When Torah Comes to Life: Abarbanel and the Concept of Peshat
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began arguably the most important speech of his life, his controversial 2014 address to Capitol Hill with the following words.
Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved. Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.[i]
Netanyahu stated that the Ayatollah was no different than Haman, that the new decree of Iranian nuclear power would have just as much potential to be lethal as the previous Persian decree against the Jewish people. In this pivotal moment in Netanyahu’s career he looked to the bible to draw comparisons to his dilemma. This approach is not unique to the Prime Minister of Israel. From the Pulpit Rabbi’s weekly address to Martin Luther King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech[ii], poets and politicians, preachers and statesmen have looked to contemporize biblical passages and biblical characters to find the messages that are relevant to the ideas they are trying to convey.
Recognizing the significance of current events in the cultural spreading of the Bible, one must wonder what role relevance to current events plays in the formal study and interpretation of Bible. Is the synthesis of bible and contemporary issues confined to the world of Drush, or does this synthesis expand to the world of Peshat as well? Is our basic understanding of biblical text supposed to be consistent with the national and personal experiences of the current generation of Jewish people? To put it succinctly, is our understanding of biblical text unwavering, or does the Bible’s reflection of contemporary times cause even our peshat understanding of the text to change over times. Taking a closer look at Don Isaac Abarbanel’s[iii] well-known exegesis on the bible, there is evidence to say that he had a unique perspective on the questions mentioned above. In looking at Abarbanel’s introductions to much of his Parshanut, and a few examples of this self-described Pashtan’s[iv] innovative interpretations of specific passages in the bible, a fascinating approach to the question of current-event’s relationship to the bible can be seen. Due to his deep rooted belief in a Torat Hayyim (a living Torah), as is evident throughout Abarbanel’s introductions to his commentary , contemporary issues and the Jewish people’s current dilemmas play a significant role in Abarbanel’s interpretation of the peshat of the text.
For Isaac Abarbanel, the concept of Torat Hayyim means much more than a mere appreciation of the myriads of possible interpretations for a given biblical text. In the Abarbanel’s mind, Torat Hayyim is the realization that the Bible’s story is the constant story of the Jewish people. This idea is most evident in the detailed biographical introductions[v] that begin many of Abarbanel’s works. It is in these introductions, where Abarbanel tells his own story through the Biblical story, that Hayyim Angel’s high praise for the Abarbanel’s becomes most apparent. It is in Abarbanel’s recounting of his own life that “Abarbanel injects his personality and historical setting into his writings, thereby modeling the direct link between Tanakh and real life.”[vi] By first analyzing some of Abarbanel’s introductions to respective books of Tanakh, and in turn gaining an understanding of the living Torah model, we will be able to gain a glimpse into how Abarbanel views the concept of peshat in his commentary.
One such example of Abarbanel’s living Torah can be seen in the beginning of his introduction to his commentary on Kings. In the introduction to his commentary on Kings, he recounts the terrible tragedy that befell the Jewish people only weeks before his completion of the sefer, the tragedy of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. In the Abarbanel’s identification with numerous biblical passages throughout his account of the Inquisition, he makes clear that the hurban he had just experienced, as with every dimension of Jewish people’s national experience, should be looked at through the prism of the biblical story.
For example, in recounting the details of King Ferdinand’s decree to exile the Jews, Abarbanel makes clear reference to a previous decree in Jewish history.
