Birth of Jewish Kalām
Definitions of Kalām have always varied within intellectual circles and even among theologians and Mutakallimīn themselves. In light of this variety, at least two essential characteristics can be identified: defending Islam in the face of other philosophical and religious doctrines (apologetics), and the using rational exposition through systematic argumentation and discourse for the sake of proving certain doctrines based on logical demonstration while refuting doubts and suspicions. These two features correlate with Jewish Kalām and will prove relevant as we shall see later. The definition of Jewish Kalām requires some necessary remarks concerning the evolution of Jewish religious thought, specifically prior to its involvement with Islamic culture since the 9th century. These remarks are important as they allow us to understand the later developments within Jewish thought in particular and religious thought in general.
Under the influence of the Hellenistic philosophical traditions, in responding to their opponents and seeking to defend the emerging Christian religion, Church Fathers, since the rise of Christianity, sought to develop a religious philosophy based on rational statements, argumentations and evidence (Theology) to clarify and pinpoint “religious truths”, borrowing heavily from the Greek philosophical traditions, mainly Logic and Metaphysics (divine knowledge). In other words Christian theology sought to formulate, reinforce and discuss religious matters through rational argumentation, away from the authority of a certain tradition or forced imposition. Therefore, central to theology is its own methodology, founded on logical proofs, rather than on the contents, terminologies, or conceptions relevant to a particular science but with a purpose, unlike philosophy, of bolstering religious faith.
Hence, the scope of theology extends to cover main issues including: the divine nature, the oneness of God, the relation between the Creator and his creation generally and towards mankind specifically, and the discussion of some central problematic issues such as divine justice, theodicy, providence and free will. Thus, theology is divided into various categories and discusses different issues pertaining to different intellectual streams and religious sects and cults, and is intertwined with varying historical or civic and cultural contexts, and different social and political needs. It is this specificity of context that allows us to differentiate between Muslim, Christian or Jewish Kalām.
It is, in fact, against this background that Islamic, rational and intellectual attempts finally formulated and solidified into the Muʿtazilite Kalām, which rapidly developed into one of the most organized schools of Kalām on a methodological level, and as one of the most widespread schools with great influence in the mid-9thcentury. In consequence, each one of the three monotheistic groups (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) employed the most common methodology of Kalām, with its literary methods and terminologies to reinforce particular features unique to each creed. Hence, Muslim Kalām is the Kalām based on the Islamic creed while Jewish and Christian Kalām are based on the unique concepts, beliefs and needs that are distinctive of the Jewish and Christian creeds.
During the 10th century, Jewish literature demonstrates intense Jewish activity to keep on track with the progress taking place within Islamic intellectual life at the time, and the attempts to use the insights from Islamic Kalām to deal rationally and methodically with aspects of Jewish doctrine. As such, the birth of Jewish Kalām came as a result of its involvement with the surrounding Arabic-speaking culture and the dominance of Arabic as a mother tongue among Jews. Thus during first half of the 10th century we see a new Jewish epoch actively engaged in intellectual and cultural achievements. Most important of these accomplishments was the rise of Jewish Kalām as the first Jewish intellectual current seeking to formulate the Jewish doctrine according to a new set of rational standards. Therefore, the three Jewish groups –Rabbanites, Karaites, and Samaritans (the last is not considered Jewish based on the rules of the Jewish orthodox law) were heavily influenced by Kalām as it touched upon the core of their doctrine and pushed for its reform.
Hence, a definition of Jewish Kalām should stress its very nature as a rational speculative theology that medieval Jewish scholars developed under the dominance of Arab culture and the Islamic ate world. However, Jewish Kalām first appeared during the 9thcentury before Muslim Kalām in general and Muʿtazilite Kalām in particular had been well consolidated. For this reason we can consider some Jewish scholars who wrote in Arabic as full participants in the development of Kalām.
In general, Jewish Kalām expositions are constructed along the same lines as those of Muslim Kalām and focus on the same topics, aside from some particular Jewish emphases and distinctive elements. Jewish Kalām also develop some specific preoccupations, which are not found in the same way in Muslim expositions. For instance, angels occupy a central theme in Islam as messengers delivering messages to prophets; whereas in Orthodox Judaism, generally speaking, angels remain a marginal theme since they did not deliver the message to Moses according to the Jewish belief prevalent in that era. Moreover, we notice that miracles in general, and those of Moses specifically, occupy a central place in the writings of Jewish Kalām scholars as manifestations of prophecy compared to their marginal status in the writings of Muslim scholars of Kalām in that era.
We also see the rise of a new and interesting phenomenon in Jewish literature at the time, characterized by the appearance of Hebrew writings employing terminologies and theories of Kalām. One of these scholars was the eminent proto-Karaite scholar and commentator Benjāmīn al-Nahāwandī (originally from Nahāwand, Persia, active in the first half of the 9th century), of whose writings very little has come down to us, and his famous treatise: The Pseudo-Qumisian Sermon, which highlights Karaite activity at the end of the 10thcentury in Jerusalem.
