Sunday 1 January 2017


Torah with Arabic translation, by Rav Saadia Gaon, in Hebrew alphabet (Judeo-Arabic). 

In this essay we are going to look at the origins of Jewish philosophy and attempt to determine when in Jewish history, did the notion of formalized philosophy and theology enter the arena.


Generally speaking – other than the nuances between the various Biblical characters, and even the later sages of the Talmud, each with their particular schools and approaches - it appears as though philosophy was never a central issue to early Judaism.

During Talmudic times the primary focus was formulating a legal and ethical code. Very little importance was placed on philosophical principles as it was largely regarded a non-Jewish discipline and enterprise.

Hyam Maccoby, in his book entitled The Philosophy of the Talmud, writes:

The Talmud is not a work of formal philosophy, but much of what it says is relevant to philosophical enquiry... the Talmud has original ideas about...ethics... This leads into a discussion on the relation between morality and ritual, and...the role of tradition.”[1] 

But there is still no formal philosophy in the technical sense of the word.

Even Philo the Philosopher of Alexandria (25 BCE-50 CE) was unable to get any real intellectual purchase amongst the rabbis. This was not only because he attempted to bridge sophisticated Greek philosophy with Judaism - which set off alarm bells amongst the rabbis for fear of Hellenization - but simply because the sages felt that the legal and ethical Talmudic texts were sufficient, and that philosophy was extraneous to Judaism.

Menachem Kellner writes of the prevalent attitude at that time; 

Loyalty to G-d, Torah, and Israel, therefore is the hallmark of the Jew: loyal [halachik or ritualistic] behaviour, not systematic theology, is what is expected and demanded [particularly during Talmudic times].”[2]

Philonis Iudei - Philo of Alexandria

Philo, whose Hebrew name was Yedidya haKohen, wrote about forty books. These still exist today only because they were preserved, not by Jews, but by the early church. Ironically it was the church which felt a need for his some of Philo’s mystical teachings which he borrowed from Plato.[3]

For almost one thousand five hundred years it was only the church that studied Philo’s works.[4] This was until R. Azariah de Rossi also known as the Meor Enayim (1513-1578) began to quote extensively from Philo. It was at that late stage that Philo actually began to make a somewhat meaningful impression on the rabbinic world.[5] 


Meanwhile, from around 700 CE, the traditional disinterest that Judaism had previously displayed toward philosophy suddenly began to change as a result of Islamic influences.

“...Jews who came under Muslim rule in the seventh century had no philosophic works corresponding to the philosophic writings of the Church...[and Islam][6]

After the founding of Islam in the 600’s, Baghdad soon became a centre of Islamic scholarship. Greek books on mathematics, science and philosophy were translated into Arabic. There arose a need to study falsafa or philosophy so that Muslims could debate with both Christians and Jews.

Based on their newly acquired knowledge of Greek philosophy, some Islamic scholars known as the Mutazila, composed specialized writings called Kalam or speech[7], to serve this very purpose. These writings were scripturally based but included rationalist views as well, and were therefore very appealing to thinking religious people. The Kalam allowed one to be both a religious scholar and a (‘modern’) rationalist at the same time.


As a result of the popularity of the Islamic Kalam, the then very large and influential Jewish sect of Karaites (which was founded in the 700’s; and which rejected rabbinical Judaism and adhered only to the literal text of the Torah) were the first group to begin introducing philosophy to the Jewish world along the lines of Kalamic thought. 

They were so successful that, “ is sometimes impossible to tell from the contents of a Karaite Mutazilite work whether it was written by a Jew or a Mohammedan.[8] See KOTZK BLOG 53.


There were now Islamic and Karaite religious rationalists who embraced philosophy in order to enhance their beliefs - but there was nothing yet from within the Rabbinite community.

Menachem Kellner writes: 

With the rise of Islam from without and of Karaism from within, [rabbinic] Judaism was confronted by challengers that it could not ignore. Islam was an aggressively proselytizing religion, and Karaism denied the Jewish legitimacy of Rabbanite Judaism.[9]

Now, mainstream rabbinic Judaism had serious challenges which it needed to respond if it didn’t want to be sidelined.

This challenge was met with very satisfactorily by R. Saadia Gaon in the late 800’s.

If Philo was the obscure great-grandfather of Jewish philosophy, and the Karaites the collective grandfather of the albeit non-rabbinic movement to introduce philosophy to Jews - R. Saadia Gaon was certainly the father of rabbinical Jewish philosophy. 

As a consequence of his incorporation of philosophy into Judaism, it developed into a major mainstream component which later actually defined all future movements within the rabbinic world. He was the first rabbi to systematically introduce and endorse the concept of a philosophical system running side by side with traditional rabbinic thought. 

He is also said to be the father of the Jewish Kalam, a movement which Rambam was later to refer to as the Mutakallimun. (A term perhaps comprising Mutazila and Kalaam?)

It must be pointed out, however, that R. Saadia Gaon did not totally embrace all of the Islamic Kalam. He omitted certain aspects which he felt were incompatible with Jewish thinking.[10]

In fairness, according to some, it is not clear as to whether one can define R. Saadia Gaon as exclusively being a rationalist. He may have simultaneously had mystical leanings. This appears to be evidenced by the very different styles of his two main theological works, haEmunot ve’haDeot (i.e. his ‘rational’ thinking) and his Arabic translation of and commentary on Sefer Yetzirah (i.e. his ‘mystical’ teachings).[11]

Perhaps because of his rational views, R. Saadia Gaon experienced a substantial amount of opposition. Some went so far as to question his Jewish credentials. They attacked the fact that ‘Saadia’ is not a Jewish or Hebrew name. Historically he does appear to be the first Jew to go by the name ‘Saadia‘, which some of his opponents assumed was a corruption of the Arabic name Sa’id. Taking his innovative adoption of Kalamic philosophy into consideration, one can understand the innuendo.[12]

Yet despite the opposition, the Kalamic ideas were generally fresh and exciting to many within the religious world who felt weighed down by the intricacies of ritual and were looking for meaning. This is why the Kalam had so much appeal among Jewish theological thinkers at the time (whom, besides R. Saadia Gaon, included other leaders like R. Hai Gaon[13] and his father-in-law R. Shmuel ben Hofni who was the last Gaon of Sura).

RAMBAM (1204-1135):

Rambam gives a rather comprehensive description of this period of history when he recorded how philosophy entered Judaism as a result of Islamic influences.

Rambam wrote: 
Regarding that measly bit of argument (of kalamic thought)...which you will find in the writings of some Gaonim and Karaites, which they adopted from the Mutakallimun of Islam, this is no where even as profound as the original, when compared to what Islam has compiled on the subject.
Furthermore, Islam was the first to walk this path, owing to a certain sect, the Mutazila, from whom our co-religionists took over their ideas...when they walked upon the road the Mutazila had taken.”[14]

Thus Rambam is clearly not very complimentary of R. Saadia (nor of the other Gaonim) who introduced the Kalam to Judaism in the first instance. Nor is he happy about the ‘unsophisticated’ manner in which the Gaonim allowed the Islamic sect of Mutazila to have such influence over Judaism.

Kalamic philosophy posits that creation of the universe by G-d is ‘logical’ and ‘obvious’. This was ‘unsophisticated’ thinking, according to Rambam, who as a rationalist par excellence insisted that creation was ‘far from obvious’ and probably not ever susceptible to proof in a scientific sense.

Rambam goes on to present the 12 basic principles of the Kalam. Some of these may be of interest to a modern reader:

The world is composed of small particles which are not divisible...

There exist certain spaces which are devoid of all substance and material (a vacuum)...

Time is made up of fundamental instants which are not divisible...

Every entity is (and even atoms are) subject to accidents...

Any state of affairs which can be imagined, is admissible in intellectual argument...”[15]

Surprisingly, but possibly because of its mystical connotations, the concept of the soul is glaringly absent from much of kalamic thought.

Rambam then makes a fascinating observation:

After a certain time another sect arose in Islam, namely the Ashariyya, who espoused other opinions. You will not find any of these latter opinions among our co-religionists. This was not because they preferred the first opinions (of the Mutazila) over the others (the Ashariyya), but simply because the views of the former had already become entrenched (within Judaism).”[16]

Here Rambam clearly bemoans the fact that so much of Jewish thought was predisposed by the Mutazila to the extent that its teachings had become entrenched and its influence irreversible.

[As an aside, this distinction of Islamic sects has led some to suggest that had Islam followed the more rational path of Mutazila instead of the more mystical approach of Ashariyya, it may have evolved along an entirely different path to the one it finds itself on today.[17] Some even suggest that Mutazila was the ‘wasted opportunity of Islam’ and that had the rational approach become the dominant theology, the Muslim world may have led the industrial revolution instead of Europe. 

