The Akeidah Revisited

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Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

The maxim[1] דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה כִּלְשוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם , ‘the language of the Torah is that of [ordinary] people’, was used by our Sages to explain why exegesis, מִדְרָש , is not applied to every verse in the Torah; many verses are to be read and understood in a straightforward manner. We invoke this idea, with a slight variation, in the discussion that follows.

Also, in this discussion, we use a comparison of a two-dimensional (2-D) world and a three-dimensional (3-D) one. Consider a “flat” world in which only length and width exist, but no height, or thickness (mathematically: there are only x- and y- axes, no z-axis). The denizens of this 2-D world, with their innately limited 2-D minds, cannot possibly envision anything but “flat”.

As a concrete example of such a limitation, take the sci-fi writers in our normal 3-D world. With all their brilliant imagination, they cannot possibly describe anything more than what the 3-D human mind allows. It is meaningless to ask, “What else should these writers write?”, much as it would be to ask a 2-D creature to describe a 3-D object.

(In this aspect, mathematicians and theoretical physicists fare much better: With their equations and theorems, they sail easily through higher dimensions).

Back to the Akeidah:

We are 3-D mortals and, like those sci-fi writers, our human senses and human minds are innately limited. Therefore, we are simply unable to grasp truly Abraham’s experience (‘experience’ = נִסָּיוֹן , the same root and stem as[2] נִסָּה).

The Torah tells us, in a language that we can understand, about this transcendental experience and about the resulting higher-dimension faith of Abraham. This is the tale of the Akeidah, told in the language of ordinary people.

We read it with anguish and suspense. We resume normal breathing with a sigh of relief at the denouement of this tale. We get just a hint of the immensity of Abraham’s faith, which was his reward after such a life-changing experience, when God fully acknowledges it through an angel:

“… עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי- יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה…”
“… now I know that you fear God…” [3]

With the familiar argument אל תקרי ידעתִּי אלא ידעתָּ this could be read as, “…now you know that you fear God…”, to make Abraham aware of his enhanced faith.

It is the same faith as Job’s when God addresses his friends:

“…לֹא דִּבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכוֹנָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב.”
“…you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.” [4]

However, as ordinary 3-D people, we cannot possibly fathom such a higher-dimension faith. In awe, we must accept its limited 3-D version in our hearts and minds.


[1] E.g., Berachot 31a.
[2] Gen. 22:1
[3] Gen. 22:12. (JPS version)
[4] Job 42: 7, 8. (JPS version)

About Shlomo Karni

10 comments

  1. Too bad someone thought of that analogy a while back:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland
    The story is about a two-dimensional world referred to as Flatland which is occupied by geometric figures. Women are simple line-segments, while men are polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a humble square, a member of the social caste of gentlemen and professionals in a society of geometric figures, who guides us through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The Square has a dream about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) which is inhabited by “lustrous points”. He attempts to convince the realm’s ignorant monarch of a second dimension but finds that it is essentially impossible to make him see outside of his eternally straight line.

    (Kind of reminds me of some people I’ve known)
    KT

  2. To KT: I never claimed to have thought of that analogy a while back; it is well-known. I simply mentioned it in order to use it in my argument about Abraham’s high-dimension faith.

  3. Whilst this is a possible translation, the author provides no support for such a reading. Not in the case of Avraham and not in the case of Iyov.

    Further, the entire thrust of this article is unclear. Does the author mean, that no mortal can ever attain this level of faith except for Avraham and Iyov, and if this is his intent then he would need to explain why God would single out Avraham and Iyov for such extraordinary treatment. Also, it is unclear why God was displeased with Iyov’s friends, for since this level of faith can not be comprehended by man, then those friends cannot be faulted for misunderstanding Iyov.

    Perhaps the author means, that anyone can undertake this leap of faith (sorry, but I couldn’t resist), if faced with a great enough test. For example, a holocaust survivor who still davens with great kavannah, can also comprehend the level of Avraham’s faith. If that is his meaning, then why does the author claim that ordinary mortals cannot comprehend Avraham’s faith, for they certainly can, depending on the circumstances.

  4. To Mohoshiv:

    That is precisely my thesis: we humans cannot possibly conceive with our 3-D minds the experience that Abraham went through. To us, this experience is known as “The Akeidah” – the only form of language that we can understand.

    Ditto re Yiov’s experience.

  5. This is an old trope on the limitations of language. Do you see the same red as I do? What do you mean by the word ‘love’ or ‘hate’? We use words as symbols to convey ideas and experiences.

    From what I understood דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה כִּלְשוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם means that the torah uses human idioms, or uses anthropomorphism to convey the sense of the experience (eg “and God was angry” doesn’t necessarily mean that God experienced that emotion, rather the people with whom God interacted perceived the interaction as such).

    If what it really means is the torah uses elaborate metaphor to explain sublime spiritual experiences why does it not do so for things like the vision of the divine chariot? Why are we told the people saw the sounds at Sinai?

    Furthermore, is the author suggesting the actual events did not take place? Why would we recall the rams horn of the akeida on Rosh HaShanah?

    Also, if נִסָּיוֹן means experience how did the Jews ‘experience’ God 10 times in the dessert?

  6. To Professor Karni,

    Though you have clarified your meaning you have not answered my objections. Specifically: … why God would single out Avraham and Iyov for such extraordinary treatment. Also, it is unclear why God was displeased with Iyov’s friends, for since this level of faith can not be comprehended by man, then those friends cannot be faulted for misunderstanding Iyov.

  7. To Isaacson: “limitations of language” – I agree, as long as you agree that we all are limited innately by our 3-D minds. “Anthropomorphism” is just one of the several usages of “dibrah Torah…”. “The divine chariot” and “Sinai” are in the same category: we are told these events in the (only) language that we are able to understand. The root ‘n-s-h’ has several meanings, among them ‘test’, ‘experience’; the 10 times you cite– we tested God’s patience.

    To Mohoshiv: it is not for us to question God’s choices of Abraham and Yiov. As I wrote, all we can do is admire with awe such deeds. Yiov’s friends were judged on the level of our 3-D minds, namely, they urged Yiov (among other petty advice) to ‘bless’ God and be done with it. We, the 3-D minded humans,CAN understand this; they got reprimanded god and proper.

    P.S.: oh, let us not forget the Sage who — obviously frustrated with the limitations of his 3-D mind not being able to wrap it around that story– pronounced,” Yiov never was, was never created -he was just a fable.”

  8. Professor Karni, if you have not done so I would highly recommend the Ramchal’s 138 Gates of Wisdom wherein I believe he documents a theory that is very much like your own, but relating to prophecy in general.

    He explains that the prophet ‘sees’ or as you put it, experiences things which have no physical manifestation. Thus when a prophet describes, for example, a lion roaring, he is trying to convey, through the tawdry medium of language experiences relating to the concepts of gevurah etc.

    This is all well and good as it pertains to nevuah. Is your contention that the Akeida was a prophetic experience and did not actually physically happen?

  9. lawrence kaplan

    There is, indeed, a medieval tradition that the akedah only took place in a prophetic vision. There are some commentators on the Guide who argue (on the basis of Guide 2:46) that this was Maimonides’ view as well. I’m unsure.

  10. To Mr. Isaacson: thanks for the reference to Ramchal. As to your last question: remember the analogy I gave of 2-D creatures being innately unable to describe or visualize a 3-D object? My contention about the akeidah is precisely the same idea: Abraham had some
    indescribable experience – we have no means of thinking about it or visualizing it ( did it happen to him in a 4-D, or 5-D realm?). To us, this experience IS the story of the akeidah, the only way we can
    possibly understand it in the language of ordinary people (“dibrah Torah…”)

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