Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rambam begins the eighth chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah with a discussion of why the Israelites believed in Moshe. He rejects the position that they believed on the basis of the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and instead says that they believed Moshe because they witnessed Moshe being spoken to by ‘א at Har Sinai (notably, they first part of this statement clearly contradicts Shemot 14:31, but the second part works well with Shemot 19:9). In this he stands directly agains the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon in his work Emunot VeDeot, where he states that the reason Moshe was believed, the reason any prophet was believed, was because of the miracles they performed.

Rambam objected to this approach because he saw it as a manifestation of a larger trend where religion is seen as a tool for the betterment of life in this world (See also Hilkhot Tefillin 5:4). For RaSaG this issue is a non-starter, because while the emphasis was not on this world, RaSaG did see the mitsvot as being essentially for the sake of mankind. He begins the third essay of Emunot VeDeot by stating that ‘א created the world as an act of kindness, and that the giving of the mitsvot was a similar act of kindness, intended to enable the earning of reward, a motivation Rambam was very against. RaSaG therefore had no problem affirming the idea that a miracle might be the basis for Bnei Yisrael trusting a prophet.

Throughout the third section of Emunot VeDeot RaSaG develops this concept of the prophet as someone who proves the divinity of his message by performing miracles. He says that a prophet must predict the miracle beforehand, in order that it be clear that he performed the miracle. He also says that a prophet cannot be an angel, only a person, because people don’t know the capabilities of angels, and so the angel might be doing the miracle of his own power and authority, not ‘א’s. RaSaG develops a complete theory of prophetic confirmation by miracle.

He also, therefore, discusses the limits of this model. He asserts that a prophet cannot lie, because even if a prophet demonstrated that he had a divine message, who could then trust that he would transmit the message faithfully, and creatively interprets Tanakh to fit this model. He also discusses the possibility, in his discussion of the opinions that say the Torah of Moshe was already nullified, that a prophet might arise and perform miracles but say that the Torah of Moshe should not be followed. He rejects this, giving a more formal description of the process of a prophet giving instructions to the nation(3:8).

RaSaG says that, counter-intuitively, the prophet does not perform the miracle, thus establishing his authority, and then proceed to deliver his now-authoritative message. Instead, step one is that the prophet delivers his message. Then, the message is evaluated based on whether it contradicts both the intellect and the received tradition(2 of RaSaG’s 4 sources of knowledge from his introduction). If the message of the prophet contradicts either of these, it is rejected immediately. The people do not ask the prophet for a miraculous proof, nor do they care if he provides one of his own volition.

Importantly, by “the intellect” RaSaG does not mean logic, but the plainly obvious, the truths that are inherent in the human mind, including moral truths. The reason for putting so much faith in the power of the intellect, to the point of letting it reject potential revelation, is that for RaSaG both revelation and intellect has the same source. Both are given to man by ‘א. The received tradition is comprised of the written and oral traditions of the people, which of course themselves were revealed to Moshe via this process, and so were also subject to rejection if they contradicted the intellect. Thus perhaps the most important arbiter in accepting prophecy as divine is the human intellect.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily believe that there are certain divine truths inherent in the intellect of man. In the age of globalization and the internet we are more than aware that not everyone automatically agrees with us, that the ideas we think of as plainly obvious are in fact culturally conditioned. However, our intellect remains without a doubt a gift from ‘א. He created man with the mental complexity to create societies and improve the world, with the intellectual tools to realize the Image of God and the blessings He gave to man (Bereishit 1:26-30). Thus while we cannot necessarily make the clear statement that our intellect is the final arbiters of the truth of revelation, we absolutely should be using our intellect to grasp revelation critically. Rav Saadiah Gaon doesn’t just invite us to analyze the torah with our minds, he enjoins us to do so, saying that the explication and realization of the Torah is only possible through the use of the intellect (3:10). We have an obligation to approach the Torah with our minds alert, ready to grasp and explore the will and wisdom of ‘א.

