Let My People Know

"Jewish thought uses pictorial or imagery concepts instead of abstract concepts"

"Modern Western thought is characterized by an extensive use of abstract concepts that exist and operate within a more general abstract system. 

Jewish thought, on the other hand, has, with very few exceptions, done without them. 

Abstract concepts are not to be found in the Bible, the Talmud, or even in relatively modern Chasidic texts. 

Indeed, with such a small number of abstract concepts, it would appear to be almost impossible for Jewish writings to express anything profound. 

This, of course, is not true, and although they employ few abstract concepts, Jewish writings do deal with abstractions. 

Furthermore, Jewish literature is distinguished by a progressive abstraction of ideas, and thus the absence of abstract concepts cannot be attributed to the antiquity of the texts.

It is, of course, quite impossible to manipulate complex and abstract ideas without concepts, and Jewish sources do employ them. 

The concepts used, however, are not abstract but rather plastic and depictive, and they communicate their meaning rather like a metaphor or a visual representation. 

In other words, Jewish thought uses pictorial or imagery concepts instead of abstract concepts. The imagery concepts used are frequently derived from the commonplace, from everyday life and work.

For example, legal texts frequently use words and phrases like 'horn,' 'tooth,''foot,' 'warned,' and 'the blow of a hammer.' 

The latter phrase, for example, encompasses the entire range of activities, that, using abstract concepts, we would call 'the completion of a task.' 

It may seem strange to us, but Jewish legal texts will say of a man who makes a collar for a garment on the Sabbath that he is culpable because of 'the blow of the hammer.' 

Furthermore, a wealth of such phrases and imagery concepts are used in the Kabbalah and the Aggadah to express abstractions that would be described in other systems by means of abstract concepts. 

Once one has become accustomed to these imagery concepts, they can be seen to be no less effective in expressing abstractions than the abstract concepts with which we are familiar."

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "The Imagery Concept in Jewish Thought" from The Strife of the Spirit, p. 62, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz