Saadiah Gaon’s Theology

Written in 933, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions provided rational analysis of God and Judaism, setting a precedent for medieval philosophers.

Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism: Beliefs, Customs & Rituals, published by Pocket Books.

Saadiah Gaon’s major philosophical work, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, suggests how much the world in which the Jews lived had changed since the time of Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E). The principal influence of Saadiah’s thought is the Arabic kalam (school) known as the Mutazilite. The Mutazilite kalam held that rational argument was a vital component of religious belief and that Greek philosophy (particularly Aristotle) was a useful tool in such matters.

Written in 933, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, the earliest example of medieval Jewish thought to have survived to the present, utilizes these tools for the specific purpose of refuting the claims of Christianity and Islam in the realm of monotheism, and the no less vigorous arguments of the Zoroastrians, whose conception of a deity was dualistic. Writing in Arabic, Saadiah offers a spirited polemic that spends as much time battling opposing views as it does in expounding those of its author.

Proving God’s Existence

Saadiah, like Philo, is not concerned with the erection of a systematic and coherent philosophical worldview (although his writing style is quite systematic in itself). Rather, he sets out to find rational proofs for the beliefs of rabbinic Judaism, for the Oral and Written Torah. Saadiah is, in effect, the first Jewish philosopher to present systematic formal proofs of the existence of God, something that the rabbis had previously taken for granted.

There are, Saadiah argues, four sources of knowledge: sense‑experience; intuition of self-evident truths (for example lying is wrong, telling the truth is good); logical inference; and growing out of these three, reliable tradition. It is the last of these that places us squarely in the mainstream of Jewish thought.

For Saadiah “reliable tradition” is transmitted to us from others. (Our ability to trust their reports is the basis of human society. Hence the emphasis on lying and truth.) For the Jew, reliable tradition has a special meaning; the heart of Judaism is the transmission of the Oral and Written Torah of God’s revelations as passed on by the patriarchs and the prophets. The Torah’s origins are divine in nature, which makes it unique among human traditions.

Needless to say, Saadiah’s view of human knowledge only passes muster if he can prove the existence of God, of a Supreme Being who created the world, in whom resides absolute truth. Saadiah argues for a Deity who is alive, powerful, and wise, who created the world ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing), who pre‑existed the world, a Being who is separate from the world. That Creator is one, a unity, not a plurality, in distinction from Christianity’s Trinity and Zoroastrianism’s dual gods.

Composite God

Like the Arab thinkers who came before him (and Maimonides, among others, after him), Saadiah argues that if God has a plurality of attributes, this implies that the Creator is composite in nature. Therefore, we can only understand the various supposed attributes of “Godness” as implications imposed on God by our limited understanding of the Almighty’s nature, rather than actual attributes of the Deity.

The only reason we anthropomorphize God (i.e., describe God in human terms) is that we lack both the comprehension to delineate God’s true nature and the language with which to express it. God is the cause of all corporeal existence yet is not corporeal, for if the Creator were corporeal there would have to be something that caused God to come into being.

Saadiah anticipates Maimonides in his discussion of creation, arguing that God created the world not from any necessity, but out of free will. And he harkens back to the second-century sage Rabbi Akiba in his reliance on what philosophers have come to call “the argument from design” for the existence of God: all the parts of the world fit together in a skillful pattern; all levels of creation fit and reflect this design; it is impossible to expect that such elegant results can be anything but the product of a skilled artisan, a Supreme Being with a plan. Ergo, someone must have created the world and everything in it, someone who must have pre-existed the world in order to have created it. All the facets of God that were enumerated above can be derived logically from this single fact.

The Commandments

Much of the worldview that Saadiah erects proceeds, in turn, from the argument from design. It is reasonable to give thanks to one’s Creator, therefore humans should follow the commandments as an expression of gratitude. At the same time, the commandments were given to the people Israel by God so that humanity should lead a fulfilling life. For Saadiah, observing the mitzvot is a form of self‑actualization as well as a way of thanking God for the bounty of Creation.

He believes that the mitzvot fall into two categories: those that can be understood by human reason and those that cannot. Reason tells us that it is bad to murder because in the end it would lead to the extinction of humanity. Reason tells us that we do not like to be insulted, therefore it is reasonable that we should be prohibited from insulting God by taking Adonai’s name in vain.

On the other hand, Saadiah readily acknowledges, there is a body of mitzvot that seemingly have no rational basis. Here too, he says, reason can help us to understand the commandments. It is entirely reasonable that a man give some unnecessary employment to a poor man so that he may be able to pay him, thereby conferring some benefit upon him. Similarly, it is reasonable that God should give humankind the ceremonial laws that seem to be without any basis in human reason, because they allow us to confer honor on God by observing them.

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