History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Saadyah Gaon and the Two Academies.

When Haroun Al Raschid died in 809 the Mohammedans, hitherto so tolerant to the Jews, were stirred by a wave of fanaticism against them. (Israel was to find in its checkered career that that the liberal has intolerant lapses sometimes, and, thank God, the bigot has occasionally benignant inspirations.) So we must not be surprised to see the Resh Gelutha, the head of Jewish affairs in the East, shorn of his power and the Jews made to wear badges in invidious distinction from the Moslem.

Jewish Scholarship.

But it was only a passing storm. Tolerant sunshine was the normal atmosphere under Moslem sway, and it brought its usual accompaniment of culture. Emulating the Mohammedan scholars who were translating Greek classics into Arabic, the Jewish scholars began to win laurels in the fields of medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Just as it was the Karaites, who were most active in natural science, so it was the Moslem rationalists — whom the orthodox called Mutazalists (heretics) — who were the more scholarly.

These Jewish and Moslem rationalists tried to make clear the spiritual nature of Gdd. Emphasis on divine spirituality was certainly needed among the less intelligent both of Mohammedans and Jews, all too prone to depict God in a material way. Sometimes even in the great academies of Sora and Pumbeditha, both of which had flourished since the third century, teachers were not wanting who represented divinity somewhat crudely. God was sometimes spoken of in a rather naive way in many a Midrashic story. The mistake only lay in those who could not discern the playful touch and interpreted the picture too literally,

The Geonim.

About the middle of the ninth century, the school of Sora, which had so far held preeminence, declined in prestige. Pumbeditha now loomed prominent, possibly in consequence of its nearness to Bagdad. Its head was also given the title of Gaon (Excellency), and it became independent of the Exilarch. Both schools now shared equally the revenues sent for their maintenance by Israel at large.

The Geonim were now the spirited leaders of the Jews. What were their chief duties? First and chiefly the exposition of Talmudic law, solving the religious questions of the people. Secondly, they played a large part in regulating the secular affairs of the community touching trade, agriculture, landed property, lawsuits and application of Bible laws to the usages of their neighbors. For the Jews were left largely to manage their own affairs, that is, they were granted a kind of local self-government. Again, they were litterateurs, writing treatises on Talmudic themes. One compiled a Talmud dictionary, another a Jewish book of worship, yet another wrote a treatise on the Calendar.

About the year 750 a Compendium of Jewish Law was put forth by Judah, the blind Gaon of Sora, and another was written about 900 in emulation of the activity of the Karaites and in contradistinction to their codes of law. The times also produced a history in Arabic of the Second Temple epoch. Spurred on by Karaite rivalry, the schools now devoted themselves to the study of biblical exegesis, Hebrew grammar and even natural science, to which they had been somewhat averse.

This period of intellectual awakening now produced a great scholar — the herald of a series of Jewish philosophers that were to bring light into the Dark Ages — Saadyah.

Judaism had produced no great philosopher since Philo. Its thinkers had devoted their energy not to theology but to law. Of Talmudic thinkers who have transmitted to us fine bits of wisdom — Rabbi Joshua, Resh Lakish, Mar Samuel and others — we are hardly told enough to classify them as philosophers. But beginning with Saadyah, the Jews were now to produce in the coming centuries — not one system of philosophy that we can specifically term "the Jewish" — but a series of individual philosophers, expounders of every school in the light of Jewish belief, and contributing valuable and corrective data to every phase of speculative thought.

Saadyah Gaon.

Saadyah was born in Upper Egypt, in the year 892. Although he received a broad and scientific education, he nevertheless became a vigorous opponent of the Karaites. Because of his fine scholarship he was able to meet them on their own ground, and they found in him an opponent worthy of their steel. Following their example he also produced a Hebrew dictionary and a Hebrew grammar, and devoted himself early to biblical exposition. He translated nearly the whole Bible into Arabic and added popular notes. Like the Septuagint to the Greeks, it served to acquaint the Arabian with the Bible. Then, too, Arabic had become the vernacular for Jews in Moslem lands. This meant their introduction to Arabic literature. The next step was to be the fusing of Arabic and Jewish culture. The same sequence had occurred about a thousand years earlier among Greek speaking Jews of Alexandria.

Saadyah was entirely with the Karaites in discouraging prevailing crude notions of divinity. But he vigorously condemned their rejection of Talmudic law. His controversies with this new school, which form a large part of his writings, helped to clarify his opinions and at the same time to bring him to the notice of the Jewish world at large. His fame spread from Egypt to Babylonia. So, although not educated in its schools, and although some resented his study of science and philosophy, it was decided against all precedents, to call him to the Gaonate of Sora. It was hoped that this great scholar might revive its waning fame. So in 928 he became Saadyah-Gaow.

His learning, his breadth of view and his winning personality attracted many students to his lecture room. He at once set to work to reform abuses that had crept into the life of the Babylonian Jews in general and in the high office of Exilarch (Resh Gelutha) in particular. This won him many enemies already jealous of the foreigner given chief place in one of their Academies.

Refusing to sanction an unjust decision in favor of a corrupt Exilarch named David and into which dispute even the reigning Caliph was drawn, his integrity lost him his Gaonate. He believed that it was better to be right than Gaon.

But the gloomy outlook that such conditions indicated made him despondent and somewhat affected his health.

Nevertheless, he made his retirement his period of greatest literary activity. Prayers, poems, articles on Talmudic law, Responsa (answers to religious queries) and a treatise on the Commandments now came from his prolific pen.

Faith and Creed.

But his great work was a philosophy of Religion — written in Arabic, but best known through its translated Hebrew title Emunoth v'Daioth (Faith and Creed).

