Saadiah Gaon's Theology

Saadiah's rational analysis of God and Judaism set a precedent for medieval philosophers.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism, 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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.