Translation of the Bible into Arabic.—Foundation of a Jewish Philosophy of Religion.
Saadiah was born in Fayum (Egypt) in 892, and died in Sura in 942. He was the founder of a new literature. In width of culture he excelled all his Jewish contemporaries. To him Judaism was synonymous with culture, and therefore he endeavored to absorb for Judaism all the literary and scientific tendencies of his day. He created, in the first place, a Jewish philosophy, that is to say, he applied to Jewish theology the philosophical methods of the Arabs. Again, though he vigorously opposed Karaism, he adopted its love of philology, and by his translation of the Bible into Arabic helped forward a sounder understanding of the Scriptures.
At the age of thirty-six Saadiah received a remarkable honor; he was summoned to Sura to fill the post of Gaon. This election of a foreigner as head of the Babylonian school proves, first, that Babylonia had lost its old supremacy, and, secondly, that Saadiah had already won world-wide fame. Yet the great work on which his reputation now rests was not then written. Saadiah's notoriety was due to his successful championship of Rabbinism against the Karaites.
His determination, his learning, his originality, were all discernible in his early treatises against Anan and his followers. The Rabbinites had previously opposed Karaism in a guerilla warfare. Saadiah came into the open, and met and vanquished the foe in pitched battles. But he did more than defeat the invader, he strengthened the home defences. Saadiah's polemical works have always a positive as well as a negative value. He wished to prove Karaism wrong, but he also tried to show that Rabbinism was right.
As a champion of Rabbinism, then, Saadiah was called to Sura. But he had another claim to distinction. The Karaites founded their position on the Bible. Saadiah resolved that the appeal to the Bible should not be restricted to scholars. He translated the Scriptures into Arabic, and added notes. Saadiah's qualifications for the task were his knowledge of Hebrew, his fine critical sense, and his enlightened attitude towards the Midrash. As to the first qualification, it is said that at the age of eleven he had begun a Hebrew rhyming dictionary for the use of poets.
He himself added several hymns to the liturgy. In these Saadiah's poetical range is very varied. Sometimes his style is as pure and simple as the most classical poems of the Spanish school. At other times, his verses have all the intricacy, harshness, and artificiality of Kalir's. Perhaps his mastery of Hebrew is best seen in his "Book of the Exiled" (Sefer ha-Galui), compiled in Biblical Hebrew, divided into verses, and provided with accents. As the title indicates, this book was written during Saadiah's exile from Sura.
Saadiah's Arabic version of the Scriptures won such favor that it was read publicly in the synagogues. Of old the Targum, or Aramaic version, had been read in public worship together with the original Hebrew. Now, however, the Arabic began to replace the Targum. Saadiah's version well deserved its honor.
Saadiah brought a hornet's nest about his head by his renewed attacks on Karaism, contained in his commentary to Genesis. But the call to Sura turned Saadiah's thoughts in another direction. He found the famous college in decay. The Exilarchs, the nominal heads of the whole of the Babylonian Jews, were often unworthy of their position, and it was not long before Saadiah came into conflict with the Exilarch.
The struggle ended in the Gaon's exile from Sura. During his years of banishment, he produced his greatest works. He arranged a prayer-book, wrote Talmudical essays, compiled rules for the calendar, examined the Massoretic works of various authors, and, indeed, produced a vast array of books, all of them influential and meritorious. But his most memorable writings were his "Commentary on the Book of Creation" (Sefer Yetsirah) and his masterpiece, "Faith and Philosophy" (Emunoth ve-Deoth).
This treatise, finished in the year 934, was the first systematic attempt to bring revealed religion into harmony with Greek philosophy. Saadiah was thus the forerunner, not only of Maimonides, but also of the Christian school-men. No Jew, said Saadiah, should discard the Bible, and form his opinions solely by his own reasoning. But he might safely endeavor to prove, independently of revelation, the truths which revelation had given.
Faith, said Saadiah again, is the sours absorption of the essence of a truth, which thus becomes part of itself, and will be the motive of conduct whenever the occasion arises. Thus Saadiah identified reason with faith. He ridiculed the fear that philosophy leads to scepticism. You might as well, he argued, identify astronomy with superstition, because some deluded people believe that an eclipse of the moon is caused by a dragon's making a meal of it.
For the last few years of his life Saadiah was reinstated in the Gaonate at Sura. The school enjoyed a new lease of fame under the brilliant direction of the author of the great work just described. After his death the inevitable decay made itself felt. Under the Moorish caliphs, Spain had become a centre of Arabic science, art, and poetry. In the tenth century, Cordova attained fame similar to that which Athens and Alexandria had once reached. In Moorish Spain, there was room both for earnest piety and the sensuous delights of music and art; and the keen exercise of the intellect in science or philosophy did not debar the possession of practical statesmanship and skill in affairs.
In the service of the caliphs were politicians who were also doctors, poets, philosophers, men of science. Possession of culture was, indeed, a sure credential for employment by the state. It was to Moorish Spain that the centre of Judaism shifted after the death of Saadiah. It was in Spain that the finest fruit of Jewish literature in the post-Biblical period grew. Here the Jewish genius expanded beneath the sunshine of Moorish culture. To Moses, the son of Chanoch, an envoy from Babylonia, belongs the honor of founding a new school in Cordova. In this he had the support of the scholar-statesman Chasdai, the first of a long line of medieval Jews who earned double fame, as servants of their country and as servants of their own religion. To Chasdai we must now turn.
Schiller-Szinessy.—Encycl. Brit., Vol. XXI, p. 120.
M. Friedländer.—Life and Works of Saadia. J.Q.R., Vol. V, p. 177.
Saadiah's Philosophy (Owen), J.Q.R., Vol. III, p. 192.
Grammar and Polemics (Rosin), J.Q.R., Vol. VI, p. 475; (S. Poznanski) ibid., Vol. IX, p. 238.
E.H. Lindo.—History of the Jews of Spain and Portugal (London, 1848).