The Brilliant Ideas of Abraham ibn Ezra

One of the most brilliant ancient Jewish thinkers was Abraham ibn Ezra (1089 or 1092-1164). Being human, he, like all other people including the best of humans, without exception, made mistakes in his thinking, such as his belief that astrology is a true science. But overall. He ranks among the foremost thinkers of Judaism. His Bible commentaries are included in many rabbinical Bibles that have commentaries that people like to read. In 1995, H. Norman Strickman translated and annotated ibn Ezra’s masterpiece, the twelve chapters of “Sefer Yesod Mora Ve-Sod Ha-Torah,” Treatise on the Foundation of Awe and The Secret of the Torah. The following is some of the ideas in that book.

His life

Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra was an outstanding scholar of Andalusian Jewry. He was born in Tudela Spain and was one of medieval Jewry’s greatest Bible commentators, a philosopher, poet, mathematician, grammarian, and astrologer. He was poor and very unlucky, but had a sense of humor. He wrote: “Were I a dealer in shrouds, no man would ever die” and “Where I a seller of candles, the sun would never set.” Four of his five children died in infancy. It is reported that his fifth son converted to Islam and later returned to Judaism and died before his father. His wife died in 1140 and he never remarried. He began his Bible commentary that year.

His ideas

  • He based his Bible commentary on the rules of Hebrew grammar and the plain meaning of the text, not the sermons rabbis read into the words or the halakha they saw hinted in it.
  • He wrote that a person who does not understand the Torah will foolishly accept a midrashic interpretation as the literal meaning of the text.
  • Many rabbinic statements should not be taken at face value. One must know logic and the secular sciences to interpret these statements correctly.
  • Yet he observed the laws that talmudic rabbis derive from the Torah verses. He stressed that Jews should observe halakha. He wrote: “the minds of the sages were greater than our minds.”
  • Beside the study of the written Torah, one must study and know the oral Torah of the rabbis.
  • He felt that verses that refer to God in human terms should not be taken literally. They should be interpreted metaphorically. God has no physicality nor any emotions.
  • He disagreed with Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, who claimed that according to the Torah the biblical day began in the morning.
  • He emphasized the need to study and acquire wisdom. He insisted that important as the study of the Torah and Talmud is, one must master additional secular science if one wants to master God’s law and develop one’s rational understanding. He wrote that wisdom is the soul which does not perish when the body dies. Thus, eternal life is acquired by gaining wisdom.
  • He mocked Jews who followed Jewish tradition but do not understand it. “One who mastered the Masorah [tradition] but has not studied any other wisdom is like a camel that carries a load of silk. It [the camel-like pious person] is of no use to the silk and the silk is of no use to it.” Such a person is like the individual who holds a medical book in his hand and spends his life to find out how many pages are in the book, how many columns, how many letters, but heals no illness. He also wrote: “Even if we know the entire Book of the Psalms [what have we gained?]”
  • He also mocked rabbis and scholars who devote all of their time to study talmudic passages that have no practical relevance.
  • One of the primary purposes of the mitzvot {commands] is to prevent a person’s corporeal nature from dominating the persons mind.
  • He recognized that the claim that there are 613 commands is sermonic.
  • There are many biblical commands counted among the 613 which are no longer applicable, there time has passed, such as setting an altar on Mount Ebal, to write a Torah, to set aside cities of refuge, and to wage war against Amalek.
  • The first five laws of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, relate to the mind. They are the most important precepts of the Torah.
  • It is a mistake to seek reasons for any of the many differences in spellings and words in scripture.
  • One should obey the halakha even if he or she does not understand it.
  • Talmudic learning is not an end in itself.
  • Emphasizing faith is a terrible mistake. Judaism emphasizes actions not beliefs.
  • All of the Torah commandments are rational. There is a good useful reason for every one of them.
  • When he uses the word “secret” he should not be understood as saying the command is mystical and esoteric. He is simply saying that there are people who do not understand the law.
  • The concept of fearing God was developed for those people of insufficient understanding who although they do not understand the benefits of the Torah commands, will obey them out of fear.
  • One knows God by studying nature that God created.
  • While he is praised by many, Saadiah Gaon’s “The Book of Beliefs” is in many places incomprehensible.
  • While the rabbinic sage Rav maintained in b. Yoma 28b that Abraham observed the entire Torah before it was revealed, it is more reasonable to say he observed those practices that he found to be rational.
  • Scripture does not explicitly mention that the Shema must be recited.
  • He felt that God gave Israel the gift that they would not need physicians if they observed the Torah. [Since this view is inconsistent with much of his other views and is contrary to rationality, it is possible that he, like many other ancients, including Plato who used the term “noble lie” and Maimonides who called these falsehoods “essential truths,” told this to make the masses feel good about their religion and to encourage them to obey the halakha.]
  • Similarly, ibn Ezra states that the purpose for sending the goat to Azazel on Yom Hakippurim was to bribe the devil not to give a bad report about Israel to God. [It may be that he thought that the early Israelites who were superstitious needed a non-rational practice such as this to feel better.]
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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