#80 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (2)

This talk is the second instalment of David Solomon’s Jewish Philosophy series. In this episode, David examines the philosophical ideas and innovations of a towering figure of the early Middle Ages, Sa’adya ibn Yusuf al-Fayumi, commonly known as Sa’adya Gaon.

Watch the lecture here. Read the transcript below.



Last week we began our series by looking at the first great contributor to the whole Jewish philosophic tradition and that was Philo in the first century CE. And I just want to remind us, because it’s very important to understand – especially for those joining us for the first time today – that Jewish Philosophy is a reactive exercise.

Philosophy is the pursuit of things that we can know about the world through the mind, and through reason, and through logic. And the Jewish people who have relied for the most part on revelation how they can integrate those challenges that come from the general philosophic tradition.

That’s important to remember. We don’t have any systematic philosophic contribution after Philo for nearly the next 800 years. We’re going to open our chapter today in the early part of the 900s and Philo is living in the early part of the first century. So, there are nearly 800 years between them. And it’s not like in that time that Jewish people weren’t thinking about issues. It’s not like they weren’t busy.

We were producing the Talmud – two Talmuds in fact – Midrash, an entire genre of wisdom literature. We were the progenitor of two world religions. We were fighting a range of intellectual challenges from Christianity through Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Neoplatonism. All these things were occupying our minds, but there was no systematic attempt to sit down and try and write the basic philosophic ideas behind Judaism. It just wasn’t something that was challenging the Jewish mind at that point, intellectually.

However, in the seventh century, the whole of world history really underwent a huge upheaval with the rise of Islam. That’s not the total focus of our talk today, but it does change a lot of things for the Jewish world since the Jewish world found itself at the centre of the Islamic world.  In the middle of the eighth century, we see the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate and their emphasis on creating a culture of learning and of wisdom. As you famously know and learnt at school, it was the Arab Islamic philosophers of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries who carried over all of the texts and learning from the Greek world, from antiquity. The Greek philosophers were translated into Arabic, whereas, the West had fallen into the dark ages. It was the Arab world that carried forward the light of learning, so to speak.

As you can imagine, after a while, Islamic thinkers are going: “Oh, well, how do we sort this out? On the one hand, we’ve got all these incredible truth realisations and mind realisations that come to us from the Greek philosophers, but on the other hand, we’ve got the Koran, we’ve got Allah who’s given us this whole truth, how do these two truth systems match up? How can they be integrated?”

And so, we see the rise of various Islamic philosophical schools which, like Jewish philosophy, were for the most part reactive to the consequences of philosophy. And we call those early schools of Islamic thought, they come under a broad name called Kalam. Kalam means that stage of Islamic philosophy where it was struggling with the issues reconciling the core revelations of Islam and all this Greek philosophical thinking that they were transmitting.

The Geonic Period

I’m now going to share a graphic with you. You because I’m going to show you what we’re going to talk about today.

David Solomon on Jewish Philosophy of the Geonic Period
The Geonic Period

This looks a bit overwhelming for some of you that are not familiar with the Geonic Period. Those of you who sat with me for the class I did for the museum on Monday, where we looked at this period in detail, or who’ve listened to my course recently the -three-part course on the Geonic Period will know what’s going on here. But we’re going to look today at the figure of Saadya Gaon. And you can see Saadya Gaon fits in the early part of the 10th century, he’s sitting between two of the last great Geonim – Amram Gaon, who basically invented the siddur, and Rav Hai Gaon who is regarded as the last of the great Geonim of this incredible period.

Saadya Gaon

Saadya is sitting there. He’s contemporary with the great philosopher Al-Farabi. You can see that things are just about taking off in Spain. Sura, the great academy in Babylonia has undergone a revival, but Saadya is like its last meteoric blast. We don’t really have too much time to go into the biography of Saadya Gaon himself. Those of you who know a little bit about it will no doubt be impressed as Saadya was impressed, as everybody since Saadya has been impressed.

A massive, massive brain. Born in Egypt and went to Babylonia as a young man, maybe 25, or 30 years old, and as soon as he arrives there, he’s basically made the Gaon of Sura which would be a bit like someone rocking up at the age of 30 to Oxford and suddenly being made the chancellor of the university. He is someone who overwhelms this period with his intellectual projects.

There were several major intellectual challenges that were prodding the Jewish people. On the one hand, the Kalam was making its own progressions. The Kalam had got involved in the idea of apologetics on behalf of Islam towards philosophy, but they were coming to Jewish thinkers, and they were saying to them,” Some of the things that you believe and that are written in your Torah are not philosophically tenable. Perhaps one of the most important of those is the fact that God in the Bible appears to have physical characteristics. God walks around, God has eyes, God has hands, and so on. Whereas in the Qur’an it’s much easier to reconcile that philosophically because God is a much more reified, abstract, and incorporeal idea. These are some of the challenges that were coming from Islam towards Judaism.

There were other intellectual challenges during the times of the Geonim. We see the rise of the Karaite movement who were very insistent on reading the Torah literally. And we had challenges from people like Ḥiwi al-Balkhi who were writing very critical and sceptical books about Jewish thought.

One of Saadya’s main projects and one of the ones he’s most famous for is the establishment of a systematic theology of Judaism, a systematic way in which he could make sense of all the fundamental principles of Judaism and how they could appeal to the human mind. This might seem like something that we take for granted today, but Saadya was the first person to really lay this down in a systematic way in his famous book called Emunoth ve-Deot.

And what identifies Saadya with the Kalam – and he is effectively a Kalam thinker. He’s Jewish, but many of his ideas and many of the structures of his thoughts are borrowed from Islam. But make no mistake, for Saadya there was only one source of truth, and that source of truth was the Torah. What he is trying to do is reground the whole of religious thinking on a basis that is compatible with reason and with philosophy.

Reason and Revelation

He was born in Egypt, but he had studied philosophy under several major teachers, both in Egypt and in the land of Israel on his way to Babylonia.  The main discussion in Saadya’s philosophical writings, as it was for the Kalam, is God. And what Saadya identified as the key point of any religion’s claim to knowledge is the concept of revelation. But can the unique revelation of Judaism be reconciled with philosophy? Can it be reconciled with what we call reason, the products of the human mind? And for that purpose, Saadya wrote Emunoth ve-Deoth, the book of beliefs and opinions, and in that book, he does a very, very important analysis that I’m going to spend a few minutes on now. But it has a lasting impact on Jewish thought. That is, Saadya sat down and said, “At the end of the day, let’s work out how do we know things? What is knowledge fundamentally comprised of?”

He realised that there are two overarching ways in which we know things. One is through reason, and one is through tradition. And I’m going to share with you what that means for Saadya in this graph right here.

David Solomon: Jewish Philosophy - Knowledge, Revelation and Reason

Now reason for Saadya involves three different modes. One is sense input. So, we know things from our senses. We see them, we feel them, we hear them. They happen to us. And that’s one way in which we know things. The other is self-evident statements or truths, such as, for example, truth is better than lies, truth is better than falsehood, is a self-evident premise, especially if you’re doing philosophical inquiry.

And the other is logic – things that we work out via logistic syllogism and so on, and we arrive through a series of steps at logical outcomes. In contrast to that is the whole field of revelation. Revelation for Saadya doesn’t just mean specifically the Torah as it’s written, but it also includes all of the traditions that have come forth from Torah – that would include all the oral law traditions, the Talmudic, and so on. But let’s just focus on the text of the Torah itself.

It’s very important that we understand that Saadya breaks down knowledge into this two-part system because what Saadya is going to do is to show how these systems must be compatible in any project of reconciliation between philosophy and Judaism. In other words, to understand Judaism itself is to understand the importance of reason. Saadya’s famous axiom is that in the acceptance of anything, reason and revelation must accord.

Clearly, Saadya’s key point is to try and show how this fourth level of knowledge which we call tradition, and that includes the revelation of the Torah – we can call it revelation, we can call it tradition because that’s how we know about it. In this fourth level of knowledge, Saadya’s job is to make that reasonable, not that we believe it simply because there’s a great big thunder and light show and a revelation and we were told that that’s what happened, therefore we must believe it. But that our belief system in that must be grounded in reason, the way that reason is grounded in revelation. It’s not a vertical arrangement for Saadya, it’s a horizontal arrangement. These two must agree and Saadya’s project is to make tradition reasonable, to set it up on a firm basis.

He does this in several ways, but one of the important ways he does this is in relation to the mitzvot and the commandments of the Torah. And Saadya, for example, points out that a lot of the commandments of the Torah make sense on their own. They are reasonable, you know, don’t kill, don’t steal. Those things are things the human mind could possibly arrive at by itself. But there are many commandments where the reason is not apparent. But what Saadya wants us to do is to understand that even those commandments of the Torah, such as the laws of Kashrut, the dietary laws of the Torah, or many of the other ones that are not immediately accessible for reason, nevertheless, have reasons behind them that the human mind is capable of understanding. And that in fact, it should attempt to understand based on reason.

