The story of the Binding of Isaac is often invoked to teach that we must sacrifice our autonomous sense of right and wrong on the altar of divine authority. This understanding has had detrimental consequences, which lie at the core of the explosive political and moral crisis which we are currently experiencing in Israel today.
This common reading of the Akedah claims to have settled the question of whether we should follow our own “subjective” morality or the supposedly crystal-clear and received divine command. Consequently, there are those who contend that we should dismiss moral considerations in favor of what is deemed to be God’s revealed will. This contributes to manifestations of moral insensitivity, intolerance, self-righteousness, and arrogance.
Some go even further and relate to moral considerations with derision, labeling and dismissing them as Christian, secular humanist, western, post-modern or just plain “goyish” influence. Those championing this approach would say that the community should adhere to “received authority” representing authentic Judaism and the Torah as divine truth; our authority figures know what’s best and anything else is deemed as foreign influence and hence, suspect. Today we face both religious and secular versions of this attitude.
Let us turn to the study of the Akedah itself.
The view, above, characterizes what has been termed “the problem of choice.” Abraham must make the agonizing choice to either follow his moral inclination, and his filial love, or obey the Almighty.
This reading of the Akedah was inspired by the great Protestant theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, who in his book Fear and Trembling pits the ethical against the religious. He sees Abraham’s obedience as a momentary suspension of the universal ethical imperative and an assertion of the superiority of divine fiat over any ethical system.
Put another way, Abraham’s surrender bears testimony to the primacy of God’s commandments over relativistic morality, which can be subjective and self-centered. This thinking is reflected in the views of the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
This interpretation asserts that since God and His will are inscrutable, all that we can know is what God reveals to us, either through personal illumination (i.e., prophecy) or collectively through the law. According to this approach, subjective human experience and intuition are suspect and not reliable arbiters of what is right or just. Thus, the divine message of the Akedah is clear and Abraham’s test is in the choice he must make: follow his heart and his refined moral sense – or follow the revealed will of God.
The Problem with the Problem of Choice
This understanding has seeded the idea that Torah is somehow disconnected from common sense. Yet this view is difficult to square with the words of the Torah itself: “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people….” And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Devarim 4:6-8)
The Torah tells us that its laws are recognizable as “righteous and wise” not only by talmudic scholars, but by the uninitiated nations of the world as well.
Moreover, while this kind of strict constructionist approach may be appealing as a corrective to the excesses of romantic individualism, it divorces religion from the most refined human sentiment – our healthy intuition of right and wrong.
Furthermore, by invoking the absolute authority of divine revelation and its manifestation through the text over our own moral sentiments, the actual outcome is to establish the authority of interpreters of the text over our autonomous sense of right and wrong. This is because – and this fact cannot be over-emphasized: what is divinely revealed through text is a product of human interpretation; it is only as “good” as the interpreter.
- Nahum of Chernobyl offers a brutally honest insight which dispels the naïve claim of “objective truth”: “The Torah is called a mirror (‘aspaklaria’). One sees their own face in the mirror according to their own characteristics. One who has expunged the evil from within makes the Torah into perfect good, extracting it from the aspect of the Tree of Good and Evil, which is the lethal poison” (Me‘or Einayim, Shemot).
In other words, what is often presented as objective divine truth is really a product of context and perspective derived from the eye of the beholder. As such, the interpretation is open to the flaws and shortcomings of the interpreter. To an evil person, a Jewish supremacist say, the Torah becomes a lethal poison (sam ha-mavet) a document of racism, genocide, homophobia and misogyny.
Clearly we need another reading of the Akedah.
What did Abraham really hear?
Rather than “the problem of choice,” we need to focus on “the problem of hearing.” The key question becomes not whether Abraham will obey God; rather it is: What is the divine command? And how does Abraham know what it is?
Thus the Akedah ceases to be a story of submission to authority. It becomes a drama of excruciating soul-searching played out in the recesses of Abraham’s heart to determine what it is that God wants from him.
Let’s pay attention to what the Satan says when Abraham was traveling en route to the Akedah: “He said to him, “Old man, what are you thinking? Are you going to slaughter the son who was granted to you by God when you were one hundred years old? I am the one who has deceived you and instructed you saying, ‘Take your son….’” (Midrash Aggadah Bereishit, Vayera 22).
Did Abraham hear the voice of God? Or was it Satan? Abraham is caught between heaven and hell without a clear way of determining the true will of God. The midrash offers us a window into Abraham’s inner turmoil and worst fear.
The Zohar reinforces this reading, in which Abraham grapples with the uncertainty of his understanding of God’s command: “And Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place (ha-makom) from afar….” He apprehended [God] from afar, through a foggy lens (aspaklaria de-lo nehira).” (Zohar Bereishit, Vayera, 97)
According the Zohar as well, Abraham’s apprehension of God’s revelation was shrouded in uncertainty.
