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.  


  1. 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.

    It seems strange that Rambam lists Math and science as critical elements in preparation for Theology. So too logic, which distills a method of thought from precise thought, Math and science as Rambam knew it.

  2. 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?

    it is for this part of the process that we need mathematics, physics and logic.

  3. alex guttman6/23/2011 8:16 AM

    The problem is, that miracles does not prove that G-D created the world. It just proves that G-D knows the future and man has the ability to tap into G-D and recieve that knowledge-eg. Moshe at kriat yam suf. At the end of the day we need to leap towards belief(based on nevuat Moshe at Har Sinai)that G-D is the creator.

  4. Aristotle points to one of the logical arts, dialectic, as being the method of the religious inquiry. It also has its place in the beginning stage of the sciences as well.

    Is this what you refer to as the thought of religion?

  5. R. Yoni, As you know Aristo is not my forte but this sounds pretty much right.

    Alex, true miracles do not prove the world was created, but without will, miracles (a singularity) that occur at exactly the right moment is hard to accept.

  6. alex guttman6/24/2011 6:17 AM

    If G-D knows the future (but does not control it) and man knows G-D-then by default he can also know the future(exact moment of miracles). The only argument that I can think of is that the only way to know G-D is to know his "ratzon" which by default would mean creation. This argument falls apart if one believes in another way of knowing G-d-another major problem for the mekubalim ;)

  7. I think your argument is faulty Alex. Our knowledge is NOT His Knowledge.

    God knows himself. Does that mean that we know Him as he knows Himself?

  8. alex guttman6/29/2011 8:36 AM

    I am of course not saying that our knowledge of G-D is the same as his knowledge. We cannot attach any physical attributes to G-D-including knowledge. I am saying that by knowing how the world works and its design/plan behind the universal system, then one can theoretically also know the future without the belief/need for the world being created. The ratzon would then be defined as the design behind how the world works. There really is no diff between believing in a "first non contingent cause" and a "design behind how the world works" when it comes to prophecy. In the latter its the abstract idea behind nature/world that we call G-D without it actually ever starting or interfering in the workings of the universe.

  9. Want quick Torah quotes for your Shabbat table?

    Or simply for love of Torah any time?

    To receive quick easy Torah quotes from a variety of classic Jewish Torah books, please go to:


    Quick Torah quotes include:
    Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Rabah, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu, Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Pele Yoetz, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Kav HaYashar, Shaarei Teshuvah, Sefer Chasidim, Sefer Charedim, Midrash Mishlei.

    For Jews ONLY! Thank you!

  10. You have confused me Alex. Are you distinguishing between our knowledge of Him and His Knowledge of Himself or not?

    If you are differentiating between our knowledge and His, then it makes no sense to say because we know Him and He knows the future, that we know the future.

  11. alex guttman7/03/2011 9:47 AM

    I am saying that we cannot know what G-D's "knowledge" is. I am however saying that just like if we believe that G-d is the creator and by studying his ratzon -one can become a navi and know the future-the same way if one believes that G-d did not create the world but is instead the eternal metaphysical thought behind the world. Then knowing the ratzon of how the world works can theoretically create the same navi with the knowledge of the future. At the end of the day, creation does not necessarily make much of a diff. Especially acc to the Rambam who anyway believes that miracles were put into Teva at briot haolam. The believer in G-D as a non creator can believe that there are anomalies in nature and by studying the ratzon of this perfect eternal system-one can become a navi. The reason why we believe in briat haolam is only because of the validity of nevuat moshe(which was proven at mount sinai) not because the belief in G-D is dependent on it.

  12. If G-D knows the future (but does not control it) and man knows G-D-then by default he can also know the future(exact moment of miracles).

    This wording confused me, it seemed that you were making this argument.

    All that have God's knowledge know the future

    Man has God's knowledge

    Man knows the future

    This is not a problem according to your current explanation which distinguishes our understanding of causality, from his understanding which is not through causality.

    Of course this presupposes that we say that even the Navi does not know the future in the same way and for the same reason that God does. Do we agree?

    In MT Hilchot Teshuva this distinction seems very important.

    י [ה] שמא תאמר והלוא הקדוש ברוך הוא יודע כל מה שיהיה קודם שיהיה: ידע שזה צדיק או רשע, או לא ידע; אם ידע שהוא יהיה צדיק, אי אפשר שלא יהיה צדיק, ואם תאמר שידע שיהיה צדיק ואפשר שיהיה רשע, הרי לא ידע הדבר על בורייו.

    יא דע שתשובת שאלה זו "ארוכה מארץ, מידה; ורחבה, מני ים" (איוב יא,ט), וכמה עיקרים גדולים והררים רמים תלויים בה; אבל צריך אתה לידע ולהבין בדבר זה שאני אומר.

    יב כבר ביארנו בפרק שני מהלכות יסודי התורה שהקדוש ברוך הוא אינו יודע בדעה שהיא חוץ ממנו כבני אדם שהן ודעתם שניים, אלא הוא יתברך שמו ודעתו אחד; ואין דעתו של אדם יכולה להשיג דבר זה על בורייו. וכשם שאין כוח באדם להשיג ולמצוא אמיתת הבורא, שנאמר "כי לא יראני האדם, וחי" (שמות לג,כ)--כך אין כוח באדם להשיג ולמצוא דעתו של בורא: הוא שהנביא אומר "כי לא מחשבותיי מחשבותיכם, ולא דרכיכם דרכיי" (ישעיהו נה,ח). וכיון שכן הוא, אין בנו כוח לידע היאך ידע הקדוש ברוך הוא כל הברואים ומעשיהם.

