The Sound of Silence

How far can words go to communicate our innermost thoughts and feelings? Can everything find expression in speech? We use language to make our inner worlds accessible to others, allowing those willing to listen a glimpse into our otherwise mysterious and opaque selves. Our ability to communicate affords the opportunity to forge a space of shared understanding and knowledge. And yet, at a certain point, speech and language hit a barrier after which only silence is possible. We cannot escape the unspeakable elements of our lives which  evade expression within our vocabulary. As Walter Benjamin once wrote: “Every conversation strives towards silence.” Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

The notion that silence plays a critical role in our lives was emphasised repeatedly by the rabbis of the Talmud who were particularly careful to praise those who limited their speech and were capable of silence.  Rav Dimi stated that “speech is worth one selah whilst silence [shtikuta] is worth two” (Megila, 18a). Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel stated: “I spent all my days growing up among wise sages and found nothing better for the body than silence” (Pirkei Avot, 1:17). Taking this idea to heart, Maimonides cautions against idle chit-chat and superfluous speech. All things considered, Maimonides writes: “A person should always accustom himself to keeping silent (lit., ‘should increase his silence’). He should speak only of matters of wisdom or matters pertaining to his living needs” (MT, Deot, 2). Good oratory skills and a gift of the gab may be considered  the hallmarks of a successful leader in today’s age.  Yet, to these ancient and medieval rabbis, knowing when not to speak was more important than verbosity; “silence is a fence for wisdom” (Pirkei Avot, 3).

In parashat Vayera, this week’s parasha [weekly Torah portion]  as it so happens,  we witness a drastic change in Abraham’s use of speech.  Abraham’s loquacious negotiation with God over Sedom abruptly turns into deafening silence at the akedah [the binding of Isaac]. At the outset of the parasha, learning of God’s impending destruction of Sedom, Abraham challenges God’s decision and pleads for mercy on Sedom’s behalf. Abraham refuses to remain quiet and engages God in a wordy negotiation to halt the annihilation. Abraham only turns quiet once it becomes abundantly clear that no mitigating factors exist and that the path of rescue is firmly closed. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba, 49) highlights the magnitude of Abraham’s speech by explaining that God could not execute His damning judgement upon the people of Sedom until Abraham stopped speaking. Abraham thus illustrates the truly divine power of speech. Language awakens the divinity within man to the point where he can negotiate with God and even change the fate of the universe through the simple utterance of words. Human civilization has achieved so much through its ability to communicate ideas.

And yet, only a few verses later, Abraham suddenly falls silent. God reveals His Will to Abraham once again, this time commanding the proud father to sacrifice his own son. Rather than voicing his legitimate concerns,  questioning this command or even uttering a single syllable in protest, Abraham obediently and silently acquiesces to God’s call. The Midrash (Tanchuma, 39) explains that Abraham had a plethora of valid reasons to question God’s judgement and yet nevertheless made himself silent, “like a mute.” The mighty figure who delayed God’s Will through the act of speech now seems bereft of all language. According to Erich Auerbach, the literary critic, the brief and fleeting conversation between Abraham and Isaac about the ram only interrupts the “heavy silence” which purveys the entire akedah scene. The silence surrounding the akedah is further highlighted by Rashi, who points out that Abraham only returns to speech once the whole ordeal is over: “Let me spread out my speech before you.”

Many philosophers have criticised Abraham for this notable absence of speech. In his Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have replied forcefully to this Divine voice: “That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain!” Kant would have had Abraham contest God’s command and, failing that, reject it outright. For Kant, Abraham’s silence during the akedah is a damning false piety and thus worthy of condemnation.

However, Jewish thought opts for a different tact, viewing Abraham’s act of silence  during the akedah as worthy of the highest praise. Indeed, the akedah is publicly read during the holiest moments of the Jewish calendar and is repeatedly recalled in liturgy to serve as an example of true faith.

