Fighting the Good Fight in Old Baghdad

Fighting the Good Fight in Old Baghdad

By Rabbi Richard Baroff

Saadia is remembered as the greatest of the gaonim — those leaders of the Babylonian academies who added so much to the richness of Jewish life and thought. They were all great intellectuals, and Saadia, who flourished in the first half of the 10th century in Muslim Bagdad, was the greatest of them all.

Saadia was a scrupulous scholar of the Hebrew language and of language in general. He wrote grammar books and dictionaries. Living in the midst of the Abbasid caliphate, he understood the need for Jews living under the crescent of Islam to read Arabic. Thus he translated most of the Hebrew Scriptures into Arabic. Many hundreds of years later, Moses Mendelssohn would translate the Hebrew Bible into German for the same reason.

Saadia was a prolific commentator upon the Torah and an author of a siddur/machzor (prayer book). His grounding in the close reading of the text became the foundation for a whole system of thought.

His magnum opus was the magisterial Sefer Emunot v’Deyot, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions. Like most of his writings, this great work of speculative thought, drawing on both Greek and Islamic philosophy, was originally composed in Arabic.

Building his worldview from a meticulous reading of the mostly Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible (part of it is in Aramaic), he defended seminal theological ideas: creation, revelation, redemption and the immortality of the soul.

As a philosopher, his quest was unity.

But as a careful student of language, his mind was keenly attuned to different shades of meaning. Therefore, Saadia has prevailed over a millennium as a great biblical commentator who always wishes to draw general conclusions from the text but who never is seduced by simple explanations.

Saadia’s main intellectual and spiritual opponents were the Karaites. The Karaites rejected the rabbinic principle that two Torahs were given to Moses on Mount Sinai: the Written Law and the Oral Law. The Karaites held that only the Written Torah was given at Sinai. This smaller Torah is the sacred text of the Torah scroll. The Oral Torah became the basis for the Talmud and halacha, which the Karaites held was not divine.

(The ancient Sadducees also rejected the twofold Torah in favor of just the Written Law.)

Saadia became the great champion of rabbinic normalcy and defeated this great threat to Talmudic Judaism.

It was Saadia as well who interpreted Greco/Arabic science to the Jewish world living within Islamic civilization.

Saadia’s great political nemesis was the Resh Galuta (the exilarch), the head of the Jewish community within the caliphate, who was named David Ben Zakkai. Originally from Egypt, Saadia eventually moved to Babylon to lead the great rabbinic academy of Sura as gaon. (The other gaon was from Pumbedita.) The exilarch was in theory over both gaonim.

But such was Saadia’s prestige that his authority threatened the Resh Galuta.

David Ben Zakkai actually deposed Saadia as a result of the quarrel, but the gaon was reinstated.

Saadia was in another fight that would have more lasting impact. While traveling through Eretz Yisrael, he argued against the radical changes in the Jewish calendar proposed by Aaron Ben Meir. As usual, Saadia’s argument prevailed. The calendar we follow today is the one Saadia set almost 11 centuries ago.

Saadia wrote hundreds of books — about two-thirds in Arabic and the rest in Hebrew. Like his great successor Maimonides, he was not only a great Jewish scholar, but also a great Arabic sage, although of course not a Muslim.

Of the three major arguments for which he is known, two of them bore important fruit. The theologian’s battle against the Karaites prevented a serious schism within the Jewish community, allowing rabbinic Judaism to flourish into modern times.

Saadia’s contretemps with Ben Meir fixed the calendar to this very day. But the gaon’s political war with Ben David is an artifact of history.

In the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Fathers, we learn in Chapter 5 that when Jews argue, the fight will bear fruit only if the motivation of the debaters is to honor G-d and to strive to live by the divine will.

The legacies of the calendrical battle and the theological struggle over the nature of Torah are great because they were quarrels over things that matter. The personal tug of war between the gaon of the Sura Yeshiva and the exilarch was not. Therefore, it was fruitless.

A lesson perhaps for every rabbi and president in every shul.


Rabbi Richard Baroff leads Guardians of the Torah.

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