He writes in his introduction to Melakhim:
And thereafter the matter of the king and his law became known as the law of all Medea and Persia. And the herald cried aloud: Thus say to all the house of Israel. When you pass through the water if you fall down and worship the Gods of the nations, you’ll eat of the land…. But if you refuse and you do not mention my Gods names, and you do not direct your prayers to him, get up and leave from the midst of my nation, from the midst of the lands of Spain.[vii]
This portrayal of King Ferdinand’s decree is clearly referring to the very decree Nevukhadnetsar had placed on the Jewish people of his exile two thousand years before the Spanish Inquisition. In his description, Abarbanel refers to the laws governing over all Media and Persia, the realm of Nevukhadnetsar, not the realm of Ferdinand. Furthermore, the only time in the Bible a king’s decree is referred to as “And the herald cried aloud: Thus say to all”[viii] is in Nevukhadnetsar’s decree for all the Jewish people to worship his gods or be thrown into a fire. In addition, the same commandment of Seged (fall down) and Tiplun (worship) used in Ferdinand’s degree can be seen in Nevukhadnetsar’s decree as well. Nevukhadnetsar similarly declares that “whoever does not fall down (Seged) and worship (Tiplun) my idols shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.”[ix]
This is not the only biblical allusion in Abarbanel’s recounting of the Inquisition. Upon hearing the decree, Abarbanel describes himself as saying to King Ferdinand the same exact words that the Jewish court officials said to Pharaoh[x] after Pharaoh’s harsh decree on them, “why are you doing so to your servants?”[xi]
The Jewish people, in Abarbanel’s words, even undergo the same sense of loss that was felt by the Jews of Shushan[xii]after Haman’s decree went public: “And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews.”[xiii]
In Abarbanel’s retelling of the tragic Alhambra Decree, which led to the Spanish Inquisition, he goes far beyond merely telling the story of the Jews of Spain. He tells the story of the harsh decrees against the Jews of post-hurban Babylonia, the enslaved Jews of ancient Egypt, and the unprotected Jews of Shushan as well. As his introduction to Kings shows, in the Abarbanel’s eyes the bible does not only tell the story of Jews of the past, it tells the story of the Jews of the present.
As Abarbanel concludes his auto-biographical introduction to Kings, it becomes clear that he also looks to the bible for the immediate future of his people. The response that is only hinted[xiv] to in the miracles that God brings about to reverse the evil decrees of the Pharaohs and Nevukhadnetsars Abarbanel mentioned above, becomes apparent in the conclusion of his recounting of the Jewish people’s exodus from Spain. As the Jews of Spain embark on the arduous journey, according to Abarbanel their last words in Spain are the following: “If we live,we will live, and if we die,we will die , but under no condition can we desecrate our covenant. And our heart is not turned back . We will continue to walk in the way of Hashem, our God.”[xv]
The phrase that Abarbanel puts in the mouths of the people should immediately jolt our tanakh-ready ears to a chapter in psalms. “Our heart is not turned back,” are the same words that are at the center of Psalms 44[xvi], a Psalm that in Abarbanel’s eyes tells the story of his people. In Psalm 44 the Jews refers to Hashem as he who “has given us like sheep to be eaten; and has scattered us among the nations.” He who “makes us a taunt to our neighbors, a scorn and a derision to them that are round about us.” The Psalmist even goes on to call out to God, “Why are you hiding your face?”[xvii] The Jews of Spain in 1492 surely could ask God the same question. Yet, even with that lack of God’s presence in the Psalm’s world, the Psalmist, and thus Abarbanel as well, calls upon his people to remember that “Our heart is not turned back.” As can be seen, from the narrative of national tragedy to the narrative of national response, to the personal dialogue of companions about to embark on a dangerous journey, Abarbanel shows in his biographical-introduction to Kings that the entire experience of his generation of Jews is found in the pages of the Bible.
Abarbanel’s introduction to Joshua gives it readers another glimpse into Abarbanel’s life – this time not on a national, but on a personal level. Abarbanel’s works on Joshua, Judges, and Samuel was completed in 1483, ten years before the Inquisition and his completion of his work on Kings. Like his commentary on Kings, the impetus for Abarbanel’s writing of his commentary on Joshua was a tragedy of epic proportions. After years of garnering wealth, and dutiful work as a confidante and trusted advisor of King Alfonso of Portugal, Abarbanel was left in a precarious scenario when the King passed away. His son Joao took the throne, and within a few months was wronglyxv calling Abarbanel a traitor. Abarbanel was forced to flee for his life. In his introduction to Joshua, written in the immediate aftermath of his expulsion from Portugal, he recalls this devastating turn of events, and his subsequent crisis of faith.
