Monday, January 11, 2021

R. Saadia Gaon-The First Major Philosopher of Judaism

Great Jewish Thinkers series: In the tenth century, the Jewish people, now spread across Spain to India, faced new challenges-the vibrant Arab and Islamic civilization, the rediscovered Greek philosophies, a schism from within, and challenges from without. R. Saadia Gaon answered these challenges in his day.

Follow this link for 

Lecture sources on RaSaG from 
Prof. Moses Zucker, Encyclopedia Brittanica and Prof.Sarah Pessin, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Their texts in boldface.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon-RaSaG, head of the Academy of Sura and of Rabbinic Judaism.c. 900. 

Gaon- The Pride and Glory, used as the title of the heads of the academies of Babylonia, Sura and Pumbeditha- c. 600-1000. Later used for the outstanding leader, der Vilner Gaon, Elijah, 1700’s, now used to mean “ genius”.

Artist's rendition of what R. Saadia may have looked like

R. Saadiah's legacy: 

1) The first Systematic Philosopher of Judaism : This was a period of reawakened interest in Greek and Roman classics. These philosophers did not provoke a systematic response of formal philosophy when Jews first interacted with the Greek-Roman world, (exception of Philo). As the Islamic world felt the challenge of systematic philosophy and use of reason as tool to find truth, under influence of Plato and neo-Platonic thought, so too the Jewish world. Islamic philosophy ( Kalam) is now becoming Jewish philosophy. He must provide answers that satisfy the minds of his generation. 

2) Confront a dynamic Islamic civilization and Arabic as the new language of the Middle East -North Africa-Spain. Replaces Aramaic. Jewish texts will now be in Arabic, written in Hebrew letters.

3) Makes the Torah now comprehensible to an Arabic-speaking Jewry

4) First attempt to reinterpret newly emerging Jewish mysticism later to be known as Kabbalah) in light of a rational interpretation.

5) Response to challenge of Karaism against Rabbanism ( mainstream Judaism) 

6) Unify Jews through the Jewish Calendar

My own connection:

Prof. Moses Zucker

One of my favorite teachers in Rabbinical school was Professor Moshe Zucker. He was the scholar in residence when I was a student overseas and did my preliminary year of Rabbinical school at Neve Schechter, at the Jerusalem branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary. I recall that he had looked forward to meeting with the leading Moslem scholars in Jerusalem, but none of them would talk to a Jewish scholar at that time (just 3 years after the Six Day War). Later , I took a course in Jewish Islamic philosophy under him and he took a liking to me especially because, it turns out, his father was in business with my father in Vienna. He was a master Arabist and scholar of Islam, as well as Talmud and Jewish philosophy and his favorite figure was Saadiah Gaon. For example, he would note that, in discussing ibn Ezra commentary ( printed opposite Rashi in classic Chumash ( Mikraot Gedolot), how often he would refer to ‘Hagaon”, meaning R. Saadiah. He was at work on a critical edition of the classic of Saadiah Gaon, On Beliefs and Opinions, from the original Arabic. 

In the center, Rabbi Kapach officiating at our wedding

At the exact same time, in Israel, Rabbi Yoseph Kapach ( also spelled as Qafih) was engaged in the same project, He was the doyen of the Yemenite Jewish community, winner of the Israel Prize for Judaic Research, a respected scholar and expert on Arabic- Jewish literature, who had himself edited a critical work of a 10th century Rabbi at the early age of 11.(He was also married to my wife's aunt.) He published the first critical edition and translation in Hebrew in 800 years of the book ahead of my professor . This was very disheartening to Prof Zucker. Then, I went off to get married and brought my bride to the Seminary for the first time (Ofra). He was having his meal together with his wife, Manya, when I walked up to him to introduce her, and said,” Her uncle is Rabbi Kapach!”  IT was a shocker- but he still liked me ( he wanted me to do research on the anti-Jewish polemics of Justin Martyr). 

On the works of the Gaon
These are excerpts from his essay on the Gaon from the Encyclopedia Brittanica:
My notes in boldface

Moses Zucker Professor of Biblical Exegesis, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York City. Author of Rav Saadya Gaon's Translation of the Torah. Saʿadia ben Joseph, Arabic Saʿīd Ibn Yūsuf Al-fayyūmī, (born 882, Dilaz, in al-Fayyūm, Egypt—died September 942, Sura, Babylonia).

He produced his greatest philosophical work, Kitāb al-amānāt wa al-iʿtiqādāt (“The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”) at Sura in 935. His Arabic translation of the Old Testament is exceptionally valuable for its commentaries. . . . departed from Egypt, at the age of about 23, he left behind, besides his wife and two sons. …By that time he had already composed a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary… he migrated to Palestine. There he found a growing community of Karaites… he left for Babylonia. 

