Religious rationalism vs. mysticism


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Dauer and I have been discussing starting a thread with the theme related to rationalism, vs. mysticism in religion. These ideas may include concepts of superstition and perhaps idolatry as well, which I will come to later.

I believe that there are a variety of issues which cover this broad spectrum of Jewish belief. Also, I believe that there are hierarchical concepts which perhaps apply more widely to the Abrahamic religions, Greek thought and perhaps the Eastern religions as well.

Jewish mysticism most likely began in the second century BCE with the work of Shimon bar Yochai. It is believed that he was inspired by Elijah to write the Zohar. Chassidic Judaism has a strong component of mysticism which relates to the Baal Shem Tov.

Several rabbinic scholars along the spectrum from rationalist to mystical come quickly to mind, with many others who would closely follow. These include Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, Baal Shem Tov and Issac Luria. I would like to consider these great scholars in more depth.

Saadia Gaon (882 (or 892) – 942) was the first rabbi coming out of the middle ages with clear philosophic perspective. He is best known for Emunoth ve-Deoth (Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat)( The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs), a philosophical work interfacing Jewish theology, Islamic and Greek philosophy. He was considered a Jewish Kalam or Mu‘tâzilite ( an original interfaith guy ! ). His work focused on concepts of G-d’s existance, unity and incorporeality. He also went on to address life, omipotence and omniscience. He played an inportant role in the development of Hebrew grammer and lexicography. He was the first to translate the Bible into Arabic, and wrote the first commentary. A section on justice focuses on free will. Issues of psychology and ethics were treated in this work as well.

His connection with the Islamic schools was strong. His arguments for the existance of G-d and creation of the world were taken from the Islamic schools. Saadia’s sources were Jewish literature and tradition, the works of the Mutakallimun, particularly the Mu’tazilites, and Aristotle, whose book on the “Categories” he knew first hand.

Two examples of his perspective follow:

1. Saadia believed that the law constitutes the national existance of the people; hence “as we are assured by the Prophets that the Jewish nation is eternal, the Law must be likewise”. We must not accept the evidence of miracles in favor of a new law abrogating the old. For it was not primarily Moses’s miracles that served to authenticate his teaching, but the character of the teaching itself.

2. With respect to Biblical interpretation, Saadia makes the general remark that whenever a verse of Scripture apparently contradicts the truths of reason, there is no doubt that it is figurative, and a person who successfully interprets it so as to reconcile it with the data of sense or reason will be rewarded for it. For not the Bible alone is the source of Judaism, Reason is another source preceding the Bible, and Tradition is a third source coming after the Bible.

Were Saadia’s thoughts good examples of post-middle age rationalism ? Were they original or too closely linked to Islamic and Greek thought or earlier Jewish ideas ?

References: 1) "A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy", Chapter 3, Issac Husik, Atheneum Press, 1974.

2) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - "Saadya"

3) Wikipedia - "Saadia Gaon"