By Israel Drazin
It is well-worth spending time reading the brilliant Bible commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra even though he frequently wrote his comments in a very brief manner, a manner that some people will find difficult to understand. He was a Bible commentator, philosopher, physician, and scientist, who was born in Tudela, Spain, in 1089 or 1092 and died at the age of 75.
Ibn Ezra, like Maimonides, was a great original and influential author of Spanish Jewry. He and Maimonides began their lives in a common culture, in a similar milieu, had the same religion, shared the same problems, were acquainted with the philosophic debates of twelfth-century Spain, and relied on at least some of the same Arabic philosophers. Maimonides states that whereas people of other nations have erroneous ideas, Spanish Jews have clung to the truths of the philosophers in so far as they do not run counter to Jewish law.
Unlike Jews in Christian countries during the early years of ibn Ezra who were constantly persecuted and were unable to obtain a secular education, the Jews enjoyed a comparative peace in Moslem countries from the eighth to the middle of the twelfth century when the Almohades or “Unitarians” brought an end to the golden age of Spanish Jewry and the peaceable lives of Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. The founder of the Almohades was a short, ugly, misshapen son of a lamplighter, Ibn Turmart, who sought compensation for his physical defects and poverty in piety and power, and forced Jews and Christians to choose between conversion to Islam or death.
Ibn Ezra left Spain in 1140 because of this religious Islamic persecution. He was not a systematic philosopher, and wrote only two brief philosophical treaties and a philosophical letter; nevertheless philosophical problems were basic to many of his ideas. He generally expressed his views in his non-systemic biblical commentaries in an enigmatic, elliptical, and frequently obscure style, stating that “the intelligent will understand.” His biblical commentary has both lower and higher biblical criticism. He is somewhat conservative with the former, which deals with wording, but radical and innovative concerning the latter, on subjects such as who wrote Scripture.
His philosophical orientation was generally rationalistic. He wrote, for example, that at least a half dozen events recorded in the Five Books of Moses could not have been composed by Moses, as many traditionalists believe. An example is the story of Moses’ death and burial mentioned at the end of the Torah. He believed that God only knew the laws of nature that God created, but not anything else that occurred on earth. Since God did not know whether people acted properly or not, ibn Ezra rejected the idea held by many Jews, an idea that is not in the Torah, that God will reward people for their good deeds and punish them for what they did wrong. He therefore also rejected the idea that God speaks to prophets. Like Maimonides, he felt that prophecy was not miraculous; it is the use of a higher level of intelligence. Thus, unlike Yehuda Halevi who felt that only Jews could be prophets, the two considered the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle a prophet.