There …not only the Karaitic schism but also a gnostic trend. . . which rejected the foundations of all monotheistic religions.i.e Ḥiwi al-Balkhī, denied the omnipotence, omniscience, and justice of the biblical God and pointed to biblical inconsistencies, [ Note: I used to have a copy]. In the face of such challenges, Saʿadia marshaled his great talents in the defense of religion in general and Jewish tradition in particular. Saʿadia composed his refutation of Hiwi. 

.. Then, too, he wrote his Kitāb ar-radd ʿalāʿAnān (“Refutation of Anan,” the founder of Karaism) [Karaism- from Kara- the Reading of the Text, in other words, only the actual text of the Bible, not the masorah, traditon, or “ Torah sh b’al peh”. Similar , in its day, to the Protestant Reformation- sola scriptura- only the scriptures. Founded by Anan ben David, c. 9th century, possibly out of political split within the office of the Exilarch. Roots may go back much earlier. At one time, a large segment of the Jewish people, now approx. 50,000.] In 921 

…conflict with the Palestinian scholar Aaron ben Meir, who had promulgated a far-reaching change in the Jewish calendrical computation. …it demonstrated his indomitable courage and his importance for the Jewish community in Babylonia. In 928 Kitāb attamyīz (“Book of Discernment”), a defense of the traditional Rabbanite calendar.
[Note: This would have created a schism among Jews who would find themselves marking the Holy days on different dates. This is the period in which the power of the Babylonian academies proved their ascendancy over the academies of Israel and the Babylonian Talmud became the source of authority over and against the Palestinian ( Yerushalmi) Talmud] 

. . . the same year he was appointed by the exilarch (head of Babylonian Jewry[resh Galuta]) David ben Zakkai as the gaon (“head”) of the academy of Sura, which had been transferred to Baghdad. 


There were always two competing academies in Mesopotamia- Sura, and Pumbeditha( previously Nahardea) ., Pumbedita (modern Fallujah; west of Baghdad) in the north, and Sura in the south. Both academies, as well as Nehardea and Mahuza, are situated between, or in the immediate vicinity of, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.]

Upon assuming this office, he recognized the need to systematize Talmudic law and canonize it by subject. Toward this end he produced Kitāb al-mawārīth (“Book on the Laws of Inheritance”); Aḥkam al-wadīʿah (“The Laws on Deposits”); Kitāb ash-shahādah wa al-wathāʾiq (“Book Concerning Testimony and Documents”); Kitāb aṭ-ṭerefot (“Book Concerning Forbidden Meats”); Siddur, a complete arrangement of the prayers and the laws pertaining to them; and some other minor works. In the Siddur he included his original religious poems. These works clearly show the Greco-Arabic methods of classification and composition. 

[Systematization: The Mishnah was somewhat organized around six major groupings, but while the Talmud starts under that organization, by virtue of being a record of discussions on the Mishnah, it travels far and wide from one topic to another. After close of Mishnah, communities around the Jewish world wrote questions to the leading Rabbis of Babylonia, Shealot u Teshuvoth( Responsa) , but this too would prove to be difficult to follow, as there was no one single repository or library with an orderly catalog! As the Jewish world was now spread from Spain to India and even into China, south to Yemen, north to central Europe and the Byzantine realms, one can imagine the confusion that arose]

 In 932, when Saʿadia refused to endorse a decision issued by the Exilarch in a litigation, an open breach ensued between the two leaders. The Exilarch excommunicated Saʿadia, and the latter retaliated by excommunicating the Exilarch. Ben Zakkai succeeded in having the Muslim ruler al-Qāhir remove Saʿadia from his office In 937 a reconciliation between the Gaon and the Exilarch occurred, and Saʿadia was reinstated as gaon. In 940 Ben Zakkai died and seven months later his son died, leaving behind a young child. Saʿadia took the orphan into his home and treated him like his own. Saʿadia himself died in September 942. Saʿadia’s Works.

 His major philosophical work, Kitāb al-amānāt wa al-iʿtiqādāt. The objective of this work was the harmonization of revelation and reason. In structure and content it displays a definite influence of Greek philosophy and of the theology of the Muʿtazilī, the rationalist sect of Islām. The introduction refutes skepticism and establishes the foundations of human knowledge. Chapter one seeks to establish creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) in order to ascertain the existence of a Creator-God. Saʿadia then discusses God’s uniqueness, justice, revelation, free will, and other doctrines accepted both by Judaism and by the Muʿtazilī (a great Islāmic sect of speculative theology, which emphasized the doctrines of God’s uniqueness and absolute justice). The second part of the book deals with the essence of the soul and eschatological problems and presents guidelines for ethical living. Below is the opening of the Hebrew translation and the Arabic original with emendations and notes by Rabbi Kapach. 

