The enigma of the real Ibn Ezra

Abraham Ibn Ezra has been an enigma and a source of controversy since he rose to prominence in the 12th century. About 800 years ago, Nachmanides shared his mixed feelings towards his fellow medieval Torah commentator declaring “an explicit rebuke and veiled love” for Ibn Ezra. In our day, Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Reinman, in an intriguing email exchange, debate Ibn Ezra’s place in modern denominational polemics.

Rabbi Hirsch viewed Ibn Ezra as a fledgling biblical critic who questioned the perfection of the Torah, while Rabbi Reinman assumed that Ibn Ezra’s theological commitments must surely conform to contemporary haredi (ultra-Orthodox) dogma. Who is Ibn Ezra? Why do you arouse such strong feelings? How can representatives of such different ideologies claim it as their own?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Strickman’s recent reissue of his translation of Ibn Ezra’s Yesod Mora, translated into English as The Secret of the Torah, goes a long way toward giving us answers. In Yesod Mora, Ibn Ezra sets out his understanding of the meaning of the Torah and its commandments. A serious encounter with this work demonstrates Ibn Ezra’s unique innovative approach to Judaism that defied the conventions of his own time and continues to do so today.

At the opening of the treatise, Ibn Ezra presents an extremely broad curriculum; geometry, astrology, linguistics, grammar, psychology, logic, and spelling are all essential to a proper appreciation of the Torah. Ibn Ezra does not present these studies as a necessary evil, or a neutral mechanism for providing sustenance or dominance for an exclusive elite that already dominates religious studies. Rather, these are a prerequisite for truly understanding the meaning of the Torah. Ibn Ezra exhibits no suspicion and ambivalence towards these studies that were expressed by so many other traditional Torah sages throughout the generations.

Perhaps even more surprising than his atypical study curriculum are Ibn Ezra’s observations on the nature of the Torah text. By subtly criticizing scholars who place too much importance on the unusual spelling of words in scripture, Ibn Ezra explains that while the prophets are careful to preserve the content of their message, they do not necessarily convey accurate wording when relating that message ( pp. 16-18). . This position is at odds with the common orthodox dogma that not just the content, but every jot and tittle of Scripture was ordained by God.

‘HAVING CHOSEN God, the Torah is God’s answer to us.’ In the photo: Yanov’s Torah, rescued from the Holocaust. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not only is there a human element in the formation of the text that records divine revelation, the meaning and purpose of the content of that revelation is accessible to the human mind. While other voices within the tradition suggest that the meaning of at least some of the commandments transcends human understanding, Ibn Ezra insists that they are all rational. The Torah tells us that the nations of the earth will say about the observance of Israel’s commandments: “Verily, this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4: 6). Ibn Ezra rhetorically asks: “Now if there is no discernible reason for the commandments, how could the nations say that the statutes are just, and we who keep them wise” (p. 90)?

Ibn Ezra dedicates a significant portion of Yesod Mora to explaining the purpose and wisdom of the commandments. Both his proof of the rationality of the commandments and his delineation of the reasons for them are reminiscent of Maimonides, but Ibn Ezra preceded Maimonides by several decades!

Just as Ibn Ezra’s ideas broke new ground, his decision to write this theological treatise in Hebrew was unprecedented in medieval times. His predecessors, such as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, and his contemporaries, such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, wrote in Arabic. Since Ibn Ezra wrote this work in London for one of his patrons, Arabic would not be enough, so he decided to compose his thoughts in Hebrew. This required coining expressions for philosophical, mathematical, and linguistic ideas that did not have Hebrew terminology.

Ibn Ezra’s groundbreaking Hebrew, along with his stark and dark style, is not easy to read. This makes the Strickman edition so valuable. Ibn Ezra often refers indirectly to verses of Scripture or Talmudic passages, assuming that his reader does not need more than one clue for reference. Strickman in his notes fills in the gaps so that those of more modest scholarship can follow the discussion. He also translates Ibn Ezra’s difficult Hebrew into clear and fluent English. Furthermore, using his extensive knowledge of Ibn Ezra’s other works, Strickman makes reference to parallel passages to elucidate the meaning of this treatise. Finally, Strickman’s introduction provides us with a brief biography and introduction to Ibn Ezra that helps its reader to contextualize this work.

Here we have only touched on some of the most notable aspects of this book. For those who are intrigued by this unconventional and thoughtful approach to Torah, there is much more to The Secret of the Torah.

By Abraham Ibn Ezra and H. Norman Strickman
Kodesh Press
214 pages; $ 17.95

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