11/10/2005

Who Wrote the Bible (according to Ibn Ezra)?

Who Wrote the Bible (according to Ibn Ezra)?

     Ibn Ezra famously makes a very cryptic statement in his commentary to Bereishis 12:6:
     “and the Canaanites were then in the land” – it makes sense that Canaan [the man – AR] took the land from another. And if that’s not the case, then there’s a secret here, and one who is enlightened will remain silent.

     The standard interpretation of this passage is that Ibn Ezra believes that these three words, “Ve-hacna’ani az ba-aretz” were a later addition to the Biblical text. This interpretation, obviously flies in the face of the Rambam’s principles of faith which denies any non-Mosaic authorship and is the standard Orthodox belief.

     In the Chareidi world, this interpretation of Ibn Ezra is rejected outright; I once heard the following argument against this interpretation from R’ Yehuda Copperman, one of the most well-known and well-respected master teachers of Parshanut Ha-Torah in the world, author of the annotations to the Meshech Chochmah, and founder of the Michlalah College for Women in Jerusalem (I’ve paraphrased the arguments, but believe that I understood his intent correctly):
  • Ramban, in his introduction to his commentrary to the Torah states that he has “open repuke but hidden love” for Ibn Ezra. Ramban doesn’t take issue with this comment of Ibn Ezra [though he gives an alternative explanation – AR], which implies that he didn’t think this comment of Ibn Ezra was problematic, or else he wouldn’t have ‘hidden love’ for Ibn Ezra.

  • The originator of the ‘heretical’ interpretation of Ibn Ezra was Baruch Spinoza [The philosopher, not the blog commenter – AR].

  • When there’s a machlokes between Ramban and Spinoza about what Ibn Ezra meant, we go with Ramban.

The argument fails in two ways. I will grant that when there’s a machloket between Ramban and Spinoza, that we follow Ramban (WADR to Alan Brill). I will, however, take issue with his other two premises:
  • Ramban’s ‘hidden love’ for Ibn Ezra doesn’t preclude the possibility that Ibn Ezra believed that certain verses were of non-Mosaic origin. Perhaps Ramban didn’t think that this belief warranted hatred, either because it wasn’t heresy or wasn’t terribly problematic. Perhaps he was unaware of the true meaning of that comment. Perhaps he thought that Ibn Ezra mentions it but doesn’t believe it himself, and was going good by remaining cryptic about it. Regardless, it’s certainly by no means a logical conclusion that since Ramban speaks of a ‘hidden love’ for Ibn Ezra in his Intro, and that Ibn Ezra makes a cryptic and potentially problematic statement in Chapter 12 of Bereishis, that the true meaning of the passage must be in line with Ramban or Rambam’s view of biblical authorship.

  • This interpretation did not originate with Spinoza. Spinoza popularized it, by seeing Ibn Ezra as an antecedent to his own views that the Torah was of human origin. However, this interpretation of Ibn Ezra can actually be found in the 13th century supercommentary of Ibn Ezra composed by R’ Yosef Tuv Elem (Bonfils). His comments are so unequivocal, and so jarring, that it’s worth citing the whole thing.

