Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: The Five Paths

Ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary comprises primarily a listing of what it is not – and lambasting those who followed what he describes as four different paths. Eventually he concludes with his path, the fifth and correct approach. The entire introduction is a rhymed poem, as well, reflecting ibn Ezra’s Spanish-Arabic milieu of origin.

The four paths he rejects are, in the words of Louis Jacobs, “the diffuse method; the untraditional and too individualistic methods of the Karaites; the allegorical method; and the homiletic method pursued by the Rabbis of the Midrash.”

1. The diffuse path

The first path is that of the Geonim, the leaders of the Jewish community from 589-1038 CE. Ibn Ezra’s primary complaint about them is that they are too elitist and philosophical, and also meander in their writings. They aren’t very accessible for most people. Many of them also wrote in Arabic, as they lived in Muslim lands.

Ibn Ezra offers a primary metaphor for the paths: אם האמת כנקודה בתוך עגולה – If the truth is like a point in the center of a circle…

The Geonim, in his opinion, might encircle the point but rarely if ever make a direct connection with it. This clever allusion to the ongoing pontifications that skirt the truth but never really come close nor even come to a conclusion captures what Louis Jacobs means by the “diffuse” path.

It is hard but worthwhile to point out in English translation how much Ibn Ezra takes jabs at people through allusion and pun. Ibn Ezra mentions a Geon named Rav Yitzchak, who wrote a commentary from “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) to “And the heavens and earth were completed” (Genesis 2:1) but never got to a place of really completing his own words.

He also attacks the inclusion in their commentaries of “foreign wisdom”, presumably science and philosophical ideas that came from non-Jewish sources. This is somewhat ironic, given Ibn Ezra’s own predisposition to be curious and utilize many forms of “foreign wisdom” he encountered in his travels.

2. The untraditional and too individualistic path

The second path is that of the Karaites, a sect of Judaism that flourished around the time of the Geonim before ultimately fading (although there are still Karaite Jews today). The Geonim hated the Karaites, and the Karaites hated the Geonim. The Geonim stewarded the newly completed Babylonian Talmud into its eventual dominance among Jews worldwide. The Karaites on the other hand firmly rejected any rabbinic authority and interpretation, preferring to read the Hebrew Bible on its own terms (you could translate “Karaite” as “Scripturalist”) and through reason, not through traditions such as midrash. They wanted only the Written Law and not the Oral Law.

Although ibn Ezra attacks the Karaites mercilessly in his introduction, he will also quote them favorably from time to time in his commentary. While his introduction seeks to differentiate his approach from all that had come before, he is in many ways a student of all the paths and uses the occasional wisdom he gleans from the scholars who walk them.

Because they have no tradition to unify them, and prioritize individual reasoning, the Karaites “incline to the left or to the right, and each person according to his own will interprets the scriptural verses.” Ibn Ezra points out that “you cannot find in the Written Torah a single commandment along with everything you need to know and understand to perform it.”

It is literally impossible to follow the Written Torah without some sort of tradition to put it into practice. The Karaites, in refusing the rabbinic tradition, splinter into individualism in interpretation and practice. As Irene Lancaster notes, “According to ibn Ezra, an exegete may be original in non-legal passages, but, for the sake of tradition and community, must follow authorised interpretations in legal passages.”

3. The allegorical path

The third path is that of allegory. This way of reading dominated early Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, because so much of the law was rendered irrelevant in a literal sense.

For Ibn Ezra, this path is one of “darkness and black gloom. It lies outside the circle. This is the approach of those who invent secret explanations for everything in Scripture” (Translation by Strickman and Silver).

However, he is willing to grant that adherents of the allegorical path are correct in one respect – taking account of every possible way of knowing a mitzvah, including at least in potential the more symbolic and esoteric ideas a law might hint at.

Ibn Ezra’s appreciation for intellectual reasoning comes through in a beautiful line: והמלאך בין אדם ובין אלהיו הוא שכלו – “The angel/messenger between a person and God is their intelligence.”

And he further says that as long as the text does not contradict knowledge, we should interpret it according to its plain meaning (כפשוטו ומשפטו נפרשנו), using a pun where the “plain meaning” (peshat) is a near anagram of “law” (mishpat). “We should not grope a wall like the blind, stretching words according to our [own selfish] requirements” (Irene Lancaster’s translation). Even when there are appropriate mystical dimensions to the text, it never abandons its plain sense, only serving to enhance the richness of the text.

Because of early Christian tendencies to sever spirit from body and prioritize the spiritual over the physical, in this section ibn Ezra highlights how much body and spirit are meant to work harmoniously together in Jewish though and practice, just like the plain/contextual meaning and the allegorical/mystical meaning coexist without erasing each other.

4. The homiletic/midrashic path

The fourth path is in many ways the “tradition” Jewish path of Torah interpretation – that of midrash. Ibn Ezra says it is near to the point in the middle of the circle. As Lancaster writes, “Of all paths, except his own, midrash comes closest to the truth. Nevertheless, ibn Ezra demonstrates that midrashic explanations are often irrational and ungrammatical when taken at face value. In his view, the original midrashic authors, often also legal experts, regarded their writings as rhetorical devices…or as underlying a philosophical truth. Modern compilers of midrashic anthologies, on the other hand, are too literalistic.”

Intriguingly, in refuting various midrashim he thinks offend reason, ibn Ezra takes the rare position that humanity is not really the purpose of creation. We are one small point in a vast existence, not the point.

For me, as a lover of midrash, it’s a little hard to read ibn Ezra’s dismissive take on those who enjoy it:

“Anyone with a little intelligence in their heart, not to mention those with the wisdom of God within, can bring forth midrashim. They are all as mere clothes to the pure naked (pshut) truth” (Lancaster’s translation)

Playing with “plain sense” and the related root word “naked”, ibn Ezra suggests that true intimacy will get below the enjoyable yet not ultimate layer of clothing that is midrash. Using this metaphor, ibn Ezra manages to turn something that often connotes the “surface” meaning into something deep and raw and exciting on its own. Additionally, as Strickman and Silver note, “the body remains unchanged regardless of one’s dress.” While midrash flickers and darts and shifts and shapes, underneath the numerous interpretations remains a single unchanging body of text.

Ibn Ezra finishes his reflection on the fourth path with the phrase וסוף דבר אין לדרש סוף – And the end of the matter is that to midrash there is no end. Lancaster writes that this means “it is limitless, unstructured and purposeless. That is why, despite its ingenious and amusing qualities, it does not ultimately succeed in reaching the centre of the circle of knowledge.” I of course retain the right to disagree with ibn Ezra’s estimation of midrash. But onward! We must learn more about what ibn Ezra thinks the worthiest of paths (namely his) is.

5. Ibn Ezra’s Path of Peshat

Ibn Ezra begins his description of the “right” path which he will follow by saying that God alone he fears, and he will show no favoritism to anyone else in making his comments. Here we get a clear sense of Ibn Ezra’s courage and self-estimation.

His goal is to interpret the Torah based on a deep understanding of Hebrew grammar. Fanciful midrashim that play loose with grammar will earn his scorn – but critically when the traditional halakhah seems to stray from the grammatical, contextual, plain meaning of the biblical text, then one must defer to the sages. He concludes by saying that “our ancient sages are true and all their words are true. May Adonai God of truth lead his servant in the way of truth” (Strickman and Silver’s translation).

As we walk the path(s) of Torah learning together, Abraham ibn Ezra will be our teacher on the pursuit of truth and the primacy of tradition, which when combined will bring us closer to community as well as to the divine.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra, see my introduction.
For Abraham ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary, see my translation and reflection.