With regard to biblical interpretation, however, Jewish Kalām has distinct features. Among these are: priority for rational exegesis (based on philology, historical context, and reason); extended commentaries on critical issues like creatio ex nihilo; emphasis on the main Muʿtazilā principles (al-Uṣūl al-Khamsa), mainly God’s unity and justice; using specific terms and concepts, methodological features, dialectical discussions and an exegetical approach called Ẓāhirl-Naṣṣ (the apparent sense of the text) in contrast to Midrashic, symbolic, typological, or just figurative readings.
However, except for the writings of Philo of Alexandria (d. ca. 50 CE), which had a significant impact on Christian literature, but no such influence on subsequent Jewish thought, rational theology was alien to Jewish literature before the 9thcentury. Based on Jewish sources dating back to the 10th century, rational argumentation was first deployed methodically in the writings of Dāwūd al-Muqammaṣ. Another notable example was the scholar Isaac Israeli ben Solomon (ca. 840–940 CE, was active in Cairo and Kairouan) who was famous for his adoption of neoplatonic philosophy and for publishing several philosophical writings in Arabic such as: Book of Elements, Book of Definitions and Shapes, the Garden of Wisdom –on Metaphysics, Introduction to Logic, Book of the Spirit and the Soul), and other medical pieces such as (Book of Fevers, Book of Remedies and Aliments, and others), and for his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah (a mystical short work of cosmogony). Despite his inclination towards the Neoplatonics, he was influenced, to a certain degree, by the conventions of Kalām; yet, his inclination made it difficult for such an influence to be given a worthy expression.
As a result of the Jewish adoption of the Arabic language, which became more and more Islamized in its intellectual products and activities, a new era of Jewish literary activity began. One major outcome, therefore, was Jewish Kalām as the only rational Jewish theology of that epoch. Rabbanites and Karaites as well as Samaritans (see “Samaritans”) were influenced by the Kalām in varying degrees. However, a rational Jewish theology appeared for the first time in the writings of Dāwūd al-Muqammaṣ as noted above. Prior to al-Muqammaṣ, we only have various collections of non-systematic thoughts, or sets of opinions and beliefs using different models and genres to articulate the authors’ theological preoccupations.
Dāwūd ibn Marwān al-Raqqī, widely known by his nickname al-Muqammaṣ (active in the first half of the 9thcentury, Northern Iraq and Syria), was born a Jew, converted to Christianity, and later in life returned to Judaism. There is ample evidence that he studied in Christian Syriac academies and was well versed in Christian literature.
Al-Muqammaṣ composed two polemical books against the Christian Dogma and translated from Syriac exegetical works (Genesis and Ecclesiastes) into Judeo-Arabic. His theological summa ʿIshrūn Maqālah (Twenty Chapters), only about three quarters of which has survived, was originally written in Arabic characters. It contains no Hebrew words and all quotations from the Hebrew Bible are given in Arabic translation – an unusual practice for Judeo-Arabic texts, at least from the 10th century onward. This summa has many characteristics of Muslim and Christian Kalām treatises, such as terminology, a dialectical and polemical style of argumentation and construction as well as many Aristotelian terms and arguments. It covers the following basic themes: epistemology, the world, God, humanity, prophecy and revelation, reward and punishment, and the comparison of religions. These themes are at the core of Christian and Muslim treatise of Kalām alike (for the sake of comparison, consider the Book of Proofs, Issues and Answers by ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī and the Book of Monotheism by Abī Manṣūr al-Mātrīdī).
In his attempt to define the unity of God, al-Muqammaṣ discusses the various meanings of the word “one,” and emphasizes that divine attributes are not additions to God’s essence (Dhāt), which is a typical Kalām discussion: “one, given six aspects: one in simplicity, composition, sex, kind, number and one as in there is nothing the like of him.”(article 8, para. 34). Yet, his discussion follows the scheme of the four Aristotelian questions: “Does the thing exist? What is its nature? What are its attributes? And why they are attributed to it?” (article 1, para. 2).On one hand though he uses some of the typical terminologies of Kalām, he defines the terms more in keeping with Aristotelian philosophy than with Kalām, such as the ontological and metaphysical concepts “substance” (Jawhār) and “accident” (‘Araḍ), the two fundamental components of the world. On the other hand, while discussing the theme of the createdness of the world, he follows the typical Kalām discussion rather than the Aristotelian format. In addition, he sticks to principles, which are considered to be basic to Kalām: the comprehensiveness of God’s justice, the other world, reward and punishment, and resurrection.
It is noteworthy to mention here that al-Muqammaṣ adopted a Syriac commentary on Genesis into Arabic of which only little has survived. Yet, nonetheless, a Karaite exegete by the name of Abū Yūsuf Ya’qūb al-Qirqisānī (d. ca. 950 CE, Baghdad) helped preserve part of this commentary by incorporating it (and SaadiaGaon’s)in his own shorten commentary of the Torah (known as Kitāb al-Riyāḍ wa-l-Hadāiq – Book of Parks and Gardens) and probably in his commentary of the six days of creation (known as Tafsīr Bereshit). It seems that this Syriac commentary combines the two terminologies of philosophy and Kalām and belongs to the Hexameron genre.