Saadya spends some of Emunoth ve-Deot attempting to elaborate on what those reasons might be and how they can appeal to logic. And he goes through the ten commandments as an example of the kinds of commandments that can emerge from the different ways in which we know things through reason. That is an interesting aspect of Saadya’s thought – but that’s not the one I’m going to focus on right now – but it is interesting because the whole tradition that happened after the 10th century, where we’re going to see that emerge in later thinkers, the attempt to understand the commandments of the Torah on a rational basis, not just on a revealed or blind obedience basis, really emerges from Saadya’s distinction and his attempt to reconcile these two.

But the real essence, the real engine of the book of Beliefs and Opinions, of Sefer Emunoth ve-Deot, is in relation to the various topics to do with God. So, on the one hand, Saadya is going into the concept of divine uniqueness. What does it mean? What are all these descriptions in the Torah about God?

What are they doing there? And here’s probably Saadya’s key contribution.  It is to realise and to explain, and I don’t want anybody running out of the room when I say this, because it’s a very, very shocking thought to a lot of people, that the Torah is not literal. The Torah is not a literal document. It can be interpreted allegorically. “And we know that,” says Saadya, “Because when the Torah talks about the eyes of God or the hands of God, it cannot be literal because I have on the one hand, a traditional notion that God is incorporeal – God does not have a body – but I also have an idea about that which conforms with reason.

And Saadya explains to you, none of Aristotle’s categories can apply to God. None of the incidentals or accidents that happen in relation to created things can be applied to God, so God of necessity cannot have a body. These descriptions are modes of divine interaction. So, when we talk about the hands of God or the arm of God, the strength of God, we talk about the eyes of God, we talk about the supervision of God on the world, but they are just descriptive of modes of interaction. They cannot be applied to God. Himself, God Itself is beyond our understanding.

Now, one of the issues that therefore comes out from there – and I’m just going to touch on this, it’s a complex subject and I don’t want to confuse people – but you could ask: “Well, how do we know that the tradition that we’ve got is the right tradition?”  Saadya spends quite some time on this because he relies on the prophets of Israel, who have transmitted the tradition, as having had a unique type of perception, and their ability to perceive these modes of divine interaction, through a mechanism called the kavod.

The Kavod

I’m going to show you a diagram of the kavod. The kavod looks very similar to something we’ve seen before with Philo who talked about the Logos.

Jewish History podcast, Jewish philosophy, Saadya Gaon, David Solomon, knowledge in philosophy

The kavod speaks directly to the mind of the prophet to clarify what is true knowledge. There are many types of knowledge, but true knowledge of the divine is vouchsafed through the kavod. This is going to become a mechanism of Jewish Medieval thought because we need to understand why it is that the prophets of Israel were able to have this unique perception of the modes of God.

Saadya spends time explaining that, but the key point I want us to understand from this is the idea of allegory – that things are not necessarily literal. And I’m going to say another controversial point and I’ll say this now that I think if Saadya was around today, I don’t think he would have any problem with something like the theory of evolution. He would tell you that if all the scientific and logical and rational and reasonable evidence is pointing in a certain direction and the Torah’s description of creation doesn’t seem to accord with reason, but it can be understood allegorically, then you understand it allegorically.

It’s not going to help anyone if you hold on to a blind literal faith in what the Torah says if it conflicts with reason. And we saw this with the descriptions of God’s modes and all the divine interactions and processes. So, that kind of conflict that some people experience today between the Torah and science, would not be an issue for Saadya. It’s an issue for people today.

And when it comes to creation, Saadya takes on board most of the arguments of the Mu’tazilites, of the Kalam, he talks about the proofs of God, the teleological argument from the Talmud about how the world was created so there must’ve been a Creator. But he also emphatically stresses that the world is created from nothing.

Remember from last week we talked about Plato and even for Philo it’s possible that the world was created from pre-existing matter? But under no circumstances for Saadya.  This is something that Saadya Gaon establishes as an almost immovable pillar of subsequent Jewish philosophy, the fact that the world and even time itself are created from nothing by God.

