This introductory chapter discusses the larger theme of the spiritual life of Polish–Lithuanian Jewry and its relation to the wider religious history of the Jews. There are a number of problems in describing that history. It is obvious that Jewish history in the period from the end of Jewish statehood and, in particular, from the end of a significant Jewish presence in Erets Yisrael has a highly significant religious component. Yet there has been a tendency to write this history statically — to see normative Jewish religious practice as unchanging from the period of the Mishnah and Talmud. In addition, historical investigation is complicated by the absence in the Jewish religious tradition of a clearly formulated creed. The attempts to formulate such a credal statement, such as that of Maimonides (1135–1204), who sets out thirteen basic principles of the Jewish faith, or those of the Spanish Jews Hasdai Crescas (d. ?1412) and Joseph Albo (1380–1445), can only be seen as deviations from this norm and are not regarded by normative believers as binding, although much of the religious establishment did accept them as such.
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