Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Akedah:a perspective.

Rambam in MN 3:24 analyzes four cases composed of six instances where the word Nissayon is used. All are interpreted to mean demonstration rather than test. One of the four cases is the Akedah. Here is how I understand the story based on my reading of Rambam.

According to Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, the conversation between Avraham and God are all internal experiences triggered by the prophet’s speculation about God and His actions. If we try to visualize the story, Avraham, the great philosopher and man of action, whose whole purpose is to create a nation that will carry forward his insights about the Divine, concludes in a moment of contemplation, that his devotion to God is still faulty and inadequate. He asks himself what would happen if his plans were thwarted by a decree from God. Would he acquiesce and give all his ambitions up? Is his own ego invested in this whole nation building enterprise? Is he really truthful to himself and doing this for God’s sake or for his own satisfaction? He experiences a prophetic vision where he sees himself told to sacrifice his son. His devotion tested to the limit he sees himself able to acquiesce and go through with this impossible decree until he is finally dissuaded by an angel. Ultimately human sacrifice is an abomination and God does not require it even in a dream or vision.

When seen in this context the historicity of the story is irrelevant. The idea of human sacrifice is an abomination in the Torah. When the Rabbis tell us that the patriarchs kept the whole Torah, are they insinuating that we have to look at this story in a non-literal way? There are tantalizing clues in Rambam that he might have felt that way. Professor Avraham Nuriel presents some compelling evidence to that effect. Ramban, though not explicit in this case, seems to read Rambam the same way (see first Ramban in Vayerah). Ibn Ezra on Jonah 1:1 clearly holds that it was nothing more than a vision.

The Torah refers to this story as Nissayon – “Veha’elokim Nissah et Avraham” –because it is a teaching for future generations. In a tantalizing comment Rambam notes that this was a private affair between Avraham and Yitzchak which we know about because the Torah decided to tell us about it. Although Rambam uses this argument in another context it also supports his position that it is a lesson rather than a test. Rambam says that it teaches two important lessons in religious thought: The level of devotion to God a man can reach and the power of prophecy.

First, it shows us the extent and limit of the fear of God. Abraham is commanded to perform a certain act, which is greater than any surrender of property or any sacrifice of life, because it surpasses everything that can be done, and belongs to the class of actions which are believed to be contrary to human feelings. He had been without child, and had been longing for a child; he had great riches, and was expecting that a nation should spring from his seed. After all hope of a son had already been given up, a son was born unto him. How great must have been his delight in the child! How intensely must he have loved him! And yet because he feared God, and loved to do what God commanded, he thought little of that beloved child, and set aside all his hopes concerning him, and consented to kill him after a journey of three days. If the act by which he showed his readiness to kill his son had taken place immediately when he received the commandment, it might have been the result of confusion and not of consideration. But the fact that he performed it three days after he had received the commandment proves the presence of thought, proper consideration, and careful examination of what is due to the Divine command and what is in accordance with the love and fear of God. There is no necessity to look for the presence of any other idea or of anything that might have affected his emotions. For Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man's duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment”

He then goes on to explain further:

The second purpose is to show how the prophets believed in the truth of that which came to them from God by way of inspiration. We shall not think that what the prophets heard or saw in allegorical figures may at times have included incorrect or doubtful elements, since the Divine communication was made to them, as we have shown, in a dream or a vision and through the imaginative faculty. Scripture thus tells us that whatever the Prophet perceives in a prophetic vision, he considers as true and correct and not open to any doubt; it is in his eyes like all other things perceived by the senses or by the intellect. This is proved by the consent of Abraham to slay" his only son whom he loved," as he was commanded, although the commandment was received in a dream or a vision. If the Prophets had any doubt or suspicion as regards the truth of what they saw in a prophetic dream or perceived in a prophetic vision, they would not have consented to do what is unnatural, and Abraham would not have found in his soul strength enough to perform that act, if he had any doubt [as regards the truth of the commandment].”

The fact that Avraham could imagine himself following such a decree perceived in a vision proves how powerful a prophetic experience is. The prophet is so certain about his vision that he can act on it.

