by: Mark Kirschbaum on November 1st, 2012 | 5 Comments »
I don’t think I need to retell the story of the akedah, the “sacrifice of Isaac” by his father Abraham, following the word of God, I find it emotionally difficult to retell the tale in a literal manner. I do think the entire episode demands a dramatic reevaluation.
I suppose, if I wanted to put my problem with this passage in an inflammatory manner, I could ask, what kind of God is it that puts any person through this kind of “test”, and what kind of man is Abraham if he chooses to follow such a command? Eli Wiesel tells the story of a woman at the gates of Auschwitz (a story borrowed and corrupted in Sophie’s Choice) who is asked to choose which of her two children will be sent to the crematorium, her immediate response is a howling, shrieking insanity; her tormentors shot her on the spot.
No human being can or should ever be put through what may be the cruelest form of torture, the loss of a child, certainly not by a compassionate God.
Furthermore, if Abraham’s action is the apogee of the religious experience, as is commonly accepted particularly after the classic book of Kierkegaard on the subject, then why do we shudder nowadays when children are sent by their parents to die for a political cause? Are others truer to the words of our text than we are? Let us ask frankly, what kind of lesson are we supposed to derive from this perasha?
Let us return to Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”, probably the most resonant philosophical/theological reading of this passage in Western literature. According to Kierkegaard, an honest reading of this text presents us with an Abraham who is either a murderer, or a man fully dedicated to the word of God even when God’s word is a total rupture with the demands of the ethical. This act of Abraham’s is the epitome of the ‘religious’, which is invariably at odds and transcendent to the merely ‘ethical’; contained within this act is also a powerful statement of individual singularity as opposed to surrendering what is unique in us to the demands of the collective.
Kierkegaard’s approach to the akedah text in Fear and Trembling had major repercussions in the world of Jewish thought; for example, one noted Orthodox thinker wrote a book called “Fear and Trembling and Fire” which was an attempt to read Kierkegaard into the Hassidic thinkers in a kind of theological apologetics, partly due to R. Soloveitchik’s apparent fondness for Kierkegaard’s approach.
I suppose the Kierkegaardian reading is more attractive reading than what many of us might have encountered in Lithuanian yeshivot- the lessons the Beis Halevi derives from this text, for example, are
1. That the akedah occurred so that Avraham would not become tempted to love Yishmael more, and
2. That all of us who sometimes bend Halacha to support our children are not at the level of Avraham (i.e., that we should be ready to harm our families if the choice has to be made!).
In my college years, under the influence of R. Soloveitchik, I too became a “Kierkegaardian”; I taught that position as a youth leader many times. Here I’ll present why we should move from this Kierkegaardian reading of this problematic text.
Two contemporary thinkers have recently taken on Kierkegaard specifically in terms of his approach to the Akedah (aside from the obvious Christological referent behind Kierkegaard’s reading of the text). In two essays, collected in “Proper Names”, Levinas is sympathetic to Kierkegaard’s rehabilitation of subjectivity (that is, the emphasis on the individual’s personal decision process) , particularly in relation to the idealist thinking he was confronting (which subsumed the individual into larger universal processes), but at the same time reminds us of the dangers of “overcoming” the realm of the ethical in favor of purely individual yearnings- he explicitly links this approach to the rise of Nazism (Levinas, Proper Names, pp. 76).
According to Levinas, once our sole responsibility is “torment for self”, without concern for the Other, once our belief
…is no longer justified in the outer world, it is at once communication and solitude, and hence violence and passion. (Proper Names pp. 72).
Much like in his critique of Heidegger, Levinas is concerned that idolization of the abstract and purely individual over the interpersonal (the concern for other people) will lead believers to justify the eradication of those other people who seem to stand in the way of their individual desires.