Reason and free will were central to Mutazila thought, whereas Ashariyya adopted a more mystical and fatalistic approach, claiming that everything came from G-d and leaving little place for human innovation. Historically the Ashariyya sect survived the test of history, because it is said that the Abbasid Caliphate would rather have had obedient and conforming citizens, instead of rationalists who would be more prone to questioning their thinking and authority.[18]]

From the Jewish perspective, the influence of Kalamic thought also waned. This was partly due to the fact that most of its writings were in Arabic and did not get translated into Hebrew. With the passage of time it was the mystical approach that similarly proved to resonate more with the masses. By then the general concept of Jewish philosophy was most likely already firmly implanted within the psyche of the Jewish people and it blended naturally with Kabbalistic philosophy.[19]


Besides our source in Rambam, perhaps much of what we have discussed might have gone by undetected. We may have been led to believe that Jewish Philosophy ‘always existed’ - had it not been for some recent discoveries.

With access to various libraries of the former Soviet Union, we are now able to study old manuscripts which were hitherto inaccessible. One such collection of manuscripts is known as the Firkovich collection. It contains many hundreds of Mutazilite manuscripts, written in Arabic with Hebrew characters (Judeo-Arabic) which Jews had copied and obviously studied. This supports the thesis of Rambam, that Islamic rationalists exerted widespread influence upon the Jews at that time.

Another source of this information, previously unknown to Ashkenazi scholars, was found in old Yemenite manuscripts which were only discovered in Yemen the 1950’s. These also attest to the strong influence of Mutazila thought informing early Jewish philosophy. See KOTZK BLOG 91.


Today, most committed Jews are clearly defined by their philosophical approach, or hashkafa, to Torah. It is not uncommon to believe that one’s particular hashkafa is superior to the hashkafa of another. Sometimes we even maintain that the other’s hashkafa is theologically ‘incorrect’.

While the impact, influence and dominating importance of hashkafa is indisputable in today’s Torah world, the question begs:

From a purely historical and academic perspective (in other words I’m not suggesting we abandon Chassidus and Mussar etc.) - how essentially and authentically critical is Jewish philosophy to fundamental Judaism - considering that we managed without it through the entire Biblical, Talmudic and Savoraic periods – and furthermore, considering its non-Jewish origins?

Should not the obvious need for hashkafa be to augment Judaism rather than define its very essence?

Or, lest one argue that today hashkafa is such an integral part of our mesorah and tradition, these words of Rav Kook may better resonate:

 “The halacha (legal aspects of Judaism) and the aggadah (non-legal or theological aspects) must be united....The fact that one who concerns himself with halacha feels he has entered a different world when he enters the realm of aggadah and vice versa, destroys much of the spiritual stimulation that is inspired by the peace of mind that comes from (their) inner unity.”[20]


The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Learman.
The Jewish Kalam, by Harry A. Wolfson.
A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy, by Isaac Husik (1916).
Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam.
Saadia Gaon: The Double Path of the Mystic and the Rationalist, by Gyongyi (Ginger) Hegedus.
Saadya and the Jewish Kalam, by Sarah Stroumsa.

