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In Catholicism we have the concept of the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the official teaching office of the Church and consists of all the bishops who are united to the Pope. The Magisterium is believed to have the divine authority to declare dogmas and teach doctrine. Once a dogma has been defined it becomes an essential teaching of the faith such that if you don't believe in it and agree with it you cease to be Catholic.

This system works wonders for maintaining doctrinal unity across the entire Catholic church, as it ensures that all Catholics are teaching the same thing, and believing the same thing no matter where they are in the world. (It should be noted that anything which is not dogma is still open for debate, and so there are many areas where a difference of opinion is permitted, however when it comes to essentials everyone is on the same page)

In contrast to Catholicism you have the Protestant system, which is where every individual Christian takes the bible and decides what it means for themselves. The results of this system are complete doctrinal chaos, with Protestant Christians arguing and setting up factions and splitting again and again and again. No two protestant Christians agree with each other completely, even when it comes to essentials of the faith - they can't even agree what the essentials of the faith are in the first place. There is absolutely no unity in this system.

It seems obvious to me that the Catholic system is superior to the Protestant system when it comes to ensuring doctrinal unity. The truth cannot contradict the truth, so doctrinal unity is essential.

I'm wondering how Judaism deals with this situation? When it comes to deciding doctrine/what to believe, how does Judaism do it? Does each congregation listen to their local Rabbi and submit to whatever he proposes for belief? Is there a council of senior Jewish clergy who come together to decide doctrine which all Jews worldwide must believe? Is it considered the responsibility of each individual Jew to study the scriptures for themselves and come to their own conclusions, like in the protestant system I described above?

The reason I ask is because I get the impression that Jews all more or less believe the same thing and agree when it comes to doctrine, but I'm curious how that is possible because you don't seem to have a Magisterium like Catholics do. I understand that back in the day you had the Sanhedrin, and they were sort of like our Magisterium, with the High Priest being kinda similar to our Pope (although without claiming infallibility). Does the Sanhedrin still exist and does it ensure doctrinal unity?

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    Short answer: no and, by necessity, no. – BSteinhurst Jan 18 '17 at 4:32
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    The High Priest was not the head of the Sanhedrin, he was the head of the Priests. – Y K Jan 18 '17 at 7:33
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    Judaism largely avoids this issue by 1. Not really dealing in belief, but rather in practice, meaning if you keep Jewish law correctly, what you believe is mostly irrelevant, and 2. Having the Talmud as the canon for Jewish practice. There are differing interpretations of the Talmud, but they are really in the weeds. Generally, orthodox Jewish practice is uniform. – Baby Seal Jan 18 '17 at 12:35
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    Theoretically, a Sanhedrin could change Jewish law. The problem would've be organizational. You would need this court to be universally accepted. Currently there is a Sanhedrin in Israel but it is not seen as authoritative. Consequently, if it made any legal changes, you'd risk the protestant issue, which is essentially define X, given that X /= Y, meaning X is anything, and you religion splinters. – Baby Seal Jan 18 '17 at 12:41
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    @Baby kind of. Or the opposite. Even if the Talmudic scholars never explicitly addressed points held by Rambam, for example, to be critical, we don't know what their reaction would be to someone who outright opposed it. I'm not disagreeing with what you wrote. It's just worthy of a longer discussion. (nobody seemed to care when Rambam quoted certain Aggadda and said it was almost heretical. There are lots of pieces in this puzzle) – user6591 Jan 18 '17 at 19:37
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Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, was a great Jewish philosopher who lived during the 12th and 13th centuries, CE. He composed thirteen principles of Jewish faith, that, in his opinion, should be believed by every Jewish individual. Today, these thirteen principles, known as the Shloshah Asar Ikarim, "The Thirteen Principles" outline the basics of Jewish belief.

Here is a list of the principles (courtesy of Chabad.org):

  1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.

  2. The belief in G‑d's absolute and unparalleled unity.

  3. The belief in G‑d's non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.

  4. The belief in G‑d's eternity.

  5. The imperative to worship G‑d exclusively and no foreign false gods.

  6. The belief that G‑d communicates with man through prophecy.

  7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher.

  8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.

  9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.

  10. The belief in G‑d's omniscience and providence.

  11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.

  12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.

  13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.

According to Maimonides view, to deny any of these constitutes heresy. And in truth, it is universally accepted amongst Orthodox Jews that these principles must be upheld.

So in a way Orthodox Judaism has a universal doctrine. Not only in these principles, but also in the fact that all Orthodox Jews pray three times a day - they all eat kosher roughly the same way (some are more strict in their dietary laws) and we all keep Shabbos the same way (again, some are more strict in this area than others).

But we are not totally unified in belief; there's room for people to form their own opinions. In my opinion Judaism is closer to the beliefs of Protestantism than Catholicism.

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    "it is universally accepted amongst Orthodox Jews that these principles must be upheld" Huh? Maybe as posed in that quote (very broadly), but probably not how the Rambam said them. Anyway, how is this enforced? – Double AA Jan 18 '17 at 4:58
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    This does not answer how the statutes are chosen, implemented, or enforced. – user6591 Jan 18 '17 at 13:10
  • I would argue that Judaism dodges this issue entirely by being about practice over belief – Baby Seal Jan 18 '17 at 19:23
  • Re "that all Orthodox Jews pray three times a day - they all eat kosher roughly the same way (some are more strict in their dietary laws) and we all keep Shabbos the same way (again, some are more strict in this area than others)": It may be worth noting that, almost without exception, all the communities and people generally recognized as orthodox recognize one another as such. (That may seem tautological at first glance, but it's far from being so.) In particular, even those stricter in aspects of law, almost without exception, recognize lenient folks as orthodox. – msh210 Jan 18 '17 at 20:37
  • @msh210 - I get a basic idea of what you're saying, but why don't you edit the answer yourself and include this. You seem like you'll be able to deliver it better than I. – ezra Jan 18 '17 at 21:59
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Jews (or their rabbis) generally will agree who are the greatest rabbis of the generation. They will look to them for authority. Although different sub-communities will follow their distinct leaders (for example ultra-orthodox might not look to the same leaders as the religious-Zionists). See this question.

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya Naftali! – mevaqesh Jul 31 '17 at 1:31
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There is no extant Sanhedrin. Thus the nonexistent group does not enforce doctrinal unity.

One thing that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism have in parallel is law. Not the Magisterium but Canon Law or rather Halacha. As an organized code of conduct the law codes create a uniformity of actions and expectations of what is right and what is wrong that can look like doctrinal unity from the outside.

In both cases the law codes talk about things you would call dogmas. Like what to do with people who question the dogmas. You can't have that discussion without attempting to codify what the dogmas are. So they do include doctrine in them.

But it is also helpful when considering Judaism that there is a distinction between law and custom. And regional/political differences in both. For example the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstruction movements in Europe and North America would not be considered doctrinally unified with many segments of Orthodox Judaism.

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