Jewish Kalam

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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 Maimonides (called Rambam by Jewish scholars) 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. Rambam 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 (Wolfson 1967).

Basic principles of Jewish Kalam[edit]

Some of the basic principles of the Jewish Kalam are as follow (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 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[edit]

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 Wolfson (1967). The translation which follows is from Pines (1963):

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, 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 the second, 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[edit]

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:

  1. Existence of atoms: The world is composed of small particles which are not divisible, and which have no identifying essential properties (only accidents).
  2. Existence of vacuum: There exist certain spaces which are devoid of all substance and material.
  3. Time is discrete: Time is made up of fundamental instants which are not themselves subject to further division.
  4. Every body is subject to accidents: Any body must have either an accident (non-essential feature) or its opposite. A body cannot be without accidents.
  5. These accidents exist in the atom.
  6. 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.
  7. Accidents in bodies also do not persist and must be recreated. This and the previous principle constitute a denial of causality.
  8. Only substance and accident exist: Bodies differ only in regard to their accidents.
  9. Accidents subsist in a common substratum: An accident cannot subsist in another accident.
  10. Any state of affairs which can be imagined is admissible in intellectual argument.
  11. All kinds of infinity are impossible.
  12. 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 (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[edit]

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

Jewish Kalam personalities[edit]

Among the personalities associated with the Jewish Kalam are the following, many of whom were Karaites:


Note: Jewish Kalam is adopted by the Rabbinite Academies of Kairouan, Fostat, Lucena, Toledo and Cordoba as the Babylonian Jewish Academies in Sura, Pumbeditha, Basra and Baghdad close and transfer their intellectual/religious heritage to al-Andalus.


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 (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 who 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[edit]

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 (Stroumsa 2003).

See also[edit]


  • Pines, Shlomo (1963), Moses Maimonides: The Guide of the Perplexed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 
  • Stroumsa, Sarah (2003), "Saadya and Jewish kalam", in Frank, Daniel H.; Leaman, Oliver, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 71–90, ISBN 978-0-521-65207-0 
  • Wolfson, Harry A. (1967), "The Jewish Kalam", The Jewish Quarterly Review, 57, The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review (1967): 544–573