Can Halakha Go It Alone, Without Kierkegaard?

Reflections Inspired by Dr. Aaron Koller’s Book Unbinding Isaac

Dr. Aaron Koller’s new book, Unbinding Isaac, nearly pulls the rug out from underneath my theological edifice, but I nevertheless strongly recommend the book. 

As someone with a foot firmly planted in each of the seemingly contradictory worlds of modernity and observance, I depend on the validity of Kierkergaardian theology for those rare instances when my values conflict with my religious commitments. 

While halakha has, over the years, developed tools that allow the religious believer to shrink those conflicts and keep them at a minimum, a perfect resolution is impossible. There inevitably comes a moment when the observant person cannot reconcile their moral convictions with their religious beliefs and has to choose one and negate the other. They either compromise their instinctive values or subvert their religious convictions. On those rare occasions when I am forced to choose, I pick the latter option, and my inspiration is the Danish philosopher. According to Kierkegaard, that is the inevitable lot of the observant person. There will be times when they will have to behave in ways that are incongruent with their moral intuition.

In fact, Kierkegaard famously argued that this was the message of the Akeidah story. The way he sees it, God canonized the Akeidah narrative in order to teach us that the religious journey sometimes necessitates “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” Avraham’s choice to submit to the divine command to sacrifice his son was morally abhorrent but religiously admirable. 

Dr. Koller takes issue with this exegesis. He believes that the message of the Akeidah narrative is the exact opposite. Ultimately, by sending an angel to thwart his murderous ambitions, God stopped Avraham from compromising his morals for the sake of his beliefs.

While Koller’s critique of  Kierkegaard’s exegesis is sound, and it makes his book a worthwhile read, Kierkegaard’s thesis nonetheless remains intact as a means by which the religious person absolves their conscience  in those instances when subservience to God requires them to make unethical choices. The proofs are numerous; there are countless examples, besides the Akeidah narrative, in which the Torah requires the religious person to suspend their moral compass (eradicating an idolatrous city, including those inhabitants who did not commit idolatry; killing all Amalekites; etc.). Kierkegaard is therefore right even if, according to Koller,  his interpretation of the message of the Akeidah  is wrong. 

In fact, I need him to be rightif I wish to hold onto my membership in the halakhic community. To be specific, I deeply abohor sexism and homophobia and therefore have dedicated my life to making halakha as inclusive as possible of women and as embracing as can be of the queer community. I would like to think that I have been successful, that I have shrunk the discriminatory manifestations, proving that halakha is not as exclusionary as some would have us believe. At the same time, there is no denying that halakha will never completely eradicate its exclusionary ethos. A modicum of gender and queer exclusion will always remain. 

These painful manifestations of exclusion leave the modern and observant person with two choices: to suspend their membership in the halakhic community, or to maintain their fidelity to halakha at a high moral cost.

Kierkegaard championed the latter option. And that is my choice, too. Fortunately, most of halakha can easily be reconciled with the values I cherish, and I hope to have many more yearsand many like-minded thought partnersto continue to make progress in that rapprochement. 

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Dr. Koller also takes issue with Kierkergaard’s claim that faith is predominantly a private experience which cannot be “shared, discussed or even described.” He believes that the idea that religion is a solitary experience is antithetical to Judaism. Such an understanding “clashes with the biblical and later Jewish fundamental notion of a covenantal community as the norm.”  

This is a bit overstated. True, Judaism values collective observance. Prayer or any other mitzvah has superior theological value if it is performed in a group, betzibbur. Tzibbur, however, is not the only venue for those in search of communion with God. Solitary prayer or mitzvot done alone also have transcendental value. Collectivity enhances one’s religious pursuits, but the absence of a collective does not invalidate those pursuits. In fact, hitbodedut (secluded prayer or meditation) was always part of the Jewish spiritual seeker’s arsenal. Kierkegaard’s embrace of the solitariness of the religious experience is, therefore, in consonance with our own faith tradition. 

In fact, reading Dr. Koller’s book, while done in solitude, was nevertheless religiously meaningful. He forces the reader to think about modern Judaism’s first-principles and also helps us grapple with the demands religious subservience makes of the observant person.  I find myself pushing back against some of his claims, qualifying certain conclusions, and taking issue with his assertion of a Jewish-Christian dichotomy, but reading the book still left me vivified and inspired.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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