Monday, September 26, 2011

The Book of Abraham: Online Resources for Chapter Three

This is another guest post in a series by Rabbi Dr. Avi (Seth) Kadish. Part One can be found at

Personal Musings on the Principles of the Torah

Chapter 3 of The Book of Abraham deals with “principles of the Torah” (ikkarim). What are the fundamental principles of the Torah? In fact, what is a principle of the Torah? What makes certain ideas “principles” while others are not? Chapter 3 is about these questions, but especially about the literary form that they took: It is about the books that deal with principles of the Torah, about how and why they were written. Maimonides publicized his famous list of thirteen principles during his his younger years (he finished his commentary on the Mishnah at age 30), but it is striking that there was little or no discussion of the topic afterward for about 250 years. Systematic analysis of what a principle of the Torah is, and what those principles are, began only with Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (the Ran), and was further developed in the books that his students devoted to the topic. This was an issue of special interest within a very specific beit midrash.

Rabbi Yosef Albo's Sefer ha-Ikkarim is the most famous and popular of these books. Early in the book, right after he introduced his system of three principles as opposed to Maimonides' thirteen, he illustrated them by means of a lovely derashah which compared them to the three special blessings in the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah (Ikkarim I:4):
  • The first principle, that God exists, is implicit in the theme of malkhuyot (the blessing that declares the Kingship of God): “Therefore, we place our hope in You, Lord our God, that we may soon see the glory of Your power, removing abominations from the earth and idols being utterly destroyed, and the world being perfected under the sovereignty of the Almighty... May the world's inhabitants realize that to You every knee must bow and every tongue swear loyalty. May they all accept the yoke of Your kingdom...”.
  • The second principle, that God gives His Law to human beings, is implicit in the theme of shofarot (the blessing declaring that God mercifully hearkens to the blast of the shofar): “You revealed Yourself in Your cloud of glory to speak to your holy people. You made them hear Your voice from heaven... Amidst thunder and lightning You revealed Yourself to them, amidst the blasting of the shofar You appeared to them...”.
  • The third principle, that God holds human beings accountable for their actions, is implicit in the theme of zikhronot (the blessing that declares God's remembrance of all His dealings with mankind): “You remember Your ancient work, and are mindful of all that was formed in days of old. All secrets are open to You...”.

Albo chose these three principles because he considered them to be logical axioms to the very idea of a divine law: A person cannot conceive of a Torah unless he first accepts that God exists, gives His Law to human beings, and holds people accountable for their actions.

However, note that the Rosh Hashanah prayer has no interest whatsoever in axioms, and is entirely concerned with relationships: Idolatry is an abomination not because it is the worst possible intellectual error (as per Maimonides) but because it is a form of terrible betrayal. (It is no accident that idolatry parallels adultery in the ten commandments!) What the malkhuyot blessing cares about is the sovereignty of a God whose presence is vivid, and about utter loyalty to Him, but not about abstract proofs for His existence. The same is true of the shofarot blessing, which describes a reciprocal relationship: Just as God gave the Torah to His people amidst the blast of the shofar, so does He hearken to His people when they sound the shofar. And as for zikhronot, God remembers what his human partners have done, and His covenants with them, because He cares for them out of love and kindness. The point is not establish divine providence as a fact, but to plead with a loving partner who remembers the history of the partnership because He cares.

Albo's teacher, Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, gave a completely different list of principles in Or Hashem. At the very top level (see the chart on p. 9) he dealt with shorashim (“roots”), which are the existence of God and His basic nature (unity and incorporeality). Crescas notably rejected the idea that belief in the existence of God could possibly be a commandment of the Torah, for how can the intellect be commanded? Actions can be commanded, and perhaps attitudes, but not facts. We might compare this to a marriage: A husband and wife may have various ups and downs over the years, but it would be ridiculous for one of them to wake up in the morning and consider whether the other spouse exists as an abstract issue. Crescas illustrated this point with the midrash of the Illuminated Fortress (which we already analyzed towards the end of chapter 2): Abraham became certain of God's existence only when he began to have a living relationship with Him, i.e. when God began to speak to him. In other words, knowledge of God is not an intellectual issue but rather an experiential one, whether it is the personal experience of an individual or, as in the case of Israel, the historical experience of the nation. But in neither case is it something that can be “proven” through reason to other individuals or nations. That God is self-evident as a partner in a living relationship (for better or for worse!) is clear in the Bible, which never bothers to discuss whether He exists. And the same is generally true in midrashic and talmudic literature as well.

It is perhaps for this reason that the next tier in Crescas' list of principles of the Torah (pp. 9-10) is all about personality, both the personality of God and the personality of human beings. It is because they are both personalities (as opposed to intellects or forces of nature) that a meaningful relationship between them is possible. Crescas' six pinnot (“cornerstones”) of the Torah are:
  • God is aware of events in the world (divine knowledge).
  • God wants to act in the world (divine will).
  • God is able to act in the world (divine power).
  • God communicates with people (prophecy exists).
  • Human beings possess free will (which makes them potential partners for a relationship).
  • The purpose of human life lies in the potential for a positive relationship with God.

On the one hand, to say that God knows, wills, and is capable of acting and communicating means that He is a personality, and thus a potential partner to human beings within a relationship that can be lived in human terms. On the other hand, that human beings possess free will establishes them as personalities too. It is crucial to point out that for Crescas, neither the idea of God as a personality nor of a human being as a personality were self-evident: The former was denied by the Aristotelians, while the latter clashes with the determinism that is evident in nature. Deterministic naturalism has no room for “free will,” neither for a will called “God” nor for a will called “man” (Crescas' iconoclastic views on human free will derive from this problem, but we will not deal with them now). For Crescas, that any “will” at all exists is perhaps the most revolutionary idea in the Torah. That is why he needed to establish both the personality of God and the personality of man as “cornerstones” of the Torah.

Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona shared the idea of God as a personality with all of his students, and it was the distinctive characteristic of his school's philosophy. Chapter 3 of The Book of Abraham will show that every single one of the various theories of ikkarim that were developed by the Ran and his students derived from the need to establish the will (ratzon) of God, and this even determined the structure of the books that they wrote. This was especially true of Duran's Magen Avot.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Ran and his students remind us that what God looks for in us, and what the Torah demands of us, derive from a relationship and a covenant in very human terms: Loyalty and love, kindness and fairness, honesty and humility. The Torah demands these of us when we deal with other people and when we deal with God. It is these which are the true “principles” of the Torah (as opposed to acceptance of an axiom or conformance to a creed or submission to human authority). To serve God with love, wrote Crescas in his introduction to Or Hashem, is the very purpose of human life, and he intimated that the potential to do so is what is called “the image of God” in man. May God in His kindness and mercy protect Israel, the people of His covenant, over the coming year, and may He grant them prosperity and peace.

Chapter 3 of The Book of Abraham is available in PDF and ODF; the full index of chapters and blogposts is here.


  1. I would venture that this current post is the most God-intensive one you've ever posted.

    Part of me wants to say "Finally!" and the other part wants to say "I'm looking forward to reading more like this!"

  2. Though what I wrote was technically correct, for posterity's sake I'd like to make two small improvements here in the comments, refining the meaning in one place and rewriting more clearly in another.

    1. Slightly refining the meaning here:

    "It is crucial to point out that for Crescas, neither the idea of God as a personality nor of a human being as a personality were self-evident: The former was denied by the Aristotelians, while the latter clashes with the causality that is evident in nature. Naturalism has no room..."

    And improving clarity here:

    "...Actions can be commanded, and perhaps attitudes, but not facts."

    (new paragraph)

    "For Crescas, God's existence is an experiential issue, not an intellectual one. We might compare this to a marriage: A husband and wife may have various ups and downs over the years, but it would be ridiculous for one of them to wake up in the morning and consider whether the other spouse exists as an abstract issue. Crescas illustrated the same point with the midrash of the Illuminated Fortress..."

  3. Answering Seth: Rabbi Slifkin.

  4. Pliny: Personally, I consider this blog to be a "God-intensive" forum. I even hinted at this in the end of the current post. I'll explain.

    Think about it: A young Torah educator is so enthusiastic when it comes to learning and appreciating the wonders of God's world, that he starts learning even more, teaching others, and even writing books. Besides his enthusiasm, he was also very bright and honest, with tons of what I would call "intellectual mentschlichtkeit."

    At the very same time, some other people were deeply engrossed with issues of conformity, creed, and authority, issues that really have nothing at all to do with the Torah or God. These people waged a hostile and dishonest war against that young teacher of Torah. One result of that war was this blog.

    It is true that Rabbi Slifkin has more interest and more expertise than I do when it comes to "hard science" as it appears in rabbinic writing (biology, botany, astronomy, etc.). I'm more interested in the philosophical side, which includes the "God" issues directly. In fact, this caused me some difficulty in my research, because as chapter 4 of "The Book of Abraham" will show, Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran himself was almost obsessively interested in the myriad details of natural science. In this too he was the opposite of Rav Hasdai Crescas, who was only interested in fundamental concepts, especially concerning God and Man, but hardly seems to care at all about the details of particular plants or animals.

    Nevertheless, despite the differences in emphasis, Duran was no less God-intensive than Crescas. They just expressed their intensity in very different ways.

    Ketivah va-Hatimah Tovah.

  5. Beautifully done and so appropriate just before Rosh Hashana.

    Ketiva vaChatima tova,

  6. Do your comments about the Ran refer to the Derashos HaRan and if so where?

  7. Pesach, the information and sources are all in chapter 3. In terms of the Ran it is based on the Derashot plus an important passage in his Torah commentary (which unfortunately is less readily available that the Derashot).


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