Throughout Abarbanel’s auto-biographical introduction to Joshua he makes numerous references to the stories of the Bible. However, it is in the spiritual crisis that is the aftermath of Don Abarbanel’s personal exile, though, that the commentator’s concept of a Torat Hayim is once again highlighted. After losing his wealth, his precious library, and most of his family he turns to god in shock. Abarbanel angrily writes, “Why does God not listen to me even when I scream and cry out to him.”[xviii] The words “even when I scream and cry out to him,” are directly quoted from Lamentations.[xix] He continues his questioning of God in the words of Jeremiah, “Why is Hashem making himself like a weak man[xx]” when Don Isaac Abarbanel has not stopped praying for God’s help? Even in his moments of crisis, when he is angry at God, Abarbanel feels compelled to look to the Bible to provide him with the proper questions, the proper anger.
Abarbanel’s response to his personal tragedy likewise is found in his identification with numerous passages in Tanakh. In his identification though, Abarbanel not only finds his future plan of action, he finds purpose in his tragedy as well. Abarbanel realizes that the answers to his tragedy could be found in the end of Deuteronomy.[xxi] As he writes, it is “because God is not in my midst that I have experienced all these evils.[xxii]” This is the very same realization that Hashem tells Moses that the Jewish people will come to recognize after “they rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land.[xxiii]” After facing these hardships, the Jewish people, and in turn Abarbanel, will realize that the evils are due to the fact that they have created an environment where “God is not in my midst.”
What did Abarbanel do, though, that caused him to “rise up and go astray after the foreign Gods of the lands”? Abarbanel writes[xxiv] that in his busy life pursuing wealth and politics in the house of King Alfonso of Portugal he had abandoned what was most precious to him. Abarbanel had abandoned the Torah. Abarbanel concludes that, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, in order that I might learn your statutes. The Torah of your(God’s) Mouth is better for me than thousands of gold and silver.[xxv]” Here too, in telling his own story, Abarbanel directly quotes Psalm 119[xxvi]. Through his personal afflictions, through the loss of his material wealth to the hands of King John of Portugal, Abarbanel gratefully says that he learned what is actually wealth in this world, “ the Torah of your(God’s) Mouth.”
Shockingly here, Abarbanel refers to biblical passages as the causes and effects of his personal history. His personal punishment was directly caused by his lack of heeding to the warnings Moses gave the Jews at the end of Deuteronomy. His personal exile from Portugal was caused by his inability to identify with the words of Psalms 119. In his introduction to Joshua, as in his introduction to Kings, it can be seen that to Abarbanel, the bible was much more than a divine textbook on morality. According to Abarbanel, the living bible in its stories, its orations, and its conflicts simultaneously tells the story of the Jewish individual and the Jewish people of the past, the present, and the future.
It is with this thought on the purpose of the bible in mind that we can begin to get a new perspective on Abarbanel’s view of contemporary experience’s influence on his Parshanut. Abarbanel viewed the bible as a living, breathing entity that holds within it the story of each generation of Jews struggles and success. Such a Bible, by definition, must be able to confront the contemporary issues of the time. Even the simple meaning, the peshat, of Abarbanel’s living bible has to twist and turn to the conditions of the current generation of Jews, or Abarbanel’s bible would be unable to live. Isaac Baer highlights this very idea in his critique on the Abarbanel’s work. Baer writes that, “From his[Abarbanel’s] lengthy exegesis sometimes there emerges a pure voice and clear language of a new living Torah that arises from his experiences as a veteran statesman and from his innovative humanist outlook.[xxvii]” Abarbanel’s belief in the timeless relevancy of the biblical message leads to contemporary experience playing a significant role in his Parshanut methodology. In Abarbanel’s search for the peshat of the biblical text throughout his commentary, he defines peshat as the plain meaning of a text that is relevant to contemporary society
Dr. Avigayil Rock[xxviii] in her work on the Abarbanel, brings one such example of the relevance of the dilemmas of his generation to his interpretation. In the aftermath of the Spanish inquisition, an untold numbers of Jews were placed in a challenging predicament. Many Jews, while believing and practicing Judaism in secret, publically converted to Christianity to save their own lives. These Jews were known as Anusim or Conversoes. Abarbanel responds to the theological question of the status of these Anusim in his commentary on the concept of Teshuvah at the end of Deuteronomy. In one pasuk in Deuteronomy it is written. “And you shall return to your hearts from all nations to which Hashem, your god sent you.” In the very next pasuk it is written, “And you will return to the Lord your god…[xxix]” With contemporary issues in mind, Abarbanel deals with this seeming repetition in the following manner.
