Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Theological Methodology by Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.

Emunot Vede’ot by Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) is divided into 10 Ma’amarim or sections, each composed of various chapters.  The sections were part of the original while the chapters are a later addition and are not always well thought out according to Rav Kafieh. Rav Kafieh in the introduction to his edition which contains the original Judeo-Arabic and a brand new translation, notes that Resag kept on editing the book after publication and for his last version changed the name to Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (HBV), an interesting change as it suggests a subjective evaluation amongst different beliefs and opinions. It also seems to give legitimacy to other opinions giving preference to the one proposed in this book. I am not sure at this point what to make of it.

Each section discusses a different theological subject beginning with creation, followed by Divine Unity, Mitzvot and so on. The sefer precedes Rambam’s MN by approximately 200 years and although written in Judeo-Arabic was well known in Europe. Although the first proper translation to Hebrew was only written in the 11th century by R. Yehuda Ibn Tibon, a paraphrased translation was available much earlier and was used as the source for those who were interested in Resag’s thought in early medieval Europe. Along with the Resag Pirush on Sefer Yetzira, HBV was an important source for Jewish thought used by the Kalonimus family in developing the theology of the Chassidei Ashkenaz. (See Professor Joseph Dan’s magnum opus (Hebrew) Toldot Torat Hasod Ha’ivrit volumes 4 and 5). We also hear echoes of Resag in Rambam’s MN.  As I continue writing about Resag’s Torah I will address these issues more.
At the beginning of the first section, which is titled “That all existents are created from nothingness” and deals with Creation, Resag makes an important statement.

It is necessary to preface this section by clarifying that one, who speculates about the subjects [discussed] in it, is involved in matters that eyes have never seen nor were they apprehended by any of the senses. That person is trying to establish, through rational methods of thought, how things were at the beginning of time. His quest is for something very abstract and fine which he is trying to establish in his mind as it cannot be apprehended by the senses. As the person knows going in what the goal is, when he does apprehend the subject in its expected form, he may not now deny it or look for it in a different form. Knowing how things were in the past is something no human being has seen and therefore the goal is to apprehend with our minds matters of great profundity that are the farthest removed from our senses as the Chassid says about it: Far away that which was and deep, deep – who can find it? (Qohelet 7:24). So, when we conclude that things were created from nothingness and our senses have never experienced such a possibility, it is wrong for us to be thrown and back away saying how can we accept something we have never seen? After all, from the start we knew that the answer will be something that is beyond our experience. We must therefore get used to this and rejoice having found that which we were looking for.”

This is a very important point that needs to be made when dealing with speculative matters such as theology. By making claims that things can be empirically proven about matters that are not scientifically provable one ends up denigrating religion. Claiming that creation from nothingness is scientifically provable is doomed to failure. All we can say is that it is compatible with scientific theory and does not contradict it. The argument made by many of our compatriots especially those working in the kiruv movement, that the theory that explains the beginning of the universe with the Big Bang proves creation from nothingness cannot be further from the truth. All it does is deny a universe that was eternally as we know it and nothing more. It allows for various explanations as to what triggered the event including the possibility that it was triggered by God’s will, which the eternal universe theory does not, but it does not prove that before the Big Bang there was nothing. In fact there probably was a highly compressed point of matter and energy that expanded as the Big Bang occurred. We would have to go back and argue that that compressed matter and energy came into being from nothingness before the event, to argue for creation from nothingness. That argument is possible but not provable. We can accept it if it is not contradicted by science. Chances of it being contradicted are negligible as Resag points out that the answer to the question was never expected to be scientifically provable.

I found it necessary to make this preface so that the reader of this book should not fool himself and believe that I will bring forth something from nothingness in front of his eyes. That is why I prefaced to him that if that were possible there would be no need for proofs and discussions, and we and everyone else would be in agreement about this matter requiring no further proof.  Proofs and demonstrations are necessary because this matter cannot be seen nor sensed.”
Resag proceeds to argue that all theories about creation, whether those who believe in an eternal universe and all the other theories in between are all based on this kind of speculation. None argue for empirically provable theories. It is therefore incumbent to see which argument is stronger.
“After all this we [believers in creation from nothingness] trump all other believers because of the signs and wonders we experienced. Therefore hold on to these three things at every section of this book; your proofs are stronger, you have answers to all the questions of those who disagree with you and the signs of your prophets tip the scale in your favor.”

That our arguments are stronger is subjective and would not stand up alone. The second statement that we have answers to all questions is a requirement that makes or breaks our position. If the question would have no answer, if it would contradict reality or empirical scientific fact, our position could not be maintained. It would be completely disproven. If on the other hand it does not contradict reality, it can stand. But the basis for our defending this position so strongly even though it is not empirically provable is because we experienced through our prophets things that support this position. The wonders we experienced demonstrate that the world was created by God who has will and therefore was responsible for creation in time which allows for creation from nothingness. However, we must accept that wonders by themselves are not sufficient proof for creation from nothingness. It is not the same as us seeing something coming from nothingness with our own eyes which would not require any further proof. We still have to develop arguments and proofs to support the positions these prophetic wonders point to.
Resag with this statement has laid down a process that one needs to follow to develop a proper knowledge of theological truths. We start with the text, the prophetic position as presented by the prophet. We then make sure that the prophetic idea is indeed well understood by checking its viability in the real world.  Is it compatible with reality and scientific theory? If yes then we still have to compare the arguments for our belief with those for the different beliefs and make sure that our arguments are strong enough to allow to, even if subjectively, consider them superior.  It is only after proceeding through these steps that one can say that we have demonstrated the viability and truth of our theology and that we really understand it.

I have written about this many times in the past quoting Rambam on the same subject. Resag makes the same point as he starts his work on theology. A seeker must be anchored in reality and having unrealistic expectations is counterproductive. This is most difficult to those who are mathematically inclined and are accustomed to the proofs and demonstrations used in mathematical and scientific investigations. Theology requires a different set of tools and the reader must be forewarned.