Sunday, October 09, 2005

Saving the Akedah from the Philosophers

© Berel Dov Lerner. This paper appears without minor editorial modifications in The Jewish Bible Quarterly 27(1999):3:167-173.

The Philosopher's Akedah

Genesis 22 tells how God called upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountaintop in the land of Moriah. Abraham dutifully went about executing the divine request. He set off with Isaac for the appropriate spot, built an altar, bound him up as a sacrificial victim, and drew his knife to slay the boy. At the last possible moment, an angelic voice from heaven called off the slaughter. Abraham replaced Isaac with a ram for sacrifice, and the angel announced the blessings which God bestowed upon Abraham in recognition of his faithfulness. This astonishing series of events is usually referred to as the binding of Isaac, or in Hebrew, the Akedah.

Few stories in the Torah have aroused as much philosophical interest as the Akedah. Philosophers usually discuss it under the disciplinary rubric of "Divine Commands and Morality". Their reading of the story is seemingly straightforward: God has commanded Abraham to murder Isaac. Murder (and especially murder of one's own child) is obviously immoral. Therefore the Akedah story offers the classic example of a clash between the demands of God and those of morality. Which authority deserves our ultimate allegiance? The great philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested a solution which reflects his typically Enlightenment willingness to question the authority of Scripture:

Abraham should have replied to this putative divine voice: "That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But you who appear to me are God is not certain and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens"...[For] that a voice which one seems to hear cannot be divine one can be certain case what is commanded is contrary to moral law. However majestic or supernatural it may appear to be, one must regard it as a deception.1

Like other issues brought up by philosophers and theologians in connection with the Akedah, Kant's point has it's own intrinsic interest. However, it is my contention that the association of these issues with the akedah is based on a complete misunderstanding of the biblical story itself. In fact, while the Akedah is crucial for Judaism, it is useless for philosophy.

Kant's interpretation of the Akedah takes into account only two of the factors which Abraham had to consider before taking the knife to Isaac: God's putative command and the moral prohibition of murder. The philosopher forgets a third all-important element, God's promise to Abraham that Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come (Gen. 17:19).2 If Abraham had put a permanent end to Isaac's life, God's word would have been broken. One might say that while God command tested Abraham's obedience, Abraham's obedience tested God's faithfulness to the covenant. On Mount Moriah, both God and Abraham proved their devotion to the fulfillment of the divine word.

Given the promised covenant with Isaac, how was Abraham to understand his situation at the Akedah? On the one hand, Abraham's faith demanded that he obey God's command to slaughter Isaac. On the other hand, his faith equally demanded that he believe God would keep his covenant with Isaac. Abraham knew that he must do what he must do, but that somehow Isaac would live to inherit his blessings none the less.

Abraham's faith in the divine promise must modify our appraisal of the moral implications of his intended sacrifice of Isaac. Since the fulfillment of the covenant required that no evil befall Isaac, Abraham had no need to fear that in obeying God his son would be injured. Even if he had slit Isaac's throat, he would not invite moral reproach. Every day surgeons cut open the bodies of their patients and there is nothing wrong with that. Similarly, there is nothing morally reprehensible about a father slitting the throat of his son if he knows for a certainty that this could not possibly injure the child in any way. Given God's absolute guarantee of Isaac's safety, Abraham's predicament is of no particular interest for ethics.

Foremost among the akedah's philosophical interpreters is Soren Kierkegaard in his classic treatise, Fear and Trembling.3 In contrast to Kant, Kierkegaard is well aware of the importance of God's promised covenant with Isaac for the understanding of Abraham's predicament. He explicitly mentions that “Abraham believed...that he was to grow old in the land, honored by the people, blessed in his generation, remembered forever in Isaac, his dearest thing in life” (pg.35). Though Kierkegaard is aware of God's promise, this does not save him from misinterpreting the akedah. In his eagerness to make Scripture speak to moderns, Kierkegaard refuses to take seriously the possibility of the miraculous. While Abraham may have believed that things would work out for the best, Kierkegaard calls this belief "preposterous" (ibid.). Such irrational faith certainly cannot solve the Akedah's challenge to morality. Abraham's trust in God was too absurd to excuse his behavior before the tribunal of rational ethics. Kierkegaard is left with no choice but to understand the Akedah in terms of "the teleological suspension of the ethical".