I always struggled with the idea of the Akedah. It always seemed to be so against all the Torah teaches repetitively about human sacrifices. It also went against all ides we have about what is decent and right and what is perverted and wrong. Seeing it in this light, as an internal struggle, a dream of a vision it is a very powerful statement about what devotion to God is and ultimately a negation of fundamentalism. Even in a dream one may not visualize human sacrifice. God does not require such sacrifices. I can now understand why this story takes such a central place in Jewish thought, so central that it entered the daily liturgy for those of us who say the Korbanot and Rosh Hashana Mussaf in the Zichronot section.

Shavua Tov.


  1. to sum up, it was a dream, and avraham had the dream ending with isaac not being sacrificed. so he passed the test of abandoning child sacrifice.

    wow! that is close to how I felt the akeidah should be understood.
    In my view, the lesson is that hashem saw in avrahams heart that he really did not want to do this. Thats when the angel is sent. he saw this by the fact that avraham thought , no believed, that hashem would not let him go through this.
    hashem was being tested by avraham, avraham was being tested by hashem. together they passed.

  2. one problem. if I told the rambam pshat to my 11 yr old son, would he get into a world of trouble at school (modern orthodox yeshiva)?

    I really want to share this with him.

  3. Happy, great minds think alike! I mean you and rambam:-)

    I told over the Rambam on Vayerah (quoted by Ramban) to my 11 year old son about 27 years ago. He told it to his rebbe as "my father told me" who told him it was nonsense. I then penned a note to the rebbi asking if he thought Rambam was saying nonsense and never heard from him again. But that was along time ago. Since then the inquisition hase heated up!

    It depends what Yeshiva he goes to. that same son tells his 11 year old many of these divrei torah and the rebbi seems to like them though he is going to a quite right wing place. I guess take your chances and be ready to show proof that you are basing it on a great man. (not me)

  4. im going to give it a shot.
    let you know how it turns out.

  5. Heshey Zelcer11/05/2006 12:32 AM

    I do not think it is necessary to teach this type of explanation to an 11 year old. What is right for us as a mature adult may not be right for an 11 year old. What if it translates in his 11 year-old mind to "nothing in Chumash is to be taken litearlly or seriously."

    Wouldn't it be better to wait and see whether the child is bothered by the akedah and then offer him this explanation?

  6. heshy
    it bothers me that he isnt bothered.
    are you saying we should accept anything our kids are taught if it doesnt bother them.
    im sure you wouldnt feel that way if the rebbi started showing them playboy.

  7. When I was eleven, I didn't think about these things at all. None of the Torah passages that make moralists uncomfortable had much of an effect on me. I just accepted them for what they were. It was only much later, after witnessing the less-than-exemplary behavior of some frum people, did I begin to connect in my mind their behavior and what our tradition teaches. It was then that I realized how ugly many of these passages look. In the range of things, however, the akedah story is not one of the more bothersome sections to me. But it is easy to misinterpret as a model of blind obedience and moral irrationalism.

  8. Heshey's point and Kilopod's put together I believe give the right answer. It should be according to each child's capacity. Chanoch Lan'ar al pi Darko, refers to the child's Derekh not the parent's. I was bothered by miracle stories when I was way before I was ten and struggled with guilt of not believing. I wish I had someone who could tell me that it was ok to think about it and it was not wrong.

  9. im sure a dvar torah from school is coming. let me see if akeidah is one of them. and what he thinks about it.
    as i mentioned on my blog, ive asked him what he thought of mabul and tower of babel, and he was actually excited by the challenge, it was like a father and son bonding moment. It seems prior to that, I would sit and listen and say, very nice.