During the second half of the 9th century, Karaite scholars (see “Karaites”) expressed fierce opposition to Rabbinic tradition and learning, as represented especially in the Mishnah and Talmud. In their opposition, they used Arabic terminology of Kalām which they translated into Hebrew and of contemporary concepts and methods borrowed generally from the Kalām.
The Karaites are considered a Jewish group characterized basically by their rejection of the authority of the “Oral Tradition” –or the “Oral Torah” as referred to by the Rabbanites– which is the tradition manifested particularly in the Mishnah and the relevant interpretations and commentaries of the Rabbis, i.e. the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, as the highest religious and divine authority besides all the written books of the Old Testament. For this reason, many Rabbis, both in the past and the present, reject the Jewishness of this group as they consider this tradition to be one of the main pillars of Jewish belief. Karaites, for their part, believe that all the commandments and laws are included in the written Old Testament and should be relied upon in terms of rules and religious legislation.
Jewish Karaitism reached its intellectual pinnacle –providing interpretations of all the books of the Old Testament and books on legislation, Kalām and Hebrew linguistics– during the 10th and 11th centuries especially in Jerusalem and Baghdad. However, the first campaign of the Crusades (1096 – 1099CE) targeted Jerusalem and as such led to the decline of one of the intellectual and social centers of the Karaites, which ultimately forced them to move to the southern Russia and Byzantine.
Among the earliest Hebrew writings based on Kalām’s terminology and approach are the expositions of the eminent proto-Karaite scholar Benjamin al-Nahāwandī (active in the first half of the 9thcentury, originally from Nahawand, Persia), and a late 9thcentury epistle commonly attributed to the Karaite leader and biblical exegete Daniel ben Moses al-Qūmisī (s.v.; see Nemoy). The epistle has a distinct Muʿtazilite character, in particular its focus on divine unity and justice, including reward and punishment in the world to come. His treatise also highlights some fundamental concepts associated with the Muʿtazilite doctrine, such as the use of human reason as a religious duty; creation ex nihilo; strict anti-anthropomorphism; and the written Hebrew Bible as the sole scriptural authority. Oral tradition, as such, is viewed as a man-made ideology, is formulated in very negative terms, and is considered as preventing humans from realizing their intellectual powers. Articles of faith can be understood by human reason without any kind of tradition; and miracles are created solely and directly by God, not by angels, messengers, prophets, or other human beings. Nevertheless, the internal Jewish conflict, involving Rabbanites and Karaites, attributed considerable importance to the “tradition,” much more than we find in Muslim Kalām. Both parties (Rabbanites and Karaites) agreed on the epistemological value of the “true tradition” or “reliable tradition” (al-Khabar al-Ṣādiq), but the Karaites rejected its divine authority and its claim to be the only authoritative interpretation of Scripture. Furthermore, it seems that Jewish Mutakallimūn (rational theologians) viewed some significant parts of the Jewish tradition in general and Rabbinic views of God in particular as resembling another school of Kalām called Ashʿariyya (established in the first half of the 10th century, it soon became the dominant school of Sunni Orthodox Islam) on many levels. The eponymous founder of the Ashʿariyya, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935 CE), was a former Muʿtazilite.
Unfortunately, no systematic Karaite theological expositions have survived from the 9thand 10th centuries. Though some theological works are said to have been written during this period, we have very little information about them. Al-Qirqisānī reports in his legal code, Kitāb al-Anwārwa-l-Marāqib (completed in 938CE), that he also wrote Kitāb al-Tawḥīd (Book on Divine Unity). Moreover, David ben Boaz (active in the late 10thcentury in Jerusalem) is said to have written Kitāb al-Uṣūl (Book of Principles).
In general, Karaite scholars adopted Kalām in their writings, including biblical exegesis, theology, and religious law. The first Karaite scholars, active in the late 9thand early 10th centuries, generally preferred Hebrew and Aramaic with a few Arabic words and phrases, They were averse to non-Jewish learning, but applied some of the Kalām arguments, terminology and argumentative style. However, in the 10th century, most Karaite scholars (like Salmon ben Jeroham, active in the first half of the 10thcentury in Jerusalem) began to write in Arabic but still rejected the study of “foreign books” and philosophy. As a next step, some of the later Karaite scholars (such as Yefet ben Eli; active in the late 10th century in Jerusalem) not only wrote their books in Judeo-Arabic but also adopted Kalām as their main school of thought. Against this background, Qirqisānī was an exception, for he freely and openly adopted the Kalām and its terminology in his exegesis, theology, and religious law, although his adoption was selective and not systematic like most of the Jewish Mutakallimūn.
