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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 269-283

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To Live a Riddle:
The Case of the Binding of Isaac

Galia Patt-Shamir

MOST OF US BELIEVE we know what a riddle is. Usually it is an obscurity, or a set of obscurities, for which—we assume—an answer can be given, even if one is not yet known. Most of us, moreover, believe we know what a solution to a riddle is; in most cases it is a well-defined explanation of the obscurities inherent in the riddle. But what if these obscurities cannot be defined well inherently? In this case, it may be called "a living riddle." Most of us probably have never given a thought to what a living riddle is, and to what would amount to a response. In this article, I attempt to understand the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah), as a riddle of a special type, a riddle whose "solution" is one's life.

An underlying assumption here is that obscurities and paradoxical expressions in religious texts reflect real conflicts in life. No one can completely understand a foreign form of life; and moreover, in each form of life the most crucial ideas are couched only in subtle cues. The idea of a living riddle opens a channel between texts and practice; an ability to see the riddle expresses understanding for the form of life it represents.

The article opens with a philosophical exposition, followed by a literary illustration regarding the role of riddle in a religious context. In the second part, we offer a methodology, mainly as an implication of the later Wittgenstein's texts; in this part, we will focus on the senses of life as a riddle. The third part focuses on life as the response to the riddle. By applying this method to the biblical story of the Akedah, we will refer to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In the fourth part, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are interwoven to highlight the absurd. [End Page 269] This article ends with a counter-example to the futile attempt to reason with the Akedah, as presented in Kafka's short story "Abraham."


Let us start in reading two passages from Wittgenstein's Culture and Value.

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about . . . but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. (p. 28)

But in that case why is the scripture so unclear? If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? But who is to say that the scripture is really unclear? Isn't it possible that it was essential in this case to 'tell a riddle'? (p. 31) 1

Wittgenstein stresses that first and foremost, the particular case of Christianity refers to a system of practices. In his words Christianity is not a theory about something; it is human life itself. Religious belief can, and has to be, expressed in riddles: telling a riddle is essential for understanding. According to the present view, a riddle is a question in which the answer is inherent. The riddle itself is a hint toward its solution. If, by analogy, a careful detective discovers a clue and shows that it is inherent in the puzzle, we get closer to unraveling the whole.

Religion is presented as a riddle of a special kind. Its "solution" is not found in theoretical terms; rather, it is a commitment; "a living riddle." When one takes up this riddle as one's life, one commits every move in life as an expression of the riddle. Even without living it, an ability to see the riddle and its response is an ability for "seeing every problem from a religious point of view," despite seeing oneself as "not a religious person" (as Wittgenstein testifies of himself). 2 The ability to see that it is a living riddle, allows an "outsider" to recognize a certain point about the believer's life not...


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