What Avraham Taught the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

What Avraham Taught the World

R. Arama starts his she’arim with a brief summary of what he intends to tell us. Here, he plans to make a point about Shabbat and its role in teaching us important truths of the world, but makes a digression I found too enlightening to pass up.

The Value of the First Six Days of Creation

The first step on the road to the role Shabbat plays in R. Arama’s understanding of the Creation story is his idea of well-ordered creation as helping people reach important truths. The wisest people notice the ladder we’ve seen in past she’arim(I think the non-Jewish idiom for the idea is great chain of being; R. Arama uses the ladder image because of Ya’akov’s dream), which takes them to realize the First Cause.  An ordered creation gives the lie to the common errors of those who deny any guide or director or, at the other extreme, the belief in many such powers.

Baba Batra 16b records two statements about Avraham which R. Arama thinks are an example of how the world itself draws us to belief in Hashem. R. El’azar Ha-Modai, who says Avraham was a world-renowned astrologer, visited by all the kings of the world. R. Shim’on b. Yochai said Avraham had a healing stone which cured all who came to his door.

How Wisdom is Communicated

As preface to his reading of their ideas, R. Arama reminds us we can learn from great people by watching how they act, or by listening to them. Yehoshu’a and Elisha model the first way, both described (Shemot 33;11 and II Melachim 3;11) as having served their masters faithfully.

Osmosis absorption has several advantages. Berachot 7b tells us it’s better to serve Torah scholars than study Torah, R. Arama thinks because daily exposure teaches more and deeper lessons than any amount of oral lectures. Nor do the words of a Torah scholar always reflect his actions fully, so watching can teach who the scholar is in a way which listening might not. Aristotle also tells us to watch actions more than words.

[R. Arama also mentions Yevamot 62b’s criticism of Ben Zoma for the disparity between his call for people to bear children and his own failure to marry, without seeming to notice this would cut the other way, would be a reason to pay more attention to his correct words than his idiosyncratic choice of action.]

Astrology Shows Order to the Universe

Getting back to Baba Batra, R. Arama thinks Avraham’s expertise in astrology showed the intricate order of the world (for stars to indicate the future, the universe must have a direction and must be interconnected enough for what happens in the stars to impact and prefigure what happens on earth). R. Arama is by far not the first to make the well-known argument from design, a well-ordered world (the foundation of astrology) leads ineluctably to a First Cause.

While we often see astrology as a danger to belief, Avraham’s excellence in the discipline led him to a Creator, and taught him to discipline his life out of awe of that Creator [this is a largely forgotten idea which deserves more attention: knowing Gd exists, specific Scripture or command aside, obligates us to develop certain character traits and modes of behavior, as Avraham did]. 

Among the characteristics Avraham cultivated because of his awareness of Gd’s existence were humility, hatzne’a lechet (walking modestly, a distaste for showiness), and to follow a different life-path than the ordinary one (which is too involved in the ephemeral). R. Arama stresses, a remarkable claim, he learned all this from astrology.

The Gemara referred to all the kings of the region coming to consult with Avraham, which R. Arama takes metaphorically (he points to Gittin 62a, which says “man malchei, rabbanan, who are “king”? The rabbis), to refer to those who free themselves of the controls of their appetites. They came to Avraham to learn how best to conduct themselves.

Knowledge is the Best Medicine

R. Arama thinks R. Shimon b. Yochai meant to add to R. Elazar when he spoke of a great healing stone. R. Elazar Ha-Modai addressed only Avraham’s actions, and R. Shimon b. Yochai told us Avraham also worked to let people know—including the masses who lack significant learning or nobility of character—the truths he had come to possess. He was not only na-eh mekayyem, one who lived up to his ideals, but na-eh doresh, who shared with others what he had come to know [We usually worry people will espouse values they do not yet manage to embody, such as the Gemara’s accusation of Ben Zoma for not having children; R. Arama has reversed the usual order].

The Gemara refers to Avraham’s insight as a precious stone because Mishlei 1;9 calls wisdom a garland and a necklace. Looking at it (for R. Arama, coming to accept the idea of Hashem’s existence) removes all blemishes and ills from the souls of those who had not known it before.

In Baba Batra, R. Shimon b. Yochai said after Avraham passed away, Hashem put the stone in the heavens; R. Arama thinks he means Hashem left the idea open and available to all who looked at the world with the proper perspective [he seems to believe fundamental truths about Hashem are accessible to the ordinary human intellect, when properly used, which many deny in our times].

Breaking Free of Determinism

The person who learns astrology’s lesson of Hashem’s existence still has to make the jump from an uninvolved First Cause to a Gd Who also has and exercises control over the universe. R. Arama thinks Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem who greets Avraham after his defeat of the four kings, refrains from using words like borei, Creator, or yotzer, One Who forms, about Hashem, because he thought Hashem was only an Aristotelian source of life, subject to the same laws of nature as the rest of us.

Avraham at first thought so, too, which is why he had not prayed pray to Hashem up until this point (a very interesting insight—Avraham did not think there was any point to prayer, since the laws of nature rule the world, without exception), and why Avraham, like Malkitzedek, referred to Hashem as koneh shamayim va-aretzPossessor (not Creator) of Heaven and Earth.”

R. Yehudah in the name of Rav (on Shabbat 156a) told us Avraham learned the greater truth in Bereshit 15;5 (when Hashem tells Avraham to go outside, after Avraham said he had no children; I am omitting the textual inference R. Yehudah in the name of Rav makes). There, Avraham is told Hashem can change the fate predicted by the stars, Hashem’s power includes the ability to change fate, destiny (or what the laws of nature would produce).

Stubborn Jewish Philosophers

These truths are slowly percolating to non-Jews as well, says R. Arama, which is why they’ve developed their own Scriptures and religions, to serve Hashem. It’s the philosophers of our nation (an insight into whom he’s battling in these sermons—the Jewish intelligentsia of his time, who have adopted extreme philosophical views, such as limiting Hashem to the Aristotelian First Cause Who cannot change the world).

Some of these philosophers, in unguarded moments, will go so far as to say references to Hashem in the Torah (which certainly portray Hashem as active in history, with the ability to change Nature) are metaphorical or allegorical, really mean Nature operates well and properly at all times.

These people also subvert statements of Chaza”l’s and prayers. For one example, twice every morning we say the words,ha-mechadesh be-tuvo be-chol yom ma’aseh Bereshit, Hashem renews creation in His goodness, every day. Philosophers could not abide the implication of Hashem’s active involvement in recreating the world, so they limited it to meaning Hashem continuously provides the life-force to sustain the world.

R. Arama knows Rambam’s Guide has passages which mislead these people, but he thinks they’ve read Rambam wrong [as do I, but that’s a digression too far for us here]. At this point, he brings the discussion back to the Midrash with which he opened the sha’ar, which had Hashem telling Shabbat the Jewish people would be its partner. I don’t want to rush or try to pack in more than I should, so let’s wait until next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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