Subsequently, Muʿtazilite Kalām occupied Karaite scholars as well as communal and religious leaders in an increasingly more systematic way. They engaged in Muʿtazilite disputations and contributed to its doctrinal development, publishing their books in Arabic. For instance, on one hand, Yūsuf al-Baṣīr (active in the first half of the 11thcentury in Jerusalem), was considered a typical Jewish Muʿtazilite, wrote his theological books in Arabic in a systematic way and participated in such disputations. On the other hand, however, Levi ben Yefet (Abū SaʿīdLāwī b. Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, active in the first half of the 11th century in Jerusalem), the son of Yefet ben Eli, chose to write his systematic Muʿtazilite tracts in Hebrew characters. Both used biblical phrases to demonstrate and maintain their Jewish ties. Levi ben Yefet was well known for his expositions on law and biblical exegesis, but he also wrote theological works, some in the systematic manner of Muʿtazilite kalām (one of his published expositions of this kind, Kitāb al-Niʿmā, was originally written in Hebrew characters). The terminology and ideas he used are derived from the Baṣran school of the Muʿtazilā and it would seem that he was familiar with the literature of that school and perhaps also with the works of his contemporary ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025 CE).Yūsuf al-Baṣīr took this openness much further. Not only did he read and refer to the works of ʿAbd al-Jabbār, but he also kept up-to-date with the latest Muʿtazilite works of ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s students and reacted accordingly. Levi ben Yefet and Yūsuf al-Baṣīr are important, because they represent a major change in Karaite theological writing and also in the Karaites’ attitudes towards Muslim Muʿtazilite literature in the sense that they became deeply engaged with Muʿtazilite thought itself and contributed to it.
Saadia Gaon (882–942CE) was the first Rabbanite intellectual, sage and religious communal leader of the Middle Ages to develop a rational Jewish theology. He is considered the greatest scholar of Jewish Kalām, made Kalāmic thought part and parcel of Jewish culture by incorporating it in his biblical commentaries, Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, and his theological summa titled as Kitāb l-Amānāt wa-l-I’tiqādāt (The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs). For that objective, he used the Kalām’s dialectical methods, novel vocabulary, and distinctive hermeneutical techniques. But Saadia, like most Jewish intellectual and religious figures, was not committed to any systematic framework including the Kalām, because his main objective was to use the Kalāmas a tool to develop a Jewish theology and to reinforce the Jewish beliefs. In other words, Saadia was committed to the Hebrew Bible and some selective Jewish traditions but not to the Kalām per se. He simply selected those distinctive Kalāmic themes and doctrines that could be compatible with the Jewish creed. He could do that mainly because Kalām is basically a methodology, with a structure and style, but not than a cluster of beliefs, thoughts and doctrines.
It seems very pertinent that Saadia adopted at least the first two basic doctrinal principles of Muʿtazilism (al-Uṣūl l-Khamsa): oneness of God and his theodicy (Tawḥīd and ʿAdl). Saadia’s most important work is his Kalāmic summa The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, translated into Hebrew by Judah Ibn Tibbon in the 12th century as Sefer Emunot ve-Deʿot. This exposition represents the first systematic Jewish attempt to rephrase and reconstruct the Jewish library, including biblical commentaries, with the help of Kalām and various components of the Greek philosophical legacy.
The Jewish Kalām’s approach is evident in various aspects of some interpretations and commentaries of the Hebrew bible, mainly in rationally interpreting biblical words, verses and stories; translating biblical verses into Arabic; extending the commentaries focusing on critical theological dilemmas and issues (such as the existence of God; creation; the creation-in-time; the terminology used to explain the process of creation; essence and accident vs. form and matter; prophecy; the divine message; the purpose behind creation; miracles and the oral tradition). This approach places special emphasis on some Mu’tazila fundamental issues mainly: unity and oneness of God; divine justice; structure of the commentaries, style used in presenting and approaching arguments and consolidating them in a dialectical method; raising important questions regarding some "problematic" biblical terms and issues (such as miracles);offering rational answers and adopting the apparent sense of the text as a central exegetical approach- in contrast to far-fetched Midrashic, symbolic or figurative readings- besides striving to interpret anthropomorphic biblical terms in non-anthropomorphic ways. This exegetical approach is based generally on the rules of grammar, philology and reason while paying attention to historical context.
However, Saadia Gaon’s approach is even more complicated than may appear at first glance. He clarifies in different works, such as the introduction to his Pentateuch translation and commentary, that human knowledge derives from three fundamental sources: reason, Scripture and tradition. Each biblical verse has to be interpreted according to the apparent sense (Ẓāhir) of its words; the well-known meaning (Mashhūr) as understood among the common speakers of its language, unless it is contrary to sense perception or rational knowledge, or if the well-known meaning contradicts another unambiguous verse, or contradicts Rabbinic traditions (which he sometimes prefers to ignore or give new meaning to fit with his own approach or argument).According to Saadia, only in such cases, must we ascribe to biblical words non-literal meanings. For example, he translates the first word in Genesis (Heb. bereshit, “in the beginning”) with āwwala (Arab. “first”), while literally it should be: fī l-āwwaliya or fīl-ibtidā (Arab. “in the beginning”). Considering his Muʿtazili Kalām background (pointing to God’s unity), he elucidates that if the first word were rendered literally, it would lead to the unallowable (and impossible) implication that there was something in existence before the creation of heaven and earth, because the first Hebrew letter of the word bereshit indicates an existing place or time. Therefore, he couldn’t translate it by using the Arabic fi since it is preserves this wrong and impossible understanding. Thus, in his translation and in his fragmentally survived interpretation of this word, Saadia highlights the oneness of God. Another case offers to illustrate Saadia’s point: in “And Adam named his wife Eve; because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20) he adds the word Nāṭiq (talking/thinking) into his translation of the verse, “because she was the mother of all talking/thinking beings”. He demonstrates that without this addition, the verse might imply the literal meaning that Eve is even the mother of animals as well as of humans, which is not what is “real” meaning of the verse.
