Sunday 26 December 2021

364) Who should lead – the rabbis or the representatives of the people?


Ateret Zekeinim (Crown of the Elders): Abravanel's first main work defending the negative image of the biblical elders.

Part 1


There is a fundamental difference of opinion between Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204) and Abravanel (1437-1508) as to who is entitled to lead the Jewish people. According to Rambam, it is Moshe (or the relative equivalent in subsequent generations, which we shall refer to as the “rabbis”); and according to Abravanel, it is the representatives of the people (which we shall refer to as the “elders”).

This article is based extensively on the research by Cedric Cohen-Skalli[1] although the adaptation of this debate to modern times is my own.

Abravanel challenges Rambam

In the 1460s, while Abravanel was still in his twenties, he completed his first work entitled Ateret Zekeinim, or Crown of the Elders. Although a young man, Abravanel was already well established within the political and business world of his milieu.

Ateret Zekeinim was an audacious attempt at redeeming the image of the biblical “elders of Israel” whom Rambam (and other commentators from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) had described in very negative terms. The whole argument centred around the interpretation of an unusual text from Exodus 24:9-11: 

וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן נָדָב֙ וַאֲבִיה֔וּא וְשִׁבְעִ֖ים מִזִּקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃

וְאֶל־אֲצִילֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֖ח יָד֑וֹ וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ׃                                                                                                                                                                                                    

“Then Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up; and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God and did eat and drink.”

Rambam’s interpretation of the elders who “saw the G-d of Israel”:

There are a number of questions one could ask about these verses. Were the “seventy elders of Israel” the same as the “nobles of Israel”? And what did the nobles do that seems to imply that only by the grace of G-d did He not lay His hands upon them?

Rambam explains that the nobles erred in their general attituded towards spirituality as well as their comprehension of G-d who they viewed as a corporeal or almost physical being. This was based on their very physical impression of the “paved sapphire stone” which was under “His feet”, which, in Rambam’s view, was somewhat immature and amateurish in ascribing such imagery to G-d.

In his Guide of the Perplexed, Rambam explains how one cannot rush into matters of the spirit. He quotes Aristotle, who he calls the “chief of the philosophers” who demanded a slow and mature approach, particularly when it came to obscure matters. Rambam writes:

In the same way we say that man should not hasten too much to accede to this great and sublime matter at the first try, without having made his soul undergo training in the sciences and the different kinds of knowledge, having truly improved his character, and having extinguished the desires and cravings engendered in him by his imagination…..

When doing this he should not make categoric affirmations in favor of the first opinion that occurs to him and should not, from the outset, strain and impel his thoughts toward the apprehension of the deity; he rather should feel awe and refrain and hold back until he gradually elevates himself.[2]

Rambam then applies this principle of adopting a slow and thorough approach to Moshe so as to contrast his approach with that of the elders:

It is in this sense that it is said, And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God; this being an additional meaning of the verse over and above its external meaning that indicates that he hid his face because of his being afraid to look upon the light manifesting itself—and not that the deity, who is greatly exalted above every deficiency, can be apprehended by the eyes.[3]

Moshe did not rush to “look upon” G-d, instead he “hid his face”. Technically, he hid his face not from G-d, but rather from the manifestation of G-d. Cohen-Skalli (2021:57) explains this “manifestation” as representing a state where temporarily Moshe’s “actualized intellect conjoined with the transcendent intellect of God.” There was no “vision” as such. It was an “intellectual progress” that was “limited and must be taken gradually”.