  10. jewishskeptic11/05/2006 11:35 AM

    If I understand you correctly,David,you are saying that Rambam interpretes the all Akedah as a vision.While I would like to think so,WADR I don't think it's correct.
    The Rambam does say that Avraham received the commandment in a vision(& I don't think other Rishonim disagree with this,after all how does God appear to prophets?).However,from the plain text of M.N 3:24 it seems that the Rambam held that Avrahams attempt at carrying out God's command took place in REALITY.For it says(I use Ibn Tibbon'tr.):
    כי אברהם אבינו לא מהר לשחוט יצחק לפחדו מהאלוה שיהרגהו או ירוששהו,אבל כדי שיתפרסם לבני אדם מה ראוי לעשותו בשביל אהבת האלוה ית ויראתו.
    Now if all this happened in a vision how could it be "mitparsem liv'nei adam?
    Furthermore, he writes (I am too tired to type it out from Ibn I'll copy paste from
    Shwarts tr.):

    העניין השני הוא להודיענו שהנביאים מקבלים כאמת את מה שבא אליהם בהתגלות, שלא יחשוב מישהו שמכיוון שזה בחלום ובמראה, כמו שהבהרנו18, ובאמצעות הכוח המדמה19, יש שלא יהיה מה שהם שומעים או מה שמוצג להם ודאי (להם) או שיתערב בו דמיון-שווא כלשהו. לכן רצה להודיענו שכּל מה שרואה הנביא במראה הנבואה הוא אמת ודאית בעיני הנביא. בשום אופן לא יטיל ספק במשהו ממנו. דינו בעיניו כדין הדברים המציאותיים כולם המושׂגים בחוש או בשׂכל20. הראיה לכך היא שהוא פנה לשחוט את בנו יחידו אשר אהב21 כמו שנצטווה, אף-על-פי שציווי זה היה בחלום או במראה. אילו הנביאים היו מסופקים בחלום הנבואי, או שהיה להם ספק באשר למה שהם משׂיגים במראה הנבואה, לא היו פונים לעשׂות מה שהטבעים סולדים ממנו, ונפשו (של אברהם) לא היתה נענית לעשׂות את המעשׂה רב-הסכנה הזה מִסָּפֵק
    It's obvious that the the attempt was real.
    Forgive me for what I am going to say,but it's enough when we try to force the Torah to say what we want it to say.But to do it with Rambam-that's overdoing it..
    IMHO,Rambam only says that God appeared & commanded Avraham in a vision,however,the attempt was for real.

  11. JS, the quotes you brought can be explained as a lesson learned from the way Avraham perceived the vision. Now here is 2:42
    ואין הבדל אם כתוב בתחילה שראה את המלאך או שהיה פשט הכתוב שהוא חשב אותו בתחילה לבן-אדם, ואחרי-כן, בסופו של דבר, התברר לו שהוא מלאך, כל זמן שאתה מוצא שסופו של דבר הוא שזה שנראה, או פנה בדיבור, היה מלאך. אז דע אל-נכון שמתחילת המצב ההוא היה מראה הנבואה או חלום של נבואה

    Note the last few words Az da el nachon shemitchilat hamatzav etc...

    That whole chapter is fascinating and worth reading. Now as to your other comment "But to do it with Rambam-that's overdoing it.."
    see his introduction

    הסיבה השביעית היא הכרח לדון בדברים עמוקים מאוד אשר יש להסתיר חלק מענייניהם ולגלות חלק. לפעמים יש הכרח, על סמך אמירה מסוימת, לדון בעניינים אלה בדרך של קביעת הנחה מוקדמת91 כלשהי, ובמקום אחר יש הכרח לדון בהם92 בדרך של קביעת הנחה מוקדמת93 סותרת לזו. ראוי שההמון לא ירגיש בשום אופן בנקודת הסתירה ביניהם. יש שהמחבר נוקט בכל תחבולה כדי להסתיר זאת94

    and then he says:

    אולם אי-ההתאמות המצויות בספר זה הן מחמת הסיבות החמישית והשביעית110. דע זה והבינהו לאמיתו והתעמק בו111 מאוד כדי שלא יביכו אותך כמה מפרקיו.

    He repeats things in the same vein four or five times and I will not bore you by quoting all.

    Just an impoortant note he makes at the start in the introduction

    אם ברצונך להשׂיג את כל אשר בו באופן שלא יישמט ממך דבר ממנו, "פרש את פרקיו זה לפי זה". ותהי מטרתך לא רק להבין כל פרק בכללות משמעותו, אלא גם לתפושׂ כל ביטוי המופיע בו תוך כדי הדברים, גם אם אין ביטוי זה שייך למטרת אותו פרק

    In Tibon he translates Hashev Perakav zeh al zeh.

