Friday, 5 July 2013

The Heresy of Ibn Ezra

In my mind I knew the opening commentary of the great Biblical commentator, Ibn Ezra, on the book of Devarim which we begin this week.   I thought I would double check and, without the book itself, I flicked on the phone and loaded my app - I have Ibn Ezra on speed-dial! - but the comment wasn't where I thought it was.   How odd. I Googled around and yes, my memory was right, but the publishers of my favourite Biblical commentators’ app had deleted this particular comment.   Heresy afoot!

The problem is this.   The opening of the Book of Devarim states,   'These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan [River], in the desert.'   On the face of it this verse seems to suggest that its author was on the Israeli side of the Jordan river, having left the desert, or at the very least on the other side of the river from the side where Moses was when he spoke 'these words'.   In other words this verse looks like it was written after Moses had died.   Heresy indeed.  


Looking to a great commentator like Ibn Ezra one might hope for an solution to this dramatic problem.   Instead Ibn Ezra makes matters worse.   He cites a number of other verses which also, on a straightforward reading, seem to post-date Mosaic authorship, for example the verse in Genesis 12 which states, 'and the Cananite was then in the land.'   The author of this phrase seems to be living in a time after the expulsion of the Cananites from the land, again, after Moses' death.   And having cited a run of such verses Ibn Ezra signs off gnomically, 'If you understand [these verses] you will know the truth.'   Heresy abounds.  


It is possible to turn this commentary and each of the verses it refers to into a theologically acceptable narrative - much as one could suggest that dinosaur bones dating back millions of years are not proof of a world far older than the Torah would suggest, but instead a test, set by God, to catch out those lacking in true faith - but that is a path I find entirely without merit.   Instead it does indeed look like Ibn Ezra is accepting post-Mosaic authorship of parts of the Torah (certainly Spinoza thought so).   Did this make Ibn Ezra someone who didn't care for the holiness of the Torah ?   No.  Did it make Ibn Ezra a heretic ?   Not really, I would argue, though clearly the producers of my app have some doubts.   Instead this is a commentary which validates the place of sense over dogma.   And that's a perfectly Jewish way to read the Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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