This provides an essential understanding of all prophecy and is not limited to Abraham’s experience. Both Rambam and Hasidic masters offer similar points of view on this (perhaps surprisingly). God is always broadcasting but we don’t often hear the call. That ability is induced and enabled by life circumstances – not only one’s spiritual efforts and maturity, but also one’s frustrations, trials, challenges, deepest desires, and most terrifying fears. The content and style of the prophecy – what one actually hears – is conditioned in the prophet’s consciousness. This means that it is in human consciousness that the divine encounter is absorbed, interpreted, and translated.
This begs the question of what Abraham actually heard. What deepest desires and fears were buried in Abraham’s consciousness which conditioned what he heard from God? That context is provided in what we know about Abraham through the book of Bereishit. The emergence of Israel as God’s chosen people is the leitmotif of this narrative arc. It accounts for the emphasis on genealogy as well as the tense family dramas and competitions between Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.
Abraham, I believe, was consumed with this idea of chosenness and what it means for him, his family, his destiny, and the destiny of his offspring. His anxiety is apparent throughout Bereishit 15 and especially in verse 8, when he asks God: “Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”
It is through the lens of this tension and inner turmoil that the Akedah, that the command to sacrifice his son, his only son, finally makes sense.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your homeland, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and through you shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Bereishit 12:1-3)
Abraham experiences in the deepest (prophetic) sense that he and his descendants were chosen by God and he believes that this reflects the voice of God. He internalizes the destiny and the sacred responsibility. And he also feels the security that God will be with him and his descendants forever, never to forsake them. (Indeed this feeling continues to be a source of hope and strength for many Jews today.) Yet Abraham is conflicted over this destiny – the tension between universal (av hamon goyim) and particular. In a way, this dichotomy is reflected in the choice of the other (first-day) Torah reading on Rosh Hashana, the story of Ishmael.
Here’s the rub. Divine revelation is invariably accompanied by an experience of uncertainty. Since the experience which I am having is “my own,” how can I be certain that it is the true will of God? In the words of R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz, “Even prophecy requires a great deal of clarification (berur) in order to determine whether it is truly from God” (Mei Ha-Shilo’ah I, Kedoshim, 118).
Precisely because being chosen is a source of comfort and security, Abraham cannot be certain whether the initial call and promise of “lekh lekha” is the voice of God or a projection of his own desires. Abraham needs to reach deep inside and comprehend the word of God as revealed to him in his heart in a way that transcends his self-interest, desires, personal loves, and familial connections and personal proclivities. His life, his future, his destiny — everything is riding on this desperate determination. The command of the Akedah, to sacrifice his only son, is his test to make sure he truly has his priorities, his understanding of the world, and his acceptance of his destiny in order.
Paradoxically, only when Abraham hears that same voice once again saying “lekh lekha,” but this time telling him to destroy that which he desires most — a sense of security in the knowledge that his destiny and progeny are linked with God forever — can he feel certain that the initial voice, the voice of promise, is authentic as well.
Once Abraham meets the agonizing challenge of selflessly hearing the voice of God, he can also fully embrace the divine promise of chosenness: “And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven a second time, and said: ‘By Myself have I sworn,’ says the Lord, ‘for because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will bless you and multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven and as the sand upon the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.’” (Bereishit 22:15-17)
Being chosen by God is complicated. We see the turmoil and ambivalence about this status within Abraham as well as the benefits of a covenantal relationship and a particular destiny. And we see this tension today as well in our current society. Human beings have a way of seeing the world through their own eyes and interpreting things according to their own best interest. We do this even when we don’t mean to.
Abraham perceives that he and his offspring are God’s chosen. He struggles with whether this perception is self-serving or authentic? That is the root of the Akedah.
Today, especially here in Israel, we see the deleterious consequences of what can happen when some subvert or enshrine the idea of chosenness, reading it to be a doctrine of inherent and even racist supremacy.
The story of the Akedah should give us pause and mitigate against this self-serving approach. When Abraham displays the willingness to sacrifice his future, his beloved son and the chosenness that his reality embodies, we should learn that our chosenness is not a self-interested, ethnocentric notion. We need to be acutely aware of the peril of transforming the Torah’s life-giving fruit into a lethal poison.
Being a chosen people is a product of inscrutable divine love and we are charged to acknowledge that love by paying it forward as love and sacred responsibility towards all humanity.
Beit Midrash Har-el recently hosted a forum entitled, “The Akeidah Revisited – Faith and Folly,” examining how a traditional reading of the Akeidah (which we read on Rosh Hashana and again a few weeks later) leads to unintended problematic attitudes. The above is a variation of what I shared in that discussion.