It is generally accepted that in order for a particular belief system to be called a religion, it must have at least three components:
1. Recognition of a Divine Being that is to be worshipped. 2. Instructions as to how He is to be worshipped. 3. Reward and punishment for carrying out or failing to carry out His instructions.
A system of norms may exist without these, but not a religion.
The Rambam's 13 Principles are an elaboration of these three points as they are realized in Judaism. Of the 13, there are five principles concerning the reality of the Creator, four concerning His Torah, and four concerning reward and punishment. Since these general concepts of the existence of the Creator, of instructions from the Creator, and of reward and punishment are common to all religions, it is the details of these concepts that establish the uniqueness of Judaism.
The Rambam's 13 Principles are unique as those tenets which one must be aware of and accept in order to be considered a practicing Jew. According to the Rambam, their acceptance defines the minimum requirement necessary for one to relate to the Almighty and His Torah as a member of the People of Israel.
THE FIRST PRINCIPLE: GOD AS CREATOR
HE IS ABSOLUTE
The first Principle is to be aware and to know that there is a Primal Cause, a Being whose existence is absolute and from whose existence all existence stems. He alone and only He is absolute. He exists because He exists. It is inconceivable that He not be. His existence has no cause. There is nothing that supports Him. There is nothing that maintains Him. There is no agency through which He came into being. In contrast, everything else that exists is dependent and contingent upon His existence. Nothing else exists in and of itself and independent of Him. Everything else exists only because He wills its existence. He gives everything else its existence and He maintains it.
The question we must now address is why this seemingly abstruse and abstract philosophical point, an affirmation of God's absolute existence and creation's absolute contingency, should determine one's ability to fulfill Torah.
What of the simple Jew? Lacking the sophistication to understand both this absolute and this absolute dependency, this Jew approaches the whole issue in the following manner. He knows that there exists a Creator and a creation. He knows that this Creator made the world and watches over it. Perhaps he even has a vague understanding of the difference between a Creator and a creation, but he fails to appreciate that only the Creator is absolute existence, that all other existence is dependent upon Him. What difference does this shortcoming in his understanding of reality make?
HIS TRUTH IS ABSOLUTE
The reason why an appreciation of God's absolute existence and of creation's absolute contingency is so important is that only through His absolute existence can there exist an absolute truth. If the Creator were not absolute but dependent upon something else, He could not claim absolute Truth. Instead, only truth based upon the Creator's source could exist as absolute.
The Torah's truth depends upon its being a derivative of the Absolute Being. If one is unaware of the Almighty's absoluteness, then a Torah with absolute values cannot exist for him, cannot bind him. Instead, a Torah with concepts relative to one's situation would exist. Concepts of good and evil can only be absolute when derived from an absolute source. If derived from a contingent source, they will be seen relative to the situation through the individual's immediate, subjective perception.
THE DANGERS OF RELATIVE ETHICS
Relative ethics are meaningless. They create an opportunity in which one does what he feels like doing and then creates the justification for it. If one wants to kill the elderly, he may use the justification that the quality of life is more important than life itself. Thus, murder becomes an act of loving-kindness, in which the murderer is viewed as a sensitive individual who wants to relieve a poor sufferer of a life without quality. If it is a fetus one wants to kill, he may first rationalize that it isn't yet alive. Then he need only pay tribute to the dignity of the living in order to rationalize the acceptability and justice of abortion.
In today's society, those who are concerned with being ethical are forced to embrace humanism and relative ethics. They begin searching for the words to justify what they would like to do. The process is not that difficult; the right words or expression can always be found. In retrospect, perhaps the world needed a Hitler to demonstrate that there is no action which a human being cannot justify, to himself and even to others.
The possibility of absolute good and evil depends upon the existence of an absolute truth. But truth can be absolute only if the Creator is an Absolute Being, since that which He creates and that which is derived from Him can only then reflect the absolute truth of His Being. All of Torah, all morality, and all ethics are contingent upon this principle of God's absoluteness.
ACHIEVING TRUE EXISTENCE
Because our existence is contingent upon God, we arrive at the ultimate reality of life only through becoming connected to Him.
Psychologists have many different ideas concerning man's basic drives. Freud's libido, the drive for sensual pleasure, is one proposition; Adler's striving for superiority is another. Napoleon needed to know that after he died there would be statues of him everywhere. Why? What would these statues do for him? He wouldn't be able to see them. He wouldn't be able to enjoy these affirmations of his grandeur. He didn't even believe his soul would see them. Stalin needed his portrait all over the Soviet Union as well. People search for lasting fame, do all they can to feel special, different from the rest. Why?
It is all part of their need to create an illusion of being. Torah, on the other hand, teaches us that man's greatest drive is his need to achieve a true, meaningful existence.
Man has an unconscious awareness that he doesn't exist in an absolute sense; hence he searches, he struggles to become, even if only through an illusion. All of life represents his struggle to achieve real existence. All of creation is ephemeral, all existence contingent. In reality, we have no existence on our own at all. We are utterly contingent upon the will of our Creator. We are constantly being given existence by Him. Every second of our existence is a gift from the Almighty. He constantly renews our lives, as we read in our daily prayers, "He renews in His goodness, each day, continuously, the work of creation." We have no existence now simply because we existed a second ago. We exist now only because God is giving us existence this very moment.
