by R. Gidon Rothstein
The Akeydat Yitzhak to Bereshit I Found
For a long time, I find my way to ideas by taking a corpus of text, review it step by step, then stand back to see what recurred enough to seem important. It was how I drew the distinction central to my Phd thesis—I started our study of Akeydat Yitzhak with a reference to my Phd, so this is some closure, for those like me who enjoy that kind of thing– and was the method behind several of my books (on haftarot, We’re Missing the Point, and my in-press one on what teshuvot share across time and place, tentatively titled Forest From the Trees).
I like how it reveals basic issues and concerns we often overlook because we are too caught up in the specific pieces of the puzzle. For R. Arama’s massive commentary, we again seek now insight into how his many small points, interesting for themselves, build a larger picture.
Choices in Presentation and the Ideas We Fail to Access
Reviewing my summaries, I first found, somewhat ironically, my continuing weakness at reading and handling large blocks of text. As we noted early on, his discursive and digressive writing was a conscious choice, to accommodate an audience who wanted lengthy discourses. Over the years, I have seen many people quote Akeydat Yitzhak, from all over the work, implying they read through the whole voluminous presentation. I am not able to read that quickly or widely, so we have seen only about a third of it, his discussion of Sefer Bereshit.
But not even all his discussion of Bereshit, because I did not go down all his byways. It speaks to me of the balance between data and information. R. Arama’s audience (and many today, adept at encyclopedic reading) wanted lots and lots of data, had their own tools for how to access it. For example, R. Arama discussed many other parts of Scripture, but someone who wanted to know what he said about Tehillim 12, let’s say, would have a hard time finding it (pre-computer, anyway), unless s/he read the whole book.
So, two start-up lessons of our study: There are choices to be made on how we present ideas, advantages in one context turning into disadvantages in others. For us here, the fact calls us to remember we have developed some picture of R. Arama, but not a complete whole, by far.
Philosophy, Money, and His Audience
On the topic of audience, R. Arama’s asides gave insight into the people he addresseda, basic mistakes he worked to convince them to relinquish. First, philosophy. R. Arama made a point of citing Aristotle and Rambam’s Guide, agreeing with them wherever possible, and his comments on not relying solely on the intellectual (see below) told me he wanted them to see the insufficiency of philosophy, without rejecting it completely.
He made similar comments about money, especially about how impossible it is to guarantee heirs’ economic security, giving me the impression his audience worked harder to earn money than he thought appropriate. Not for their own sustenance, or to support an extravagant lifestyle, it seems; rather, their concern was generational wealth, to insure their children had all the money they could want. At cost to other endeavors they should have included in their schedule.
The exhortatory R. Arama seems to have had a wealthy, sophisticated audience, sure they knew the path to success and security. He was trying to convince them to recalibrate their commitments.
His sense of their overinvolvement in some activities to the detriment of others fits well with his overall stress on balance. Different from anyone I had seen before, for example, he thought Adam and Hava were allowed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge from the start, the rub coming in Gd telling them to restrict themselves to tasting of the Tree, a matter of perspective, avoiding overemphasis (considering it was the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, this might have been another knock on excessive faith in philosophy).
He similarly made a point of valuing diverse parts to human experience, the physical/ sensual, intellectual part, and awareness of how the metaphysical also affects the natural world (in his system, the motion of the stars). While the physical was to be subordinated to the intellectual, and the intellectual to the metaphysical, they all had a role to play.
The same was true of women, for whom R. Arama insisted on a meaningful role (although perhaps not the kind of role we today would consider satisfying). He objected to Lemekh having one wife for childbearing and another for the rest of the marital relationship because it denied each the full range of womanly experience. In his view, women needed to develop all their roles, just as men did.
R. Arama several times inserted a sense of continuing development where I did not expect it, suggesting it mattered to him. He went out of his way to say Gd’s cessation of Creation came where the world was formed enough to allow for its further evolution on its own. The same applied to the Mishkan, whose completion was only the beginning, putting in place the pieces for people to then serve Gd there.
His view of Avraham’s life continues the theme. He assumes Avraham learned ideas we might have thought basic farther down the road than expected—long after he got to Israel, Avraham learned Gd can change the star-determined future, people’s prayer can secure a response, the nature and extent of Gd’s providence, and more.
For R. Arama, change and growth were positives (for the world and people, anyway), a way to show progress.
Shared Management of World, and the Necessity of Freewill
A last idea I wanted to highlight explains why he would have wanted listeners/readers to think of the world and Mishkan as having been given a start by Gd and then left to develop on their own, why he tracked Avraham’s progress throughout his life: R. Arama saw the human partnership with Gd as essential to the project of Creation.
Gd created the world for people to take hold of it, manage it, work it, and improve it (and themselves). True, Gd’s providence oversees all, and can (and does) intervene when necessary; for R. Arama, though, those are almost failed moments, because the goal is for people to act in ways that kind of providential involvement will not be necessary.
It’s the reason he values freewill so highly, because people acting freely is the way the best version of the redemption will come. Sure, Gd could redeem the world by force whenever (as will happen if people never get themselves to where they deserve it). The better version of redemption comes when people use their freewill to advance higher goals than monetary security and/or what their intellect alone values.
When We Don’t Take Care of the Big Issues
I walk away from my toe dip into Akeydat Yitzhak reminded of ideas I am not sure we all work to actualize in our lives: as far as he is concerned (and I do not think him an outlier on these points), we live in a world created by Gd with usual patterns, all susceptible to change at Gd’s Will. That Will generally wants the world to operate in its usual way, for people to consciously choose to limit or balance involvement with physical health, financial security (including for future generations), and the intellectual truths articulated by philosophy, with an awareness and dedication to Gd and Gd’s service.
It is a message close enough to what I thought already that I can easily imagine I took those parts of the commentary that hit home. Nonetheless, I stand by them, think of them as overall values and commitments we would do well to be sure we live by.
The end of this path perhaps provides a moment to reflect on a paradox of my strategy: I spent years and thousands of words on studying/summarizing Akeydat Yitzhak, to walk away with three or four very basic principles. Is that a worthwhile return on investment?
You could reject the question, say that Torah study is always worth it. True as far as it goes, I believe we should always weigh how we spend our time, within our Torah study as well, because waste of time is still waste of time, the ratio between effort and product does matter.
I think it indeed is worth it, because it emphasizes a concern of mine, that we many of us neglect—not willfully or maliciously, just because we fail to notice or remember them– central, fundamental points of a life of service to Gd. I am not bothered that many Orthodox Jews do not know this or that particular claim of the Akeydat Yitzhak or other rishonim, because there’s just a lot out there. But when we see we have lost sight of the kinds of contentions basic to their outlook and worldview, their key, core, and repeated lessons in life, that I think should bring us up short.
So I studied Akeydat Yitzhak to see what he had to say, many of the particular pieces interesting in and of themselves, while also finding him harping on points his audience had not learned, many of which we have not yet internalized, either.
In the hopes the reminder will help us do better.
From here, I turn to another text I think has many basic ideas not well absorbed into current Orthodox society, the last third of the third sha’ar of Sha’arei Teshuvah, a segment of Rabbenu Yonah’s well-known work on repentance that is actually about our general conduct as Jews and as people. See you then.