From the viewpoint of Biblical Judaism there was nothing "preposterous" about divine intervention in earthly events. Abraham, who had just witnessed the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, would have every reason to believe that God could intervene, even in the worst possible situation, to save Isaac. Furthermore, the abstract issue of "Divine Commands and Morality" which concerns Kierkegaard and his fellow philosophers is out of place in the Scriptural context. Just a few chapters (Gen. 18:19) before the Akedah, God proclaimed that

I have singled him [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.

According to this verse, the "way of the Lord" and "doing what is just and right" are identical. God charged Abraham with the mission of instructing adherence to divinely endorsed morality. What would be the point of testing his adherence to divinely endorsed immorality? There is no need for Genesis to discuss the conflict between divine commands and morality because this was simply not considered a problem for biblical Judaism. The Torah sees itself not merely as a collection of amoral religious fiats, but rather as offering a system of law whose ethical validity should be evident to any thinking human being:

Observe ...[God's commands] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, "Surely that is a great nation of wise and discerning people"...What great nation has laws and norms as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:6,8)

Kierkegaard wrote ironically of a reader of the Akedah narrative that, "had [he] known Hebrew, he perhaps would [have] easily understood the story and Abraham" (pg. 26). Indeed, if he had only understood the ancient Hebrew mentality, Kierkegaard may have easily understood the story himself. From the biblical standpoint, Kierkegaard's openness to the possibility of a conflict between morality and duty to God seems "preposterous", while Abraham's faith in the covenant was perfectly reasonable.

The Unphilosophical Akedah

By now, many readers of this essay will be exasperated. I have, it would seem, too "easily understood" the Akedah. Abraham knew that no harm would come Isaac's way, so he could cheerfully climb the heights of Moriah without a second thought. The great test of faith appears trivial. This reaction reveals how thoroughly ensnared we have become in the philosopher's reading of the Akedah. All we look for is the conceptual puzzle, the theological paradox. We read the story as if it were an example from a text-book on ethics, and we are disappointed by its lack of intellectual interest.

Often, what is trivial in theory is profound in practice. Had Abraham been asked to "solve" the problem of the Akedah in a philosophy examination essay, there would be nothing impressive about the story. However, Abraham was called upon to take not merely a pencil to a sheet of paper but rather a knife to his son's throat. His faith in the covenant was so great that he was actually prepared to perform the terrible deed, knowing that God would somehow spare Isaac. The akedah did not test Abraham's grasp of existential theology, but rather the true mettle of his obedience to God's command and his trust in God's promise.

A test of trust need not strain reason. Consider the exercise popularized by psychologists in which I am asked to fall straight back into my friend's waiting arms. If my friend does not catch me, I may be seriously injured. I know my friend realizes this and would never allow such a thing to happen. In principle, I should be prepared to participate in the exercise without hesitation. However, at the moment of truth, my faith may easily fail me. While the conscious regions of my mind command that I fall, my very body resists. My entirely rational trust in my friend has not penetrated into my muscles and bones. Yet Abraham's hand did clutch the knife. The Akedah teaches us that absolute trust in God had permeated every aspect and level of Abraham's existence. That Abraham had no reason to question his faith on intellectual grounds makes his adherence to it in practice no less impressive.

The Defense of Sodom and Gomorrah

Once we understand that Genesis is more concerned with the spiritual development of living, embodied human beings than with posing abstract theological paradoxes, other episodes in Abraham's career become more intelligible. For instance, from the philosopher's standpoint, Abraham's haggling with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah seems ridiculous. When it came to sacrificing his own son, Abraham knew better than to question divine justice. What was the point of arguing about God's plans to punish blatantly corrupt cities? Abraham might be regarded as having failed in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah. Such is the view proposed by James Rachels,4 a leading writer on ethics:

...he [Abraham at the akedah] subordinated himself, his own desires and judgments, to God's command, even when the temptation to do otherwise was strongest. Abraham's record in this respect was not perfect. We...have the story of him bargaining with God over the conditions for saving Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. God said that he would destroy those cities because they were so wicked; but Abraham gets God to agree that if fifty righteous men can be found there, then the cities will be spared. Then he persuades God to lower the number to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. Here we have a different Abraham, not servile and obedient, but willing to challenge God and bargain with him. However, even as he bargains with God, Abraham realizes that there is something radically inappropriate about it: he says, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes...Oh let not the Lord be angry...(Genesis 18:27, 30).

