Book Review: The Secret of The Torah By Eliezer Barany
Title: The Secret of the Torah: A Translation of Ibn Ezra’s Yesod Mora
By Rabbi H. Norman Strickman
Published by Kodesh Press, 214 pages
It is rare for the serious student of Torah to learn without using the Ibn Ezra’s commentary. Whether it be someone involved in learning the complexities of the text or the classical commentaries, Ibn Ezra is often quoted and frequently influences many later commentators. The Secret of the Torah: A Translation of Ibn Ezra’s Yesod Mora by Rabbi H. Norman Strickman, allows the reader to see the big picture of Ibn Ezra’s Torah methodology. While some thinkers have discussed the Ibn Ezra’s methodology, in this book, we are treated to Ibn Ezra presenting his own approach, including how to understand rabbinic sources, valuing the sciences, and reasons for commandments.
Ibn Ezra explains that one needs knowledge of various sciences as a prerequisite to understanding Torah and in order to respond to heretics, and that a person shouldn’t be involved in extremes. One needs to study practical ideas. A person shouldn’t spend their entire time studying the laws of damages, for example, because, “if all of Israel was righteous, the laws would not be needed” and as such have no intrinsic value. The study of grammar, the Masoretic notes, and the written Bible are all important, and necessary, but are really prerequisites to learning and should not be a goal in and of themselves. They all serve to fuel a person’s connection to G-d.
Ibn Ezra expresses a popular concept shared by rabbinic commentators, that the Oral Law is indispensable in order to understand the Written Law. Strickman posits that Ibn Ezra was addressing the Karaites, but Ibn Ezra’s points, and the many examples, remain valid for anyone looking to understand the Torah. Ibn Ezra adds that this is, in fact, a reciprocal system. The Oral Law helps in the proper understanding of the Written Law and, so too, the Written Law helps in the understanding of the Oral Law. If one does not accurately understand the verse quoted or the context from which it is taken, a person will be lacking in their understanding of the rabbinic commentary.
Ibn Ezra joins the many commentators who explain that the World to Come is a natural consequence as opposed to an external reward. He emphasizes that the Torah uses anthropomorphic language and doesn’t attribute physical properties to G-d. Midrashim are deep and “their words, like the words of the Torah, require explanation.”
This book allows a person striving to understand the Torah and the worldview of Ibn Ezra to gain access to this previously closed-off approach. While the translation provides the English-speaking audience a valuable opportunity to learn the Ibn Ezra’s monumental work, it is Strickman’s commentary and footnotes that truly give sight to those stumbling in the dark.
Strickman’s notes guide the reader to a more thorough picture, providing multiple examples from the biblical commentary. As an excellent translator, Strickman makes it quite clear where the text ends and his additions begin, and explains when he strays from literal translation to provide necessary adjustments in language. Many veiled references to Ibn Ezra’s Bible commentary are expanded upon, and several concepts are elucidated by Strickman.
As Rabbi Dr. Strickman notes, Ibn Ezra is rare in providing a book of philosophy in the Hebrew language. Since other works of his time were written in Arabic, Hebrew speakers were barred from gleaning powerful insights. With this translation, Strickman follows in the path of Ibn Ezra by opening up the thoughts of a giant to the English-speaking world.
Originally published in the Jewish Press on October 21, 2021: https://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/book-reviews/the-rishon-you-never-knew/2021/10/21/