- Ibn Ezra - Honest Inquiry
Before elucidating the Ibn Ezra I would like to make a few
- It is a flaw in thinking to suggest, for example, that since
Maimonides or Rashi didn't hold like Ibn Ezra, that this justifies
excusing the Ibn Ezra on a given topic. Proper thinking demands we
understand what the Ibn Ezra's view is, regardless of those who oppose
- In Torah and Talmudic study, where one studies a select topic, he
analyzes the various views of each rabbi to understand with clarity,
the uniqueness of each of their positions - their defining
distinctions. The talmudist identifies the precise points of
contention, and proceeds to define the "machlokes", the
argument. His singular goal in talmud study is not "Who is
right?, but rather, "What opinion did each rabbi hold?". He
is concerned with the "what", not the "why".
- It is only when the focus of Torah study is the search for facts,
that the student will access the road to Torah knowledge. If however
one seeks support for his own views, or he seeks motives behind the
Rabbis' positions, he will fail in his learning. Unfortunately here,
his goal is either a subjective defense for his cherished beliefs, or
an undermining of rabbis who oppose his own selected authorities. In
either case, this later type of Torah involvement of defective, it is
subjective, and will not yield new insights into the objectively true
world of ideas.
- When we study this Ibn Ezra, as is the case in all studies, our goal
must not be biased, regardless of how seemingly outlandish a position
might be. Our goal is to understand his view, honestly, patiently, and
devoid of our own preconceived opinions. We are to be a receptacle. If
however, we act as a jury, we forfeit the knowledge of his position
which is the greatest crime to ourselves. Even worse, if we try to
twist the words of an opinion to conform to a cherished belief, we are
- The Ibn Ezra (Exod. 20.1)
- "...The second category (of commandments) are commands
which are hidden, and there is not explained why they were
commanded. And God forbid, God forbid that there should be any one
of these commands which goes against human intelligence. Rather, we
are obligated to perform all that God commands, be it revealed to us
the underlying "Sode" (principle), be it hidden from us.
And if we find any of them which contradict human intelligence, it
isn't proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should
consult the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if
such a command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written (by
them) we (must) search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we
can fix it (determine the command). If we can't, then we abandon
that mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it".
- The Ibn Ezra teaches a novel idea, one which goes against the grain
of what many have learned. Again, this must be of no consequence. Our
goal must not be the avoidance of alarming teachings, but rather, the
objective analysis of a rabbi's words a search for objective truth.
Ibn Ezra initially says that "nothing in the commands goes
against human intelligence". This must be, as all commands
are creations of God. Therefore, all commands have tremendous wisdom
- But it is very important to note: This is talking about the nature
of the commands. Not our perception.
- He then says: "we are obligated to perform all that God
commands, be it revealed to us the underlying principle, be it hidden
from us." This means that although we do not comprehend a principle,
we must perform the command. However, this assumes we already have a
clear understanding of how to perform this command. Meaning,
what is hidden, is not the "how". The structure of the
command's performance must know, if the Ibn Ezra says "we must
perform the command". What we do not know is the principle.
As if someone knows what waving a lulav means in action, but he
doesn't know what the reason is for this action.
- Here, Ibn Ezra addresses a command which we know its performance,
but not its reasoning.
- However, the Ibn Ezra continues, so he must be making a new point: "And
if we find any of them which contradict human intelligence, it isn't
proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should consult
the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if such a
command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written (by them) we
(must) search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we can fix it
(determine the command). If we can't, then we abandon that mitzvah as
it is, and admit we are ignorant of it".
- Here, Ibn Ezra moves on to a new point. He is now discussing a case
where even the performance is something we are ignorant of. Not
as before, where we knew the performance, and were ignorant of the
reason only. At least in that first case, Ibn Ezra can tell us we must
perform the command. That makes sense as we know the command. But here
in case 2, he addresses ignorance of the very command, we know not
what to do. Again, in case 2, he cannot be discussing where we know
the command but are bereft of the reasoning, for he already addressed
this type of ignorance in case 1. He must now be describing a new area
of ignorance, that is, ignorance of the very command. He gives the
example of "circumcising the foreskin of our hearts". This
of course is non-literal, as it means to remove emotions that prevent
us from following God. Ibn Ezra says it would be foolish to assume it
to mean the actually cutting open of some ones' heart viciously. But
if we didn't have the Rabbi's interpretation of this command, we would
not cut people open. We would, as he says, "Abandon that
mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it". We
would not perform this command in its literal description of
butchering people, if we had not the interpretation mentioned above.
This is the central point of the Ibn Ezra.
- Some want to say that even in this case we would perform the
command. But I ask, "What command?" How can man perform that
which he does not comprehend the very instruction? If man did not know
the interpretation of the command "Circumcise the foreskin of
your hearts", if he knew it cannot mean to butcher people, then
there is no performance man could attach to such a bizarre
instruction. The answer is simply, "Abandon that mitzvah as it
is, and admit we are ignorant of it".
- Ibn Ezra teaches that intelligence rules our actions, even if it
means abandoning a mitzvah.
- Do not think there is something gravely wrong with doing as the Ibn
Ezra says. In truth, there is no alternative. It is akin to placing a
person blindfolded in a room he has never encountered, and instructing
him to follow the signs on the walls. If man cannot comprehend the
signs due to lack of vision, he is helpless, and innocent. Similarly,
if man is 'placed in front of a command' which he cannot grasp, and is
told to follow it, again, he is helpless. As he is lacking
comprehension of what he is instructed, he is innocent. He knows not
what to do. He therefore cannot perform anything. Ibn Ezra is saying we
cannot do it, not that we shouldn't do it.
- Ibn Ezra teaches two cases:
- 1) All commands are perfectly reasonable, and we must perform them
all, even if we don't know the "Sode", the reason. This is
when we know what the command is.
- 2) Regarding commands of which we are ignorant of the very
performance, here, we know not what to do, and cannot perform the
command. It is impossible for man to follow that which he is ignorant
- Unfortunately, some are of the opinion that we are to abandon our
minds in favor of majority opinions in this area. However, rules
governing Jewish law do not apply to areas of philosophy. The author
of "Duties of the Heart" says we are to follow our minds,
and not to simply follow others - even rabbis - without our own
discernment. Conveniently, many prohibit reading this author's