The Emergence of Jewish Dogma

Medieval authorities responded to outside pressures and formulated Jewish principles of faith.

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If a religion felt itself to be attacked on a theological plane by a competing faith it might feel constrained to formulate its doctrines more systematically the better to repulse the attack. But what faiths challenged rabbinic Judaism? Paganism in various forms, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.

All three were conceived by the rabbis as polytheistic, and so were hardly perceived as serious threats to Judaism on a theological plane. While individual Jews might be attracted to one or another of these faiths, it was not because they were perceived as presenting a more coherent religious picture of the universe than did the Judaism of the rabbis. These competing faiths might have challenged rabbinic Judaism, but it was not because they were more attractive theologically than was Judaism.

That, at least, was surely the opinion of the rabbis of the Talmud.

Responding to Outside Influences

Why then, do we suddenly find systematic theology among the Jews of Babylonia in the tenth century? The answer to this question, it seems to me, is related to the rise of Islam and of Karaism. Following the Muslim victories the Jews found themselves in a new situation. Suddenly they were confronted with an enthusiastically expansionist rival religion every bit as monotheistic as Judaism. Many Muslim theologians utilized the tools of Greek philosophy. Judaism had to defend itself against this external threat.

One aspect of that defense took the form of an attempt to show that Jewish beliefs were in no way inferior to those of other religions; i.e. the orderly exposition of Jewish beliefs.

At roughly the same time Judaism was sharply confronted from within by the Karaite heresy. The Karaites used Greek philosophical concepts in their arguments and forced the Rabbanites [i.e. the mainstream tradition] to do likewise. Here, too, in order to defend itself, rabbinic Judaism was forced to define itself in conceptual terms. This was all the more so with the Karaites, who claimed to be Jews and whose practices did not diverge dramatically from those of contemporary Rabbanite Judaism.

If practice did not sufficiently distinguish the Rabbanite from the Karaite then theology would have to.

We might even say that by the tenth century, confronted as it was without and within by rival faiths which it could not ignore, both of which chose to explain themselves in a theologically systematic fashion, rabbinic Judaism was literally forced to engage in the project of systematic theology. Sa'adia Gaon, the doughty opponent of Karaism and the first Jew methodically and rationally to expound the central beliefs of Judaism, was thus very much a product of his time and place.

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Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.