[On the left column is the Arabic text in the Hebrew lettering as reconstructed with footnotes indicating what source text was used for this edition. On the right side is the Hebrew translation with footnotes explaining the reason behind words or phrases used. In this case, Rabbi Kapach explains that he has titled the book " The Selected Among the Beliefs and Opinions" as opposed to the title given by the famous translator, ibn Tibbon , and explains his wording based on a manuscript variant and the content of the work]

Saʿadia’s opus magnum was on exegesis. He prepared an Arabic translation (Tafsir) of the whole Pentateuch (published by Joseph Derenbourg) and a translation with an extensive commentary on Genesis 1–28, Exodus, and Leviticus. …formulated new principles of interpretation modeled on the rules of Greco-Arabic rhetoric. 

An old manuscript page from the Tafsir

Opening of the Arabic text

Hebrew translation of opening of the text

 [“My rough translation into English: "The duplication of the definite article “ heh”
( the) hints at what is the plan and wisdom of the creator… its purpose is to show that both[heaven and earth] were created together in the smallest possible moment in time. This is against those who mistakenly believe that the creator of the heavens was not the creator of the earth. " This serves as a refutation of the gnostic claim against Judaism that a lesser god created the physical world, with all its defects, as opposed to the absolute God, who creates the Heavens, spiritual and perfect)] 

 His anti-Karaite works include Kitāb ar-radd ʿalā Ibn Sākawayhī (“Refutation of Ibn Sākawayhī”) and Kitāb taḥṣīl ash-sharāʾiʿ as-samāʿīyah (“Book Concerning the Sources of the Irrational Laws”). In the latter work the Gaon contends that matters pertaining to the irrational commandments of the Mosaic Law may never be decided by means of analogy but only by the regulations transmitted through oral tradition. Talmudic tradition is therefore, he argues, indispensable.

. . . he wrote a philosophical commentary on the mystical book Sefer yetzira. In contrast to his “Book on Beliefs and Opinions,” this volume does not show any influence of kalām (Islāmic scholastic theology).

 A sample from Beliefs and Opinions: 

Excerpts from Prof. Sarah Pessin ( She uses the Altmann translation for the sample texts, which are indented.

The Importance of Reason: The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs

 It is this commitment to upholding the importance of reason — and its fruits, knowledge and certainty — that lies at the core of Saadya's main philosophical text, the Kitâb al-Amânât wal-'I‘tiqâdât, or The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs (known in Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation as Sefer ha-'Emûnôt ve-ha-Deôt 

        : …I will begin this book, which it is my intention to write, with an exposition of     the reason why men, in their search for Truth, become involved in errors, and     how these errors can be removed so that the objects of their investigations may be fully attained; moreover, why some of these errors have such a powerful hold on some people that they affirm them as the truth, deluding themselves that they know something… (Altmann, 27)[1] 

. . . I have been led to make these introductory remarks by my observation of the state of many people in regard to their doctrines and beliefs .Some there are who have arrived at the truth and rejoice in the knowledge that they possess it…Others have arrived at the truth, but doubt it; they fail to know it for a certainty and to hold on to it…Still others confidently affirm that which is false in the belief that it is true; they hold on to falsehood, and abandon that which is right…Others again base their conduct on a certain belief for a time, and then reject it on account of some defect they find in it; then they change over to another belief and renounce it in turn because of something in it which seems questionable to them…These people are changing continually all their life… (Altmann, 28-9) 

…analysis of four modes of proper knowing, viz. knowledge from sense perception, knowledge from reason, knowledge from inference and knowledge from tradition. Tradition for Saadya demarcates a unique category of knowing. . .As such, Saadya's Arabic notion of tradition-as-report carries with it already a suggestion of reliable knowledge. Here, explicitly identifying Scripture as tradition (though elsewhere, he speaks of rabbinic writings as tradition too), he explains: 

[God] knew that His laws and the stories of His wondrous signs would, through the passage of time, require people to hand them down to posterity, so that they might become as evident to later generations as they were to the earlier ones. Therefore, He prepared in our minds a place for the acceptance of reliable tradition (al-kabar as-sâdiq) and in our souls a quiet corner for trusting it so that His Scriptures and stories should remain safely with us (Altmann, 109) 