R’ Yosef Tuv Elem on Ibn Ezra to Bereishit 12:6:
     “If that’s not the case there’s a secret, and one who is enlightened will remain silent”. The explanation: If the word ‘az’ [of Ve-hacana’ani az ba’aretz] is not coming to acknowledge that it was then that the Canaanites took it from others, then its explanation is difficult and obscure and ought to be suppressed, and he hinted at his ‘secret’ at the beginning of the book of Devarim (1:2). Its explanation relates to the problem with using the word ‘az’ – ‘then’ in this context, which implies that at the time of the writing they were no longer there, whereas Moshe wrote the Torah and in his lifetime the land was in possession of the Canaanites! It doesn’t make sense that Moshe would use the word ‘az’ because logic dictates that it was written at a time that the Canaanites were no longer in the land, and we know that they were not removed from the land until Yehoshua’s conquest after Moshe’s death![i.e., the use of the term ‘az’, if from Moshe, is anachronistic – AR].
     Therefore, it appears that Moshe did not write this word, rather, Joshua or another prophet wrote it; we find similarly in the Book of Mishlei (25:1) which states “These, too, are parables of Shlomo which the men of Chizkiya King of Judah transcribed”. If Shlomo authored the book, why would it mention Chizkiya, who was born many generations later? Rather, they had an oral tradition back to Shlomo which they wrote and considered it as though is was written by Shlomo himself. So, too, here, Israel had a tradition that the Canaanites were in the land during the days of Avraham, and one of the prophets wrote it in here, and since we must believe in the words of the tradition and the words of the prophets, what do I care if it was written by Moshe or another prophet since all of their words are true and prophetic.
     One can ask, doesn’t the Torah write of itself “Do not add to it” (Devarim 13:1)? The answer is that which R’ Abraham (Ibn Ezra) himself wrote in his commentary to Va-etchanan (Devarim 5:5) that the words are like bodies and their meanings like souls; therefore, there are many sections of the Torah which are repeated two or three times, where each adds something that the others don’t, yet are not considered ‘additions’ to the Torah. Furthermore, in his first comment in Lech-Lecha (Bereishis 12:4) he states that ‘do not add to it’ was only said with regard to the commandments, meaning, that when the Torah warned us not to add, it only warned not to add to the number of mitzvoth or to their fundamentals, but not about adding words. Thus, if a prophet added a word or words to explain something about which he had a tradition, this is not considered an ‘addition’.
     A proof to this can be adduced from the story of the elders who translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy, as I mentioned in Parshat Noach, who made 13 emendations, as is written in Mas. Sofrim (1:9) and BT Megillah (9a). And should you suggest that they merely replaced words but didn’t add any, the response is that the in fact replaced words with phrases, like “he drove them upon a donkey” (Shemot 4:20) with “…upon a person carrier” of “and the hare” (Devarim 14:7 – and yes, it’s definitely a hare! – AR) which they translated as “the short-legged”. And if you suggest that they only did that out of fear from the king, who authorized them to change, add, and subtract because of a king’s threat? And if the king would have learned our writing and seen that they emended, this would have been a public desecration of god’s name, about which our Rabbis ob”m said that in such a situation one should die and not transgress by desecrating God’s name (BT Sanhedrin 84a). And since they were unconcerned with all of this, it becomes clear that they had the power to add words in order to clarify, and so certainly (orig. – Kal Va-chomer) that a prophet had the power to add a word to the words of a [fellow – AR] prophet to explain his words, and especially since it’s not a matter of commandments, rather the narration of past events, it therefore wouldn’t be considered an ‘addition’.
     And if you ask, behold, our Rabbis ob”m state in Sanhedrin, Chapter ‘Chelek’ (99a) that even if one says that the entire Torah with the exception of a single verse that God did not say, regarding him Scripture says “he has despised the word of God” (Bamidbar 15:31), one can respond that this pertains to the commandments, as we have stated, and not about the narratives. And I need not elaborate since R’ Yehuda and R’ Nechemiah expounded in Makkot, Chapter ‘Elu Hein Ha-Golin’ (11a) [the following verse – AR]: “And Yehoshua wrote these words into the book of the Torah of God” – and one of them says that it refers to the “eight” verses in the Torah [i.e., the final verses – AR], and one says it refers to the segment about the cities of refuge, and there you have it explicitly. And that which it states in Chapter ‘Ha-Kometz Rabbah’ (BT Menachot 30a) requires further study.
     This secret ought not be made known to people [i.e., non-bloggers – AR] so that they don’t disparage the Torah, because one who is unenlightened cannot distinguish between verses in which commandments are written and verses in which events are recounted, and also because of nations [i.e., Muslims – AR] who tell us that our Torah was true but we substituted and changed it. Therefore, he {Ibn Ezra – AR] writes that ‘the enlightened shall remain silent’, because the enlightened know that this will not cause damage. Only the fools will find fault with it.
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