Study What Matters, Not What Doesn’t

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzchak, Fifth Sha’ar

R. Arama has referred several times to the idea of angels guiding motions of the planets. In this sha’ar, he tells us he intends to dispense with two ideas apparently accepted in his time, the heavenly spheres are intelligent and more valuable to the universe, than people [remember: in medieval cosmology, the planets moved along spheres; Rambam had said those spheres were intelligences, somewhat akin to angels].

Man at the End or the Center of Creation

To get there, he first grapples with humanity’s role in creation. His idea of a chain (or ladder, as he had said it) of causation which leads to Hashem suggests people are the lowest rung, since they came last. Philosophical thinkers like Rambam and Ralbag took this position, citing verses such as Tehillim 8;5. mah enosh ki tizkerenu, what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and 144;4, adam la-hevel damah, man is like a breath.

They opposed (vigorously, but is there any other kind?) any view which saw humanity as the purpose of creation, considered a fool anyone who would think Hashem put the whole universe in place solely to serve such a lowly creature. Among the irritants to them were people who took literally verses which say the heavenly bodies were made to illuminate the earth, as a way to mark time, to know when to keep annual holidays (such as Bereshit 1;14-15). In their view, it was impossible (and sacrilegious) to claim Hashem made august beings only to serve lower ones.

(Later in the sha’ar, R. Arama offers an idea for another purpose of the heavens.  He says the planets are a sort of amusical instrument in the hands of the angels who move them, their perpetual motions (usually impossible) a song of praise to Hashem, which shows Hashem’s endlessness (since the planets never stop their revolutions) and constant infusion of life energy to the universe. Right after suggesting it, though, he moves on to chapter two of Bereshit, and reads it as ratifying humanity’s centrality to creation, as we’ll see below.)

Overweening Philosophy

R. Arama rejects the possibility of people being the lowest rung, for both theoretical and practical reasons. To treat man as the last, least, and lowest aspect of creation renders ridiculous Hashem’s verbalized decision to create humans with tzelem Elokim, a similarity to Hashem. (R. Arama summarily dismisses the possibility the Torah switched in the middle of the Creation story, originally listing elements of creation in descending order of importance, and then switching at some point to ascending order, with humans then the most important part of the world).  Practically, such a view produces the odd claim the simpler materials created on earlier days matter more than on later ones, whenBereshit Rabbah 9 said anything created on a later day rules over whatever was created on an earlier one.

Ralbag, too, had not been able to maintain his view in full, since he had had to concede the stars do provide some value for humanity, even if they weren’t made for that purpose. Rambam had sidestepped the issue; he agreed the stars provide illumination but only as a side effect of their physical makeup. They happen to be light-giving bodies, but it’s not why they were created or the goal in putting them there.

Rambam compared it to the Torah’s description of humanity (Bereshit 1;26) as ve-yirdu bidgat ha-yam, they will rule over the fish of the sea (and birds and animals). Hashem did not make humans to rule over the animals, birds, and fish, Rambam says, it’s a side effect of their overall purpose.  

R. Arama thinks Rambam and Ralbag were so overly predisposed to the philosophical view, they re-read verses to accommodate it, and were wrong when they did it. In our example, he takes the verse as it comes. Ruling over lower life forms was a part of what Hashem saw as people’s purpose.

As for the problem philosophers had with the idea of such majestic bodies being relegated to such an insignificant task, R. Arama says they misstated the task, which led them to misunderstand the value. The heavenly spheres guide humanity as a species, which is worthy of them. Like impressive machines which produce small items, the machines are not subordinate to each item, they have the important purpose of producing all those items.

Not Necessarily the Purpose, Not Necessarily Not the Purpose

‘Akedat Yitzchak gives a lot of space to many topics, which makes length a poor way to judge how much an idea matters to R. Arama.  The idea of when the more important serve the less important is one he’s brought up before, such as when he said a shepherd is not subordinate to his flock, he tends them for his own purposes and reasons. A subordinate-looking act may in fact be part of a bigger picture.

Second, once Hashem valued people’s contribution to His world, the angels or planets who serve people by keeping the world going serve Hashem, act as Hashem wanted. There is certainly no shame or disrespect in being subordinate to Hashem.

Sources which speak of Torah predating the world (some of the sources he cites include:  Bereshit Rabbah 8, the Torah preceded the world by 2000 years; Yirmiyahu 33; 25, which says Hashem’s covenant is what keeps day and night functioning; and ‘Avodah Zarah 3a sees Hashem as declaring the acceptance of the Torah a condition of the original creation) support his theory, since they tell us Hashem wanted a world and people for reasons of His inscrutable Will. Angels (and spheres) serve Hashem’s Will when they maintain the world, not the people or other parts of the world itself.

