The Right Way to Look at Nature

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzchak, Beginning the First Sha’ar: Nature Points to Hashem

Akedat Yitzchak pays noticeably more attention to Sefer Bereshit than the other four books of the Torah; thirty-three of its 105 she’arimdiscuss Bereshit). Within Bereshit, he spends eleven of the thirty-three on just the first parsha (at the end of which he wrote a short conclusion, telling us he was aware of how much time he spent on this one parsha).

It makes sense for a book focused on debunking philosophy, but means we’ll be spending a while learning his view of the purpose of the world, nature, people, and what makes for a good life. Settle in; it will be a productive ride, I hope.

Why Start with Bereshit?

R. Arama opens each sha’ar with a one-sentence description of his main topic. This first sha’ar will discuss the vital role a natural world, with regular patterns, plays in letting us find Gd. He says we might think nature poses a barrier, because much of Nature seems to work on its own [which might fool us into thinking we would not “need the hypothesis” of Hashem, to paraphrase Pierre-Simon Laplace, and as scientists—in R. Arama’s time called philosophers– sometimes overstep into arguing as well].

R. Arama poses a two-pronged question, why Hashem would make nature so apparently self-sufficient, and then also place the story of creation first in the Torah. The shape of his answer will recur in the work, where he takes an idea from the broader (non-Jewish) intellectual culture, and shows how it supports a more Jewish perspective.

To identify any object, philosophers will ask various questions: what is it, from what did it come, from whom, why, and more. The chain of causation leads them necessarily to a First Cause, as Aristotle said. [R. Arama calls the chain a ladder, based on Ya’akov’s dream, and says the ladder finds Hashem in the middle, I think because the natural world only leads us to the bare fact of Hashem’s existence and insight based on how Hashem’s actions shape the world. The rest of the ladder, inscrutable to human beings, leads up to knowledge of Hashem’s fullest glory.]

Limits of Philosophical/Scientific Knowledge

He does not mean we can track all aspects of the world through cause and effect, since Hashem’s impact is not always direct. There are, for example, ‘inyanim segulyim, ways the world operates whose mechanism we cannot identify or understand. [I think most scientists deny this today—they are phenomena whose mechanisms we currently do not understand, I think they would say, but as we push back on our ignorance, they think we’ll figure it all out. I did once read a book by the British philosopher Colin McGinn, who suggested what R. Arama is saying here, some parts of the world work in ways whose mechanism we will never be able to access.]

Some philosophers did not see how nature interconnected, which led them to stop the chain at certain points, to say some events occur just because, with no overall picture or purpose.  They saw the physical world as similar to when a farmer dumps a bunch of barley stalks on the ground for planting. We would not question why some fell facing one direction, some the other, that’s just the way they fell.  Such materialists [and we have them today, who insist that various physical processes, up to and including evolution, are random] ended up denying Hashem completely.

Aristotle Defends Causation

Aristotle gave three reasons to reject their view [R. Arama quotes Aristotle and Rambam often, as authorities. My first impressions of his book suggest these two were the canvas off of which he worked in arriving at his worldview, adjusted to what he understood the Torah and Jewish tradition to teach about the world]. First, Aristotle reminded us we see the coincidental or happenstance less frequently than the ordered and regular, The materialists also concede local causes to events, such as the farmer dumping the barley, without giving a good reason for why the chain stops there. Once we follow it back, Aristotle said, we must arrive at a First Cause [this is not our topic, but Aristotle did not believe in an actual infinity, which is why the chain had to end at a First Cause],

Aside from its relative rarity, happenstance does not produce the kind of perfected reality we see around us, said Aristotle [which implicitly rejects today’s idea of random mutations guiding evolution; scientists try to argue around the problem by saying there are enough mutations, and even universes, to allow for a small minority which randomly produce successful or perfected body parts or beings. They’re swayed by the unsuccessful mutations they see, which tell them it’s all random, but they concede Aristotle’s point that the coincidental does not tend to produce useful results].

Mitzvah Performance Should Not Be a Matter of Happenstance

R. Arama relates Aristotle’s idea to two halachic concepts. Before we get to his stimulating suggestion, I want to call attention to his subtle polemical strategy, which will recur. When he shows how halachah reflects a true idea of Aristotle’s, he trains us to appreciate halachah as teaching important ideas beyond their immediate focus. We begin to think of halachah as more than a set of (random) practices, and see them as building a whole worldview.

The first example here is the halachic requirement to perform each mitzvah li-shmah, for the sake of doing that mitzvah, with full attention to what one is doing. He does not explain further; context tells me he means the intent on the mitzvah improves the action itself. The more directly caused an action is, the more likely it is to be perfect. Unintended, left to some level of chance, actions cannot be as well formed.

