This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Binding Disagreement*

Of all the biblical themes that are recalled on Rosh Hashanah, the most significant is probably the story of the "Akedah," the binding of Isaac. This poignant episode was designated as the Torah reading for the second day of the festival, and is alluded to in many ways in the prayers and rituals of the holiday.

By relating how our ancestors Abraham and Isaac were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to prove their total devotion to God, Jewish tradition found reassurance that subsequent generations of Abraham's descendants will be able to draw upon the merits that were earned by the patriarchs. This conviction is particularly important in this season of judgment, when we do not always feel certain that our individual merits are adequate to ensure a favourable verdict.

According to ancient interpretations, the sounding of the shofar is intended to evoke the memory of that "ram caught in a thicket by his horns" that was offered up in Isaac's stead.

When we consider the centrality of the Akedah for the Jewish religious outlook, it is hardly imaginable that any mainstream Jewish thinker could entertain doubts about whether the story actually occurred.

And yet there were some distinguished rabbinical authorities who raised precisely that question, suggesting that Abraham and Isaac's trek to Mount Moriah was nothing more than a symbolic vision that had no objective reality outside of Abraham's mind.

Such an approach was alluded to by the twelfth-century exegete and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, who classified the binding of Isaac, alongside the story of Jonah and the fish, as illustrations of his theory that all biblical prophecy consists of visions and dreams, whose only existence is in the consciousness of the dreamer.

Ibn Ezra introduced his interpretation with an assurance that he was initiating his readers into a deep secret. Nevertheless, subsequent commentators were eager to advocate his approach openly in their published writings.

One of the most interesting of these authors was Rabbi Nissim ben Moses of Marseilles, a fourteenth-century scholar whose mastery of the biblical and rabbinic traditions was combined with an avid commitment to the rationalistic approach advocated by the school of Maimonides.

Citing Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Nissim concluded that "everything that is said and everything that is done in the story, including the ram that appeared caught in a thicket by his horns, should be understood as falling under the category of 'signs.'"

"Signs" is a technical term that Rabbi Nissim coined to indicate symbolic dreams that appeared to the prophets.

It is true that the tendency to locate biblical stories in the realm of psychic visions was particularly stressed in the writings of Maimonides, who often employed this approach in cases that involved supernatural apparitions and angels. Accordingly, he denied the historicity of such episodes as the visit of the three angels to Abraham, and Jacob's struggle with the mysterious figure at the ford of Jabbok.

Some support for this non-literalist way of thinking could be found in the words of the talmudic rabbis who had, for example, debated about whether Job was merely a fictional character.

Maimonides' stand on the historicity of the Akedah was the focus of an intensive correspondence between two Italian scholars in the late thirteenth-century.

Rabbi Zerahiah Hen, originally of Barcelona, was firm in his conviction that the miraculous events in the Bible should be read as allegories or as visions; and he invoked the authority of Maimonides in support of this position.

This claim was challenged by Rabbi Hillel ben Samuel of Verona, who was apparently disturbed by its potential for undermining the historical claims of the Bible.

Rabbi Hillel's arguments have not come down to us in their original form, but only via Zerahiah's refutations. The evidence suggests that he dealt with the question at considerable length, and that he wavered between diverse views.

Initially, Rabbi Hillel conceded that Maimonides had relegated the entire narrative about the journey to Mount Moriah to the realm of prophetic vision, but he was reluctant to accept the radical implications of such a hypothesis.

In the end, not only did he opt for a literal understanding of the biblical story, but he also ascribed this view to Maimonides. This aroused the ire of Rabbi Zerahiah, who accused his colleague of obscurantism and slandering the rationalistic credentials of the great philosopher.

Against the background of such discussions we may appreciated how, when the Zohar expounded the episode of the binding of Isaac, it quickly dismissed the Torah's assertion that God was testing Abraham, arguing instead that the real subject of the trial was Isaac, who was an adult at the time. As an alternative, the Zohar proposed an allegorical interpretation of the story, involving a mystical confrontation between the divine qualities of lovingkindness (represented by Abraham) and justice (Isaac).

The question of the historical truth of the Scriptures was often blurred among the Kabbalists, for whom many biblical personalities were perceived as symbolic embodiments of divine attributes.

Although Rabbi Nissim was not the first Jewish commentator to challenge the historicity of the Bible, it is hard to think of any others who argued the case with such zeal and boldness. The familiar episodes that he treats as philosophical parables or prophetic dreams include: Adam and Eve's activities in the Garden of Eden, the conflict of Cain and Abel, the revelation in the burning bush, Balaam's talking ass, and many more.

Arguing a position that would surely have branded him as heretical in today's Orthodox milieu, Rabbi Nissim even suggested that the Torah was not the product of a word-for-word dictation by God, but rather the outcome of a more general philosophical inspiration or enlightenment. The Bible's frequent use of expressions that imply literal divine speech should be understood as mere salves for the crude masses who are more easily impressed by the book's divine origins than by its sublime spiritual content.

For Rabbis Zerahiah of Barcelona and Nissim of Marseilles, the profound lessons of Abraham's achievement are unrelated to the question of its historicity. The ideal that is embodied in the story is a pure and absolute love for the Creator that moves a person to go beyond all earthly considerations. Viewed in this manner, argues Rabbi Nissim, it is almost trivial to concern ourselves with whether we read the Bible as fact or as edifying fiction. Rabbi Nissim speaks derisively of the ignorant masses who read the Bible "merely" as a record of the virtuous deeds of our ancestors.

Transcending all these disagreements, these diverse Jewish thinkers were united in their conviction that the importance of Torah lies not in what it tells us about the past, but in how it shapes our minds and values for the present and future.

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Sanctified Seasons

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  • First Publication:
      The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 6, 2002, pp. 22-3.
  • Bibliography:
    • Eisenstein-Barzilay, Isaac. Between Reason and Faith:. Anti-Rationalism in Italian Jewish Thought 1250-1650 Publications in near and Middle East Studies, Columbia University, ed. Tibor Halasi-Kun etal. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1967.
    • Kreisel, Haim. "The Torah Commentary of R. Nissim Ben Mosheh of Marseilles: On a Medieval Approach to Torah U-Madda." The Torah u-Madda Journal 10 (2001): 20-36.
    • Sirat, Colette. A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Cambridge [UK]; New York; Paris: Cambridge University Press; Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1985.