Free Will

Saadya is emphatic, he lays down the paradigm for the future on the importance of a free will. Free will is something that you have. The conflict that’s going to become very big in the Middle Ages is about how do you have free will when God knows everything? That’s not a problem for Saadya. He is aware of the argument, but he says, “God has foreknowledge of everything, but God’s foreknowledge does not choose what you do. You choose what you do, not God’s foreknowledge.  That’s not a terribly satisfying answer to that question, but Saadya is aware of the question and lays down that whichever way you’re going to approach it, you cannot deviate from the fact that you have free will.

And why do you have free will? You have to have free will because otherwise there’s no point. The commandments were given to people – both rational commandments and even commandments that you can’t yet understand with your reason. You’re going to get reward for all of them. They’re important to do because human beings need to earn their own reward in this world and there would be absolutely no point to that if you did not have free choice. This very, very fundamental idea of Jewish theology, laid down by Saadya in this systematic way.

The Soul

The other thing that Saadya talks about and is really the first to talk about in a systematic way, is the concept of the soul. We know that already Plato had talked about the soul and there are three levels to the soul basically coming out of platonic thought. There is your appetitive soul. That’s the soul that goes around doing things that require just basic appetites- whether they are for food or other things – that’s the soul that wanders around the shopping centres and so on. And then you’ve got the emotive – that’s passions and all your different aspects, whether it’s courage or anger or love. All those things exist within your emotional framework. And then of course your soul has an intellectual faculty.

This tripartite, this threefold division of the soul, is something that Saadya picks up on because he finds an exact corollary in Jewish thought in the notion of the three modes that we talk about the soul. Of nefesh, ruach,and neshama – the three terms that the Torah uses for the concept of soul, as it is evolving in the biblical literature – and Saadya takes those and welds them to Plato’s notion of the three paths of the soul.

This is going to be immensely important going forward. It’s going to have an effect on kabbalistic thinking as well as Jewish philosophic thinking. So, it’s important. But Saadya, in any discussion about the soul as with anything else, says it must accord with reason. Saadya, for example, rejects the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation doesn’t make sense for Saadya. Reincarnation is going to come back into Jewish thought in kabbalistic thinking in a big way. Reincarnation is a part of Jewish thought, but a rationalist like Saadya Gaon living in the 10th century in the Abbasid Caliphate is not into reincarnation. It doesn’t make sense to him.

What he is however emphatic about is the concept of the resurrection of the dead. And that is at the end of days everybody is going to be brought back to life. Saadya makes this argument based on his argument aboutyesh me’ayin, his argument about something from nothing. Because if God is capable of creating the world from nothing, then the problem of creating something that has already existed is not going to be an issue. It’s much more difficult to create something that has never existed than something that has already existed.

So he takes these foundational Jewish concepts. The idea of the resurrection of the dead as an essential belief of Judaism had already been discussed by the Talmud, so Saadya can’t reject that, but what he does is he takes that concept, and he grounds it on reason.


Let’s just summarise again the major contributions of Saadya Gaon. I know I’ve gone through them very, very quickly, so I just want to go over them again. And that is that there is knowledge that we acquire through reason and there is knowledge that we acquire through tradition. And those two things must accord if I’m to accept them as part of the way I see the world. It doesn’t mean I can reject things I don’t understand. If I’m told by revelation or tradition about certain things and I don’t understand them, that just means I do not yet understand them. But Saadya tells you that you can.

There is a pathway of reason that leads to the understanding of everything in tradition. So, the fact that you can’t understand it doesn’t mean you reject it. But if it conflicts with realism, if it conflicts with logic, such as, for example, what I was talking about before the idea of reincarnation – Saadya’s basic problem with reincarnation was that he seems to be very concerned with when he wakes up at the end of days and the resurrection of the dead who are you going to be married to? It seems to be a big problem for him. Not just that, but then you’ve got the other problem of exactly who are you? So, he rejects that because he doesn’t have to accept it because it conflicts with his reason.

We talked about the fact that reason and revelation must accord. We talked about the fact that tradition is a guiding force for reason because people could say “Why did you need to put all those different types of commandments – the ones that we can understand the reason, the ones we can’t understand the reason? Why did God put them all in the same document?” Saadya would argue because one guides the other. Tradition guides reason, it keeps it grounded in the proper perspective on the world and at the same time it allows us to move progressively from things that we can understand, to things that we can’t yet, but we accept from tradition.

