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Thought for the Day: Standards of Proof/Learning from the G'onim

There are two things people say that I find particularly annoying: "I always wanted to ..." and "I'll never forget ..."  Really?  Since your first breath in this world you had that desire?  Really?  You know the future and what other events might occur that will crowd this one out?

That being said; I've always wanted to learn האמונות והדעות/Beliefs and Opinions by R' Saadia Gaon.  It is one of (if not the) earliest treatise on the rational basis for our (that is, Orthodox Jewish) beliefs and "vortlach" from it are widely quoted.  (For example: that there is not eating nor drinking in the world to come; that world is an entirely spiritual experience.)  I am very glad that my Hebrew has finally gotten good enough and my understanding mature enough to work through this beautiful sefer.
The main difficulty is not the language.  Baruch HaShem, my modern Hebrew skills are pretty poor, but the language of our sages in all generations has a consistent vocabulary and style.  The only real difficulty with the language is that R' Saadia writes in a particularly elegant style and precise vocabulary.  The biggest hurdle for me is some unfamiliar words; not much different the difficulty one faces when reading a text book (on any subject) vs a magazine article on the same topic.

A much bigger hurdle is accounting to the different mind set of a writer from over a thousand years ago.  האמונות והדעות was completed circa 933 -- long before Newton and Copernicus.  Even so, R' Saadia addresses the question of multiple worlds and other heavens; very mature ideas, indeed.  His proofs, based as they are on the Aristotelian world view, do not "sing" to us today.  None the less, the way he addresses the issues allows one to clearly separate the problem/issue from its proof; allowing one to contemplate the same issues now with our different world view.

R' Saadia begins, after a long introduction on the nature of proof in general, with a warning.  One who is embarking on this investigation, he notes, is delving into matters that are not discernible by our physical senses.  These are entirely intellectual delving into the deepest and most fundamental principles of our existence.  That being the case, he gives three criteria for success:

  1. It must be logical and internally self-consistent.
  2. One must have answers for the questions brought by other philosophies/investigations the demonstrate the superiority of our conclusions.
  3. It must be supported by the signs and wonders wrought by our prophets.
Here's my perspective on his criteria.  If you don't have (1), you have nothing at all anyway.  Without (2), you have no reason to choose your perspective over another.  Without (3), you are not taking into account whatever little concrete data we do have.  I found it particularly fascinating that R' Saadia is only interested in signs and wonders after he has a world view that is logically consistent and demonstrably better than any other world view.  On the one hand, signs and wonders are impressive, but without context they don't prove anything.  On the other hand, you can't just ignore signs and wonders because they don't fit into your world view.  Note that with every new competing philosophy and idea, one must check if (2) still applies, modify (1) accordingly, and do a reality check with (3).

R' Saadia is therefore saying that Orthodox Judaism demands extreme intellectual honesty, a constant awareness and understanding of current issues, and a lifetime of refining one's outlook.  In the end, then, authentic, Torah/Orthodox Judaism is refreshingly modern in its approach and demands; always has been, always will be.

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