  12. Jewishskeptic11/05/2006 3:32 PM

    David,the paragraph that I cited:
    הראיה לכך היא שהוא פנה לשחוט את בנו יחידו אשר אהב21 כמו שנצטווה, אף-על-פי שציווי זה היה בחלום או במראה. אילו הנביאים היו מסופקים בחלום הנבואי, או שהיה להם ספק באשר למה שהם משׂיגים במראה הנבואה, לא היו פונים לעשׂות מה שהטבעים סולדים ממנו, ונפשו (של אברהם) לא היתה נענית לעשׂות את המעשׂה רב-הסכנה הזה מִסָּפֵק.
    It speaks for itself.I can't see how you can escape the plain meaning of it.
    Rambam says that Avraham was willing to carry out God's command that was revealed to him in a vision.
    In no way can this be understood or translated as Avraham carrying it out in his vision.
    I suppose w'll just have to agree to disagree on that.

  13. before you agree to disagree let me just quote yoiu one more little piece in 2:46

    לאחר הקדמה זאת דע שכמו שאדם רואה בשינה שהוא נסע לעיר פלונית, והתחתן שם, ושהה שם זמן-מה, ונולד לו ילד, וקרא לו בשם פלוני, והיה מצבו ועניינו כזה וכזה - כן המשלים הנבואיים האלה הנראים או הנעשׂים במראה הנבואה, לרבות מעשׂים שהמשל ההוא מצריך, ודברים שהנביא עושׂה, ותקופות זמן הנזכרות בין מעשׂה למעשׂה על-פי המשל, ומעברים ממקום למקום - כל אלה הם במראה הנבואה בלבד. אין הם מעשׂים מציאותיים של החושים החיצוניים1. חלק מהם נזכר בספרי הנבואה בצורה סתמית2, כי משעה שידוע שכּל זה במראה נבואה, אין צורך לחזור בשעת הזכרת כל פרט של המשל ולומר שהיה במראה הנבואה. כמו שהנביא אומר: ויאמר ה' אלי3 ואינו צריך לומר שזה היה בחלום. משום כך ההמון חשב שהמעשׂים, הַמַּעֲבָרִים, השאלות והתשובות האלה היו כולם במצב של השׂגת החושים, ולא במראה הנבואה.


  14. JS, What I am trying to say is that rambam in your quote is referring to Avraham that in his dream he accepted the mission which even there he would not have had he doubted prophecy.

    Almost Freudian!

  15. Jewishskeptic11/05/2006 5:16 PM

    O.K.David,if it's like you say,& indeed the Rambam says in 2:46 (towards the end):
    וממה שזכרתי תביא ראיה על מה שלא זכרתי
    see Shem Tov & Efodi ad loc.
    If so what does that leave of the tanach or the Jewish religion?
    If all the miracles & histories involving some miracles are visions that prophets claimed they received from God & in reality never took place,that weakens very much the validity of the religion.
    If it's all a figment of someone's imagination who claimes he received from High.(One could even extend it to mitsvot!)
    לא בכדי did the Ramban write in Gen.18:2 about Rambam's views:
    אסור לשומעם אף כי להאמין בהם...
    No wonder they burned the Moreh...

  16. JS - I did not say that every miracle is a vision. There was a Kryat Yam suf . What exactly the miracle was is another issue. I believe that Moshe knew the timing of an event that was brought about by natural forces and took advantage of it. The fact that he had the guts to rely on this knowledge and he he got this knowledge is probably the greater miracle!

    It is the simplistic approach to Torah and its stories that works for the masses of unthinking people. People who question have to be directed to a more sophisticated understanding. The idea of miracles is a very deep idea that explains the Jewish understanding of God's will and has nothing to do with what people think superficially.

    In the time of the Gemara and Rishonim through the emancipation, a majority of Jews had no secular knowledge. The few who had enough knowledge to think and question were satisfied by the few sefarim they were able to find such as Moreh, Emuniot vede'ot etc... Nowadays the problem is umuch more prevalent. A lot of people are well educated and a different way of teaching has to be used. That is why you see such a proliferation of more sophisticated writings.