In this work in which he was unconsciously influenced by Moslem thinkers of his day, he endeavored to answer the needs of two classes — the ignorant, who shrunk from philosophic learning and whose faith was blind, and the extreme rationalists whose faith was doubtful. He desired to harmonize Philosophy and Faith, a meritorious aim that many great thinkers since his day have tried to realize.

He treats here of all themes of religious concern — God, Creation, Revelation, the Soul, Human Obligation, Death, Resurrection, Retribution and the Messiah.

Here and there he criticises the diverging points of view of Church and Mosque on these doctrines. He criticises the Christian theory of the Messiah and the Moslem authority of "The Prophet." He upholds the unity of God taught by Judaism as against Persian Dualism and Christian Trinity. He refutes Paul's justification for abandoning the Jewish Law and shows that its commands are imposed that we may attain the highest blessing. He tries to reconcile man's free will with God's omniscience and the suffering of the righteous with His justice. How many before and since have sought to answer these profound problems of life!

His opinions are strictly conservative though rationally presented. He defends the traditional belief of "creation out of nothing" (creatio ex nihilo), which we will hear of again, and the resurrection of the hody. He does not question divine revelation according to the literal word of the Bible. He accepts Bible miracles, in fact he regards them as proof of its authority. Yet in his day very few rationalists doubted the authenticity of the Scriptures, though not always accepting the authority of the Talmud.

Altogether, we may say he revived Rabbinism and checked the spread of Karaism; whether it was for evil or for good it is hard to say. Thus we see that neither in the Synagogue nor in the Church of a few centuries earlier, had a rationalistic movement succeeded in displacing the prevailing orthodoxy.

Saadyah was finally restored to the Gaonate in 937; so justice triumphed in the end. He generously befriended the son and grandson of his old enemy the Exilarch David, with whom he had become reconciled. But he did not live long to enjoy his new honors. At the age of fifty he closed his brilliant career. The school of Sora that had shown new signs of life during his energetic rule closed its doors in 948, six years after his death.

Closing of the Eastern Academies.

The Exilarchate that had also been steadily declining was allowed to lapse altogether during a passing wave of intolerance in the year 940, after existing seven hundred years.

Pumbeditha had a sligthly longer lease of life through the energy of two famous Gaonim, Sherira and his son Hai. To Sherira we owe a history of the Jewish communitv in letter form from the close of the Talmud to his own day — i.e., from about 500 almost to the year 1000.

Hai Gaon was far the greater man, both in character and thought. He was not ashamed to learn from both Christian and Mohammedan. In certain Talmudic fields he remained the authority for later generations. He was clear minded enough to condemn the superstitious magic supposed to be evoked by utterance of the tetragrammaton (four lettered name of God).

Scholars in different lands gladly sought his counsel. With his death in 1038 we may say the school of Pumbeditha also came to an end and with it an epoch in Judaism.

As the center of Judaism had shifted from Palestine to Babylonia with the decline of the Patriarchate, so now with the extinction of the Exilarchate, a new center of Jewish activity emerges. This time, no longer in Asia, but in Europe, for the Jew was gradually changing his continental home.


Responsa.—Responsum (an answer), Hebrew She'elot u-Teshubot, i.e. Questions and Answers. These consist of decisions on Jewish law issued from time to time by eminent rabbis and teachers of authority in answer to written questions from communities or individuals. Some of the questions were on theoretical knowledge in relation to Jewish belief, but most concerned practical life, touching conditions that arose in Israel's varied experiences for which answers could not always be found in Bible, Talmud or lewish codes of law. 'Many of them throw light on the times in which they were written and, therefore, supply valuable information on the history of the Jews and on their moral and social relations. These Answers, of which there are several hundred thousand, cover a period of 1700 years.

Kalam.—The Moslem rationalists — whom the orthodox called Mutazalists (heretics) were 'noted for scholarship. They developed a religious philosophy styled Kalam. They paraphrased their Koran much as the Alexandrian Jews had allegorized the Jewish Scripture. They may have indirectly given impetus to the Karaite movement.

Thought repeats itself as well as history. In the Alexandrian school, Philo touched by Greek influence, depicted God as the absolutely perfect, devoid of all limiting qualities and having no contact with matter. The Moslem rationalists now depicted God in the same abstract way. Just as Philo and his school endeavored to read Greek philosophy into Jewish Scripture by explaining its laws and language allegorically, so the Mutazalists interpreted the Koran, and like them, too, treated every anthropomorphism as a metaphor. Like them the Karaite philosophers likewise depicted God in a more exalted and rarified way — spiritually aloof, so to speak — unaware that they were following the precedent of their own ancestors rather than their Moslem contemporaries.

Genizah.—This Hebrew word means hiding place. It is a synagogue store room in which worn out Hebrew books and papers were preserved. In this way many lost manuscripts have come to light, rewarding the patient search of the scholars. Saadyana is the name given to such a collection edited by Solomon Schechter (Cambridge, 1913). It contains fragments of writings of R. Saadyah Gaon and others. Some of the contents are fragments of lost books.

Saadyah.—Seeing that the "Sepher Yetzirah," a mystical work on the Creation, tended to encourage the superstitions of its less thoughtful readers, he rationalized the work for popular usage.

There is a very informing article on "The Life and Works of Saadyah," by Dr. AI. Friedlander, in the 5th volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review.

For those who would penetrate further into the niceties of biblical exposition, the reader is referred to vols. x and xiii, of Jewish Quarterly Review for articles on "Anti-Karaite Writings of Saadyah Gaon."

Theme for Discussion:—Was it altogether in the interest of the Jewish cause that the spread of Karaism was checked through the vigor of Saadyah?