Rabbi Isaac Arama and Aristotle


One of the remarkable characteristics of the medieval Spanish Jewish community was the confidence to weave philosophical teachings into biblical commentary. One of the exemplary voices in this genre was Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama, a 15th-century Talmudist, Kabbalist and commentator on the Spanish Bible. Rabbi Arama’s most famous work is called Akedat Yitzhak, a brilliant commentary on the Torah blending classical rabbinical sources and philosophy, especially the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

When he quotes Aristotle, Rabbi Arama does so to illustrate a moral teaching and lesson that helps us better understand complex verses or stories from the Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Vayehi – the book of Genesis ends, as does the life of Patriarch Jacob. In Genesis chapter 49, Jacob gathers his sons around his deathbed and, in poetic-prophetic language, tells them what awaits them in the future of their descendant.

When he talks about Simeon and Levi, he has very difficult words for them:

“Simeon and Levi are a pair, their weapons are tools of anarchy. May my person not be included in their council, may my being not be counted in their assembly. For when they are angry they kill men, and when they are happy they mutilate oxen. Cursed be their fierce anger, and their implacable anger. I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel ”(Genesis 49: 5-7).

Jacob’s harsh words about Simeon and Levi are his final thoughts on their vengeful behavior against the residents of the city of Shekhem, in response to the rape of their sister Dina. While they thought they were defending their sister’s honor, Jacob did not approve of their behavior, for he felt it was inappropriate for a prophet of God to be suspected of assisting in violence and violence. looting.

Since their behavior was so repulsive to Jacob, why did he force, or perhaps even pray, that Simeon and Levi be “scattered throughout Israel”? Why spread their anger and their zeal?

In his commentary Akedat Yitzhak, Rabbi Arama addresses this question through the teachings of Aristotle:

Jacob is stating here a truth that Aristotle made public in his Book of Ethics. He teaches that anger and temper, although undesirable qualities, can sometimes prove useful in eliciting heroic behavior in human beings. Soldiers in combat are driven to bravery and courage by anger and indignation. This idea is also expressed in the Bible, in the prophet Isaiah, where God says, “My won arm has brought victory, and my won rage has been my help” (Isaiah 63: 5). In other words, anger in the extreme is detrimental, but in moderation can be helpful. Jacob had the same idea in mind. It was desirable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Simeon and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel. All would share a part of it. A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but concentrated in one place, it would be dangerous.

Through the teachings of a Greek philosopher, Rabbi Arama turns what appears to be a curse from Jacob into a kind of positive blessing. He argues that their anger and passion were to be “dispersed in Israel,” for in dispersing and scattering them the sometimes necessary qualities of zeal, anger and passion could in fact serve as productive tools for all tribes of Israel. ‘Israel. Anger, passion, and zeal, when properly channeled and measured, might actually be a good thing. It is certainly not clear from the ordinary meaning of Jacob’s words, but Rabbi Arama is doing what many Sephardic-Spanish Bible commentators have done so well: find a deeper meaning, and even a lesson in life, in complex verses from the Torah, using wisdom from the library of thinkers from around the world outside of Judaism.

Rabbi Arama’s commentary is another brilliant reflection of the great teaching of Maimonides, the master of the mixture of Torah, philosophy and science: “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes. “

Concluding Note:

The above column brings us to the end of the book of Genesis. In our reading of the Torah “through the Sephardic lenses” we have so far seen examples of three remarkable medieval Sephardic commentators (Nachmanides, Abarbanel and Arama), two brilliant philosophers and thinkers (Maimonides and Benamozegh), two poems Sephardic and liturgical pieces (“Avraham Avinu” in Ladino and “Et Shaarei Ratson” – the Akedah poem) and four 20th century Sephardic rabbis and rulers (Rav Uziel, Rav Nissim, Rav Shalem and Hakham Raful). A fairly illustrious group, and we’ve only covered Genesis! Another four Torah books to go through and many more brilliant Sephardic minds through which to explore Torah.

Stay tuned for next week as we begin our Sephardic journey through the Book of Exodus. Until then, blessings and good wishes.

Shabbat Shalom


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