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.
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.