Arama, Rabbi Yitzchak

14 Jun 2006

Author of “Akeidas Yitzchak,” one of the most unusual and influential commentaries on Chumash. Arama’s work mirrors the condition of Spanish Jewry immediately preceding the Expulsion, reflecting its philosophic and theological concerns as well as the Jews’ communal life and the immense pressures impinging upon them from the powers to be. Secular philosophy as well as Christian theology in the context of the persecutions of 1391 and their aftermath, were undermining and weakening their spiritual fortitude and conversion was a serious problem.

In his introduction, Arama gives as one of the reasons for the name he chose that he felt himself as bound and directed by God to create his work as a vessel in the hands of the potter. And indeed, over and above his particular interpretations, one feels in his work a powerful, spiritual force and sense of divine mission.

Fully conversant with Jewish as well as non-Jewish philosophy, Arama, while recognizing the place of rational thought, emphasized the power of faith and stressed the uniqueness of Torah as the sole sure source of truth in contrast to the fallibility and limitations of human reason, following in the tradition of Judah Halevi and Hasdai Crescas, as opposed to Maimonides. (Arama composed a separate work, “Hazus Kasha,” where he catalogues the attractions and limitations of philosophy) Arama maintained that the Chukim were given without reason, to convey that we are not privy to the full meaning of even those Mitzvot that do have a reason. He railed against what he saw as the supreme idol worship, the worship of money, which he said was included in the admonition, “Do not make for your self gods of silver and gods of gold”. In a famous passage he describes a situation where some communities condoned prostitution as a deterrent against adultery, a much more severe sin. Arama strongly condemned this practice arguing forcefully that the community cannot condone a lesser sin and he who fails to accept this “lacks understanding and has no portion in the divine Torah.”

He describes the tremendous power of a person whose “Tzelem Elokim,” divine image, controls his total being. Arama maintains that man has it within his power to create cosmic harmony whereby he can produce what he calls the “nigun haolam”, the song of the universe. The fate of the Jewish people is not subject to natural law, their history being miraculous. Writing over 250 years later, Rabbi Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai states that “all the writings of the darshanim drink from his [Arama’s] faithful waters”.