Creation Shows Us God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I have come to believe I cannot overstress how much I chop from R. Yitzchak Arama’s ‘Akedat Yitzchak to present what seem to me his core ideas. With all my efforts, he still unfolds his worldview slowly, the crucial points becoming clear only with a periodic review of what he repeats most, what he insists on telling us over and over.

Now that we’ve finished his reading of the so-called Creation story, including the first Shabbat, let’s see what cropped up repeatedly, seem to have been linchpins of his picture.

Patterns, Causes, and Free Will

I think he most frequently spoke about the world leading us to realize Hashem’s existence and role in the world, if we look properly. The order in creation, its regular cause and effect, points unavoidably to a First Cause, Who gives it direction (part of why astrology could work, because there really is a plan and destiny which the stars reveal) and purpose, which we either further or hamper with our actions.

Causation moves items from their original form to their more completed one. The Torah values the completion, which is why it tells us of an item only once completed (not begun, such as the sun, moon, and stars, which we hear about only on the fourth day, although they were created on the first), and why Hashem only adjudges items ki tov, good, when they move from a lesser form to their best form.

Similarly, Hashem waited a night’s length before creating light to make a lasting point: light (and wisdom, for which it serves as a metaphor) removes darkness (or ignorance). Hashem wants us and the world to go from lack to perfection.

The World Unfolds In Stages

Another remarkable aspect of R. Arama’s view was his insistence both on Hashem’s continued active involvement in the world—more than just the aloof Supplier of universe-sustaining shefa or life force, as philosophers saw Hashem—and on the idea of Hashem stepping back, two different times, to let Creation happen somewhat on its own.

After Hashem created light on the first day, which meant or included the angels for R. Arama, he says Hashem left those angels to shape the emerging world (according to Hashem’s plan and direction, but not managed completely by Hashem Himself, as it were).  Then again, when the Torah says Hashem stopped creation on the seventh day, R. Arama read it to mean Hashem stopped actively supplying new building blocks to Nature, left the world to build, combine, and develop according (generally) to the laws of Nature.

Hashem still actively oversees the world (as expressed in a phrase of our liturgy R. Arama stresses, ha-mechadesh be-tuvo be-chol yom ma’aseh Bereshit, Who renews Creation in His goodness, every day) and occasionally interrupts or changes its natural workings, but the goal is for the world (and people, as we’ll see) to develop greater and greater perfection.

Unfolding is Central to Jewish Conduct, Too

In a side point I assume we’ll see once the Torah gets to it, R. Arama paralleled the construction of the Mishkan to Creation. The Jews assembled materials, similar to Hashem’s providing the basic material for creation from nothing, brought them together to build the structure (like what happened during the six days of Creation), and then left it for its continuing service, like the world was then left to unfold. He seems to me interested in highlighting this threefold process as how productive creation works.

The idea of development explains the Midrash with which he opened the fourth sha’ar, which portrayed Shabbat as complaining about how nothing happens on her day. Since development is what matters, Shabbat sees herself as consigned to irrelevance. Hashem’s naming the Jewish people as her partner means Jews will spend the day asserting creation ex nihilo, a weekly declaration which importantly advances the world’s proper development.

The Supernatural As Well

R. Arama focuses on the natural world, because humans by and large see only the natural. At the same time, he makes clear he accepts a supernatural realm as well. He thought we find Hashem in the middle of the ladder of causation, because all of what happens in the supernatural realm is beyond ordinary human insight. Too, the Torah only hints at the creation of the angels, and leaves the “upper waters” unexplained beyond their one mention.

He has a complicated relationship with angels, whom he concedes guide the planets’ motions (he resisted the idea because philosophers argued for it, accepted it only because Chazal did). Angels are, for R. Arama, the light created on the first day.

Torah itself is also partially supernatural. Troubled by the idea of Torah serving human purposes, he differentiated between the intellectual/spiritual entity which served as the blueprint of Creation, consists of black fire written on white fire, and the physical Torah we possess, which directs the Jewish people how to live. The latter is part of our fully natural world, the former part of the upper world we access only prophetically. 

The life-force has a supernatural element, produced only by Hashem. Prophets who started many other miracles on their own, such as Eliyahu and Elisha, needed to pray to Hashem when they wanted to bring children back to life, says R. Arama, because of this supernatural aspect.

People as the Bridge and Focus

In a world of causation, the perceptive among us, such as Avraham Avinu, infer lessons of character and conduct as well as Hashem’s existence and involvement. Hashem does remain in the background, however, to allow for human free will, a central point of creation, in R. Arama’s view. Like the world, people are meant to develop, to use their free will to enhance their tzelem Elokim, the ways in which they are similar to Hashem. 

R. Arama thought people were the bridge between the unfolding natural and the supernatural hovering in the background (with Elokim how the Torah refers to the Gd of Nature, Hashem the Gd Who takes account of exceptional or individual cases). People are physical beings who also have an intellectual/spiritual side, and are tasked with overcoming or disciplining the physical in the service of the spiritual. Any one person who does, let alone whole communities, can justify and support all of creation.

Humanity’s centrality shows itself also in how R. Arama counts the ten sayings of creation. When Hashem told the first humans to be fruitful and multiply, and then told them they were permitted to make use of the entire Garden other than the Tree of Knowledge, those were building blocks of creation, he held, part of how Hashem built a functioning world.

What We’re Not Told

The idea of the Torah mentioning and/or hinting at areas of knowledge without elaborating on them comes up several other times. R. Arama responds to the accusation of Torah’s narrowness—whereas philosophers dealt more fully with what his listeners thought of as the crucial questions—by saying we can leave to others the more subordinate wisdoms or disciplines, if we are already focused on the important one, how to serve Hashem.

In his world, there’s what we cannot know, which the Torah leaves out, as well as what we need not know. We focus on what’s left.

It Started With Hashem, Now It’s Up to Us

In short, what I have been able to glean from R. Arama is his belief in a world set up by Hashem, continuingly supported and guided by Hashem—more or less intrusively—to enable people, and the world at whose center they stand, to develop ever upwards in their recognition of Hashem, their development of the sides of themselves which bring them closer to Hashem.

We’ll see how that all plays out in weeks to come.

About Gidon Rothstein

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