Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
From the close of the Talmud until the rise of Maimonides, Judaism’s greatest figure was a man who wrote commentaries, responsa, philosophy, poetry, linguistics, ran an academy and engaged in fierce public polemics. “No one in the Middle Ages,” writes Robert Brody in his biography of this protean scholar, “had a broader and deeper influence on the development of the Jewish tradition than Sa’adyah Gaon.”
We do not know that much about the personal life of Sa’adyah ben Yosef, known as Gaon because Gaon was the title given to the heads of Talmudic academies. He was born in 882 in Egypt. He traveled in Babylonia, Syria and Palestine before stepping onto center stage of Jewish history in 921. Sa’adyah first became known because of the great dispute over the Jewish calendar.
Who controls the calendar, of course, controls Jewish life. That distinction had long been a Palestinian prerogative. Brody writes of Sa’adyah, “Although he, like other Babylonian scholars, failed to convince the sages of Palestine to adopt the proclamations of Babylonian authorities, it is largely to his credit that the Babylonian position eventually won out.” Sa’adyah’s role in the controversy, demonstrating his erudition and acumen, was instrumental in securing him appointment as the gaon of the academy of Sura in 928.
The two great academies of learning in Babylonia were Sura and Pumbedita. By Sa’adyah’s time Sura had dwindled. As an independent personality unafraid of confrontation, who moreover had not grown up in Babylonia, Sa’adyah might have been seen as an unlikely choice to revive Sura’s flagging fortunes. He did indeed revive the academy although his contentious struggle with the exilarch, David Ben Zakkai, split the Babylonian Jewish elite. When Sa’adyah was restored to his position after several years, it was far weaker and remained so until his death shortly before the age of sixty.
Brody’s book, translated from the Hebrew original of 2006, is particularly helpful because it recognizes that Sa’adyah’s work requires context for modern readers. Before each of the areas in which he contributed, Brody quickly sketches the background, in areas as disparate as linguistics, commentary, philosophy and polemics. Much of Sa’adyah’s fame rested on his defense of rabbinic Judaism against various detractors, particularly a noted critic of the Bible, Hivi of Balkh, as well as the Karaites and Anan Ben David. Many Jews at that time were critical of the Rabbis teachings, and judging from what we know of Hivi, critical of the Torah itself. Sa’adyah mounted a full, intellectually coherent defense of the tradition, including his introduction of the Palestinian Talmud and aggadic sources into the intellectual world of Babylonian Jewry.
In the midst of all these activities, Sa’adyah composed the most important work in Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages before Maimonides. The “Book of Beliefs and Opinions” aimed at reconciling Jewish tradition and rational inquiry. In reviving Hebrew literacy, poetry, halacha and philosophy, with his facility in Arabic and familiarity with Islamic thought, Sa’adyah demonstrated a virtually unparalleled range of intellectual mastery. Robert Brody’s short book enables us to glean some sense of the depth of his work, a peak of Jewish scholarship and creative genius.
Check out the rest of Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks here.