Saadiah Gaon

An introduction to the life and work of a medieval spiritual leader.

Saadiah Gaon (was) a foremost medieval spiritual leader, Talmudist, biblical exegete, and philosopher (882-942). Saadiah was born in Egypt, and lived for a time in Tiberias, after which he was appointed by the exilarch [head of the Jewish community in Babylon], David Ben Zakkai, to be the head of the college at Sura in Babylon, hence the title, Saadiah Gaon.

But rulers seem to have a habit of falling out with their protégés and David soon deposed Saadiah. The quarrel between the two lasted for seven years, remaining unresolved until Saadiah was reinstated.

Saadiah, responding to the Karaite interest in the Bible, wrote a translation of the Bible into Arabic, in which he displays his virtuosity as a grammarian and philologist, as well as his vast knowledge of the Jewish traditional sources. [Karaites, a Jewish sect that arose in the 8th century CE, are characterized by their rejection of rabbinic Judaism and the Talmud in favor of their own reading and interpretations of the Bible] His Prayer Book was one of the earliest to be compiled and is more comprehensive than those of his very few predecessors. But Saadiah’s fame rests on his philosophical work, Emunot De-ot (Beliefs and Opinions), written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew by Judah Ibn Tibbon. This work is the first systematic Jewish theology. It has a special significance as a philosophical defense of rabbinic Judaism by the leading representative of that Judaism of his day.

The “beliefs” in the title are the postulates of the Jewish religion, while “opinions” are the truths arrived at by empirical investigation and rational reflection. Saadiah takes issue with those who see philosophy as harmful to faith. On the contrary, faith is strengthened when supported by reason.

Influenced strongly by the thought of Arabic thinkers who sought in similar fashion to reconcile Islam with philosophical inquiry, Saadiah holds that there are two ways to religious truth, reason and revelation (of the Torah, for Saadiah). Both ways are essential: reason because without it superstitious ideas will proliferate; revelation because not everyone can arrive at the truth by speculation…

Among the many ideas of Saadiah discussed at length by later Jewish thinkers are: his rejection of the doctrine of reincarnation as foreign to Judaism; his belief that the world was created for human benefit (here Maimonides disagrees and holds that God’s will and purpose are unknown); and his belief that animals will be rewarded in the hereafter for having been killed by man in order to obtain his food.

For all his acute reasoning powers, Saadiah’s more of an apologetic for traditional Judaism than a pure philosopher starting from scratch. This is true, though to a lesser degree, of Maimonides [1135-1204, preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher]. Neither Saadiah nor Maimonides entertained any doubts about the complete truth of God’s revelation of the Torah, although they both believed that philosophy has an important role to play in so interpreting the Torah that its truths do not run counter to reason.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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