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The Akedah: A sacrifice of conscience?

Abraham could have obeyed, or argued, or come to terms with what he knew to be true about the Divine Will
The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Anton Losenko, 1765. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Anton Losenko, 1765. (Wikimedia Commons)

What dictates our moral actions? Is the summum bonum of our morality confined to the extrinsic command of a higher authority or do we possess an inner conscience that lends our actions a life of their own? Does religion surrender to an external voice or an inner one? Is our generation — the bearers and interpreters of the Oral Law — “greater” than the generation that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, listening to the awesome and unambiguous command of God? Is the ideal to supress our moral intuition in favour of submission to a “higher” rabbinic or divine authority? Are we creatures of submission or autonomy, assent or protest, command or conscience?

The narrative of the Akedah exposes us to the dichotomy of religious living and the challenge of literary interpretation:

It needs rigorous unadulterated total analysis. It must be fought and grappled with, challenged, expounded and explicated.

It requires total silence. Not a word said, not an opinion voiced, just pure submission and silence. The only response: “הנני” — I am here.

Sacrifice of self, pure total submission to God’s will, no questions, no answers, just the divine call. Walking up the mountain, reaching higher, not looking backwards, suspension of all other ethical, moral or human considerations. Just the divine command.

How? Why? What kind of God would ask this? What of my autonomous human ethical will? I must resist, defy, respond, challenge. I must scream, cry, shout — You promised to protect me, You promised we were the chosen ones. What of the Crusades, the gas chambers, the wars, the suicide bombs.? Too many sacrificed in your name, too many killed. I can’t, I won’t. We can’t we won’t. Enough. Stop. The mountain is too high and steep. We must stop climbing.

And yet we still climb higher and higher. We still listen to the call, the voice. Trembling we take the knife and we wait for the angel, or our own moral intuition to stop us. We wait for the sacrifice of our children to be replaced by the lamb.

And sometimes the angel does not come….. Are we brave enough to curtail the knife without the Divine Voice? Can we climb the mountain even if we are unsure that we heard the command clearly? And what does the climb entail? It beckons us to be Yireh Elokim – that proclamation at the end of the narrative, the affirmation that justifies the unimaginable task. “Now I know that you are יראת אלוקים – a God-“Fearer.” That, in my mind, is the key to solving a piece in the puzzle of this narrative.

After Abvraham has sacrificed the ram in place of his son, God calls to him and says, “Now I know you are יראת אלוקים — God fearing.”[i] Is God telling Abraham that the telos of the whole mission was to test his “fear” in God? If so surely God is aware of Abraham’s unbridled faith and fear of Him? He left his home, he fought mighty kings and submitted himself to God’s authority. Why the need for this task to prove his “fear” of God. I believe the answer may be found in the narrative that directly precedes the Akedah.

Following a famine in the land Abraham travels down to Gerar, fearing his life, he pretends that Sarah is his sister. The king of Gerar is saved from sinning with Sarah through divine intervention in the form of a dream. Avimelech (the king) questions Abraham’s actions — to which Abraham responds by claiming that his reason for tricking them was that “there is no fear of God — Yirat Elokim in this place.” Hence, he feared that they would kill him to take his wife. The phrase in this context seems to suggest that the “fear of God” entails an inner moral conscience; A kind of basic self-autonomy that compels one to act morally.

If we trace the expression back in Torah we find it is used by Joseph to express his trustworthiness[ii]or basic decency to the brothers and in the case of the Hebrew/Egyptian midwives who refuse to listen to the “command” of their authoritative king, but rather respond to an “inner conscience” a “fear of God.”[iii] It is also interesting to note that the antithesis of the “God-fearer” is Amalek, who is described as וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקים — explicitly, “not God-fearing.”[iv] Amalek came on the heels of the people asking , הֲיֵשׁ ה’ בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן – Is the Lord within us.[v] Again, here we see a paradigm of the “God-Fearer” as someone who possesses an inner conscience, an inner quality of goodness or decency, rather than one who responds passively to an external command. Rather than translating yirah as “fear of God,” we would be better translating as “awe” or “wonderment” or “mystery.” All these characteristics express a reverence for transcendence that engenders a consciousness of living in the presence of holiness.[vi]

To be a Yireh Elokim is less a fear of an authoritarian God than it is a radical awareness of transcendence and an inner voice. It is not enough to submit oneself to an external command, in many ways that is too easy. To listen to the voice of authority, to respond to the clear and unambiguous command is commendable but it is not enough.

