The Hebrew Bible is filled with statements that emphasize the importance of obedience to God's commandments. After his forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses proclaims to his people, "So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being" (Deuteronomy 10:12–13). Elsewhere God directs Moses to say this to his people: "My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:4–5).
In the twelfth century, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135–1204) published his Mishneh torah (Repetition of the Torah, c. 1178), in which he gave definitive form to the list of 613 commandments (mitsvot) that pious Jews accept as binding on their daily conduct. Another milestone in the codification of Jewish practice is the Shulchan'arukh (literally, "the set table"), written by the Spanish-born Joseph Karo (1488–1575) in the mid–sixteenth century. This work presents a legal code that many observant Jews continue to the present day to regard as definitive in the settlement of religious disputes. The emphasis that these works and Jewish tradition have placed on obedience has led many modern commentators, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to conclude that Judaism is a religion characterized primarily by its insistence on proper practice and obedience to God's law or, to put it in terms of this entry, a religion characterized by its insistence on orthopraxy over orthodoxy.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) declared Judaism to be a religion of "purely statutory laws" and therefore no religion at all. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), in his early days, had followed Kant and (in "The Positivity of the Christian Religion") described Jews as struggling "under a burden of statutory commandments … that pedantically prescribe a rule for every casual action of everyday life." In their view of Judaism as a primarily legalistic religion, both men were following the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), father of the modernizing Jewish Haskalah ("Enlightenment"). In Jerusalem; or, On Religious Power and Judaism (1783), Mendelssohn had stressed "divine legislation" (göttliche Gesetzgebung) —by contrast with "revealed religion" (geoffenbarte Religion) in the Christian sense—as an essential fact of Judaism.
A number of modern Jewish commentators agree that Judaism is a religion whose essence lies not in theory or belief but in practice. Samuel Belkin (1911–1976), president of Yeshiva University in New York and a respected Jewish leader, wrote, "Many attempts have been made to formulate a coherent and systematic approach to Jewish theology. All such attempts, however, have proved unsuccessful, for Judaism was never overly concerned with logical doctrines. It desired rather to evolve a corpus of practices, a code of religious acts, which would establish a mode of religious living.… In Judaism, articles of faith and religious theories cannot be divorced from particular practices … the theology of Judaism is contained largely in the Halakha [Jewish law]—in the Jewish judicial system—which concerns itself not with theory but primarily with practice."
The issue arises with particular force in connection with the modern Orthodox movement. That movement arose in late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century Germany, in response to various attempts to modernize Judaism, including the Haskalah and Reform Judaism. Orthodoxy's principal proponent, German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), saw his movement as a means of accommodating traditional Judaism to the conditions of modern life. Still, Hirsch favored a strict interpretation of the practical duties of the Orthodox Jew. In his eyes, the fact of the revelation to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai obviated the need for faith or belief. The revelation is an established historical fact, and Judaism is thus a religion of law, not of belief. "Statutes of faith?" he asks in the fifteenth Letter. "Judaism knows 613 duties, but no commandments of faith." In light of such remarks, Jacob Katz, an historian of the movement, declared that orthopraxy would have been a more accurate term for the new movement than orthodoxy.
But Hirsch and modern commentators like Samuel Belkin by no means have the last word on this issue. There is a lively debate within rabbinic Judaism on the issue of whether belief should be considered a component of the religion alongside practice. After all, though Moses ben Maimon codified Jewish practice in his list of the mitsvot ("commandments"), he was also the author of the Thirteen Principles (shloshah asar yesodot) published in his commentary on Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah (the codified oral law that forms the core of the Talmud). The Principles cover such matters as the existence (metsi'ut), unity (yichud), and incorporeality (shlilat hagashmut) of God, the divine revelation of Torah (heyot hatorah min hashamayim), and the resurrection of the dead (techiyat hametim). But the focus of the Principles is belief, so, for example, when Moses ben Maimon speaks of the existence of God, rather than simply declare it a fact, he tells us that we must believe (leha'amin) it. In the Mishneh Torah, he emphasizes the importance of kavanah, or intention, in prayer. Kavanah (from the verbal root kun, meaning "to be established" or "to be steadfast") had already appeared in the Talmud in roughly this sense, but Moses ben Maimon gives the word what is quite possibly its locus classicus, when he declares, "Any prayer that is not [said] with kavanah is not a prayer."
The history of Judaism is filled with challenges to what is perceived to be a rigid adherence to the letter of the law. Kabbalah (Hebrew qabalah, "tradition"), with its mystical emphasis on direct communication with the divinity, has roots that go back almost two thousand years. Some might regard this movement as representing a departure from legalism. The eighteenth century in eastern Europe brought a significant reaction to the aridity of Talmudic scholasticism, as practiced by then-powerful rabbis in Lithuania. The leader of the opposition was Israel Ben Eliezer (c. 1700–1760), known popularly as the Ba'al Shem Tov ("master of the good name"), and his movement came to be known as Hassidism (from Hebrew chasid, "pious," "righteous"). The Ba'al Shem Tov emphasized a nonintellectual, spiritual communion with God (though he certainly did not advocate a rejection of Jewish law). The Paris Sanhedrin, the group of Jewish notables that Napoleon convened in 1806 to determine the legal position of Jews in France, helped establish as a principle in French law that Jews would be regarded as one religion among others, in other words, that, because religious duties must fall in place behind loyalty to the nation, Jewishness in France would henceforth be determined by one's faith, not by one's birth or one's actions. The Reform Movement started out in Germany with a quasi-Hegelian notion of the progressive, historically unfolding spirit of Judaism, something very different from traditional "orthopraxy." In the United States, the movement marked out its turf by expressly rejecting what it regarded as the religion's anachronistic legalism. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which established the guiding principles of the American Reform Movement, contained this bold statement: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state." The contemporary world, especially in the United States, offers the Jew a varied menu of choices, from the strictly regulated life of the "ultra-Orthodox," to the secular humanism of Reconstructionism, to the mysticism of the modern Kabbalah movement.
While it might be tempting to claim that Judaism has traveled the path from orthopraxy to various forms of spirituality, one must not forget that many branches of Judaism in the modern world have emphasized praxis, but in the social and political rather than the personal, religious sphere. The Pittsburgh Platform, having affirmed the immortality of the human soul, concludes with this principle: "In full accordance with the spirit of Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relation between the rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society." The Reform Movement is not the only branch of Judaism to have dedicated itself to this cause.