Taking into account that in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode, Abraham had not actually been commanded to do anything, Rachel's comments lose much of their force. If God wants to hurt someone, that is His affair. Our business remains, as always, to help each other in times of need. The Torah never denies our morally responsibility to ameliorate any and all human suffering, even suffering resulting from divinely inflicted (and ultimately justifiable) punishment. For instance: Eve's curse from God I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children (Gen. 3:16) was never understood as undermining the moral standing of the midwife's vocation of easing the birth process. Despite Adam's curse By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat (Gen. 3:19), we remain obligated to share our bread with the needy, even (especially!) when this lightens their burden of work.5 Although these considerations weaken the case against Abraham, we may still wonder whether Abraham was right to question God's decision. Was it not pointless to question God's obviously perfect and unchanging justice?

Here again we must remember that the Torah is concerned with Abraham as a complete human being rather than as an abstract theological cogitator. Of course, from a strictly theoretical standpoint, there is no room for Abraham's argument with God. Setting oneself against the almighty, omniscient and perfectly just Divinity is irrational. However, there are times when the spiritual price of strict rationality is too great. Entire cities stand to be annihilated; can theological casuistry silence Abraham's appeal? How coldhearted would Abraham have to be in order to resign himself to the cold logic of philosophy? What would have been left of Abraham's human solidarity had he stood idly by while God spoke of destroying whole communities?

Abraham could march forth to Moriah with the faith that God would keep his promise to make Isaac prosper. Faced with the terrible knowledge that God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham came forward to defend them. Neither occasion involved a test of his theological acumen. In each case, Abraham acted as befits a living, caring, human being who is completely permeated with faith in the reality of God's words and actions.

The Meaning of the Akedah for Judaism Today

What the Akedah has lost in philosophical interest, in gains in its importance for Judaism and the Jewish people. Kierkegaard's brand of paradoxical theology has not traditionally appealed to Jews. It is true that Christianity has, at times, gloried in the "scandal" of its doctrine and praised the pure faith of those who believe in spite of their reason. However, as Leo Strauss pointed out, "Jewish orthodoxy based its claim to superiority over other religions from the beginning on its superior rationality."6 Far from invoking "the teleological suspension of the ethical", Judaism has traditionally dealt with apparent clashes between divine commands and morality by reinterpreting the divine commands (i.e. halacha – Jewish Law) in a way which takes into account moral concerns.

What Jews must attend to in the akedah story is Abraham's active trust in God and obedience to His word. Such trust and obedience was essential for Abraham, and later for the entire Jewish people, to fulfil their respective historic missions. Judaism today does not demand that we take our children up to some new Moriah, but it does ask that we educate them to form the next generation of Jews. History has taught that such a destiny may bring to them its own real dangers. While Abraham witnessed miracles and conversed with God, our experience of the divine is limited. Will we find the strength to share Abraham's trust in the covenantal promise, and will our trust be as well justified? Such are the questions which the Akedah poses for Jewish existence today.

1) From Kant’s Streit der Fakultaten as translated by Emil Fackenheim in his Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy: A Preface to Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken, 1973) pg. 34. What I call the "philosophical" reading of the akedah has such a strong hold on modern thinkers that even so staunchly Jewish a philosopher as Fackenheim admits to the importance of Kant's problematic for Judaism.
2) All scriptural quotations are from the New Jewish Publication Society translation.
3) Soren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death (Walter Lowrie, translator) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941).
4) Page 42 of "God and Human Attitudes" in Paul Helm's (editor) Divine Commands and Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp.34-48.
5) See my "`And He Shall Rule Over Thee'", Judaism 37:4 (Fall 1988): 446-9. This principle does not contradict the requirement of our obedience to divine commands which call upon us to inflict justified suffering on the wicked, i.e. the punishments due to criminals under Jewish law. See my paper, “Interfering with Divinely Imposed Suffering” Religious Studies 36:95-102 (2000)
6) Leo Strauss. Spinoza's Critique of Religion (E. M. Sinclair, trans.) (New York: Schocken, 1965), pg. 30.


Blogger Uri Cohen said...

Hi, Prof. Lerner.

Thanks for posting this article! It's my favorite treatment of the Akeidah.

Compare this more recent article:

"Abraham Trusted That God Would Stop Him," by Rabbi Howard L. Apothaker. It appeared in Conservative Judaism, Fall 2004, pp. 30-53.

Kol Tuv,
Uri Cohen
(formerly in Princeton, now back in Ramat Beit Shemesh)

12:27 PM  
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