Reliable tradition, hence, is the report that one can trust. It is an immediate source for certain knowledge. “Laws of Reason” vs. “Laws of Revelation” [ Hukkim u MIshpatim]…Saadya, though, is seen as the first Jewish writer to really engage this discussion philosophically. The “laws of reason” (again, the ones described as “ ‘aqliyyât ” from the root “intellect”) are essentially characterized there as commandments and prohibitions in the Bible whose reasons could be arrived at independently by any rational human being. . .prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and lying.:

 The Second Class of law consists of matters regarding which reason passes no judgment in the way either of approval or disapproval so far as their essence is concerned… (Altmann, 97)

 examples of such laws: the laws demarcating Sabbath and other festival days as separate from ‘ordinary’ days, rules about who gets chosen as a prophet and/or leader, the Jewish dietary laws, certain sexual prohibitions, and laws of purity and impurity. Reason and Revelation in Dialogue why the “laws of reason” were included by God in the revealed Bible at all 

— after all, if they are the sorts of things that reasonably sensible human beings ought to arrive at on their own, why did God bother revealing them? . God, in His benevolence, did not see fit to leave us to figure morality out on our own; even though we could arrive at certain key moral ideas on the basis of our own human reasoning, God, by revealing these moral ideas to us, essentially gives us a shortcut, as it were. …the Lord (be He exalted and glorified) has informed us through the words of His prophets that he wishes us to lead a religious life by following the religion which He instituted for us. This religion contains laws (sharî‘a), which he has prescribed for us, and which it is our duty to keep and to fulfill in sincerity…His messengers established these laws for us by wondrous signs and miracles, and we commenced to keep and fulfill them forthwith. Later we found that speculation confirms the necessity of the law for us. It would, however, not have been appropriate to leave us to our own devices… (Altmann, 95 ) 

Why make divine laws in the first place? When faced with this statement [viz. that the commandments and prohibitions are a divine gift], the first impulse of reason will be to object that God should have been able to bestow upon men perfect bliss and to grant them everlasting happiness without imposing upon them commandments and prohibitions. Moreover, it would seem that in this way His goodness would have been more beneficial to them, seeing that they would have been free from the necessity of making any laborious effort. My answer to this objection is that, on the contrary, the order instituted by God, whereby everlasting happiness is achieved by man's labours in fulfillment of the law, is preferable. For reason judges that one who obtains some good in return for work which he has accomplished enjoys a double portion of happiness in comparison with one who has not done any work and received what he receives as a gift of grace. reason does not deem it right to place both on the same level. This being so, our Creator has chosen for us the more abundant portion, namely, to bestow welfare on us in the shape of reward, thus making it double the benefit which we could expect without an effort on our part… (Altmann, 94)

Jewish dietary laws:
 The prohibition not to eat certain animals has this advantage: it makes it impossible to liken any of the animals to the Creator since it is unthinkable that one should permit oneself either to eat or to declare as impure what one likens to God; also it prevents people from worshiping any of the animals, since it is unthinkable that one should worship either what serves for food or what one declares as impure (Altmann, 101) 

…employs reason in support of revelation

. …mankind is fundamentally in need of the prophets, not solely on account of the revelational laws, which had to be announced, but also on account of the rational laws, because their practice cannot be complete unless the prophets show us how to perform them. Thus, for instance, reason commands gratitude toward God for the blessings received from Him, but does not specify the form, time, and posture appropriate to the expression of such gratitude. So we are in need of prophets. They gave it a form which is called ‘prayer’; they fixed its times, its special formulae, its special modes and the special direction which one is to face when praying… (Altmann, 103-104) 

The importance of revelation as a ground in Saadya …seen in his understanding of the commandments and prohibitions as themselves gracious gifts from God:
 The first of His acts of kindness towards His creatures was the gift of existence…Thereafter He offered them a gift by means of which they are able to obtain complete happiness and perfect bliss… (Altmann, 93) 

 God, Unity, Creation, Soul

 Saadya upholds the absolute unity of God, and argues firmly for creation ex nihilo… Saadya defends the creation ex nihilo position against 18 other theories, each of which he critiques in turn.. Saadya reveals a familiarity with a number of philosophical and theological doctrines, including those of the pre-Socratics, Plato and the Pythagoreans. Saadya actually links each of Plato's three discrete soul-functions to three discrete Hebrew terms for “soul” found in Scriptures (nefesh as corresponding to the appetitive function, ruah as corresponding to the faculty of passion and courage, and neshamah in correspondence to the faculty of knowledge).

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