Ki Tisa: Getting up in God’s face

Our people’s leaders have sometimes protested God’s words or deeds when they seemed wrong – including in Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion. God reacted to the sin of the golden calf by threatening to annihilate the Israelites and start a new nation with Moses as patriarch. But Moses pleaded with God not to invalidate the triumph of the Exodus or His promises to the forefathers – and God withdrew His threat.

Similarly, Abraham had earlier negotiated with God on behalf of Sodom. Abraham asked God not to destroy the city if it contained even 50 righteous people: “Shall the Judge of the whole Earth not act justly?” They then began to haggle, with God agreeing to spare Sodom for fewer and fewer worthy men – until God departed and Abraham accepted the number ten.

The rabbis could even defy messages from God outright. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer challenged his colleagues’ legal stance about “Achnai’s Oven,” and called forth a tree’s uprooting, a stream’s reversal, and a voice from Heaven supporting him. The other rabbis were unimpressed, quoting the Torah that “it is not in Heaven” and thus the rabbinic majority decides, not miracles. God laughed with joy, saying “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.”

In each case, God’s followers chose to challenge Him using His own highest standards. By contrast, during Abraham’s deeply troubling final test, the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac), the patriarch did not resist God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son. Instead, Abraham said “Hineini” (“Here I am”) and woke up early to do God’s bidding. Before he could slaughter Isaac, though, an angel stopped him, saying God now knew that Abraham feared Him. Further, he said, God will bless Abraham and multiply his children, because he listened to God’s voice.

Feeling stuck between God’s apparent morality and his own, Abraham chose the former. Some contemporary Jews, troubled by Abraham’s eagerness to follow a seemingly un-Godly commandment, have argued that Abraham actually failed God’s test.

For example, on the blog “Morethodoxy,“ Rabbi Hyim Shafner explored the possibility that “the more ethical response would have been to protect the innocent child even in the face of the Divine command.” He also suggested that “the real test was for Abraham to confront God as he did at Sodom, thus teaching his children … to say ‘no’ to God.”

And at a recent public address, Orthodox Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo argued that some Torah mitzvot exist precisely to be rejected as inconsistent with our own internal morality and the values of the Book of Genesis. An audience member asked whether Cardozo meant Abraham had failed the test of the Akeidah, and Rabbi Cardozo answered simply, “Yes.”

Such reinterpretations gloss over the Torah’s explicit approval of Abraham’s decision, and negate the Akeidah’s meaningful message about the Jew’s relationship with God. When God demands something very difficult (now through Jewish law rather than direct communication), one can struggle with and question the commandment, but ultimately one must echo Abraham and say “Hineini.”

Sure, Jews can think that parts of the Torah, as explained by our sages, are upsetting, offensive, and even immoral. LGBT Jews and their allies object to Jewish law’s rejection of same-sex relations and insistence on man-woman marriage. Jewish feminists spurn traditional male-female roles, trying to reshape Torah practices with the values of equality and women’s empowerment. Personally, I am uncomfortable with infant circumcision – but I embrace brit milah, since God commands it, and I think the proper response to such conflicts is “Hineini.”

Note that in arguing over the righteous of Sodom, Abraham ended negotiations when God did. Moses reasoned with God but didn’t try to overrule His anger about the golden calf. And the sages debating Achnai’s Oven could only ignore clear miracles by making God’s own words their guide for resolving disputes.

Later in Ki Tisa, God said He couldn’t show Moses His face because “no human can see My face and live.” Thus, the Torah contrasts two approaches: legitimately appealing to God’s highest values without demanding the final say, and imposing ourselves by improperly getting up in God’s face.

Jewish law isn’t a true-false test where we compare our own internal sensibilities to each mitzvah and follow only the “moral” ones. God’s ultimate ways are by definition moral, even when we don’t understand – or don’t live – them all. So we must find ways to face God while staying out of His face.

(David Benkof can be reached at

About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at
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