Note: For Erev Shabbat Bereishit, Friday, October 25, 2019, I delivered this sermon at Temple Isaiah, Lafayette to kick off my year of studying Abraham ibn Ezra. Some of the material comes from my introductory blog post, some of it is new.
Imagine an old Jewish man wandering the streets of London. He is 75. Perhaps his shoulders stoop, but his eyes dance with a fierce and restless energy. He faces the setting sun, that constant traveler. He has one more journey left in him. It’s time to return home. Of course, for him, the road has become as much his home as any one of the various stops along the way. But he is tired of the cold at the northern end of the world. He prepares to head south, to return to the land of his birth, to his little town in Spain.
We don’t know exactly how far he got. By some accounts he made it just into Spain, while others tell the tale of English thugs attacking him just outside of London. But although he never made it home, he did step into the hearts and minds of all who met him, who in turn carried on his legacy
and have allowed us, 852 years later (accepting the date of death as 1167), to keep wandering the paths of Torah along with Abraham ibn Ezra, one of the greatest interpreters of Torah of all time. In some ways, despite the challenges of his life and the tragedy of his death, the best was yet to be. Who was Abraham ibn Ezra? What distinguishes his life and his work? And what does he have to do with us, almost a millennia later?
This week we begin anew in the cycle of reading Torah. The old adage goes, every year Torah is the same, yet I, I am different, and therefore there are new things to learn from reading an old text. In this way, the older we grow with Torah, the deeper it seems. We accumulate teachers, teachings, experiences, understandings, we discard old answers and pick up new questions.
This year, I am apprenticing myself to Abraham ibn Ezra, studying his commentary on the Torah in order to gain a new perspective. And I want to invite all of you into this journey. Each week I plan to post to my website a short reflection on one comment in the weekly parashah – study with me, whether by reading along when I post or other opportunities to learn together in person. But tonight, I want to share a little bit about who Abraham ibn Ezra was, what his commentary is all about, and some of the surprising ways his influence has reached us in the modern era.
Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, Spain, in 1092 (although some place his birth in 1089). The scholar Nahum Sarna writes: “It can hardly be contested that in the entire star-studded galaxy of medieval Jewish Bible commentators that not one can compare with Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (1092-1167) in respect of vast erudition, broad range of disciplines, subtle sophistication, intellectual daring, and sensitivity to linguistic and stylistic phenomena in all their manifestations. Grammar, syntax, lexicography, literary strategies, elements of style, sparkling witticisms, and felicitous use of the Hebrew language – mastery of all these accord him a unique place in the history of Jewish exegesis.”
In simpler words, Ibn Ezra was pretty smart, and he knew it, and he sought truth through several methods – including studying the traditional texts such as Torah, through mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy, and perhaps even through meditation. However, for the first fifty years of his life, he primarily lived as a poet in the poet-friendly culture of medieval Muslim Spain. He was good friends with another famous Jewish poet and thinker, Yehuda Halevy.
We don’t know much about his life in Spain, except that at some point as he turned fifty a great tragedy befell his family. His wife and three of his children died, and one son converted into Islam. In mourning, Ibn Ezra began what become a quarter century of wandering, first to various regions of Italy, then up through France, and eventually to the end of the world, the island of England. In part he traveled because he was restless.
But two other key factors were present. First, he had a sharp tongue for anyone who had opinions he thought were incorrect. Ibn Ezra’s commentary is famous for constantly quoting someone only to declare they are obviously and egregiously mistaken, the fools. From time to time he needed to travel to get away from angry intellectuals.
Second, Ibn Ezra was quite poor and depended on rich sponsors, for whom he mostly wrote all of his books. When one source of income dried up, he would need to travel to the next town and find a new patron. He once wrote in a poem:
“I cannot become rich, the fates are against me…were I a seller of candles, the sun would never set…if I were a seller of burial shrouds, no one would ever die…” Unfortunately he did not test that hypothesis. Instead, he just kept wandering.
Ibn Ezra’s commentary is important to us because he sought truth and sustained tradition at the same time. He is one of the great rationalists in Judaism, and valued our intellectual ability to reason just as much as our inherited wisdom, which if we’re being honest does not always pass that not-too-high bar of making actual logical sense. Yet, even while he attacked those who believe and behave blindly, he also fought against those who would abandon tradition altogether. He valued the way tradition knits us together into community, keeps us in the same conversation even when we have different points of view.
His insistence on embracing both strict rationalism and staunch traditionalism makes him a bit of a Rorschach commentator for us today – those who want to see their own views reflected in him often can find them.
One of the founders of the Reform Movement, Abraham Geiger, wrote: “is it then any wonder that everywhere one readily takes him (Ibn Ezra) as a member of his own sect? The Kabbalist finds in his philosophical and astrological secrets [their] own mysteries; the Talmudist considers him a defender of tradition; the free investigator reveres him as a founder of [their] discipline…”
Yet another figure, this one not Jewish, was influenced by the life and work of Abraham ibn Ezra. The 19th century poet Robert Browning wrote a long meditation entitled Rabbi Ben Ezra.
These lines sum up for me who ibn Ezra was: “Eyes, ears took in their dole / Brain treasured up the whole / Should not the heart beat once “How good to live and learn?” How good to live and learn.
But his influence doesn’t stop with Robert Browning. In the summer of 1980, John Lennon happened to hear Browning’s poem on the tv, and loved the opening lines so much he wrote one of his final songs based on it. The lines go: Grow old with me – the best is yet to be.
Lennon intended this song to be a wedding standard. Although Lennon’s path was cut short like ibn Ezra’s, his song, containing the seeds of inspiration tracing all the way back to our Spanish commentator suggests to me tonight that part of being Jewish, part of living and learning, is fulfilling an ancient promise, to wander through the ups and downs of our lives with the Torah, to interpret it, to let it interpret us, to find meaning in study and in community, to grow old with Torah and Judaism and each other, to see every teacher and every student, every person along the way, as another beautiful branch in the great tree of life itself.