The enigma of the true Ibn Ezra

In Yesod Mora, Ibn Ezra lays out his understanding of the meaning of the Torah and its commandments.

 A combination of photos shows a partial solar eclipse in Vienna, 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS/HEINZ-PETER BADER)
A combination of photos shows a partial solar eclipse in Vienna, 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS/HEINZ-PETER BADER)

Abraham Ibn Ezra has been an enigma and source of controversy since his rise to prominence in the 12th century. Some 800 years ago, Nachmanides shared his mixed feelings toward his fellow medieval Torah commentator declaring “an explicit rebuke and a veiled love” for Ibn Ezra. In our times, 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 saw Ibn Ezra as a nascent Bible critic who called into question the Torah’s perfection, while Rabbi Reinman presumed that Ibn Ezra’s theological commitments must surely conform to contemporary haredi (ultra-Orthodox) dogma. Who is Ibn Ezra? Why does he stir up such strong feelings? How can representatives of such different ideologies claim him as their own?

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

In the opening of the treatise, Ibn Ezra lays out an extremely broad curriculum; geometry, astrology, linguistics, grammar, psychology, logic and orthography are all essential to properly appreciate the Torah. Ibn Ezra does not present these studies as a necessary evil, or a neutral mechanism for providing a living or the domain of an exclusive elite who have already mastered religious studies. Rather, these are a prerequisite for truly understanding the significance of Torah. Ibn Ezra exhibits none of the suspicion and ambivalence to these studies that were expressed by so many other traditional Torah sages over the generations.

Perhaps even more striking than his atypical curriculum of study are Ibn Ezra’s remarks regarding the nature of the text of the Torah. When subtly critiquing scholars who make too much of unusual spellings of words in scripture, Ibn Ezra explains that while prophets are careful to preserve the content of their message, they do not necessarily transmit precise wording when recounting that message (pgs. 16-18). This position is at odds with the common Orthodox dogma that not only the content, but every jot and tittle of scripture was ordained by God.

‘HAVING CHOSEN God, the Torah is God’s response to us.’ Pictured: The Yanov Torah, rescued from the Holocaust. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘HAVING CHOSEN God, the Torah is God’s response to us.’ Pictured: The Yanov 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 comprehension, Ibn Ezra insists that they are all rational. The Torah tells us that the nations of the earth will say of Israel’s observance of the commandments, “Surely 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 righteous, and we who observe them wise” (pg. 90)?

Ibn Ezra devotes a significant portion of Yesod Mora to explaining the purpose and wisdom of the commandments. Both his proof for 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 tract in Hebrew was unprecedented in Medieval times. His predecessors, like Rabbi Saadia Gaon, and his contemporaries, like Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, wrote in Arabic. Since Ibn Ezra wrote this work in London for a patron of his there, Arabic would not do, and so he chose to compose his thoughts in Hebrew. This required coining expressions for philosophical, mathematical, and linguistic ideas that had no Hebrew terminology.

Ibn Ezra’s innovative Hebrew, coupled with his terse, obscure style is not easy reading. This makes Strickman’s edition so valuable. Ibn Ezra often refers obliquely to verses from scripture or Talmudic passages, presuming that his reader does not need more than a hint for a reference. Strickman in his notes fills in the gaps so that those with more modest erudition can follow the discussion. He also translates Ibn Ezra’s difficult Hebrew into a clear and smooth English. Moreover, using his broad knowledge of Ibn Ezra’s other works, Strickman references parallel passages to elucidate the meaning of this treatise. Finally, Strickman’s introduction gives us a brief biography and introduction to Ibn Ezra that helps his reader to contextualize this work.

Here we have only touched upon a few of the more remarkable 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. 

THE SECRET OF THE TORAHA TRANSLATION OF IBN EZRA’S YESOD MORABy Abraham Ibn Ezra and H. Norman StrickmanKodesh Press214 pages; $17.95