  13. alex guttman7/03/2011 11:14 PM

    I agree. The knowledge that a navi has is not G-d's knowledge. As the Ramabam explains, that man can only know G-d through negative knowledge(so he can never know or understand the knowledge-lehavdil of G-d). A Navi is a person that has arrived at a high level of this understanding(of negative knowledge) while at the same time understanding the ratzon that is behind the way that the world operates. The point I'm trying to bring out, is that the belief in G-D does not change whether he created the world or not. Stephen Hawkins may not believe or may prove that there is no "G-D/creator-yeh min ayin" but he has no proof that "G-D" does not exist. We believe that G-D is the creator "yesh min ayin" bec that is what Moshe seems to have taught us in the Torah that he gave us. We therefore believe him bec of our participation in the nevuah that he recieved at mount sinai, which proved to us that his nevuah is/was true. The ramabam himself says in the Moreh 2:25 "If ,however,one believed in eternity according to the second opinion we have explained-which is the opinion of Plato-acc to which the heavens too are subject to generation and corruption,this opinion would not destroy the foundations of the law and would be followed not by the lie being given to miracles, but by their becoming admissable. It would also be possible to interpret figuratively the texts in accordance with this opinion".

  14. alex guttman7/03/2011 11:18 PM

    The only opinion that the Rambam completely rejects and says that it would shake up our religion completely is the belief of eternity of the world according to Aristotle(see the end of Moreh 2:25). I'm not sure I understand why this is the case.....

  15. 1. I am glad we agree. I see we were arguing over semantics. Semantics can be very important in promoting false beliefs in others though, that is why I persisted.

    2. The believer in G-D as a non creator can believe that there are anomalies in nature and by studying the ratzon of this perfect eternal system-one can become a navi.

    In Aristotles sense of non Creation, there is an intrinsic necessity of all material phenomenon. If all phenomenon are necessary by their own nature, there cannot be anomalies of any kind. There certainly cannot be anamolies which are indicative of a Mind that is beyond the intrinsic nature of the material world. There is then no possibility of Hasgacha creating anamolies that aiding man in choosing to become a thinker.

  16. alex guttman7/04/2011 6:13 PM

    The Ramban explains Aristotles position in Moreh 2:13. He says that Aristotle believes "and that all that exists has through his volition;but that it was not produced after having been in a state of non-existence." I don't see why if one believes in this point of view, he would have a problem explaining prophecy as understanding the ratzon or volition and thereby know the future.

  17. Looks like what bothers Rambam is Arsitotles contradiction of Hashgacha, not Nvua. He could interpret the Chumash (there could be Nvua in principle) , like the Philosophical Muslims, but there would be no Hashgacha, Beracha and Kelala, this would render Nvuat Moshe meaningless.

  18. Both of you are missing the point confusing "volition" as in cause with "will" as in choice.

    Aristotle (according to medievals) believed that there is a divinity that is the first cause but that divinity had no choice. It was something akin to the repository of all science and knowledge necessary for existence. Both that divinity and existence were eternal and parallel where one was dependent on the other. Thus the divinity had volition in the sense that all exists because of it. A person, a great scientist, may read the "volition" of that divinity and act according to his predictions based on that knowledge. He would therefore act for the sake of survival and there would be no "right" or "wrong" other than survival. In this scheme humans have an advantage over the divine: they have choice while the divine does not. All that happens in the world is therefore chance - mikreh - in the sense that there is no choice. It is a very deterministic system with no morals or right and wrong. Ethics and morals are therefore totally appropriated and are nothing more than human convention. (Theoretically a super computer could make the same prediction a Navi could based on probability and scientific theory.)

    That is what Rambam refers to when he accuses Aristo of believing that "Azav Hashem et ha'aretz". Nevuah in the sense that we believe in is moral and ethical, the system itself is such and therefore there is wrong and right and there is schar ve'onesh. That is because we believe what Artisto sees as Mikreh is in reality a decision that God made at creation and it is "Tov Me'od". That is the Ratzon we are talking about not volition. Some are suggesting that Rambam uses two different words for each (in arabic) where one should be translated as Ratzon the other as Chefetz. The schwartz edition points it out and makes notes of it every time. Rav Kapach was not so careful. The one who came up with this is Professor Avraham Nuriel AH and shows how careful Rambam was in the usage of the two different words in Arabic.

    I hope this settles your discussion.

  19. alex guttman7/04/2011 7:43 PM

    what if the repository of all science and knowledge necessary for existence is "just" and "moral". For example the repository allows a newborn baby to find a food source and survive-breast feeding. This can be a mida of rachamim that shows justice in the system. Why is creation necessary for there to be a just system in the way the world operates?

  20. Because that is Mikreh - IOW just survival. It would be good (tov) because it promotes continuity but not Tov Me'od which only is used once man was created i.e. free choice. Schar ve'onesh is based on God having free will thus Mishpat and Tzedakah which then can be emulated. The other way is not emulating but taknig advantage of.

  21. a decision that God made at creation and it is "Tov Me'od". That is the Ratzon we are talking about not volition?

    What does "decision" mean in this context?

  22. RJS, We do not know what it means just as we don't know what free choice means as attributed to HKBH. we just use the words Ratzon belashon bnei adam. We know that the outcome from this is that we are commanded to emulate Him because He does all by Mishpat and Tzedakah which can only have meaning if He has ratzon.

    Alex and RJS - For a good discussion on the issue of Aristo vs religion see MN 2:19.

  23. RJS re your question see also MN 2:18.