In all those senses, these items were created to serve humanity, some of whom will follow the Torah.  He has just added a bit of a twist as well; it’s not people these upper beings serve, it’s their purpose, the possibility they will serve the Creator with proper actions.  People find their ways to those actions with their intellectual souls, which let them know their Creator, join the Creator in purposes such as fostering the better functioning of the world. He repeats statements of Chazal’s we’ve seen before, about people who became the focus of all creation, showing even an individual’s potential. Once we know of that potential, we can more plausibly believe in celestial beings being deputized to those purposes as well.

The Text Points to People as the Focus

Bereshit 2;4 famously starts another presentation of creation, beginning with the words, “this is the account of the heavens and the earth when being created.” The word translated as “account” is toledot in Hebrew, which R. Arama reads as “the intended end-result of.”

Based on questions I’ve skipped, he thinks the passage comes to tell us Hashem had humanity in mind (as it were) when creating the world. For one example, he thinks the Torah introduces the absence of a man to work the land, says Hashem refrained from bringing rain until man’s creation, to make clear man was the goal. It’s also why the second half of verse four has earth first (“on the day Hashem Elokim made earth and heavens”), and why the double Name has been introduced, since it’s necessary to the creation of humanity. The last support of his I’ll mention here notes the verse’s telling us of Hashem’s blowing the breath of life into man’s nostrils, an intimacy of interaction in the course of creation reserved only for humanity, because they would bear an elevated element (as we have seen before), different from all other creatures.

Of course, verse nineteen says Hashem created animals from the earth in terms very similar to the phrasing for humanity in verse seven. R. Arama thinks the different order of the words shows humans are more independent of the earth. Verse seven says Hashem created humanity from the earth, where verse nineteen puts the earth first, Hashem created from the earth all the animals, making them a part of the earth.

Chazal sent the same message when they noted the two yod’s in the word va-yitzer, Hashem created (or shaped), regarding humanity.Bereshit Rabbah 14 said there were two creations, where the animals had only one (he does not discuss the rest of the comment in Bereshit Rabbah, where the Midrash defines what happened in each of the two creations of human beings).

The Opening Midrash

The Torah delves into the story of humanity more deeply, since humanity was the point of creation. This brings R. Arama back to the Midrash with which he opened, Bereshit Rabbah 9, where R. Levi in the name of R. Chanina b. Chama identifies Hashem’s saying tov me’od about creation as a turning point. Up until then, R. Chanina thinks the story qualifies for what the first half of Mishlei 25;2 says,kevod Elokim haster davar, the honor of Gd tells us to hide matters, we should not study it in too much depth. From there on, once humanity is on the scene, the second half of the verse is more relevant, kevod melachim chakor davar, the honor of kings is to investigate matters.

It sounds similar to Chagigah 13b, which discouraged analyzing the creation story (ma’aseh Bereshit) too closely, since it involved secrets of the universe. Beyond creation, the more closely we read the text the better. R. Arama thinks the Midrash meant to make a different point, since it speaks about hiding or investigating ideas. Were R. Chanina b. Chama to have wanted to say what Chagigah did, he should have said it more clearly, do not study until this verse, from there feel free to reveal it publicly.

Besides, he says, crucial parts of the human story—his creation, Chavah’s being shaped from a part of him, her interaction with the serpent, and all that transpired from there—happened during the six days, which R. Chanina b. Chama still seems to think are part of haster davar,what we should hide rather than analyze closely.

Humanity as the Goal, to be Studied Carefully and In Depth

R. Arama instead reads R. Chanina b. Chama to have meant Hashem hid vital details of the early parts of the Creation story, because we did not need to know them they would not push us in productive directions [there’s a mouthful there he does not expand upon, which I’ve noted before, R. Arama’s confidence that not all knowledge is valuable or productive].  Once humanity is created, since we are central to the endeavor, Hashem gave more details, so we would look into man, his purpose, his errors, how to improve and perfect ourselves.

A full-throated humanism, in which people are so important to Creation, we are not told too much about aspects of the story which might distract us (and which, ironically for R. Arama, do distract many, who waste time and effort trying to figure out what the Torah omitted). What we should be doing, in his view, is studying humanity, to see where we go wrong and how to go right, to do our utmost to live up to our central role in the universe Hashem created.

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