But this was not the case when it came to the elders. Rambam paints a very negative image of the elders who were not prepared to take this gradual path. They wanted to “see” a “vision” of G-d. Rambam continues:

The nobles of the children of Israel, on the other hand, were overhasty, strained their thoughts, and achieved apprehension, but only an imperfect one. Hence it is said of them: And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under His feet, and so on and not merely: And they saw the God of Israel. For these words are solely intended to present a criticism of their act of seeing, not to describe the manner of their seeing. Thus, they were solely blamed for the form that their apprehension took inasmuch as corporeality entered into it to some extent—this being necessitated by their overhasty rushing forward before they had reached perfection. They deserved to perish.”[4]

The reason why Rambam is so severe in his statement that “they deserved to perish” is because, in his view, the elders transgressed the cardinal principle of corporeality believing that G-d could be “seen”. Yet, although they erred, in this case, G-d is said to have  laid not His hand” on the elders.

Abravanel’s rejection of Rambam’s depiction of the elders

Abravanel was not happy with the negative manner in which Rambam described the elders. He believed Rambam’s interpretation was too elitist. By demanding a long slow process to mature the mind of the believer means that most people are going to be excluded. The process Rambam describes is monarchical in character because it only allows for:

one prophet, Moses, and a small number of worthy philosophers [who] stand at its pinnacle” (Cohen-Skalli 2012:58).

Abravanel’s Ateret Zekeinim begins with a strong rejection of Rambam’s philosophically exclusive view of Moshe as the representative of the average people:

I have heard the slander of the many, those skilled in knowledge and learned in sciences, the old [authorities] and the new, they who slander the good and righteous people, the elders of the people and its enforcers—those people who prophesized in the camp, who saw the face of the King, and saw beneath his feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone. They [the exegetes] have issued evil slander (vayotzi’u dibatam ra‘ah), saying that they cursed God in their hearts, and did secretly those things that were neither right nor proper, and they erred in their sight and exchanged their glory, the glory of God with a silent idol of stone, diamonds, sapphire, and gemstones.[5]

Abravanel claims that rabbis like Rambam, “skilled in knowledge” slandered the biblical elders and he seems upset that Rambam rejected their corporeal perception of G-d. Abravanel then begins to build up a counter interpretation in favour of the elders and nobles of Israel:

I, Isaac, son of the prince Don Judah Abravanel, a pure Sephardic Jew, have been very zealous for the honor of the nobles of the children of Israel and I could not stand the oppression wherewith many of the older and newer . . . sages oppress them. And I said the time has come to make my own offering, to offer some balm for their mortal wounds, and some honey for their clusters of bitterness, to write upon a scroll the explanation of their apprehension [of God], that no blemishes were upon them and their knowledge was lofty…”[6]

Cohen-Skalli (2021:60) suggests that Abravanel the statesman and treasurer to king Alfonso V of Portugal reminds his readers of his own titles “prince” and “don”, and intentionally “blurs the lines” between his own lineage and the biblical nobles. This way Abravanel sets himself, and other communal and economic court leaders like him, on a relative and comparative par with the biblical nobles he intends to defend:

Abravanel linked restoring the status of the Israelite nobles to his own exegetical accomplishments as well as to the construction of his intellectual identity.”

In other words, Abravanel is trying to change the socio-economic and religious leadership status quo as established by philosophical leaders like Rambam. Now, not only can the philosophically elite undertake positions of Jewish communal leadership as they did in the past, but political and economic leaders too can step up to the plate.

Abravanel knows full well that his approach is daring and provocative. He is a “merchant” and a politician and he is challenging the well-respected Rambam:

I was afraid because I am naked, without the clothes of wisdom. . . . I have already been cast out from study [contemplation] and become a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, now in the streets, now in the market, I go about with the merchants. . . . And the men who persecuted the nobles and leaders of the people are the heroes of old, especially . . . Maimonides. Therefore, all those who hear me will laugh at me, they shall curl their lips and shake their heads. They shall say ‘who is this who dares to defy renowned warriors of God, who is this who seeks to slay Moses [Maimonides][7]!?’[8]

Abravanel thus introduces his new vision of future Jewish leadership and it clashes with the traditional Maimonidean model. It becomes a battle between “the Torah scholar and philosopher and that of the learned merchant and court Jew” Cohen-Skalli (2021:61).

One must remember, though that the Rambam was also very much at home in the palace of the Sultan and also pursued worldly ambitions but he still identified with Moses as the model of Jewish leadership. Abravanel identifies instead with secondary biblical figures like the elders and nobles who belonged to the same social structure as he did.

For Rambam, the nation was founded upon the exemplary leadership of “a single prophet standing aloof from the people”, while for Abravanel “the nation is not the product of an intellectual elite’s prophecy” (Cohen-SKalli 2021:72).

Abravanel seems to have been attracted to Yehuda Halevi’s (1075-1141) teaching in the Kuzari, that in Judaism the prophet is not the starting point of the people to whom the nation is beholden – instead, the prophet is the product of, and predicated upon, the entire entity of the Jewish people.

Abravanel would have used this principle to try and demolish the Maimonidean model of leadership which was “top-down”, and replace it with a new model “bottom-up” where the appointed or elected officials are seen to be the worthiest of leadership positions.

Part 2

Echoes of the debate today?

In a recent article appearing in the Jerusalem Post, entitled “Breaking Israel's haredi autonomy…” a similar debate (although obviously, the circumstances are different) seems to be playing out. Rabbinic Chareidi leaders from Chassidic, Lithuanian and Sephardi communities, such as the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, the Shas Torah Sages Council and the Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef, all sat together in a meeting with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel.

What was unique about this gathering was that usually such meetings take place in the courts of the esteemed rabbis where the ministers are very much invited guests. Here it was the other way around and the tables were turned:

Instead, Hendel was at the head of the table, and the rabbis were his guests at the Communications Ministry. In addition, Hendel is an observant Jew, who keeps Shabbat and kosher but chooses not to wear a kippah on weekdays, and in his meeting with the rabbis, he was bareheaded as usual.

And rather than ask the rabbis for their advice or their blessing, Hendel addressed them like equals.

Hendel told the Chareidi leaders that:

’I feel comfortable sitting with you and respect you very much, but I feel comfortable telling you that I care about my children just like you care about your children.’”

He later said:

“’…They talked about how the education of their kids is important for them – as if for us it’s not that important.’”

 He wanted them to know that:

 ’I also have a philosophical view; I also have ideas

I say Israel is the place of Jews from all over the world and I cannot accept the idea that there is a monopoly of Judaism that only belongs to the haredi community…

My wagon is full of the Talmud, Jewish heritage, Jewish sources, and in the same wagon I also have [poets] Bialik and Rachel and Leonard Cohen and other Jewish creators... When I served in the Israeli Navy SEALS, I was no less determined than a yeshiva [student] learning from morning until night

What I’m trying to say, in the subtext, is that you cannot think about yourselves as the only determined people in Israel. And yes, I am willing to have this discussion, but in an equal way

We have to agree that there are no autonomies in Israel.’”

Of course, there was a huge outcry against Hendel with some like United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni comparing him to a “paritz” (an Eastern European landowner of old) and saying:

’A minister in the government spoke with such arrogance and audacity to rabbis who have thousands and thousands of families standing behind them, who accept their authority.’”


This recent debate was essentially over who has the right and authority to speak for the Jews in Israel. Is it the rabbinic leader (if it is, the question becomes which one?) or is it the elected official?

Allowing for some poetic license, one wonders whether Abravanel and his stance against Rambam, where the designated or elected elder is held to be the acceptable model of government instead of a system dominated by a single “prophet” - democracy over theocracy - still has some resonance today?

[1] Cohen-Skalli, C., 2021, Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography, Translated by Avi Kallenbach, Brandeis University Press. 

[2] Guide of the Perplexed (Pines) 1:29.

[3] Guide 1:29.

[4] Guide 1:30.

[5] Ateret Zekeinim, Preface 27, translation by Cohen-Skalli.

[7] Parenthesis mine.

[8] Ateret Zekeinim, Preface, 28-29.

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