The real wonder is that God grants us an accumulation of memories and prior consequences, as though there were any continuity with yesterday's existence. In reality, though, such a continuation does not exist: each moment is a new existence, literally a creation ex nihilo.
How is one granted this existence? Only by our connection to God, the only Source of existence. The closer we are to the Almighty, the more reality we achieve.
The basic drive of man is to achieve this reality through connecting with and cleaving to God. Man has a choice regarding this drive for meaningful existence, as he has with all drives; he can harness it either to bring himself closer to God or to take himself farther away from Him. The need to experience existence may be manifested by striving to connect with the Source of all existence, the Almighty, or through various counterfeit means. For some people this drive is expressed in the struggle to attain power, while for others it is expressed in the striving for fame. The accumulation of wealth or approval is also a popular counterfeit outlet for this drive.
THE NEED TO SERVE
Life demands serving something. Man is part of creation, absolutely contingent upon the Almighty, and this dependency mandates a need to relate to something beyond himself.
There are endless ways to deal with this inescapable, fundamental human drive, but they all come down to this choice: one either serves God or serves idols. "Be careful lest your heart be misled and you turn aside and serve other gods" (Deuteronomy 11:16). "Turning aside" means straying from the Torah; once you stray from the Torah you will cleave to and serve idols (Rashi quoting Sifri on Deuteronomy 11:16).
The Sages teach us that man needs to connect to the Almighty, to the Source of all existence. To achieve this connection, man must serve Him. If he does not serve God according to His revelation, he will inevitably go on to attach himself to some kind of idolatry. Just as the service of God provides meaning for man's existence, idolatry creates an illusion of meaning. When power, fame, wealth or approval become an end in itself, it is a form of idolatry. Idolatry can exist in communism, liberalism, atheism, or humanism. Man chooses either to connect to the Almighty by serving Him, or to create an illusion which he must serve. In matters of choice, there is no in-between.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Either man relates to something, anything, greater than himself, or he attempts to lose himself and escape a meaningless reality. Technology has provided man with many opportunities to lose himself. How many hours are spent vicariously experiencing the pains and pleasures of others in front of the television or at the movies? How much money is spent on alcohol and other drugs by those who seek to avoid the confrontations of life? These escapes do not provide true happiness. They merely dull one's sensitivities to the pain that results when one does not relate to something beyond himself and his life is void of meaning.
NOTHING TO WORSHIP
It is important to appreciate that the paramount consequence of not perceiving God as absolute is that it stifles man's urge to serve Him -- it leaves nothing for one to truly worship. (Optimally, avodah [service or worship] implies fulfilling the Will of the Almighty out of love and a yearning to be close to the Source of all existence.) If God is not absolute, then He is no more than a superman. The difference between man and God becomes quantitative, not qualitative.
We are accustomed to a hierarchy of power. What if God is only more powerful than man, in a human, non-Divine sense? The president, too, is more powerful than we are, but we still feel we can evade him. Man can both avoid and manipulate anyone more powerful than himself; therefore, he would never serve such a being. For man to serve, to submit himself to supplicating God, the Almighty must be essentially different from him. The difference between God and man must be qualitative, not merely quantitative.
IDOLATRY AS BARTER
If this concept is true, then why do we find so many civilizations serving idols? The idol does not have any absolute existence, it has a contingent one. The idol, like those serving it, has needs and therefore limitations and weaknesses. Human awareness of this dependency invites relating to the idol through barter -- service for a payoff. People will serve a god only as long as it offers some kind of benefit. Throughout history, the gods that were favored were those that were able to deliver the rains and victories that their worshippers desired. This form of worship, tit for tat, is self-serving and not sincere submission. The contingent existence of the idol is its inherent weakness, one that makes real submission to it impossible.
The recognition of the Almighty's absolute existence as the one and only Source of our existence is what binds us to Him. Submission to Him is predicated upon the knowledge that He is the Cause of the entire world and all the experience that one has within it. This knowledge, then, ultimately carries with it the profound realization that one has no absolute existence at all. It is out of this awareness that Moshe Rabbeinu declared: "We, what are we?" (Exodus 15:8; see Chulin 89a). To be aware that one is nothing more than God's creation and to be aware of all the ramifications of this reality is the highest expression of service.
THE ONLY PERMANENT ENTITY
Another consequence of the fact that God is absolute is the idea that He is unchanging. Contingent beings are affected by a variety of things and are constantly changing. One depends on something, and when that thing is altered, one must also change. God, who is not dependent upon anything and who has neither cause nor source other than His own Being, is unchanging.
THE WORLD TO COME
The existence of a World to Come is predicated upon this first principle as well. What is the difference between this world and the World to Come? This world is ephemeral, transitory, like the blink of an eye. The World to Come is real, actual, and eternal. But the reality of the World to Come necessarily depends on God's absoluteness, on His non-contingency.
This article is an excerpt from "Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam's 13 Principles" by Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld.