Jewish Kalam

Jewish Kalam was an early-medieval style of Jewish philosophy that evolved in response to the Islamic Kalam, which in turn was a reaction against Aristotelian philosophy. The term "Jewish Kalam" is used by modern historians, but is not a term by which Jewish Kalamic thinkers designated themselves. In all likelihood, they were simply known as "Mutakallimūn" (Kalamists), as they are referred to by Rambam and other Jewish writers.

The best known practitioner of Jewish Kalam was Saadia Gaon, and Jewish Kalam represented the philosophical battlefield upon which Saadia attacked his Karaitic opponents. Maimonides in "The Guide" frequently references and disputes positions of the Mutakallimūn — the Kalam practitioners — both Jewish and Islamic, and in general conveys an opinion of Kalam thought which is highly uncomplimentary. Judah Halevi also makes reference to Jewish followers of the Kalam, but mentions only the Karaites Harv|Wolfson|1967.

Basic principles of Jewish Kalam

Some of the basic principles of the Jewish Kalam are as follow Harv|Stroumsa|2003. See also Rambam's characterization of the principles below.
* Observation of the natural world reveals the existence of a Creator
* The world/universe must have been created "ex nihilo" rather than from preexisting matter
* The Creator is absolutely different (opposite) from anything in the created world
* The Creator is a perfect unity, with no division
* Human moral criteria can be applied to God. To say God is "wise" or God is "good" is to apply those terms "meaningfully", and their meaning is related to the mundane meaning of those terms (cf. Rambam)

Rambam's characterization

Rambam refers repeatedly to the "Mutakallimūn" (Kalam philosophers) in his "Guide to the Perplexed". Some examples of his characterization of Kalamic thought can be found at the end of Book I (Chapters 73–76), see also Harvtxt|Wolfson|1967. The translation which follows is from Harvtxt|Pines|1963:

quotation|As for that scanty bit of argument (kalam) regarding the notion of the unity of God and regarding what depends on this notion, which you will find in the writings of some Gaonim and in those of the Qaraites, it should be noted that the subject matter of this argument was taken over by them from the Mutakallimūn of Islam and that this bit is very scanty indeed if compared to what Islam has compiled on this subject. Also it has so happened that Islam first began to take this road owing to a certain sect, namely, the Mutazila, from whom our co-religionists took over certain things walking upon the road the Mutazila had taken. After a certain time another sect arose in Islam, namely, the Ashariyya, among whom other opinions arose. You will not find any of these latter opinions among our co-religionists. This was not because they preferred the first opinion to thesecond, but because it so happened that they had taken over and adopted the first opinion and considered it a matter proven by demonstration|Rambam

Rambam continues in that section to provide a history of Kalamic thought, its sources and subsequent development, and then proceeds to condemn a certain laxity of thought to be found in this philosophical school. In particular, Rambam takes strong issue with the Kalamic proof of God's existence and unity from the Creation of the World in time. While Rambam himself "does" regard the world as having been created "ex nihilo" (rather than being eternally existing, as Aristotle would have it; see GP, Book II Chapter 25, for example), Rambam also considers this proposition as being far from obvious, and in all likelihood not susceptible to proof. He thus regards the Kalamic approach as starting from a position of "convenience" rather than from an irrefutable premise, and their methodology as being entirely tainted by their eagerness to produce certain results which support their prior beliefs.

Additionally he considers their premises to "run counter to the nature of existence that is perceived." He writes that "every one of their premises, with few exceptions, is contradicted by what is perceived of the nature of that which exists, so that doubts come up with regard to them." However, it can be noted below, that in many cases the Kalamists were indeed more prescient than Rambam himself in their beliefs regarding the discrete nature of matter, existence of vacuum, and other physical characteristics of the natural world.

Principles of Kalam according to Rambam

In Book I Chapter 73, Rambam presents the 12 premises of the Mutakallimūn, and disputes most of them. The premises are, in brief, as follow:

# Existence of atoms: The world is composed of small particles which are not divisible, and which have no identifying essential properties (only accidents).
# Existence of vacuum: There exist certain spaces which are devoid of all substance and material.
# Time is discrete: Time is made up of fundamental "instants" which are not themselves subject to further division.
# Every body is subject to accidents: Any body must have either an accident (non-essential feature) or it's opposite. A body cannot be without accidents.
# These accidents exist in the atom.
# An atom has one-instant duration: An atom does not persist (its accidents do not persist) more than one moment of time. God must repeatedly create these accidents at each time instant, or they permanently go out of existence.
# Accidents in bodies also do not persist and must be recreated. This and the previous principle constitute a denial of causality.
# Only substance and accident exist: Bodies differ only in regard to their accidents.
# Accidents subsist in a common substratum: An accident cannot subsist in another accident.
# Any state of affairs which can be imagined is admissible in intellectual argument
# All kinds of infinity are impossible
# The senses may be in error: The senses should not be trusted in matters of demonstration

Not all of these principles were elements of the Jewish Kalam as practiced by particular thinkers. For example Harv|Wolfson|1967, "atomism" was a principle embraced by Karaites but not by the Geonim or later Karaites. Wolfson considers it doubtful whether any Jewish thinkers ever embraced the denial of causality.

Arguments of Kalam according to Rambam

In Book I Chapter 74 Rambam reproduces the 7 methods by which the Mutakallimūn demonstrate that the world is created in time. In Chapter 75, Rambam reproduces the 5 methods by which the Mutakallimūn demonstrate the unity of God. In Chapter 76, Rambam reproduces the 3 methods by which the Mutakallimūn demonstrate the incorporeality of God. Needless to say, Rambam finds most of these methods to be philosophically inadequate and naive.

Jewish Kalam personalities

Among the personalities associate with the Jewish Kalam are the following, many of whom were Karaites:
* Saadia Gaon
* Hai Gaon
* Daniel al-Qumisi
* David Ibn Merwan Al-Mukammas
* Yaqub al-Qirqisani
* Yefet ben Ali
* Yeshua ben Yehuda
* Samuel ben Hofni
* Joseph al Basir
* Jeshua ben Judah
* Judah Hadassi

Because the composition of written works was yet uncommon at the time that the Jewish Kalam flourished, there are few surviving books from this era Harv|Wolfson|1967. Instead, what we have are selected quotes and paraphrases such as found in Rambam and Saadia, but mostly we have what Wolfson calls "mere names," individuals whom are identified as prominent Kalamic thinkers but who left no evidence of their work or lives. Wolfson provides a list of some of these "mere names." He also suggests that "all" the Jewish thinkers of this period were likely referred to as Mutakallimūn, as suggested by references from Moses ibn Ezra and others.

Legacy of the Kalam

Jewish Kalamic thought had influences on many later Jewish philosophers including Judah HaLevi, Joseph ibn Zaddik, Bachya ibn Pakuda, and Rambam, who criticized it vigorously. Many of the works of the Jewish Kalamists were not translated from Arabic into Hebrew, and so their influence greatly diminished as the Golden Age of Arabic-language Jewish scholarship drew to a close Harv|Stroumsa|2003.


* Citation
author-link = Shlomo Pines
title=Moses Maimonides: The Guide of the Perplexed
publisher=University of Chicago Press
date= 1963

editor-last = Frank
editor-first = Daniel H.
editor2-last =Leaman
editor2-first =Oliver
contribution =Saadya and Jewish kalam
contribution-url =
title=The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy
place =Cambridge
publisher=Cambridge University Press

first=Harry A.
author-link = Harry Austryn Wolfson
title=The Jewish Kalam
journal=The Jewish Quarterly Review, Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Volume

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Jewish philosophy — Jewish theology redirects here. Philosophy and Kabbalah are two common approaches to Jewish theology Part of a series on …   Wikipedia

  • Kalam — Kalām ( ar. علم الكلام) is the Islamic philosophy of seeking Islamic theological principles through dialectic. In Arabic the word literally means speech . A scholar of kalam is referred to as a mutakallim (Muslim theologian; plural mutakallimiin… …   Wikipedia

  • Kalam juif — Le kalam juif fut la première forme de philosophie judéo islamique. Elle évolua en réponse au Kalam islamique, qui était lui même une réponse à l aristotélisme. Le terme est d usage récent, et ne fut jamais utilisé par ses adhérents, qui se… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • KALĀM — KALĀM, meaning ʿilm al kalām (the science of Kalām), is one of the branches of Islamic religious science. The common use of the word kalām is word, words, or speech. The koran is called kalām Allāh, i.e., the speech of God, and so, it was… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Jewish philosophy — Colette Sirat INTRODUCTION The history of medieval Jewish philosophy can be divided into two consecutive periods. The first, beginning in the ninth century and ending roughly with the death of Maimonides in 1204, occurred in Islamic lands. The… …   History of philosophy

  • PHILOSOPHY, JEWISH — This article is arranged according to the following outline: WHAT IS JEWISH PHILOSOPHY? recent histories of jewish philosophy biblical and rabbinic antecedents bible rabbinic literature hellenistic jewish philosophy philo of alexandria biblical… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Ilm al-Kalam — For other uses, see Ilm al Kalam (disambiguation). This article is part of the series …   Wikipedia

  • Islamic–Jewish relations — This article is part of the series …   Wikipedia

  • LITERATURE, JEWISH — Literature on Jewish themes and in languages regarded as Jewish has been written continuously for the past 3,000 years. What the term Jewish literature encompasses, however, demands definition, since Jews have lived in so many countries and have… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Comparison of Islamic and Jewish dietary laws — Part of a series on Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.