In another example, Saadia translates the biblical Hebrew verse verooach Elohimme rachefet (Gen. 1:2) as “and God’s winds were blowing” (in Arabic, w-rīaḥ Allāhi tahubbu; whereas in some manuscripts it appears: w-rīḥ, and arīaḥ, Allāhi tahubbu). It should be noted that in the new JPS translation from 1992 it appears:"and a sweeping wind from God", whereas, in the old JPS translation from 1917, it appears as: “and the spirit of God hovered” as it is found generally in many other exciting translations especially into European languages including English. Saadia specifically picks up this translation to avoid the possibility of multiplicity in God as “the spirit of God” might imply the assumption that God is composed out of constituent parts leaving the door open for an assumption of multiplicity. His adoption of this translation also emphasizes his rejection of the Christian dogma of the trinity which employs that translation to its benefit. To further signal out his Mu’tazilā approach through this point, Saadia translates the Hebrew word “rooach” (noun, singular: wind or spirit) into Arabic using the plural form of its counterpart as rīaḥ (winds), according to some manuscripts, leaving no room for assumptions of multiplicity were the word “rooach” to be confused with rūḥ, Arabic for spirit, and more importantly reaffirming his Mu’tazilā conviction that God’s attributes (ṣifāt) do not differ from his essence (ḍāt).
Saadia, in another instance, translates “vayomer Elohim” (and God said) (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24): sha’Allāhu (God willed). He renders “vayomer” to sha’ because it would not be reasonable to assume that God said something in the first day of creation since there was not any existent entity endowed with reason to address or approach. His translation also emphasizes his rejection of the Christian adoption of the meaning of “vayomer” as said, which denoting that God was talking to an entity that could reply. Thus, in this translation, Saadia destroys another Christian foundation of the trinity. He further adds that all of the biblical words “vayomer” (said), "vaya’as” (made) and "vayiqra” (called) (as in Gen. 1:3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16) are one and the same, i.e., divine volition, as the verse says: "Whatsoever pleased Him He hath done" (Ps. 115:3), and "what His soul desireth even that He doeth" (Job 23: 13).
In yet another example, Saadia chooses to translate “vayar Elohim” (and God saw) (as in Gen 1:4, 12, 18, 25, 31) into “when God knew” (falammā, or lammā, ’alima Allāhu), because the word “vayar” indicates that God has an organ of sight, besides as well elucidating the point that one of the meanings of the Hebrew noun “riaiya” is knowing.
However, in the following case Saadia adds a word in his translation to avoid falling into anthropomorphism, trinity or the theory of “creating angel”. He translates "And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea… and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him" (Gen. 1:26-27, according to the new JPS translation 1992) into the following: "And God said, ’Let us make man in our image and likeness as a ruler, so they seize the fish of the sea ... and the rest of the creeping things that creep on earth. Hence, He created Adam in His image, in a sublime image as a ruler He created him".
First, he adds the word Musallṭān (as a ruler), which is grammatically the state or the condition of the object, to indicate the condition in which Adam was created in the image and likeness of God: as a ruler. From his perspective, if he did not add this condition, the translation will lead the reader to unlikely meanings, i.e. that God has shape and He is looks like man. Second, to enforce the meaning that he sought to impose; Saadia interprets the next prefix “vi” in the word “yerdu” to serve an unusual function. The Hebrew particle “vav” has two main uses, “vav” as a conjunction that often serves as a prefix to connect two clauses, and “vav” as s consecutive which often serves to highlight/change tense into past or present and vice versa. But, it seems that Saadia adding a new function for this particle –explanatory “vav”, for he translates the next sentence (they shall rule the sea), as a clause that explains the previous clause: Adam and his offspring were created in the image and likeness of God (in the sense to gain power) to rule over terrestrial creations, and adds in the subsequent verse another condition “in a sublime (sharēfā) image as a ruler He created him” (as he did also in his translation to Gen. 5:1; 9:6).
After Saadia presents all the interpretations known to him concerning this verse, he determines: "Now, only two explanations appear to be plausible to me [...] The second is that which the Torah sanctions [...] that man is in the image and likeness of God in the sense of dominion and acquisition, not [in the sense of] molding and likening. It is just as saying ‘today such is in the form of a teacher and such is in the form of a heretic’ referring not to the form of the body but to one’s status and position. From among all other beings, God made man in the position of a master over everything, just as He [Himself],exalted, is a ruler over everything" (Zucker 1984, p. 50-53).