Tradition is also reasonable, as Saadya argues extensively because of the way it’s transmitted and that’s where Judaism does its job very, very well because of the historical dimension of Judaism that has allowed for these things to be transmitted throughout history.

We talked about the notion of the kavod. Kavod, which is going to figure big in Jewish philosophy, is the transmitter of true knowledge that comes to the prophets of Israel so that they can discern the knowledge that they are acquiring in order to express the modes of divine interaction.

So, you can see that in every single facet of Jewish thinking, Saayda is not just going, “Oh, I’ve got to believe this because I’m told by the Torah or because I’m told that by the Talmud. He’s putting everything through this mill of philosophy and reason to try and explain why it makes logical sense.

I should point out to those who are wondering that, of course, many of the arguments of the Kalam, and we can include Saadya in the broad category of Kalam thinkers who are at this particular time – in the ninth and 10th centuries -trying to take revealed religion and set it on the ground, mostly for the purposes of apologetics. Saadya’s basic project is to resolve Judaism with its intellectual challenges, whether that is with Islam or whether that is with the accusations that are coming from elsewhere in the Jewish world.

We have to realise that many of those presuppositions of the Kalam were completely, even during Saadya’s time. Saadya is a contemporary of Al-Farabi and Al-Farabi is really a very different type of philosopher who is not necessarily using God as his initial premise but the whole notion of being in the world is much more similar to later Aristotelian philosophies and he’s destroying a lot of the Kalam arguments for reasons that I’m not going to go into now, obviously. But we should also be aware that, with great respect, a lot of Saadya’s philosophy was deconstructed by the Rambam, by Maimonides, a couple of centuries later. The Rambam doesn’t really talk about Saadya so much by name, but that type of thinking is grounded in apologetics and one of the great problems with it is that it can be applied to any religion. By the time you get to Maimonides, you’ve already gone through another couple of centuries of philosophical development and many of the ideas of Greek philosophy are starting to be weeded out.

When Saadya is sitting reading philosophy, when he’s reading Aristotle, for example, he’s not really reading Aristotle. He’s reading a cholent of Aristotle and Plato and Neoplatonic thinking. The whole project of sorting out what exactly was Aristotle saying is even evolution over the next couple of centuries.

So, Maimonides, the Rambam, is coming from, in a way, a more advanced and sophisticated philosophical position than Saadya. But even Maimonides acknowledges that the groundwork laid by Saadya is essential to the ongoing project of thought and of Jewish philosophy because he, on the one hand, is the first systematiser of Jewish thought. And, on the other hand, his emphasis on the compatibility of Torah Judaism with reason and with philosophy.

I know that I’ve gone on a whirlwind through Saadya’s thought, but I wanted to grasp its essence. Next week I’m going to fill in some gaps in relation to Neoplatonism and so on and we’re going to just look at a kind of parallel project inside Jewish thought. But the answer to: is there a Jewish rationalist theology? The answer is yes. There are many, many people today, some of them even thinkers in the Jewish world, who haven’t really progressed beyond Saadya because Saadya’s world and Saadya’s worldview are enough for them. But we’re going to see in the weeks that come that we need more. And yet Saadya Gaon’s contribution to the foundations of Jewish philosophy is absolutely essential.


I’ve got a question in relation to what I said about the soul. The question is when I say nefesh, ruach, andneshama, which parts of the soul are they? So, the nefesh, this by the way is an incredibly enduring insight of Saadya’s -it’s amazing. The nefesh is the appetitive soul. So that’s the one that, breathes, that eats, that does the things the body does, it has its animal lusts and its animal appetites. That’s the nefesh. The ruach is the emotive or passionate framework and neshama is the intellectual one. It’s the neshama that is going to apprehend the divine, whether it is through revelation or through reason.

Saadya ‘s book Sefer Emunot v’Deot has been translated for those who want to look at it. There are many people who studied Saadya very fruitfully and found a great many things to discuss and talk about.

I can’t emphasise enough how important is that realisation about the literality of Torah. Remember that Saadya is also fighting the Karaites who are arguing for literal interpretations. Islam and the whole concept of the Qur’an the whole concept of literality is surrounding Saadya. There are challenges coming from philosophy, coming from a great range of areas and so Saadya’s determination to make the Torah amenable, to reason, and to philosophy is a contribution of enduring importance.

So, thank you for listening to that. And I hope I will see you as we continue this whirlwind journey next week.

David delivered this Zoom talk in 2020 for Caulfield Shule in his capacity as scholar-in-residence.