Akedat Yitzchak: First Steps

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Relatively early in my struggles to complete a PhD dissertation, some well-meaning people told me the problem was my writing. Fearful of being accused of rejecting advice/criticism, I went back to YU, where Dean Norman Adler, a”h, graciously allowed me to take a writing course in the college, with the great Prof. Will Lee. He taught me much about how to write more effectively and attractively for my target audiences. As in the classic disclaimer, all remaining deficiencies in my writing are mine alone (and, as I had suspected going in, it proved to be not the main problem with my dissertation).

One of the lessons of the course was how context-specific the term “good writing” is. Prof. Lee taught useful rules for how people today like to read, rules which (when I manage to follow them) stand me in good stead. Like any form of communication, though, “good” has as much to do with the audience as with some objective standard.

I mention the issue because we are starting to study a work whose author makes a point of how careful he was to write in the way his audience appreciated, yet whose writing puts up significant barriers to our ability to access his interesting and productive ideas.

Akedat Yitzchak, written by R. Yitzchak Arama in late fifteenth-century Spain, structures itself as a commentary on the Torah, but with the clear goal of demonstrating a coherent worldview which is not the philosophical one of his contemporaries. [Very similar to what I see often today, he is writing to Jews who care about the Torah but who are sure whatever pure rationalism is advocated by the philosophically inclined people around them must be true. Substitute science for philosophy, and he could be writing today].

Many people know of the book, and some of its ideas are widely quoted, but its length (a previous translator/condenser, Eliyahu Munk, said it was 2500 pages) means few of us (certainly me) do not sit down to engage with it consistently. In his own time, he tells us, the length was a desirable feature; his audiences thought previous commentaries had too little to them, needed fleshing out.

For us today, the feature has become a bug. A little over thirty years ago, R. Eliyahu Munk made a good effort to bring our attention to the work, which took 1000 pages (in English, where translations often  have to take longer, to capture the author’s full meaning. I am looking here to do something similar, to be as brief as possible while learning from him as much as we can.

The only way to avoid this going on too long, though, is to leave out most digressions and prooftexts. One certain loss is the Hebrew writing style, which has a beauty I could never hope to replicate. Some things need to be experienced in the original. But I think I can communicate an approach to Torah, to Judaism, and to life, which challenges us to consider where what we assume to be true must be. His alternative views will enrich us by making us rethink our own.

Now that you’ve had my introduction, let’s see some of his.


The library of Torah literature is so full, any Jewish author has to justify adding to it. R. Arama’s answer starts with every soul’s desire to accomplish something valuable.  Closed off from productive outlets, a person will look for any way to contribute, hard or easy. Until he finds them, he may busily bemoan his life, not realizing Hashem is excited or pleased (as it were), because the author’s difficult time will end with a good result. 

He has spent his life studying Talmud, in its basics and nitty gritty details (he refers to the debates of Abbaye and Rava, the backbone of the Talmud). He does not say why he cares to stress this; I think he wants to avoid the impression he’s an “ideas guy,” a thinker who focuse on philosophy and thought, while ignorant of halachah.

He also wants us to know he did not have the idea, temerity, or arrogance to think he could articulate the nature of Judaism. He acceded to friends’ request to speak with them, and the talks went well, he succeeded at helping people recognize Hashem’s role in their lives.

Then he had to move to other communities in Spain. The new communities, Tarragona and Aragon, had with a long and proud history of Torah learning, but current residents felt too much financial pressure to study themselves [there’s much to say about what we consider too much financial pressure and when we choose to stay in a place where the financial system means we will not have time to study Torah. I do not intend to share my thoughts on the questions he raises, only to show where we could productively think about where what he writes applies to us].

The Style They Wanted

R. Arama’s weekly sermon was their sole time to hear about Torah (this helps us understand their attention span better—these are Jews who feel unable to do as they would like. For them, a lengthy Shabbat sermon was an opportunity rather than a burden). R. Arama wanted to slake their thirst with traditional Biblical commentaries, but the people found them too narrow. The earlier commentators explained the exact meaning of words and the simple reading of stories and commandments, where his audience wanted more (wanted to know why we keep a mitzvah, for example).

He also found problems with some of those earlier rabbis’ ideas (he is too humble to impute any fault to them; as he explains how it happened, I particularly liked one phrase he used, they did not nail down the details of various topics because the light of their torches was too great to put into small spaces. I think he’s referring to the requirement to use a candle for bedikat chametz, checking one’s home for leavened grains before Pesach, because people will not put a large flame into corners or other narrow places. Our greatest scholars wrote with a great light, too great to apply to the nooks and crannies of Jewish thought, where he’s going to go with his smaller light).

