Sunday, April 24, 2011

Early Impressions On Sefer Yetzira with Commentary of Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.

I am still working my way through Sefer Yetzira (SY) with the commentary of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) and here are some of my early impressions and thoughts.

  1. Resag explains SY as a philosophical treatise on Jewish theology based on an Aristotelian concept of physics and metaphysics. I am not well versed enough in the different schools of Aristotelian thought extant during the Middle Ages, to identify into which school Resag placed the SY – but I know enough to recognize the general concepts. For example, in the third chapter SY talks about the various letter combinations and the number of combinations possible with words of different sizes. Resag explains it as a representation of the variables that result from the combination of the basic substances Air, Water, Fire, and Earth and derivatives thereof. In another place, he interprets SY as discussing the natural position of the substances. This type of discussion is one of the central themes of SY according to Resag. A reader of SY who is steeped in Aristotelian thought would understand it this way without too much trouble even though it is written in a much-abbreviated form containing many code words.
  2. Considering the above and knowing that Resag lived in 882/92 to 942 and the fact that he places the authorship of SY to the same time the Mishna was composed and written, Greek philosophy and Judaism are quite old friends. Resag believed that the Tannaim already had a tradition of rationalizing religion and seeing it from a rational perspective. Even if SY was written later than Resag suggests, it apparently was already accepted and canonized at his time. Consequently, it must have been authored, at the latest, during the era of the early Geonim or late Amoraim.
  3. Clearly, Rambam was not an innovator when he explained Judaism rationally and in concert with the science of his time. This was an accepted way of thinking going back to antiquity. It does not take away from the greatness of his work and the thoroughness and completeness of thought he presents. It however mutes the criticism leveled against him that he was misguided by the Greeks. On the contrary, he was doing what Jews were doing for generations while his detractors had lost touch with their tradition.
  4. SY accepts astrology as science. Resag clearly does not. In fact the way he puts it when he explains the astrological propositions, “This, God will make you understand, is the central theme of the author of this book”. At the end of the presentation, he closes by saying “I expand on this so much only because the author of this book has made it the central theme of his work”. Rav Kafieh notes that in his introduction to Iyov, Resag comments that astrology is a plain theory that has no basis in reality other than being a theory. 
  5. Resag has no problem disagreeing with a book that apparently was widely accepted as authentic to the point that it had a tradition of being written by Avraham Avinu. At the same time, he finds it valuable to write a commentary to it and accept those things he finds worthwhile. He indeed sees it as a precursor to the theology presented by the Torah. The torah accepted some of these ideas and rejected others, adding its own theology.

I just wanted to share some thoughts for the upcoming Chag.

Chag Sameach.


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