    Just one more quote:

    יתר על כן, מטרת הספר הזה להעיר לאדם דתי, אשר נקבעה14 בנפשו והושׂגה באמונתו15 אמיתת תורתנו, ואשר הוא שלם בדתו ובמידותיו, והוא עיין במדעי הפילוסופים וידע את משמעויותיהם, והשׂכל האנושי משכו והביאו לתת לו16 את מקומו (הראוי לו), אך מנעוהו מכך פשטי התורה, ומה שהבין - או הוסבר לו - ממשמעויות אותם שמות משותפים או מושאלים או מסופקים, וכתוצאה מכך הוא נשאר נבוך ונדהם. או שילך בעקבות שׂכלו וישליך מעליו מה שידע מאותם שמות, בחושבו שהוא משליך מעליו את יסודות התורה, או שיישאר עם מה שהבין מהם ולא יימשך אחר שׂכלו, ונמצא שהוא פנה עורף לשׂכלו וסר ממנו ויהיה סבור עם זאת שהזיק לעצמו ופגם בדתו. הוא יישאר עם אותן אמונות מדומות, פוחד וחולה, ולעולם בכאב לב ומבוכה רבה17.

  17. Interesting exchange...

    Two Observations:

    Observation 1: I appreciate the caution expressed by the Jewish Skeptic. We should (rightly) have a fear of over-"symbolizing or imagining" (based on the poison of the reform movement). One could easily argue this as the dark hallway leading to the depths of atheism or even reform. After all, everything was just a "made-up" dismisive dream. Or "don't take the Miswoth so literally" (intent is all that counts). Or it is all "FIGURATIVE" (it has been argued by heretics).

    HOWEVER, we shouldn't go the other way either. Changing (or adding to) Torah - into something it isn't, can forfit valuable concepts as well. To do this, I would further argue, is forbidden by the Creator. My view is that THIS case was indeed a vision/demonstration (or more precisely a real interaction - with a lesson). HaShem knows what He is/was doing. There is undeniable, dogmatic room to view the Akeidah as a demonstrative vision.

    What? We need to build a fence here, to protect our kids from over-symbolizing our religion? As a father with boys in TT, I too can feel this.

    However, I think we should tread cautiously, when speaking of the meaning of core content concepts like this. Motives (such as protecting) can actually interfere with the original meaning of the verse. I am not on board for that. To JS: I am also troubled about underlining this as "just a vision or imagination".

    From what I can detect, this was a real interaction. I must somehow convey this to them. Navuah (and its levels and states) is hard to explain in the limiting English term vision or imagination.

    In my humble view, we need to be careful not to imply a 'lacking of foresight', on the part of HaShem. Even if we had a recognized Sanhedrin, this is not a case for "fence building" (in my view).

    My view is that it DID happen (but not in a physical, literal way). HaShem created the world, and He knew what it needed. It is simple (for my simple mind).

    Observation 2: However, this leads us into the next point, which Dawid has not demonstrated. I believe he is trying to say that these were demonstrations - across the board - for the term Nissayon. If this is the case, he has certainly not demonstrated it (as of yet).

  18. R. David,
    I have been reading your blog for a while and I must admit that I practically never understand it.

    Let me give you an example of how I lose track of what is being said:

    “According to Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, the conversation between Avraham and God are all internal experiences triggered by the prophet’s speculation about God and His actions.”

    Ok. I think when you’re saying “conversation” you are referring to the entire Akedah event as described by the Rambam in the passages that follow. Or maybe not. When you say they are “internal experiences” you mean that they are a vision or dream – again, as described below.

    Now I’m expecting to see something about “the prophet’s speculation about God and His actions.” But what you suggest is that Avraham was questioning his own motivation -

    “If we try to visualize the story, Avraham, the great philosopher and man of action, whose whole purpose is to create a nation that will carry forward his insights about the Divine, concludes in a moment of contemplation, that his devotion to God is still faulty and inadequate. He asks himself what would happen if his plans were thwarted by a decree from God. Would he acquiesce and give all his ambitions up? Is his own ego invested in this whole nation building enterprise? Is he really truthful to himself and doing this for God’s sake or for his own satisfaction?”

    Am I misreading something here?

    Also, why the incidental description of Avraham as the great philosopher? Where was this established? Is this just culling from Midrashim? Also, why was his “whole purpose to create a nation, etc.”? Why wasn’t his whole purpose to do whatever was commanded to him? Also, how could he not give up his ambitions if so commanded? What sense would it make to continue to if he would be disobeying God? Does he believe that he can create a nation against God’s will? And the age-old question – why doesn’t he question God – both about God contradicting himself “ki vYitzchak yikare lecha zara” and about the human sacrifice? What kind of God is that? And what difference does it make if this was a vision or reality?

    Many other questions – and so many questions on the Rambam quote. But that’s enough for now. I’m very interested to hear your reply.


  19. R. Phil, I thank you for reading my blog. Your questions are excellent and need to be addressed. I will do so in my next post as it has no place on a comment.

  20. This flies in the face of the rambam.

    The rambam's point is how seriously they take the neuva, so that there is no doubt about it, b/c if there is doubt about it, he wouldn't have acte on the neuva and tried to sacrifice yitzchak. Somehow this become for you that the whole akeda sacrifice was in a fantasy with no action whatsoever?

    the ramban does *not* understand the rambam this way. He doesn't mention the akeda at all, and this is clearly for a simple reason. Unlike by eg lot, the malachim are not part of the story. By lot, if malachim are in nevua the whole episode must occur b'nevua. Similarly with feeding the malachim in their visit
    The akeda is not problematic at all in this respect, and that is why the ramban doesnt mention it! There is a tzivuy in the beginning, kach na es bincha etc and no malach until the end, where the malach comes to tell him not to sacrifice yitzchak. Even the sacrifice of the ayal is not problematic b/c the malach speaks twice, once before and once after, w/ vayisa avraham es eynav inbetween

    If it all happened in a dream, then yitzchak is not a participant at all, and the traditional understanding of yitzchok's z'chus is now gone - yitzhchok is not a player at all! Avraham has a dream about yizchok and comes to an understnding and this is yizchok's great zchus? That makes no sense.

    the rambam's hakdama is not an excuse for me to say that the rambam is talking about space travel. it's not a blank check. What is deduced must be backed up that logically it must be the rambam's intent, esp in an understanding like this which subverts the rambam's own point and everything we understand about yitzcchok

    since I'm ranting anyway, I think such an understanding should certainly not be told to an 1l year old. I think it's one thing to tell an 11 year old something mefurash in rambam, but such a speculative understanding is not for a child IMO before they can assess it. As it is, I think you are misleading happy

  21. anonymous.
    dont worry, no harm done.
    it didnt come up, too much company this shabbos.
    anyway, i have my own understanding, and maybe it fits with rashi pshat.
    see davids post on response to the this one.

  22. Happy,

    Before you speak to your son, read through the first (long) RambaN on Vayerah where he quotes the Rambam that it was only a vision and says: "He (the Rambam) contradicts the verses, and it is forbidden to believe that it was merely a vision.

    You surely don't want your son to call you a Kofer, do you?

  23. ed
    who says the ramban takes precedence over the rambam.

    i dont recall there be a sefer like the mishna berura (and even that sefer has become mythologized as definitive by ignoramuses from charedi world who purposely lie to their children, instead of the truth that the mishne berura is 1 opinion not THE opinion)that codifies all machlokes in hashkafa definitively.

    isnt it so nice to live in your world of black hats and white shirts.

  24. >ed
    who says the ramban takes precedence over the rambam.

    Ever saw what the Vilna Gaon said on the Rambam? That his philosofy "Hi'taso" - confused him?

    >isnt it so nice to live in your world of black hats and white shirts.

    Oh, I just love it.

  25. ed
    and what makes the vilna goan trump the rambam?
    your say so?

    sounds like your mesorah is convieniently changed to get the desired results.
    dont like a rishon, all of sudden you elevate an achron and say he trumps the rishon. except only that achron becuase....I dont know why.

  26. "anonymous.
    dont worry, no harm done."

    That was a little obnoxious. I retract and apologize.