Book of Beliefs and Opinions
(Yale Judaica Series)
By Saadiah Gaon
Translated by Samuel Rosenblatt
Yale University Press, 1989, 498 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 3, 2010
Samuel Rosenblatt, who translated Saadiah Gaon's (882–942) philosophical classic The Book of Beliefs and Opinions into English in 1948, called Saadiah's magnum opus "the first systematic presentation of Judaism as a rational body of beliefs."
Saadiah's goal was to teach the truth of Judaism. He insisted that Jews should not adhere to traditions without thought. People must use their intelligence. They should not be afraid to ask daring questions about doctrine. This is not only permitted, it is mandatory. The source of the truth is irrelevant. Whether Greek philosophy or Moslem theology, the sole test of an idea is whether it is logical and consistent with science and experience. Any truth that helps clarify the Bible is welcome.
Yet, he insisted that reason cannot negate divine revelation. People do not have sufficient intelligence and knowledge to be certain that what they reason is true. Thus God aided Jews by giving them "ready-made truths" through revelation with which to govern their lives. Philosophical reflection, therefore, only furnishes secondary evidence of the authenticity and value of Torah teachings, for the Torah is the first and most reliable source of the truth.
Thus, Saadiah took his ideas from whatever source satisfied his inclination. However, despite his statements about the use of reason, because he relied upon his understanding of the Torah's revelation, Saadiah accepted improvable notions because they were ancient traditions.
1. He insisted that Jews believe that God created the world from nothing.
2. God is indivisible, unique and incorporeal. Biblical statements depicting God acting as a human must be understood as figures of speech, for God has no body.
3. God created the world as an act of grace, to make people happy. He revealed His laws to them because He knew that the laws would assure this happiness. There are two kinds of divine laws: those understandable by human reason, and those that the human mind cannot understand.
4.Humans are the goal of creation and have free will. God has foreknowledge of how people will act but does not restrict people in any way.
5.When humans act, their deeds leave an imprint on their soul, either ennobling or debasing it. God keeps a record of people's merits and demerits and rewards and punishes people in the hereafter, but he renders some rewards and punishments during a person's life.
6.Saadiah rejects the notion that when people die, their souls are reborn in another person or animal. Souls were created when the body of the individual was created and the soul is immortal thereafter. The soul returns to the body with the revival of the body after death. Punishments for crimes must be inflicted on the body and soul jointly since the two acted jointly.
7.There are three stages in the life of the soul after death. First, the soul abides in heaven until all the souls that God intends to create have completed their earthly life. This is followed by the messianic period and resurrection when bodies and souls are reunited. Then, when the material world ends, all souls will be transferred to a place where they will live forever. The righteous will live in bliss and the wicked will suffer.
8.Saadiah refutes the Christian concept of the messiah. He lists fifteen characteristics of the messianic period, none of which can be applied to the Second Temple era when Christians believe the messiah appeared. One example is that wars will cease in the messianic period.
9.In his final section, Saadiah became the first Jew who applied the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's famous doctrine of the golden mean to Jewish ethics.
Saadiah's Book of Beliefs and Opinions influenced many of his coreligionists and his book contains ideas that many Jews still accept. However, it should be recognized that the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) refuted virtually all of Saadiah's beliefs. He considered them a theology developed to dampen fears and give unfounded hopes – not philosophy, which is founded on reason, science and provable truths. Readers may want to read my review of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed.