This week’s parasha is Vayera, which concludes with the famous account of the “binding of Isaac”, or Akedah. Last year we explored how God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, nor did He command it. This year we explore a much bigger question: did the Akedah even happen? In his Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”, Part II, Ch. 41) the Rambam writes:
Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from God, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.
The Rambam gives a number of examples of events that did not physically happen, but were only dreamt, including, quite surprisingly, Jacob wrestling the angel, Bilaam and his donkey, and the three angels that visit Abraham at the start of this week’s parasha. The Ramban, meanwhile, criticizes the Rambam for his approach, going so far as to say that “It is forbidden to listen” or “to believe” in such ideas.
Nonetheless, the notion that the Akedah happened entirely in a dream vision persisted long after the Rambam and Ramban. Marc B. Shapiro presents a thorough analysis of this conflict in his Changing the Immutable (pgs. 67-71). Shapiro notes that among those who accepted the Rambam’s opinion are the great Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the Efodi (Rabbi Isaac ben Moses haLevi, c. 1350-1415), and Rav Nissim of Marseilles (c. 13th-14th century), who stated that Ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1167) also took this approach.
These sages argue that the Akedah passage is highly uncharacteristic of Abraham. When God told Abraham that He would smite Sodom, Abraham immediately protested and argued with Him. Yet here, God commands something incomprehensible, and Abraham does not even say a word? Abraham spent his entire life combatting idolatry, including child sacrifice, and now he suddenly and willingly goes to sacrifice his own child? It simply cannot be! The Akedah must have been a dream.
Is the Torah a History Book?
In truth, the notion that the Akedah was only a vision doesn’t hold much water. The text itself states that “Abraham woke up in the morning”—God’s command was certainly a vision, but the rest did physically happen. It was a three day’s journey, and after the incident Abraham names the place that would eventually be Jerusalem. At the end, we are told that Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva. It is difficult to see how the whole thing could be a dream. The same is true for the three angels visiting Abraham. How could it be a dream if Sarah interacted with these angels as well, and two of the angels went on to destroy Sodom?
Of course, there are those who argue that none of this happened at all, and the Torah is nothing but a set of national myths or stories. This brings up an important question: is the Torah a history book?
The answer is a definitive no. “Torah” can mean a lot of things (“law”, “instruction”, “teaching”, “guide”) but it does not mean “history”. The Torah is an instructional manual for life. Some of it describes historical events, but most of it records laws, ethics, rituals, and metaphysical realities. The purpose of the Torah is for us to study it and discuss it, “turn it over and turn it over”, analyze it and develop its ideas, and thereby bring the Torah to life. We have already written in the past that Jews don’t really “follow” the Torah, we live it, and we grow with it, and evolve together with it.
Besides, archaeologists have found a plethora of evidence to support the historical aspects of the Torah, including multiple seals bearing the name Yakov, the tomb of a Semitic-Egyptian official that fits the bill of Joseph exactly, Egyptian records describing the expulsion of a large Semitic nation of “shepherd-kings”, and many more events from the Tanakh.
Still, the Torah is not a history book and should not be studied that way. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) wrote that the narratives of the Torah are only its outermost garment, the legal and homiletical aspects are its main body, but it is the spiritual and mystical wisdom within it that is the true soul of the Torah. He based this on the Zohar (III, 152a), which speaks with even harsher language:
Rabbi Shimon said: “Woe to the person who says that the Torah comes to give instructions and tell descriptive stories and simple tales. … Every word in the Torah reflects higher wisdom and higher secrets… The narratives of the Torah are only the outer clothing of the Torah. Whoever thinks that this outer clothing is, in fact, the Torah and there is nothing underneath the clothing is spiritually backward and has no portion in the World to Come…
One who studies the Torah superficially, and accepts its laws and narratives only at face value, without penetrating into the Torah’s depths, is making a big mistake and will ultimately forfeit their portion in Olam HaBa. Such a person’s faith will be weak, and they will be unable to deal with supposed “historical inaccuracies” or “scientific contradictions” which we are bombarded with constantly. In reality, when delving deeper into the Torah and embracing it entirely, it becomes abundantly clear that there are no inaccuracies or contradictions at all. The Torah is truth.