R. Arama introduces his readings of sections of the Torah with long theoretical discussions. Those have often been rich enough to make his textual readings of the actual parsha almost redundant, and I have often taken only snippets.
In this sha’ar, R. Arama offers a rich reading of Avraham’s development in his belief in God, leading us to follow the course of the Torah more closely than usual, and will also take us three installments, although I think you will find it well worth it. The first installment is about a theoretical idea, how we can find our way to knowledge of God, because Avraham’s success and path to Hashem will be his focus in this sha’ar.
The Apparent Impossibility of Success
Success as Hashem defines it involves a person realizing what Hashem wants and making all the right choices to get there; it would seem impossible without help from Hashem. R. Arama points out people’s lives have problems, distractions, temptations, aside from the intractable difficulty of finding divine truths through reason alone. In fact, R. Arama doubts our human capability of finding knowledge of Hashem, providence, reward and punishment on our own (nor is he the first).
With those the indispensable building blocks of success, we seem to only make progress because Hashem guided us. (R. Arama stresses we did not deserve the guidance, sees it as an example of Hashem’s generosity. To me, it’s a questionable claim, because if we can know what Hashem wants only if Hashem tells us, I don’t see the generosity in Hashem then telling us.)
Aristotle agreed, R. Arama quotes the Ethics to show [a reminder his audience cared about whether the ideas he was purveying fit Greek philosophy.] We believers always knew it was a gift, as when Moshe is told (Shemot 33;19) Hashem will have compassion on whom He chooses, or when Kohelet 5;18 tells us wealth and possessions, with the ability to celebrate/enjoy their fruits, are a gift from Hashem.
I am skipping his extended reading of the beginning of chapter thirty of Mishlei; he thinks Shelomo Ha-melech mentions the names of wise men of his time to point out how none of them arrived at true wisdom without Hashem’s help, for the kinds of reasons we’ve already noted—our tendency to distraction, to opt for pleasure over wisdom, the insufficiency of our intellects, and more.
Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will
Hashem provided the first building blocks, such as the firm declaration Hashem created the world and runs it. The idea of Hashem’s involvement with the world brings up the challenge of reconciling the idea of divine foreknowledge with human freewill (if Hashem knows what will happen, we cannot do otherwise).
R. Arama reviews some ways prior Jewish philosophers had suggested cutting the gordian knot. His first (one of my favorites) is to say Hashem knows all the possibilities of what people will choose (but not the particular choice they will make). This has the advantage of removing the idea of a lack in Hashem’s knowledge (in coming she’arim, R. Arama will distinguish between the philosophically problematic idea of ascribing a positive quality to Hashem and denying a lack in Hashem; this is an example, he is less concerned with ensuring Hashem knows the future than being clear Hashem does not lack any knowledge).
Others suggested people do not have freewill in the full sense, while others (such as Ralbag, he says) limited Hashem’s knowledge in the name of preserving free will.
R. Arama does not like any of the answers, first because they all were arrived at by people thinking about a really hard problem, and he believevs our intellects cannot arrive at true ideas on such hard issues.
He is guided instead by Mishlei 30;5, which says every word of Hashem is pure (in R. Arama’s reading, it means all the descriptions of Hashem as All-knowing are accurate), while Hashem is also a shield to those who trust in him, will reward those who act as Hashem has said. Their choice to follow Hashem is fully free, with no coercion, and will be rewarded as such.
The paradox between the two—if Hashem knows what we will do, it cannot be freely chosen—is a function of the limits of our intellect, as the next verse in Mishlei 30 indicates when it tells us not to add to Hashem’s words. Our inability to understand does not change the underlying truth.
The Known Danger of Human Arrogance
Rambam in the Guide took this position often [and, on this exact question, said so in Hilchot Teshuva 5;5 as well]; it matters to R. Arama because Rambam’s philosophical bent makes the assertion of limits to what our minds can understand about Hashem more convincing to his audience.
Verses in the Torah alerted us to how we tend to gravitate to what we can control or understand, leading us away from Hashem, Whom we cannot. Devarim 8;12-14 warns of the corrosive qualities of wealth, which can lead to pride and forgetting Hashem. Devarim17;18-20 requires a king to have a Torah scroll with him always, to have it read to him daily, and prohibits amassing excessive wealth, to also avoid becoming arrogant, focused on how much he controlled. Aristotle agreed.
