for the sake of Truth itself and their knowledge is what transforms the mind of a person from being just another survival tool into fulfilling its potential for which it was created – to become a man as opposed to another living animal species. The knowledge of these Truths is what Rambam refers to in the above quote as “ultimate ends” and he lists them - the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. These Truths are presented by the Torah as facts that we have to work towards proving their truth to ourselves by acquiring many kinds of knowledge that allow us to develop a realistic and true understanding of our environment and existence. That knowledge is too composed of many Truths which are seen as intermediaries necessary to attain the “ultimate ends”. With few exceptions, the Torah does not set these truths out as beliefs; it requires us to find them on our own in the process of getting to the “ultimate ends”.

There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result. But Scripture does not so distinctly prescribe the belief in them as it does in the first case.” (MN3:28)

Among these intermediary truths is the understanding of how our actions are based on the free will God gave us, and the idea that each act has a consequences. Our actions are ruled by a system of cause and effect. This knowledge is one of the components that help us understand “ultimate end” types of knowledge - God’s will and omniscience. This intermediary knowledge however, is the exception and it is set down as a belief just as the “ultimate end” types of knowledge are. We are asked to accept this as a fact and to develop an understanding of it as we contemplate God’s creation. Rambam explains the reason for this exception -

“Scripture further demands belief in certain truths, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations: such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God].” (MN3:28)

The idea of cause and effect of our actions is presented as Reward and Punishment by God. It is also presented as a belief rather than knowledge that needs to be acquired as a stepping-stone towards ultimate knowledge. It is so for an expedient reason.

In some cases, the law contains a truth which is itself the only object of that law, as for example, the truth of the Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality of God. In other cases, the belief is necessary for the abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing or for the acquisition of a noble moral quality. Such is the belief that God has a violent anger against those who do injustice … or the belief that God hears the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant.”

According to this reading of Rambam, there are no “untrue” beliefs that we are required to accept for expediency’s sake. The Torah just demands that we treat this type of intermediary knowledge [truth] as we would an “ultimate end” type.


  1. This idea goes against the grain of almost everything Rambam teaches which is anchored in the idea that finding Truth is the goal of humanity.

    No. Rambam is of the view that finding philosophical truth (which is the only real truth) is only attainable by the elite, not by the masses. They just aren't mentally equipped for it. Hence the necessary (but false) beliefs, which at least help them attain socially and morally correct behavior.

  2. Maimonidean, read carefully 3:28 and you will see the word "masses" is not mentioned. It is the interpretation that some readers added. I disagree with it. Reward and Punishment is truth. It is another word for consequent actions. It should have been something we learn like physics before we believe it. It is however a required belief even before we learn it for expedient reasons.

  3. If you want a more detailed exposition of what necessary beliefs are reread the Introduction to Perek Helek. The RMBM says that promises of reward and punishment are necessary in order to inculcate real truths in the masses. He then brings those beliefs as far down to earth as he can (he even says Gan Eden is a real place with a geographic location). For example, the Rambam must have known that the 8th Principle is not true, and that he was merely enshrining one of several masoretic texts as the canon, i.e. the Ben Asher text. He knew that Talmud (Balvi and Yerushalmi) itself records the existence of alternative texts, e.g. Rabbi Meir's text ("or" with an alef or an ayin). Another example with regard to reward and punishment is that the RMBM does not refer to din in Book III Chapter 43 of the Moreh, but just to teshuvah. This fits in with his idea of hashgahah pratit, which only exists for the spiritual and intellectual elite, so only they can be judged individually. The Rambam was confronted with a Judaism that was infested with "proto-kabalistic" notions and he strugged to expunge them and in doing so even excluded various talmudic mitzvot from the MT. Unfortunately the RMBM lost that struggle and his thought has, for the most part, been absorbed by the intellectual heirs of his opponents. Throughout his life the RMBM constantly updated his major works the Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah and the Moreh Nebuchim, so they all hang together and the concept of necessary belief is one of the cornerstones of the edifice. Mordechai, Manchester, UK

  4. In your post, you conflate the RMBM'S concept of intermediate truth, e.g. scientific or logical truths, with his concept of necessary belief. They are two separate concepts. Mordechai, Manchester

  5. Could you provide the sources (or links) to those mentioned:
    "Shem Tov, Efodi, and Narboni and even more by modern scholars"

    Could you provide your email so we could discuss this offline?


    1. They are all ad locum in the Ibn Tibon edition with four commentaries and naroni in the back. you can contact me at