Derrida, in his recent “The Gift of Death”, disagrees with Kierkegaard’s reading from the opposite direction, denying the transcendence of the ethical by denying the uniqueness of this supposed victory over the ethical of Kierkegaard’s conception, as summarized in Derrida’s refrain, “tout autre est tout autre“, all others are entirely Other, so that at all times, every decision one makes for one’s self is a sort of akedah. To Derrida, Kierkegaard’s critique of the “ethical” where the ethical is a kind of general consensus that is surrendered to by the individual, is false, because at every moment, in every particular ethical response, I am exercising my singularity, privileging my own personal, particular choices:
….I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others. Tout autre est tout autre, every one else is completely or wholly other. The simple concepts of alterity and of singularity constitute the concept of duty as much as that of responsibility. As a result the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia. As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others. What binds me to singularities, to this one or that one, male or female, rather than that one or this one, remains fully unjustifiable (this is Abraham’s hyper-ethical sacrifice) (The Gift of Death pp 68-71)
Thus, any act of duty on behalf of those close to me is in some sense a sacrifice on Moriah of all those others who could also benefit from my actions; then, this
“absolute duty (to those who he chooses as beneficiaries of his necessary correct action) absolves him of every debt and releases him from every duty. Absolute ab-solution” (pp73).
It is a reasonable assumption that the Hassidic masters did not read Kierkegaard (not least due to the dearth of reliable Danish-Yiddish translators), but closer in spirit to the woman with the unthinkable choice in Wiesel’s book, they could not accept that God had at any point asked Avraham to kill his son.
I will present several thinkers who explicitly deny that God or Abraham ever thought actually murdering Isaac was the intent, and how they thus read this text. I am emboldened in finding these alternate readings by the fact that even back in the medieval period, Ramban describes the entire Akeda episode as a punishment to Avraham; furthermore, I believe that Avraham is not the ultimate expression of faith as viewed in the Jewish sources; we will see later that Moses replaces Avraham exactly on this point- Moses is great because of his self-effacing concern for the people as a whole even at the risk of his own personal relationship with God- this being the truer archetype of the Jewish spiritual dialectic continually challenging the relationship between personal needs and communal responsibility.
The Beer Mayim Hayim offers the most “ethical” reading, interesting both in light of Levinas’ and Derrida’s critique of Kierkegaard’s religious versus ethical. He attempts to explain how it was possible for Abraham to believe that God was asking this sacrifice from him, by viewing it not as a blind response to a command, but from an ethical perspective. Abraham, he explains, had seen the corruption of the world around him, especially that of Sodom, and thought that perhaps the sacrifice of Yitzhak would, as with the asara harugei malhut, the ten martyrs of Roman times who paid with their lives as a result of trying to teach their entire generation, serve in lieu of the destruction again of all of humanity. One life to save many lives.
The Noam Elimelech is more radical, stating flat out that neither Abraham nor Isaac had any serious belief that God actually wanted a sacrifice to be carried out, basing this assumption on a textual clue:
…Abraham whose trait was mercy went with the certainty that both would return safely, as he says to his accompanying youths, we will pray and return to you (in the plural)…
Their test was that they went up with full intention ki’eelu, “as though” they were actually going to carry it out. For what God wants is a response to his call, the actual action being less important. The intention was transformed adequately into action by the splitting of the wood in creation of the altar, and that was sufficient response.
Derrida in “The Gift of Death” at one point offers a properly midrashic position that suggests an encounter with traditional sources- he points out on pp 58 that the Hebrew word korban, the usual biblical term for sacrifice is not used in this perasha, and explains, that a sacrifice, a korban, “supposes the putting to death of the unique in terms of its being unique, irreplaceable, and most precious”. In our essay on Perashat Vayikra we discuss at length, the way in which a korban is “wasted”, by which we restore the uniqueness of the “sacred” by removing it from the economy of personal use (nicely paralleling Battaile). Derrida could have been quoting directly from the Bais Yaakov who points out that no human being must ever be that far transformed; humans can’t be utterly wasted like a korban- the human has a continuous “use” in serving God (Lainer edition pp 162 and 164). Thus, Abraham refused to accept the idea that all the work he had done to promote the value of God in the world would be put at risk by killing his son, and figured throughout the three day journey that indeed there was some other meaning to this command to bind his son.
