Saadia Gaon: Revelation and Reason Reconciled

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saadia Gaon lived from 882 to 942. He was born in Egypt, but he moved to Babylonia and he became a very prominent leader of the Rabbinic movement. Saadia encountered a number of challenges that confronted Judaism in the 10th century. One of them was the challenge of Karaism. This was a group that raised serious challenges to the authority of the rabbis and Rabbinic Judaism, specially to what was called the “oral Torah”. They claimed that a loyalty to the text alone is what is required. Everything else has absolutely no basis in the Bible itself.

Some Karaists went even further by raising questions regarding the role of God in creation. They suggested some kind of mediation of angels even in the process of creation. This, of course, was a very dangerous idea for the rabbis, because it suggested all sorts of other powers that existed, it was no longer man and God. By removing God from an active interest in this world, they possibly might have been conjuring a Sadduceean teaching.

Saadia had another challenge that he had to address. That was the discovery by Arab thinkers of his day of the Greek philosophical discourse and their application of rational thought processes to the examination of religious truths. This Islamic scholastic theology was known as Kalam. It served as the background for Saadia’s major philosophical work, which is a book known as the Emunoth ve-Deoth, meaning “Beliefs and Opinions”. He wrote it in Arabic and was later translated into Hebrew.

This is the first philosophical defense of Judaism that we have in our possession. In many ways, it is the earliest example of a systematic Jewish theology. Saadia distinguished between those beliefs that are the fruits of rational thinking and those truths that can only be achieved through revelation. For Saadia, this two, revelation and reason, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary.

Saadia argues that one should employ philosophical thought in trying to achieve a deeper understanding of all the aspects of Jewish religion. He is using the Greek mode of thought and applying it to his own world. He did not consider this as undermining a belief in the Bible. He argues that this supports the belief in the Bible.

He tells a parable of a man who is shown a pile of coins. He was told by the person showing him the coins “the number of coins here is such and such”. We have no reason to disbelieve that person. Why would he make up a lie? But if we count the coins ourselves, we would achieve a degree of certainty that we did not have prior to this.

He is suggesting that we have an inherited belief, but what’s wrong with examining that belief using logic? He is convinced that we can support that belief through philosophical contemplation. He was clearly responding to fears that rational argumentation could challenge faith.