The Struggle with Philosophy

Rambam started engaging with philosophy from a traditional perspective (and R. Arama will frequently quote the Guide), but some scholars who came after adopted philosophy wholesale, did not realize where the Torah requires us to tread another path. In another beautiful turn of phrase, he says they forgot “ki lo ka-Mitzriyot ha-‘Ivriyot, the Hebrews are not like the Egyptians,” the words the midwives used to explain to Par’oh why they were not killing male babies. The philosophically inclined rabbis had also forgotten how Jews are not the same as non-Jews.

R. Arama previously wrote a short work to make the point, called Chazzut Kashah (Difficult or Harsh Vision), which he found to have been unsuccessful. The current work represents his next attempt, with 105 sections. (He references Yeshayahu 28;10, which speaks of Hashem teaching the Jewish people bit by bit. One of the words the verse used for the small pieces into which Hashem will divide the lessons is kav, a line or builders’ level. Numerically, kav is 106, so he’s saying he’s presenting 106 expositions as a way to understand the Torah and Jewish thought properly.

Our texts of Akedat Yitzchak have only 105 sections, but I think he counted the Mevo Ha-She’arim, the Introduction the Sections, as a sha’ar, a gate of its own).

In each, he will offer a derishah, where he will give a more authentic Jewish view of some philosophical topic, and then a perishah, where he shows how it fits the Torah passage at hand. I will often skip the perishah, because verse by verse exposition is too long for a venue like this.  

As for the derishah, R. Arama says he needs to bring up and deny the wrong ideas, because people will not be able to hear the more correct ideas until they’ve been shown what was wrong in the ideas they have heard already. The line caught my attention because people today deny it. R. Arama is sure he needs to tear down people’s existing intellectual or ideological errors before they could possibly learn the truth.

[I have myself been criticized for arguing against views I think are incorrect, have been told I should just advance my own views, and let people decide which is true. R. Arama’s words make me feel better—while people are in the thrall of one idea, they cannot hear others, so we often have to disabuse them before we can move on to the truth.]

Taking Time for Internally Important Ideas

In addition to rebutting incorrect philosophical claims, he intends to elucidate central Jewish ones—laid out by predecessors such as Rambam—when he encounters them. He gives many examples; a few, as coming attractions, include the possibility of sin losing us our freewill, the reasons for the commandments, and the irrevocability of promises of benefit Hashem makes through prophets (decrees of punishment can be averted, but a prediction of good, once made, will necessarily come to fruition).

He himself recognizes those discussions might take him off topic. Overall, however, he hopes and believes he will end up contributing to our understanding of the plain sense of Torah as well as crucial ideas of Jewish belief and worldview.

A First Indication of Modernity and the Book’s Name

I’ve taken only bits of the introduction, and one element I cannot convey is how modern the book sounds, once we get past language and style. As we take up his ideas in coming weeks (months and years), I believe you’ll be surprised at how much of his approach translates well to our times, over half a millennium later.

He closes the introduction with a comment which already puts him close to modernity. He tells us he intends to include an index of subjects as well as of texts cited [I looked it up, and the kind of index he means started with printing. He wrote the book after printing existed, although it was not yet widespread. It seems to me to be a remarkably early use of indexing].

He chose the name, first, because the phrase is well known (another modern idea, I think, an author’s interest in easing his audience’s ability to remember the name of his book). Second, the book is his akedah, in the sense he’s bound together verses, rabbinic and other ideas into one whole; he’s also tied the derishah andperishah, the ideological and textual [I think he means he’s thus strengthened his claim to be write on the ideas, since they fit the text as well. He’s not philosophizing only, he’s showing how his intellectual ideas are plausibly what Hashem meant in the Torah].

Third, the phrase characterizes the life he’s lived, where he’s been bound (the literal meaning of akedah, binding) to move around. Finally, he thinks the original Akedah bound Yitzchak more closely to Hashem and was central to the Patriarch’s legacy. R. Arama hopes (and history seems to have shown) the same would be true of his Akedah.

As we study his work then, we will be gaining ourselves even as we help him fulfill his goal of leaving a lasting legacy among the Jewish people. Next time, how the goals we set affect our success.

About Gidon Rothstein

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