While Saadia may not have viewed himself as revolutionary, his contribution to the Jewish tradition through his attempts to reformulate a Jewish doctrine proves he was such a figure. Some researchers believe he was essential in expanding the boundaries of Jewish literature at the time, while others subscribe to a totally opposite opinion: that he barely made it over and beyond the Jewish traditional literature. Despite this, his impact is still felt across the spectrum of Jewish literature.
Although Saadia adopted the kalām and made use of many Muʿtazilā’s rationalistic terminologies, he did not feel loyal to it nor did he need to be dogmatic and very strict in his adoption of it. He therefore allowed himself to deviate from some Muʿtazilite concepts, but not the most prominent and fundamental ones. His deviation is reasonable because he distinguished between the different needs of Muslim and Jewish Muʿtazilites. For example, like most of the Jewish Mutakallimūn, he rejected the atomistic physics of the Kalām. An additional example concerns the status of angels compared to that of human beings. In the presentation of his doctrine, Saadia often emphasizes the elevated position human beings enjoy over other creatures, including angels. In contrast, the Muʿtazilites refer to angels as pure, spiritual, and holy souls, and their main role which is to function as divine messengers, in particular as a medium for the Qurʾān itself.
To further illustrate Saadia’s position on this point, it should be noted that his approach is not based on whatever endowments God bestowed upon man such as the faculty of mind, God’s love for mankind or the fact that God favored man for his messages over other creatures as some Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars believed at the time. It is rather that man was the center and the purpose of God’s creation, above both heaven and earth, and all other creatures including the angels. Unlike Saadia, most of the Mu’tazilite Muslim scholars thought of angels as spiritually pure beings with the function of delivering divine messages, occupying thus a central position in Islamic thought. According to Muslim beliefs, angels delivered God’s words, the Qurān, to Muhammad as a prophet without any kind of deviation. They therefore stand for revelation, which is a cornerstone in the Islamic doctrine. Hence, any doubt inflicting the role of angels would necessarily inflict the word of God, which they revealed to man, destroying the basic foundations of Islam, i.e. prophecy and the Qurān. In this regard, angels are believed to enjoy an elevated position compared to man.
However, Jewish doctrine, at least in Saadia’s time, holds that God himself delivered the word to Moses without the intervention of angels and, therefore, their status and function are not central to Jewish belief. Saadia highlights that angels are a mere medium and not a purpose of the creation. Similarly, in Christianity, God himself descended to earth to deliver His Message. Angels, which may have served other functions in both doctrines, are not viewed as central.
An additional demonstration of the different needs of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish Mu’tazilā, which requires deviations from the dominant Mu’tazilā’s concepts and preoccupations, is the decree of the Muslim who commits grave sins and dies without repentance. According to the third doctrinal principle, “intermediate position”,the Mu’tazilā view this Muslim not as Mu’min (believer) nor he is a Kāfir (non-believer). Jewish Kalām, however, views sinning in light of the legislative traditions of the Rabbis, in which each case is considered unique and is therefore handled individually by the Rabbis, not as a theological issue. Therefore, this third Mu’tazilā principle is not valid in the case of Jewish traditions and beliefs.
Another example that demonstrates the extent to which Saadia’s thought was heavily influenced by the Mu’tazilā, is the view of values and ethics as being objective, rationally inferable and applicable to both man and God, a view that Saadia strongly supports. Contrary to this, the adherents of Hadīth (Ahl l-Ḥadīth) and Ashʿariyya stressed that God’s revelation is the only determinant that separates good and evil and not the human mind. Good, therefore, is what God has made permissible and evil is that which he has forbidden. This traditional Muslim belief, though it was rejected by Jewish Mutakallimūn and accepted by some other Jewish scholars, still echoes to this day.
As in Muslim Kalām, polemics are a predominant feature of Jewish Kalām: Jewish Mutakallimūn devoted much time and energy to polemics, and engaged in public debates on religious, scientific, and philosophical issues as well as internal Jewish sectarian and communal disagreements. For instance, against the Muʿtazilā, the Ashʿariyya believed in some form of predestination, meaning that man could not influence events. All known Jewish Mutakallimūn accepted the Muʿtazilite conception that humans shape their reality according to their own decisions. For example, Hai Gaon (active in the first half of the 11th century in Baghdad), the last head of the Jewish academy of Pumbedita, displays a distinct inclination to the Muʿtazilā, arguing that there is a connection between human behavior and human destiny, though it is impossible to determine its nature.
Moreover, Baḥya ibn Paquda (active in the second part of the 11th century, in Muslim Saragossa) composed his eminent Sufi-inspired exposition of Jewish theology Kitāb l-Hidāyā ilā Farāʾiḍ l-Qulūb (The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart) and arranged it according to the basic structure of kalāmic treatises. Although Baḥya is less interested in ascertaining rationalist principles, he adopted the Muʿtazilite definition of reason as “God-given,” adding that the inner experience of the believer is cultivated by reason. He also introduced ascetic and mystical terms and claimed that the ultimate goal of the believer is the reunion of the soul with its creator.
