Rabbi Isaac Arama was born in the city of Zamora, in Castile, Spain, in 1420. for a while he was the head of the Yeshiba in Zamora until he was called to lead the Jewish community of Tarragona, and later the city of Fraga, in Aragon. In order to counteract the effects of the Christian preachers sermons to which the Jews of Aragon were compelled to listen, Rabbi Arama delivered his lectures focusing on the principles of Judaism. These lectures became the basis of his later works and contain interesting data on the history of the Jews in Spain, prior to their expulsion. Rabbi Arama engaged in several public disputations with Christian scholars. Finally he settled in the city Catalayud until 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. That year he escaped to Naples, Italy, together with his son Meir. He was contemporary and friend with the famous Rabbi Don Itshaq Abarabanel, who use to come very often to the house of Rabbi Arama.
Rabbi Arama was a great Talmudist and a brilliant philosopher, he particularly admired and defended the philosophical ideas of Maimonides. Following Maimonides, Rabbi Arama sought to demonstrate the superiority of human reasoning over imagination, and the superiority of divine revelation (or nebu-a) over human reasoning. Reason, ultimately, should be subordinated to Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Rabbi Arama explains than in the time of Abraham Abinu, besides idol worshipers there were also philosophers, i.e., people who were guided solely by reason and denied revelation. In their opinion reason and logic was the highest possible intelectual level a human being can access. Moreover, since reason and logic were given by God, all a person needs to follow the will of God is to follow the calls of his own logic and reasoning. “Revelation”, therefore, was unnecessary. Rabbi Arama explains that the binding of Ytshaq is the farthest one can go from logic. Killing one’s own son defies human basic reasoning. This is the reason God tested Abraham, to see if Abraham would be willing to follow God’s call, his private revelation, instead of his own logic. Abraham by following God instead of human logic, became yere Eloqim, “A God fearing individual” which is a level above that of the philosopher. Thus, when the test is over and God commands Abraham not to kill his son, God tells Abraham: ‘ata yadtati ki yere Eloqim ata… Now, I know, that you are a God fearing [individual]. It is possible that in this analysis of the binding of Ytshaq, comparing logic with revelation, rabbi Arama is also criticizing the Christian doctrine of natural law. According to Thomas Aquinas, the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. For Aquinas God’s eternal law human wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action.
The philosophical ideas of rabbi Arama had a double purpose. One the one hand, to explain Judaism in light of the new radical rationalism, represented by Aristotelian philosophers, who believed in the superiority of reason over revelation. And on the other hand, Rabbi Arama like his predecessors, had to articulate very clearly the cardinal Jewish principles. His writings against the Christian dogmas aimed to equip the Jews with the right arguments to withstand the missionary sermons of the Church, to which, under the laws then prevalent, the Jews were compelled to listen. These writings are often the summary of oral disputations between Rabbi Arama and Christian scholars.
HIS WORKS AND IDEAS
The most famous book of Rabbi Isaac Arama, which trascended his own age and time, is undoubtedly “Aqedat Yitshaq” (The Binding of Isaac). Rabbi Arama is frequently spoken of as the “Ba’al haAqeda” (author of the Aqeda).
The book is written as a commentary to the Pentateuch. It consists of chapters or portals (she’arim). Each sermon is divided into two parts: 1. “derisha” (“analysis”), and 2. “perisha” (“exposition”). In the “derisha” part, the author examines a philosophical idea in light of biblical or rabbinic sources. In the “perisha”, he exposes the difficulties which seem to appear in the text and solves them with the aid of a central idea. Thus, the gap between the two parts of the sermon is skillfully closed, and they merge into one harmonious whole.
Aqedat Ytshaq exercised a great influence upon Jewish thought, it is still much read and it is considered by many the classical work of Jewish homiletics, i.e., the art of building a religious sermon, which, modeled after the old petihtaot of the Rabbis of the midrash, begins with the exposition of a Biblical text, and evolves into philosophic disquisitions and interpretations.
In this book he deals with the most relevant philosophical issues of Judaism.
One example: Rabbi Arama examines in which circumstances we could or should understand a Biblical story as a prophetic vision rather than as an historical event. At one point he declares that even when we are allowed to interpret a passage as allegorical, this interpretation of Scripture should not deny its literal meaning. The commandants, however, can never be interrupted allegorically. This matter was very relevant in light of the Christian vision of the Old Testament commandments as allegorical, and what is popularly known as replacement theology, by which, for example, circumcision is replaced by baptism.
Rabbi Arama also deals with subjects such as Divine Providence and the dynamics between God’s omnisciency (that everything is known to Him) vs. man’s free will (If God knows what I’m going to do, was I free to chose what I did?).
Rabbi Arama also analyzes the lists of articles of faith drawn up by Maimonides (13), and he presents his own list which include only six principles. This summary might have been done in order to facilitate his contemporaries to comprehend what are the beliefs that stand in complete opposition to Christianity.
This is why, for example, the principle of the Messiah was left out, because although Jews reject Jesus, Judaism does not reject the idea of a Messiah.
1. The belief that God is the Creator of the world.
2. The belief that God possesses the power to suspend the laws of nature and perform miracles at will.
3. The belief that God revealed Himself to our patriarchs in Mt Sinai and to our prophets.
4. The belief in providence, i.e., the God knows our actions and rewards or punishes.
5. The belief in freedom of choice and repentance (teshuba).
6. The belief in the immortality of the soul.
Rabbi Arama also wrote a commentary on the five Megilot ; a commentary on Mishle, the Proverbs, called Yad Abshalom (“The Hand of Absalom” or “A Memorial for Abshalom) in memory of his son-in-law, Abshalom, who died shortly after his marriage.