Similarly, the Kedushat Levi points out that Avraham, who in the Midrash is frequently described as one who fulfilled all 613 mitzvot intuitively, without a command (because of his autonomous intuition as to what actions would bring him closer to God) needed in this particular case to be commanded, because Abraham could not intuit any sense of meaning or value in this action; justification for his sense that there was no sense to the original command is that in the end he was commanded not to sacrifice Yitzhak, proving the senselessness of the first three days. The Kedushat Levi adds, and in this is followed by R. Kook, the sense of the whole exercise is in fact the senselessness of using human life as a means of sacrifice, the point of the text is the non-sacrificing of Yitzhak, thus for the initial (senseless) command Avraham is called by name once, whereas in the call to Avraham not to strike at Yitzhak at all, he is called by name twice, “Abraham Abraham”, as a sign of love- it is the senselessness of the initial command that is the true message of the Akeda narrative.
The Tiferet Shelomo goes furthest in his reading of the Akedah, with a reading which he reprises several times in the work (for a powerful example, see Perashat Re’eh, pp 249). To him the word “nisayon” does not mean a test, there was no test here, and neither God nor Abraham read it this way.
He states that the root of the word nisayon are the initial Hebrew letters “NS“, an acronym for “Somech Noflim“, meaning ‘support for those who are falling’, in this case, for those failing or flagging in spiritual resolve. The purpose of this exercise was not to test Abraham, but rather as a ritual, a way for Abraham, mystical archetype of Love, to symbolically/textually bind Yitzhak, mystical archetype of Severity and Judgement, thus creating an eternal symbol of spiritual yearning overcoming personal self judgements of inadequacy and failing. This strengthening of the weak needed to be done right at the beginning of Jewish history, where all the future descendants of the Abrahamic message are represented by Isaac, son of Abraham. Thus the akedah becomes a spiritual ritual enactment, a mystical exercise, meant as a symbol of will overcoming self doubt.
These texts should be adequate demonstration that the Hassidic commentators were uncomfortable with a reading of the Akeda in which God could be seen as demanding the murder of Isaac, and in which Avraham could be seen as virtuous by acceding to a demand to actually murder his son.
Do we have a reading in which Avraham protests this trial? The Aish Kodesh argues, poignantly, that it is not Abraham who vigorously protests this episode, but rather his wife, Sarah!
According to the Aish Kodesh, the very next text begins by stating the number of years Sarah lived, then repeats, these were the years of Sarah, and continues the narrative by recounting the episode surrounding the obtaining of a proper burial site for her by Abraham.
Rashi derives two lessons from this odd verse- first, that the strange way in which the numbers are presented is meant to teach us that all her years were good ones, and secondly, the proximity of this narrative to the previous text of the Akeda, is to link the akeda episode as cause of her death.
According to the Midrash, based on this sequence of narratives, Sarah’s soul literally “flew off” (parcha nishmata) when she was told of the Akeda. The Aish Kodesh, writing in the Warsaw Ghetto, understands this Midrash in teaching us that Sarah, upon hearing of the akedah, gave up her soul as a protest statement towards God. She said, there is only so much a human being can be pushed, only so much in which they can be tested. The human soul cannot withstand every level of suffering. This type of trial, one in which ones children are taken, she protested towards God, is not acceptable; foreseeing the unfortunate woman of Elie Wiesel’s book, she cried out that even if one could withstand this type of challenge, they would be broken and be only a shattered remnant of the person they were, (quoting a line from BT Bava Kama 65. “what’s the difference between being partially killed or being totally killed?”)
From Rashi’s explanation of the repetition in the text “these were the years of Sarah” that all her years were equal and pure, the Aish Kodesh understands that God agreed with Sarah, accepted her protest, and didn’t hold the years she sacrificed against her as rebellious or erroneous…
Nowadays, more than ever, it is our responsibility follow Sarah in this regard, and to demand from God, from ourselves, and from all of humanity the end of days in which parents must mourn children sacrificed in violence for ideology, and a return to a political situation where the Akedah is but a textual exercise and spiritual archetype, not a daily reality for parents and children around the world.