It is imperative that we as Jews to move from the external command to the internal command, to develop as individuals and as a nation through the integration of the authoritative voice of external command into the depth of our inner conscience. It is a journey that requires courage and self-belief, a release from the bondage of literal interpretation and radical authority. It is a journey that requires us to be deeply aware and conscious of our own moral intuition, to listen to an inner call and not lead a life of mindless subservience.

The development of a Yirat Elokim personality does not occur overnight. It is a life pursuit that requires adherence to external and internal commands. It requires us to tread the fragile line between submission and autonomy, authority and self-legislation. And, perhaps more frighteningly, it requires us to trust our own moral voice, the small silent pangs of moral conscience. In the instructive words of Martin Buber, “the law is not thrust upon man it lies deep within him, to waken when the call comes.” Or as Rabbi Chanina tells us, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven outside of the fear of Heaven”( Talmud B. Megillah 25a).

So how do we understand this all in the context of the Akedah — a narrative that at face value represents the antithesis of how we have defined “Yirat Elohim”?

My reading of the narrative sees this test not as a test in blind faith to God, but rather its antithesis. It is testing Abraham in the final steps of a journey towards being the prototype Jew and human, a person that has integrated the external voice and authority of God to such an extent that he is brave and courageous enough to trust his inner voice and conscience.

This movement must be made as part of a larger and longer character development. There is no single determiner of morality, as philosophers such as Kant or Mill and many others suggest, but rather something that must be developed through a lifetime of moral conduct and virtue, all while adhering to and recognising the authority of a higher being. And that requires an acceptance of dichotomous living. Abvraham’s moral development is the subject of much of the beginning part of the Genesis narratives. The tension between the divine command and an internal moral conscience is the subject of many of the Abrahamic narratives. We see Abraham’s subservience to the divine call. We watch him submit himself to God’s mission giving up so much to its cause. We see him struggling with his conscience, when sending away his elder son, and the arguing against the divine decree to destroy Sodom, finally submitting to the idea that God knows more.

And then we get to the final test, the last rung on the ladder of greatness — the call to destroy his future, the command that goes against every tiny speck of self-interest that might have motivated his previous actions.[vii] Here there is no reward offered, no future promise of seed or greatness being procured. Instead, we see a man so seemingly besotted with his God and His mission that he is wiling to “interpret” the command he thinks he hears as one that requires him to sacrifice his own son.[viii]

The ambiguity and elusiveness of the command at the start is the essence of the test.[ix] How will Abraham go about interpreting that command?[x] The silence of our protagonist in the narrative is reflective of his internal struggle, as he moves steadily towards his mission. His uncertainty and pain are tempered only by his ascent up the mountain.

And just as the final deed is about to be enacted, the unimaginable tragedy of human death and martyrdom at the knife of literal interpretation, something profound occurs. An angel appears, an angel, often an analogy for an inner voice, prevents the final act in the drama of religious fanaticism from playing out.[xi] Abraham has a sudden epiphany, an inner realisation, a human revelation — “This is not what God wants, the command I heard was not asking me to sacrifice my son.” He lifts his eyes and sees the ram in the thicket.