[1] From a brief on: The Philosophy of the Talmud, by Hyam Maccoby
[2] See Must a Jew Believe Anything, Menachen Kellner, p. 18. [Parenthesis mine.]
[3] See Philo as a Biblical Commentator, by R. Michael Leo Samuel.
[4] Some Jewish scholars questioned whether or not Philo even knew Hebrew as he based his work on the Greek translation of the Torah (which occurred in 250 BCE). He also did not quote from Ezekiel, Daniel, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes or Ester, which raises the question as to how much of the biblical canon was available (to him?) at that time. Yet he did believe that everything in the Torah has a divine origin including the letters and accents. He also taught that the literal meaning of the Torah is generally accurate (although he had questions about the creation story), but that there also was an additional and deeper allegorical meaning attached to the literal text as well. Based on the biblical verse ‘male and female He created them’, Philo proposed that both women and men should be afforded equal rights.
[5] According to psychologist Kevin Furman: “Perhaps the Jewish idea is not to avoid philosophy per se but to avoid a systematic construct which is thereby no longer fluid, dynamic and mindful of the infinite.”
[6] The Jewish Kalam, by Harry A. Wolfson, The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 57, pp. 544-573 [Parenthesis mine.]
[7] Ibn Ezra refers to R. Saadia Gaon as the ‘first and foremost among speakers (medaberim) everywhere
[8] See A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy, by  Isaac Husik 1916, p. 25
[9] See Menachem Kellner ibid. p. 49 [Parenthesis mine.]
[10] He omitted ideas like emanationism and atomism, see Saadia Gaon: The Double Path of the Mystic and the Rationalist, by Gyongyi (Ginger) Hegedus.
[11] “According to Saadya the human mind has the inherent potential to ‘see’ reality in more than one way: by perception, or by imagination and revelation.” See ibid. p. 228. R. Saadia Gaon was also the first to translate the Torah into Arabic, with commentary, and interestingly it remains the authoritative Arabic Bible to this day.
[12] This type of rhetoric was perpetuated by his antagonist R. Aaron ben Meir, also a Gaon, with whom he disputed about the calculation of the new moon. Had Ben Meir got his way the Jews in Israel and Babylonia would have experienced a two day difference in their dates for the Passover holiday.  See Sefer haMoadim by R. Saadia in which he refutes Ben Meir. This ‘victory’ over Ben Meir got him to be the first outsider to be appointed as Gaon, as prior to this event, the Gaonim were all chosen from 5 or 6 noble families who claimed to have descended from David.
[13] Rav Hai Gaon received numerous questions on the validity of influence by Matazilite teachings on Jewish thinking. His ‘endorsement’ of aspects of the Jewish Kalam is evident in his responsa literature.
[14] Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Book 1, ch. 73-76.
[15] Guide for the Perplexed, Book 1 ch. 73
[16] Ibid.
[17]It (Ashariyya) had its origin in the reaction against the excessive rationalism of the Mu'tazila. Its members insisted that reason must be subordinate to revelation. The Mu'tazila - literally 'those who withdraw themselves' - movement was founded... in the...eighth century. Its members were united in their conviction that it was necessary to give a rationally coherent account of Islamic beliefs... they generally held to five theological principles, of which the two most important were the unity of God and divine justice...(They) deny that the...Qur'an was eternal..(and)...assert the existence of free will. After the demise of the Mu’tazila as a distinct movement, Mu’tazilite doctrine – by now regarded as heretical by Sunnis – continued to be influential amongst Shi’ites in Persai and the Zaydis in the Yemen.” (Paraphrase from
[18] However, see Ignaz Goldziher for a different perspective: “During the reign of three Abbasid caliphs, when the Mutazilites were fortunate enough to have their doctrines recognized as state dogma, those doctrines were urged by means of inquisition, imprisonment, and terror...” This view shatters the notion of the Mutazilites being ‘liberal and rational free thinkers’.
[19] This last point is my own and I have no reference to substantiate it.
[20] Orot, vol. 1, p. 25




Is there space for rationalism within Judaism - when as a spiritual quest it should be more concerned with revelation instead?

Common to all kalam schools is the formulation of a system based on the dual basis of rationality and Scripture, and the assumption that the two complement, rather than contradict, each other.”

-Saadya and the Jewish Kalam, by Sarah Stroumsa, p. 71

 “According to a romantically orthodox position, Judaism is an extra-rational religion, because our sages deliver a divine message whose authority and meaning cannot be gainsaid by any recognizable standard of rationality. According to a sceptically postmodern position, Judaism is sub-rational, because it is constituted by political, economic, and psycho-social phenomena that cannot be reduced to ant set of rational principles.”

- The Philosophy of the Talmud, by Hyam Maccoby, p. 240 


Rav Kook took great umbrage to those who disparaged other religions. All religions, in his view, contained an authentic “seeking after G-d and his ways in the world.” 

He wrote: 

At a time such as this, we must clarify the common elements of all religion...and not be afraid of the customary disdain and deep hostility that lurks in the soul against everything alien[1]

 Regarding the animosity often demonstrated between Jews, Christians and Moslems, Rav Kook wrote: 

The brotherly love of Esau (Christian) and Jacob (Jew), and of Isaac and Ishmael (Moslem), will rise up above the confusions fostered by the evil emanating from our creaturely character...and turn them to light...[2]

He said: ‘There is a holiness that builds and a holiness that destroys...One whose spirit cannot reach out to wide horizons...finds shelter in naturally formed structures, like rabbits who find shelter in the rocks.[3]

[1] Igrot Haraya, vol. 1, Letter 194
[2] Igrot, vol. 1, Letter 112
[3] Orot, vol. 2, p. 224

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