Faith in exile is divided into two parts: the small part of them who keep the faith and follow the Torah of God, and they are called by the name of Israel, and they are a special few left of many. The other part is the majority of the people; they change their religion out of distress and the weight of the exile…Therefore, it was said corresponding to the two parts of the people (30:1-2): “and you shall return to your hearts from all nations to which Hashem, your god sent you, and return to Lord your God…” The first statement is said about those Anusim. It says “among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you,” meaning that they are mixed in with them and considered like them, but in their heart they will return to God… And when they return to God and go after Him… everyone according to his status and his ability, he promises that Exalted God will bring them close to Him…[xxx]
According to the Abarbanel’s interpretation, the Anusim at the end of the days will be able to perform Teshuvah. In creating this novel exegesis of the passage, the Abarbanel was able to provide some national comfort to the struggling Conversoes. Furthermore, with Abarbanel’s grandfather, Samuel, being a Converso[xxxi], providing this sense of comfort for the Anusim of his day was likely important for the Abarbanel on a personal level as well. It was only through Abarbanel’s view of the Tanakh, as a true Torat Hayyim, that he was able to innovatively direct the peshat to refer to a concept of Teshuvah that was important for him on both a personal and national level.
Possibly an even stronger example of how contemporary experiences tied into Abarbanel’s interpretation of the text can be seen in his well-known view on the desirability of kings in a Jewish society.
With the exception of King Alfonso of Portugal, Abarbanel had extremely negative relationships with the kings of his era. King John of Portugal attempted to murder Abarbanel in 1483. King Ferdinand of Castile exiled Abarbanel and his people in 1492. Then, the King of France pillaged his home in Naples in 1495[xxxii]. After these experiences with the Kings of his time, it comes as no surprise that Don Isaac Abarbanel takes a well-known negative stance on the Bible’s view on kingship. In both his commentary on Samuel written immediately after King John’s assassination attempt, and his commentary on Deuteronomy written immediately after the King of France’s pillaging of his home, he mentions the same viewpoint on kingship.
Abarbanel does not hold that the Torah command’s the Jews to have a king. He, in fact, draws similarities between the Torah’s discussion of establishing a king and the Torah’s discussion of the commandment of taking foreign women during wartime (eshet yefat toar). In both cases God gives permission to the Jews to commit these less than ideal acts in a regulated setting, so as to ensure they will not commit even more heinous acts. According to the Abarbanel, though, ideally the Jews should be without a king. He backs up this opinion with strong biblical proof. For example, Samuel rebuked the Jews when they asked for a king. Furthermore, if it was a Mitsvah to establish a kingship, why do the Jews wait until the times of Samuel to establish a king? Statements like these bring strong biblical foundations for Abarbanel’s opinion. However, Abarbanel does not just mention biblical proofs to provide support for his opinion. He cites current examples stating: “And our experiences are even greater than our questions on kings. Go out and see the lands that are being led by kings and notice the idolatry and corruption. Every man can do what he wants and the land is filled with violence…[xxxiii]” In the words of Eric Lawee, “The result was as substantially and rhetorically powerful a case against monarchy as the Jewish Middle Ages would ever see, in which argumentation grounded in exegesis and reason was supplemented by Abarbanel’s vast knowledge of political regimes past.[xxxiv]” Abarbanel by no means abandoned rabbinical sources, but he explicitly uses his personal experiences to buttress his viewpoint. Here too, in the example of kingship, he creates his peshat interpretation of the bible through reflections on his personal experiences and their relationship to a Torat Hayyim.
The cases of Conversoes and Kings in Abarbanel’s Parshanut are two examples out of many in his biblical commentary that accurately portray how Abarbanel’s belief in the bible’s contemporary relevance plays a significant role in his biblical interpretation. In doing so, Abarbanel paints an inspiring picture of the biblical corpus. Through Abarbanel’s overwhelming belief in the Bible’s relevancy to real life and the modern man, the Bible can be seen as much more than a history book. Abarbanel’s bible becomes a generational book in which the reader, through his own time-bound experiences is expected to write the next peshat based chapter. Abarbanel’s bible becomes the constant reminder to us, the readers, that our Torah is the living, breathing text that until time immemorial will be the defining story of our people.