Maimonide’s View on Divine Providence, Acc. to Moshe Halbertal

From Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal (Princeton, 2014) pp. 338-341


“Maimonides’ position departs in no uncertain terms from the traditional view of providence, which believes that God punishes the wicked and rewards the ordinary (that is, those who are neither wicked nor virtuous). According to Maimonides, the wicked and the ordinary, constituting most of humanity, are relegated to happenstance. But despite this dramatic divide, the concept he presents has an internal religious logic: providence is not a basic given and does not apply to all people; it is, rather, something achieved only by a few. Throughout existence, God attends only to species as a whole, but perfected human beings merit individual providence. How that individual providence operates, however, is subject to widely differing interpretations.


The conservative reading of the Guide offers one such interpretation. The causal structure is what controls all existence and the fate of most men, but perfected men are subject to God’s special attention, and He exercises His will to protect them from the harms and misfortunes that befall other creatures. On this reading, nature and wisdom are maintained with respect to reality as a whole, but when necessary, divine will bursts through and acts within it. If that is so, Maimonides rejected the [Islamic] Ash’arite position, according to which God’s willful providence governs every individual and event to the point of negating the entire causal order. But he also rejects the Aristotelian position, which sees the causal order as the exclusive principle governing all existence, wicked and perfected alike. According to the conservative reading, Maimonides’ view of providence parallels his views of creation and prophecy. With respect to creation, he preserved a necessary, fundamental element of creation in time-the creation of existence ex nihilo – and allows for the action of divine will when necessary. With respect to prophecy, he interpreted the phenomenon as a natural one but left room for a supernatural exercise of will in the case of Moses’ prophecy. The same structure can be seen in connection with providence. The causal order applies everywhere except with regard to perfected people, who are protected by God’s will. Accordingly, the principle of causal wisdom is not the exclusive explanation for what happens in the universe, and it is limited in areas related to the principles of religion-creation, prophecy, and  providence.


The Guide’s philosophical readers, for their part – that is, those who understood it as affirming eternal preexistence-took a very different view of the idea that perfected people were subject to divine providence on an individual basis. On their reading, which seems to have better internal, textual logic, perfected individuals are not providentially overseen by means of divine intervention volitionally bestowed only on them. Providential oversight is afforded them, rather, by reason of causal reality itself, and it can be accounted for in terms of wisdom, not will. The perfection of the individuals who enjoy providence is commensurate with their apprehension of God and the world, as Maimonides emphasized, and that apprehension affords them two advantages that distinguish them from other men and beasts. Those advantages are theirs without any intervention of the divine will.


The first advantage is that of a place in the world to come; their souls do not perish and they are not eliminated from the world. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believed that providence implies the possibility of eternity and stability inherent in the causal order. That capacity for eternity is granted to those who attain knowledge and become bound to the active intellect; accordingly, providence – bestowed, in Aristotle’s view, only on sorts whose eternity is ensured – pertains to perfected individuals.


Samuel Ibn Tibbon read Maimonides this way, understanding him to hold the view that individual providence did not involve willful divine intervention in an individual’s life. In a letter on providence that he sent to Maimonides (and that Maimonides never answered), he afforded a philosophical interpretation to the concept of prophecy as it appeared in the Guide. In his view, misfortunes befell perfected people in the same way as others, and God did not intervene to free them from poverty, illness, or travail. But because they adhere to the proper goal of apprehending the intelligibles, which assures them eternal life, they do not regard these events as troubles. They do not consider such things as loss of wealth, illness, or handicap to be losses, for they are bound to what truly matters and what assures a person eternal life. Accordingly, in addition to the eternal life these individuals are assured of, they experience providence in their day-to-day lives, expressed not in the form of events that happen to them but as a profound change in consciousness.


The second advantage that apprehension affords to individuals overseen by providence was formulated by Moses Ibn Tibbon, Samuel’s son. Unlike his father, Moses held that those perfected in thought were protected from troubles in a practical way, but not because God willfully directed reality to their benefit, as the conservative reading would have it. Rather, the knowledge of the world that these people acquired allowed them to live better-protected lives, and that is their second natural advantage: they know how to foresee risks and properly assess situations. Moreover, their focus on the higher goal of knowing God frees them from the mental and physical woes that ensue when a person’s life is controlled by his desires. Perfected individuals are distinguished, then, by being providentially protected from the afflictions of the world to a greater extent than other people, bur in the understanding associated with a preexisting universe, that distinctiveness does not entail a miraculous departure from the causal order. The protection and endurance simply reflect the fact that the causal order itself does well for the good.


Conservative and philosophical readers agree that Maimonides’ great innovation here was the idea that providence was something afforded only to individuals and that other people were given over to chance. He thereby rejected the position of the [Islamic] Kalam, which saw divine intervention in every event that transpired in the world, and dissented from the traditional Jewish view that individual providence governed all people. According to Maimonides, God’s presence and providence, for most people, are mediated via the causal order that He created, an order to which people are subject. The dispute between the conservative and philosophical readings pertains to how the providence extended to perfected individuals should be understood: is it effected through willful divine intervention, as the [Islamic]  Kalam understood it to be, or is it built into the causal order itself, to be understood in terms of eternity and immortality, as Aristotle understood providence with respect to other species? The philosophical reading affords Maimonides’ acceptance of reality, emphatically declared in the discussion of theodicy, a more profound meaning. Existence itself, structured through divine wisdom, corresponds to the varying degrees of human virtue, responding to differences among people without any need for willful divine intervention.”

Carbs and Keys – Schlissel Challah

There’s been a lot of talk floating around the internet in the last week regarding Schlissel Challah, the custom of baking challah either in the shape of keyskey-challah or with an actual key pressed into the bottom on the shabbat after Pesach. While slim to none of the participants have been in support of the custom, opinions have ranged from thinking of Schlissel Challah as a pointless but tolerable practice to thinking of it as actual Avodah Zarah. Many have used the minhag as a jumping off point for larger discussions about Judaism, such as open-mindedness and hypocrisy, or Hishtadlut (the idea that personal initiative is both necessary and important in everyday life). What these discussions have largely missed is that Schlissel Challah isn’t it’s own phenomenon, rather it is part of a much larger stream of thought in Judaism.

Since its very beginning, Judaism has possessed both Mystical and Rationalist streams of thought. This dichotomy can be found even in the Torah itself, such as in the discussion of the reasons for Korbanot in Vayikra 17:5-7. The presence of this debate in midrashei HaZaL is so prevalent that A.J. Heschel wrote his three-volume magnum opus, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAspeklariah Shel HaDorot, on the topic. This split continued through the generations, with Mysticism peaking with the Arizal and the Kabbalistic Renaissance in Tzefat, and Rationalism probably peaking with Rambam and Ralbag. Schlissel Challah, while it only goes back to the Hasidic Movement, is a manifestation of this much larger debate.

Part of this debate is the question of the greater purpose of mitzvoth. Rationalists tend to view mitzvoth as being for the purpose of Mankind and its improvement, on global, societal, and individual levels. Torah learning enables people to keep halakha and encourages intelligence. Giving tsedakah provides support for the destitute while making the giver more charitable. Mysticism sees mitzvoth as being for the sake of ‘א and the mystical health and sustenance of reality. Learning Torah brings godly sustenance to all levels of reality. The giving of tsedakah is a mystical necessity for the world. While some thinkers, such as Ramchal, created syntheses that utilized aspects of both approaches, most approaches to the purpose of mitzvoth fall squarely into one of these two camps.

One aspect of the debate regarding Schlissel Challah has to do with this idea of spiritual mechanics and the meta-divine. Part of the innovation of Monotheism that Judaism brought to the world was the absence of meta-divine, things that are outside of ‘א. Idolatry is thus based on the idea that there’s something outside of ‘א. This means that any implication of sustenance or help being received via a process, without the direct influence of ‘א, is absolutely forbidden.[1] Thus assuming that putting a key in a piece of bread would cause one to receive more sustenance would be absolutely forbidden. However, that’s not the only way to view segulot such as Schlissel Challah. This negative view assumes that segulot somehow affect a system of reality outside of ‘א, but that’s only one way to conceive of such a system. Such a system of mystical processes could just as easily be a part of ‘א, or a system he set up that is totally within his control. If that were the case then Schlissel Challah would not at all be Avodah Zarah. How you conceive of segulot is just a question of how you conceive of reality, and that is already very subjective.[2]

A perfect example of the way this debate affects mitzvoth is the commandment of Shiluah HaKen, sending away the mother bird before taking its eggs.[3] The rationalist approach to this mitzvah believes that it’s purpose is to make man more merciful. The mitzvah is not an obligation so much as a proper method. It’s not that a person is commanded to take eggs and send away a mother bird, rather if a person is going to take the eggs, then they must send away the mother first, as this is a more merciful method for getting the eggs. The mystical approach is completely different. From the mystical perspective, the command is intended to activate ‘א’s attribute of Mercy to influence the Nation of Israel. Thus the mitzvah of Shiluah HaKen is not simply a method, but a full on obligation. This is more than just a theoretical debate. The first practical difference is whether or not a person should search out eggs to find. From the rationalist approach, this mitzvah is not an obligation. Like the command to give a get, a divorce document, it is simply the proper method to perform a certain task, if and only if a person finds this situation before them. Without the need for the eggs, the mitzvah would decrease a person’s compassion rather than increase it. For a mystic the command is a full-on obligation. The second ramification of the debate isn’t just about whether or not one must perform the mitzvah, but whether one is even allowed to. According to many who say that the mitzvah is a matter of mercy, sending the mother bird away unnecessarily would fall under the biblical prohibition regarding cruelty to animals. Thus a person who did not need the eggs would actually be prohibited from fulfilling the mitzvah. From the mystical perspective this issue does not exist by Shiluah HaKen, and nobody claims that Schlissel Challah is anywhere near that problematic.

The practice of baking Schlissel Challah can be, and has been, challenged on numerous grounds. However, all of these attacks come from a fundamentally different perspective than that of those who actually practice the rite.[4] Challenging Schlissel Challah is itself essentially meaningless, as all a person is really doing is challenging the axioms upon which the practice of Schlissel Challah is based, and thus challenging a very large stream of the modern Orthodox world-view. This isn’t certainly allowed, but a person should be conscious that this is more or less what they are doing when they challenge Schlissel Challah, and it begs the question of if it’s even worth it. As pointed out above, from the Rationalist prospect, Schlissel Challah is hardly as problematic as Shiluah HaKen. The advantage for challenging Schlissel Challah would be its relatively recent development compared to other rituals, but it’s still a matter of differing axioms more than anything else. At that point, one might as well challenge Shiluah HaKen, a rite practiced commonly in the modern era, despite possibly being prohibited on a Biblical level. Cruelty to animals is a big deal, and something that ought to get paid more attention to in modern Judaism. If you’re going to challenge mystical practices, one involving animal cruelty would be a much better place to start. Otherwise, it might be worth getting used to the fact Judaism always has included both Rationalist and Mystical approaches, and it probably always will.


[1] It’s unclear to what degree practitioners actually believe there is a direct causative relationship between putting the key in the bread and receiving more sustenance. For many, the rite is simply a reminder that ‘א is the source of all sustenance, certainly a Jewish concept.

[2] It’s worth noting that a person can object to segulot without being a rationalist. HaRav Yaakov Peretz, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of the Beit Midrash Sefaradi, is known for saying that he knows of “four segulot better than any others: Torah, Tefillah, Teshuva, and Tsedakah.” While he clearly is not denying the potential validity and power of segulot, he simply believes that they’re not meant to be the focus of a jew’s attention.

[3] For more information on this topic, see Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha, a truly excellent resource.

[4] Ignoring, of course, those who make Schlissel Challah simply as a reminder that all sustenance really comes from ‘א.