After Saadia, however, the heads of the Jewish academies in Iraq, like Hai Gaon and Samuel ben Hofni (d. 1013 CE) – both important intellectual leaders and legal authorities of the Rabbanite community – followed the Kalām closely and adhered to Saadia’s approach to biblical texts. Samuel ben Hofni fully adopted the doctrines of the Baṣran Muʿtazilite school. He wrote a number of Kalām works including Kitāb al-Hidāyā (Book of Guidance), a summary of Muʿtazilite doctrine in one hundred chapters. In his striving to expand the rationalist approach, Samuel ben Hofni writes: “It is not admissible for us to believe the truth of something when there are proofs that it is false only because one of the early authorities said so. Rather, it is necessary to examine the matter rationally. If there is a proof that it should be accepted, then we will accept it. If there is an indication that it could possibly be true, then we will consider it to be possible, and if it is shown to be impossible, then we will consider it to be impossible” (quoted by Cohen, 51-52).
Ben Hofni applied this principle in a famous application relating to the episode in I Samuel 28 of Saul’s encounter with the witch of En Dor, who brought Samuel up from the dead. Since Samuel ben Hofni regarded this as being rationally impossible, "he argues that the biblical account must be reinterpreted to mean that Saul was merely tricked into thinking that he saw Samuel’s ghost" (Cohen, 51-52).
In the Iberian Peninsula, Muʿtazilite Kalām in particular and maybe Kalām in general were not able to gain a firm foothold. Nevertheless, Spanish Jewish authors, like Judah ha-Levi (d. 1141 CE), Joseph ibn Zaddiq (d. 1149 CE), and Maimonides (1138-1204 CE) incorporated much Kalāmic material in their discussions and were very influenced by Saadia’s expositions. In North Africa, however, though Kalām was very common among Muslims, mainly through the Ibāḍī movement, it was not the case among Jewish circles.
What was the need for Jewish Kalām?
The fundamental question that must be raised in this context is why Jewish scholars felt obliged to use Kalāmin their writings? Maimonides gives a very simple and plain historical explanation (Guide 1.71). According to him, the encounter of the early Muslims with Christian philosophers and theologians had forced them to develop Islamic theology. Just as the early Christians did when they encountered pagan philosophies, Islamic scholars found themselves forced to use the philosophical legacy in defense of their faith. He presented the Kalām as a distortion of truth. Therefore, he regarded Mutakallimūn as people who utilize philosophy to defend their faith. Quoting Themistius, he argues that instead of forming their beliefs on the basis of a scientific examination of reality, as philosophers ought to do, the Mutakallimūn tried to manipulate the facts to fit their a priori convictions: They simply construct and bend “reality” to fit their convictions, instead of committing themselves to perception.
Regarding the emergence of Jewish Kalām, Maimonides claims that Jewish Mutakallimūn, such as the Geonim (the heads of the talmudic academies in Iraq) and the Karaites follow the same deplorable approach. According to him, when the Jews came under the aegis of Islam, they encountered the first significant school of Kalām, the Muʿtazilā, and were deeply influenced by it.
Some researchers (mainly Rina Drory) argue that after the Karaites broke away from the Jewish tradition, they suffered from a literary vacuum. As a result, they were quick to adopt new genres, such as some systematic exegetical literatures and theology. According to this explanation, it was the confrontation with the Karaites that forced the Rabbanites to venture into these new fields. But the most reasonable suggestion is that Jewish scholars and community leaders found from the late 9th century onward an urgent need to rephrase and reconstruct Jewish thoughts, opinions, and beliefs to become more systematic and based on reason. In other words, they felt the need to reestablish a Jewish theology based on Scripture and human reason in a way that the first is subordinated by the second, in an attempt to catch up with Muslim progress in those fields that Jewish leaders viewed as intellectually and practically threatening in terms of subverting religious authority. The predominance of Muʿtazilite Kalām in this formative period, besides the central role played by Christian intellectuals, dictated the tenor of Jewish thought from the late 9th century until the 14th century, especially in Baghdad and the Levant, where much of Jewish thought and religious authority were heavily concentrated.
Whereas Muslim rationalist theologians may have felt defensive in their debates with the so-called “Muslim orthodoxy,” at least from the 10th century onward, we witness the opposite trend among medieval Jewish intellectual and religious communities in the Arabophone culture during the Middle Ages where, since the days of Saadia, the Jewish religious institution was transformed into a center of religious rational thought while the Jewish traditionalists became defensive.
Aptowitzer, V."La création de l’homme d’aprés les anciens interprètes," Revue des Études Juives, vol. 65 (1922), pp. 1-15.
Adang, C.; S. Schmidtke, and D. Sklare (eds.), A Common Rationality: Muʿtazilism in Islam and Judaism (Würzburg 2007).
Bashir, N. “Angelology and Theological Humanism in the Thought and Exegesis of Saadia Gaon The Human Being as the Purpose of the Creation” (PhD diss.; Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2015). [Hebrew]
Bashir, N. “A Reexamination of Saadia Gaon’s Dictum ‘Humankind is more sublime that Angels’,” GinzeiQeden, vol. 14 (2018), pp. 9-54. [Hebrew]
Ben-Shammai, H. “Kalām in Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” in D. H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.),History of Jewish Philosophy (London 1997), pp. 91–117.