Cobi Nadel is an intern for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Netanyahu, Binyamin. Joint Address to Congress. Capitol Building, Washington D.C.
[ii] Martin Luther King Jr. refers to Amos 5:24, Isaiah 40:4-5, and Psalms 30:5 in his “I Have a Dream” speech
[iii] For the preference of this spelling of Abarbanel’s last name, see Sid Z. Leiman,“Abarbanel and the Censor,” p. 49, n. 1. When citing writers who used other spellings I have retained their preferences. I am in credit to Hayyim Angel’s article on the Abarbanel, cited below, for pointing me to this source.
[iv] See Abarbanel Former Prophets Pg. 13 . See , as well Hayyim Angel’s Abarbanel: Commentator and Teacher Celebrating 500 Years of his Influence on Tanakh Study for a thorough analysis of Abarbanel’s role as a Pashtan.
[v] Abarbanel wrote brief auto-biographical introductions to nearly every single one of his commentaries on the bible. Most of these introductions just briefly state the Abarbanel’s genealogy as well as when he began and finished writing the respective commentary. Some of his notable biographical introductions are his introduction to Joshua where he recounts in detail his banishment from Portugal; his introduction to Kings where he recounts in detail the Spanish Inquisition, his introduction to Daniel where he recounts the messianic fervor of the Jewish people after the Spanish Inquisition; and his introduction to Deuteronomy where he recounts the pillage of Naples.
[vi] Hayyim Angel: Abarbanel: “Commentator and Teacher Celebrating 500 Years of his Influence on Tanakh Study” Tradition: Pg.25
[vii] Abarbanel Former Prophets: Pg. 422.
[viii] Daniel 3:4 All translations taken from JPS Tanakh, with slight modifications
[ix] Ibid. 3:6
[x] Exodus 5:15
[xi] Abarbanel Former Prophets: Pg. 422
[xii] Esther 4:3
[xiii] Abarbanel Former Prophets: Pg. 422
[xiv] In all the decrees that Abarbanel alludes to, the Jews are saved from the harsh decrees in miraculous means. They are saved because they refuse to acquiesce to the Emperor’s demands. The Jews of Bavel refuse to worship the Babylonian Gods, Mordekhai refuses to bow down to Haman’s idols, and the Jews retain their faith in the land of idolatry known as Egypt. In Abarbanel’s referral to these three historical episodes of the Jewish people, he could be reminding the Jews to follow the path their forefathers gave them. The Inquisition is strongly pushing for the Jews to convert to Christianity. Perhaps the Abarbanel’s message is that the Jews of Spain must retain their faith, to refuse Christianity like their forefathers, and good things will surely follow.
[xvi] Psalms 44:19
[xvii] Psalms 44: 14, 23, 25
[xviii] Abarbanel Former Prophets: Pg. 3
[xix] Lamentations 3:8
[xx] Jeremiah 14:9
[xxi] Deuteronomy 31:17
[xxii] Abarbanel Early Prophets: Pg. 3
[xxiii] Deuteronomy 31:16
[xxiv] See Abarbanel Early Prophets: Pg. 3 for details
[xxv] Abarbanel Early Prophets: Pg. 3
[xxvi] Psalms: 119:72
[xxvii] Isaac Baer: “Don Isaac Abravanel and his Relation to Problems of History and Politic” Tarbiz 8 Pg.246
[xxviii] Dr. Avigayil Rock, “Abarbanel” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: www.vbm.
[xxix] Deuteronomy 30:1-2
[xxx] Abarbanel on Deuteronomy: Pg. 283. Dr, Avigayil Rock’s translation
[xxxi] See Pg. 9-11 of Eric Lawee, “Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance toward Tradition Defense, dissent, and Dialogue” for further details
[xxxii] See Abarbanel on Deuteronomy: Pg. 3 for further details of Abarbanel’s exile from Naples
[xxxiii] Abarbanel on Deuteronomy: Pg.165. See pages 162-168 for further details on Abarbanel’s opinion on kings
[xxxiv] Eric Lawee, “Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance toward Tradition Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue” (Albany: SUNY Press 2001), 38