Abraham’s silence illustrates that moments of profound meaning cannot always be adequately met with the right words. At times, a powerful silence conveys more than any speech can express. Abraham’s silence is no mere empty muteness indicating an absence of feeling, emotion or thought. Rather, Abraham’s quiet during the akedah is replete with meaning, indicative of the deep conflict any parent would have felt. Abraham could find no words to respond to the uniqueness of such a singularly personal event of epic dimensions. A moment fraught with profound questions of morality and indeed the very future of his very own family. And yet, Abraham’s silence also betrays a sense of deep inner understanding in the face of the Divine, a deep-seated understanding transcending all expression and beyond verbal communication.

Franz Rosenzweig
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) devoted his life to Jewish thought, publishing his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption, in 1921.

To my mind, a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, the German-Jewish philosopher of the early twentieth Century, helps drive this point home. As I learned from the PhD research of Ynon Wygoda, silence plays an important role within Rosenzweig’s ouevre. Rosenzweig believed that meaningful silence is to be found in many of our relationships in life; both with the Divine and our contemporaries: “First one cannot speak to another; next one can do so; and finally one no longer finds it necessary to do so. One understands the other even without words.” Rosenzweig continues: “There is a silence that no longer needs words. It is the silence of perfect understanding.” For Rosenzweig, our most intimate moments in life often take place under the cover of silence.

Rosenzweig believed that man constantly oscillates between speech and silence. A relationship built on true understanding reaches a point where words become superfluous and communication continues into the realm of silence, through what is conveyed in the unspoken, our silent gestures. As Rosenzweig articulates so powerfully: “Light does not talk, it shines.” Abraham shows us both the power and limitations of our language and speech. The mere utterance of words has achieved so much in this world. And yet, Abraham’s behaviour during the akedah teaches us that our most profound experiences in life, be they religious or personal, require a healthy dose of silence too. Silence does indeed speak volumes.

 

6 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence”

  1. It seems to me that Abraham’s silence is a withdrawal from that “space of shared understanding and knowledge,” even as he goes about complying with God’s will, into himself.

    1. TomG thanks for your comment! As I mentioned in the reply to Lisa, sometimes silences are a kind of withdrawal as you say. But, I don’t think that these silences necessarily need to be reflective of distance. Sometimes silence, at the right moments, brings people closer. In Abraham’s case, his silence during the Akedah is often seen as the pinnacle of his religious development.

  2. Seems to me there are two kinds of silences. One in which man has trouble finding the right words to express himself, the other in which man finds words aren’t necessary to express himself. Those are quite opposite silences. The first arising from a place of chaos and confusion, the second from perfect order- where there is a deeper understanding involved and as you mentioned, words, at that point, are superfluous.

    Abrahams silence (and even more classic example- Aaron’s at his sons’ deaths) can be interpreted both ways. The first is more of a “human nature, as we know it” approach. After all we are led to believe that they are human and do struggle with much the same issues we struggle with today. The other understanding points to the spiritual level of Abraham and Aaron- where their understanding of God and His ways transcends human nature; which is where I think you were headed in this article…

    1. Thanks so much for the comment Lisa. What you say is very true. Some silences are a withdrawal in the face of chaos, reflective of our inability to fully deal with the magnitude of the situation facing us. A normal human reaction we all have on a fairly regular basis. I guess what I was trying to argue in the article was that often the two types of silence you mention are very much bound together. Often situations in life are complicated and chaotic, and we don’t always have the right words to deal with those situations. Nevertheless, we find a way of surmounting them. Abraham was silent, yet he still carried out the task demanded of him. The midrash says that Abraham cried throughout the akedah. He was definitely conflicted and torn inside.

      Thanks also for bringing up Aaron’s silence. I think the major difference between Aaron and Abraham in this respect is that Aaron reacts to a tragedy, whereas Abraham’s silence is in the context of a developing relationship between him and God. Aaron had no choice in the matter, the event has already happened, and he can only painfully pick up the pieces in the aftermath. I think the word used there, Vayidom Aharon, is a much more painful silence. I think the Ramban says the silence of Aharon occurred after his mournful sobbing. And this was the main point I was trying to convey: In the context of relationships, between God or with the people in our lives, sometimes silence is important. We can convey meaning and understanding in our silences as well as through our speech. Importantly, Abraham’s silence only comes after having spoken at length with God. So, a high degree of communication is necessary before turning to a meaningful silent moment.

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