It is often easier to listen to the external command and believe that we must take it at face value. It is more complicated, more entangled, more painful to retrieve something different, something novel and more humane from the thicket of the interpretive process. In “listening” to the voice of the angel, in hearing his inner moral reservations, Abraham not only saves his son, but saves us too from becoming slaves to a simple, radical and literal religion. He shows us that the journey to becoming a yireh Elokim is not simple, or easy, but somewhere entangled in the thicket is the ram that saves us and our future descendents, if we only allow ourselves to open our eyes see reality differently, notice the ram in the thicket, and allow our inner commanding voice to be heard. To be a yireh Elokim is not the start, it is the end; it is not the first rung of the ladder, but the last. It takes a life of dedication and commitment, of constant self-assessment and Avodat Hashem, service of God. Its not a feeling of fear to authority, but an acute and profound awareness of the holy and transcendent in existence that leads to a life of walking with God. That is why the people of Gerar did not, in Abraham’s eyes, possess Yirat Elokim — for without a deep and sustained commitment to transcendent goals and a life mission, it is seemingly unachievable.

And so Abraham descends the mountain, this time without Isaac. Nothing is the same, there is indeed fracture and deep wounds, because the journey to true awe and reverence, to autonomy and self-legislation is not one that comes without sacrifice. From then on we never see God speak directly to Abraham again, because, ultimately, there was no need. Abraham passed the test and, in doing so, internalized the command to such an extent that his conscience and God’s were one and the same, to the extent that he no longer needed the external command to direct his inner moral life.

Maybe we need to radically reinterpret the Akedah less as a final test of Abraham, more of a fundamental test for God: can He trust us to be the bearers and defenders of morality? Can we lead a life of Yirat Elokim, just as our forefather Abraham managed to achieve? Can the law be placed in the hands of humanity to be interpreted and managed without it being abused and violated, often in the name of God Himself? This is the real test of the Akedah, and one that our generation must face as its central challenge today.

[i] The notion of ‘Fear of God’ can be understood in two ways. In its most basic form it is fear of punishment, that is fear of an authoritative figure, often divine or a human manifestation of the Divine, as the propagator of punishment for sin. The other form, which I believe is far more authentic to the biblical understanding is the one Maimonides seems to adopt in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah and Hilchot Teshuva, as well as other places, and that is the notion of awe, veneration or wonderment in the presence of transcendence or divinity.

[ii] Bereshit 42

[iii] Shemot 1

[iv] Devarim 25:18

[v] Shemot 17:7

[vi] See Howard Wettstein: The Significance of the Religious Experience, chapter 3, where he beautifully and brilliant develops the notion of “Yirat Elokim” as living “in the presence of awe, a kind of background condition against which he carries on. Nor is it only awe that has become characteristic and habitual. With awe come the God-like tendencies to feeling and behaviour, the perspective, sub specias aeternitasi, the gratitude.”

[vii] See Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom chapter

[viii] Here, I am basing myself on the interpretation in the Zohar 120 that says the prophecy of the Akedah came to Abraham “”באספקלריא — through a dim glass. See also the Mei Hashiloch on the verse 22:11 “and God tested Abraham.”

[ix] Here, my interpretation of the narrative is founded on the “problem of hearing.” The question of the ambiguity of the command is addressed both in Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera 22, and in the Zohar on Parshat Vayera that describes the command as one that was heard through aspaklaria de-lo nehira — an occluded lens, later on by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who questions Abraham’s moral stance in listening to “the voice,” and, finally, this is addressed in the brilliant book by Jerome Gellman, Avraham, Avraham: Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac.

[x] This is the test given to all the prophets since prophecy always involves the channeling and interpreting the divine revelation. Abraham believed he had heard the command correctly because the way he interpreted it was in contrary to his self-interest (in fact he may have questioned his initial revelation of Lech Lecha, since it procured great personal gain, so that, this time, when he believed the command was contrary to self-interest, may have affirmed the authenticity of the first command); hence, he believed that is what God wanted from him, to give totally of himself without any gain or profit. Only at the end does the epiphany occur when he is about to commit the greatest of all sins, knife at the ready, he finally succumbs to his inner conscience and recognizes that God would never ask for human sacrifice.

[xi] See Maimonides’ opinion on angels and prophecy in Guide to the Perplexed 2:43-44 as well as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 22:11 whose explanation as to why an angel rather God appears is analogous to the theory propagated here.

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com
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