R. Arama then expands the misleading wealth to include more than the financial. He reads Mishlei 30;8’s prayer to Hashem for protection from poverty and wealth to refer to intellectual capabilities. We struggle to understand Hashem, a case of poverty, yet some people’s brilliance in some areas fools them into thinking the ideas they come up with about Hashem will be true, when they will often be wrong and heretical.
[The idea seems to me as true today; many bright people I meet stumble in their faith and commitment to Torah ideas because they reject anything they cannot understand.]
The middle road (which Mishlei refers to as “my daily bread”) consists of investigating as much as one is able, relying on tradition for the rest, given us by true prophets.
The Path Forward
Accepting our human limitations also shows us where we can act productively and earn reward. We do not control where we started, and none of us will ever perfect ourselves; we do control what’s in between, making strides with the freewill granted us, acting in laudable ways and growing our intellectual understanding of Hashem to the extent we can.
In return, Hashem promised to take such people by the hand, as it were, and show them more than they could have gotten on their own. When Devarim 30;11-13 says the Torah is not in Heaven nor across the sea, but close to us, in our mouths and hearts, R. Arama thinks the verse is telling us to ignore any parts of Torah which are beyond us [in other words, Torah in fact is partially in heaven, we just need not worry about it]. We should instead focus on Torah we can learn and understand. Should we dedicate ourselves that way, we will become the ladder by which more Torah—the parts we never could have gotten on our own--is brought down from Heaven.
Knowledge of Hashem, Achieved and Received
Before Avraham Avinu, people did not think about a creator, they believed in it as a received tradition (R. Arama uses the phrase mitzvat anashim melumadah, from Yeshayahu 29;13, a phrase long invoked to mean a rote practice, lacking in substance).
He thinks Noach was such a person, who acted well (as the Torah says), had a tradition of faith in Hashem from Lemech and Metushelach (his father and grandfather), without having delved into it at all. It was a simple faith, the kind the Torah recommends for Jews in Devarim 18;13, in the context of turning to a prophet for knowledge of the future rather than witchcraft or divination.
Obviously, if the Torah tells Jews to rely on prophets for their knowledge of Hashem, it cannot be bad. The intellectual path requires a rigor of logic and analysis both beyond many people and still not certain; Hashem’s Otherness makes even the most rigorous and sophisticated ideas only guesses or possibilities, other than what we’re told directly, which itself takes us only part of the way.
The Torah therefore freed us of the obligation to try. It started with the story of Creation to lay out the basic ideas Jews need to adopt. We are to know logic dictates some idea of God [Aristotle thought the world must have a Prime Mover, as a logical proposition], and that God formed the universe as a matter of will and choice. (This is a clever reading of the first chapter of Bereshit. The Torah tells us Hashem said what should happen next to show it was a decision, not any kind of automatic extension of Hashem’s Being).
Miracles and the Path to Knowledge
Bereshit also shows us Hashem continues to be involved in the world, is aware of all its doings, and rewards and punishes according to our deeds. R. Arama calls these the essence of the Torah (I think he is referring to the issue of Principles of Faith; where Rambam had thirteen, R. Yosef Albo had three, Creation, Sinai, and reward and punishment. R. Arama seems to be opting for Creation, providence, and reward and punishment, although I’m sure Sinai will come up as well).
The signs and wonders Hashem performs, especially those of Moshe Rabbenu, offer a shortcut to knowledge of Hashem. They come with a caveat, people need to be able to accept them for what they are, the reason Tanach speaks of temimut, a whole and accepting faith.
One path available to all, then, is to read the Torah, accept the miracles and basic tenets of faith described there, rely on them to ground belief in an active Creator Who rewards and punishes. It has the advantage of universality, the disadvantage of being weaker and less perfect than the faith achieved through investigation and analysis. At the end of his life, I Divrei Ha-Yamim 28;9, David Ha-melech adjures his son to know the God of his forefathers, for Hashem knows what’s in our hearts [my paraphrase]. The reference to hearts and knowledge are, for R. Arama, code for intellectual inquiry.
He has now set the stage to consider Avraham and his contribution to the world. As we will begin to see next time.
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.