He sees the rule ta’aseh ve-lo min ha-‘asui, certain items must be made, not formed by cutting away extraneous material, as based on the same idea (Devarim 16;13 tells us ta’aseh, make, sukkah; the Gemara applied the idea to tzitzit and mezuzah, too).

Back to Aristotle, he said coincidence cannot have a purpose [another issue modern day scientists fudge, since they cannot avoid speaking in terms of purpose without any way to explain what leads to the items having a person. They will speak, for example, of genes “wanting” to survive, taking action to ensure they are passed on to the next generation. Yet they would never say the genes have consciousness, which then opens the question of whence this purpose derives. Without some intention or cause, R. Arama is pointing out, there can be no aim at a purpose]. Once we acknowledge purpose, we deny happenstance.  

Ramban and David HaMelech Thought Hashem Did More Than Cause

Rambam in the Guide argued Aristotle did not go far enough. Without belief in a Creator Who created the world after it had not existed at all, we still cannot see the needed purpose to Creation. [I should say, R. Arama read Rambam as having held this view; Rambam’s style of writing the Guide—which he chose consciously, for reasons he explained in his introduction—left his “real” meaning, especially on fundamental questions such as whether he accepted Aristotle’s view of a world which had always existed or believed in the traditional idea of creation after absolute nothingness, open to lasting debate].  

R. Arama then reads Tehillim 104;24 as making a similar point [once again, his digressions to Scripture, to read them as anticipating philosophical points, matters broadly to him, as part of showing the traditional corpus of Jewish literature had all the ideas we need, read correctly]. When David HaMelech says mah rabu ma’asecha Hashem, how great or wondrous are Your creations, Hashem, R. Arama reads rabu as “how many.” As Aristotle said, once there are many, they cannot be coincidental.  

The next phrase of the verse speaks of the wisdom with which Hashem created all, an oblique reference to the perfection and purpose of creation, which again contradicts any claim it came about coincidentally.

Once malah ha-aretz kinyanecha, Hashem’s impact is felt throughout the world, David can praise Hashem, and speak of how Hashem can take joy (as it were) in His handiwork. The joy comes (in R. Arama’s reading) from creation’s providing human beings with a ladder to climb to be able to give proper praise (we need to climb it, I think, because the more we see and understand of creation, the better we will be able to formulate our praises).

R. Arama cautions us against perfectionism, however, against refusing to recognize and praise Hashem unless and until we comprehend Him fully, against allowing doubts or details we cannot yet explain stop us from acting properly.

The Dangerous Distractions of the World

In Tehillim 24;3, R. Arama thinks David warns us of a reason we might not notice the way creation leads us to recognize Hashem’s role the world. Unless we are neki kappayim, clean of hands, we can look at the world self-interestedly, and therefore fail or refuse to see Hashem (he describes such people as “those who fill their hands with the ashes of the vanities of this world,” exactly reversing the cleanliness of hands the Psalm describes). 

Avraham Avinu was able to climb the ladder, to find Hashem, whose only motive in the search was to find the truth [this is an implicit call to his readers/listeners to strive for such purity in their analysis of texts and ideas about Hashem, a good reminder for us all].

The idea of creation from absolute nothingness should inspire us with awe and fear as well as praise and joy, which is why the psalm twice says se’u she’arim rasheichem, calls for the gates to lift their heads, once in pure praise, once in the more awe-filled approach necessary as we come closer to realizing what Hashem has wrought.

Finding Hashem Only Through His Actions

I did not share the Midrash with which R. Arama opened this sha’ar, and I usually will not. To explain his reading of those texts as making his broader point will usually take too long. We should remember they’re there, though, as another example of his consistent focus on showing that the texts of tradition all promote his ideas, in his reading of them. He is not articulating a new Jewish philosophy, from his perspective, he is helping us see what Judaism always held.

In this first sha’ar, R. Arama opened with a Midrash which commented on the difference between how people present themselves—name first, actions or descriptors later—and how the Torah opens, where it speaks about Creation and then Hashem (Bereshit bara, in the beginning of Creation, and only then Elokim). To R. Arama, the verse tells us how to find our best success, how we can maximize our knowledge or understanding of Hashem.

[I wonder how much we think about what he takes for granted, that each of us are put on earth to learn as much about Hashem as we can, in our own ways]. We learn about human kings (or other physical phenomena) in their persons first, and then notice what else they affect or impact.

With Hashem, we have only His actions to tell us as much as we’ll ever be able to know. The Torah starts with Bereshit bara to point us in the right direction, to say to look there for more information about Hashem.

Brief as I am trying to be, some of R. Arama’s she’arim will be too long to cover in one sitting. Here is a good stopping point, where we have seen one of his central claims, which I think is little argued in traditional Jewish thought and yet also forgotten or dismissed by too many Jews who might be reading these words: Creation, along with Torah (as we will see next time), serves as our only ways of learning about Hashem, and it is our obligation and purpose in life to make as much progress as we can in that area. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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