Saadiah Gaon's Theology

Saadiah's rational analysis of God and Judaism set a precedent for medieval philosophers.

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Composite God

Like the Arab thinkers who came before him (and Maimonides, among others, after him), Saadiah argues that if God has a plurality of attributes, this implies that the Creator is composite in nature. Therefore, we can only understand the various supposed attributes of "Godness" as implications imposed on God by our limited understanding of the Almighty's nature, rather than actual attributes of the Deity.

The only reason we anthropomorphize God (i.e., describe God in human terms) is that we lack both the comprehension to delineate God's true nature and the language with which to express it. God is the cause of all corporeal existence yet is not corporeal, for if the Creator were corporeal there would have to be something that caused God to come into being.

Saadiah anticipates Maimonides in his discussion of creation, arguing that God created the world not from any necessity, but out of free will. And he harkens back to the second-century sage Rabbi Akiba in his reliance on what philosophers have come to call "the argument from design" for the existence of God: all the parts of the world fit together in a skillful pattern; all levels of creation fit and reflect this design; it is impossible to expect that such elegant results can be anything but the product of a skilled artisan, a Supreme Being with a plan. Ergo, someone must have created the world and everything in it, someone who must have pre-existed the world in order to have created it. All the facets of God that were enumerated above can be derived logically from this single fact.

The Commandments

Much of the worldview that Saadiah erects proceeds, in turn, from the argument from design. It is reasonable to give thanks to one's Creator, therefore humans should follow the commandments as an expression of gratitude. At the same time, the commandments were given to the people Israel by God so that humanity should lead a fulfilling life. For Saadiah, observing the mitzvot is a form of self‑actualization as well as a way of thanking God for the bounty of Creation.

He believes that the mitzvot fall into two categories: those that can be understood by human reason and those that cannot. Reason tells us that it is bad to murder because in the end it would lead to the extinction of humanity. Reason tells us that we do not like to be insulted, therefore it is reasonable that we should be prohibited from insulting God by taking Adonai's name in vain.

On the other hand, Saadiah readily acknowledges, there is a body of mitzvot that seemingly have no rational basis. Here too, he says, reason can help us to understand the commandments. It is entirely reasonable that a man give some unnecessary employment to a poor man so that he may be able to pay him, thereby conferring some benefit upon him. Similarly, it is reasonable that God should give humankind the ceremonial laws that seem to be without any basis in human reason, because they allow us to confer honor on God by observing them.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.