Ben Shammai, H. “Major Trends in Karaite Philosophy and Polemics in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries,” in M. Polliack (ed.), Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources (Leiden and Boston, MA 2003), pp. 339–62.
Ben-Shammai, H. “The Tension between Literal Interpretation and Exegetical Freedom,” in J. D. McAuliffe et al. (eds.), With Reverence for the Word: Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Oxford 2003), pp. 33–50.
Cohen, M. Z. Opening the Gates of Interpretation: Maimonides’ Biblical Hermeneutics in Light of his Geonic-Andalusian Heritage and Muslim Milieu (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2011).
Drory, R. Models and Contacts: Arabic Literature and its Impact on Medieval Jewish Culture (Leiden 2000).
Ess, J. van. ZwischenḤadīṯ und Theologie: Studien zum Entstehen prädestinatianischer Überlieferung (Berlin and New York 1975).
Ess, J. van. “L’autorité de la tradition prophétique dans la théologie muʿtazilite,” in G. Makdisiet al. (eds.), La notion d’autorité au Moyen Age: Islam, Byzance, Occident (Paris 1982), pp. 211–26.
Hughes, A. W. “Theology: The Articulation of Orthodoxy,” in J. Meri (ed.), TheRoutledge Handbook of Muslim-Jewish Relations (New York 2016), pp. 77–94.
Kraemer, J. L. “The Islamic Context of Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” in D. H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge 2003), pp. 38–70.
Madelung, W. and S. Schmidtke. “Yūsuf al-Baṣīr’s First Refutation (Naqḍ) of Abu l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s Theology,” in C. Adanget al. (eds.), A Common Rationality: Muʿtazilism in Islam and Judaism (Würzburg 2007), pp. 229–96.
Madelung, W. and S. Schmidtke (eds.). Rational Theology in Interfaith Communication: Abu I-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s Muʿtazilī Theology among the Karaites in the Fāṭimid Age (Leiden 2007).
Maimonides. The Guide for the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines (Chicago 1963).
Nemoy, L. “The Pseudo-Qumisian Sermon to the Karaites,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research vol. 43 (1976) 49–105.
el-Omari, R. “Accommodation and Resistance: Classical Mu‘tazilites on Ḥadīth,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 71 (2012), pp. 213–56.
Polliack, M. "Major Trends in Karaite Biblical Exegesisin the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries", in M. Polliack (ed.), Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources(Leiden 2003), pp. 363-413.
Al-Qirqisānī, Y.Kitāb al-Anwārwal-Marāqib: Code of Karaite Law, 5 vols. L. Nemoy (ed.)(New York 1939–45).
Schmidtke, S. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology (Oxford 2016).
Schreiner, M. “Der Kalâm in der jüdischenLiteratur,” Lehranstaltfür die Wissenschaft des Judenthems (Bericht) vol.13 (1895), pp. 1–67; repr. inGesammelteSchriften: Islamische und jüdisch-islamische Studien, M. Perlmann (ed.) (Hildesheim 1983), pp. 280–346.
Sirat, C.A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge 1985).
Sklare, D. “Yūsuf al-Baṣīr: Theological Aspects of His Halakhic Works,” in D. Frank (ed.), The Jews of Medieval Islam: Community, Society, and Identity(Leiden 1995), pp. 249–70.
Sklare, D. Samuel ben Ḥofni Gaon and His Cultural World (Leiden 1996).
Sklare, D. “Responses to Islamic Polemics by Jewish Mutakallimūn in the Tenth Century,” in H. Lazarus-Yafehet al. (eds.), TheMajlis: Interreligious Encounters in Medieval Islam (Wiesbaden 1999), pp. 137–61.
Sklare, D. “Science and Biblical Exegesis in the Tenth Century: Ya’qūb al-Qirqisānī’s Tafsīr Bereshit,” Ginzei Qeden, vol. 14 (2018), pp. 67-88. [Hebrew]
Stroumsa, S. Dāwūd Ibn Marwān al-Muqammiṣ’s Twenty Chapters (ʿIshrūn Maqāla) (Leiden 1989).
Stroumsa, S. “Saadya and Jewish Kalām,” in D. H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge 2003), pp. 71–90.
Stroumsa, S. “The Muslim Context of Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” in S. Nadler and T. M. Rudavsky (eds.), The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: From Antiquity Through the Seventeenth Century (New York 2009), pp. 39–59.
Stroumsa, S. Dāwūd al-Muqammiṣ’s Twenty Chapters (Provo, Utah2016).
Vajda, G. “Le ‘kalām’ dans la pensée religieuse juive du Moyen Age,” Revue de I’histoire des religions, vol. 183 (1973), pp. 143–60.
Wolfson, H. A. Repercussions of Kalām in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, MA 1979).
Zucker, M. Saadya’s Commentary on Genesis (New York 1984). [Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew]