The Akeida — The Binding of Isaac

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15219747

And He said: “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (Genesis 22:1-2)

The Akeida (or Binding of Isaac) is one of the most enigmatic and troubling stories of the Bible. Its utmost importance is underscored by its inclusion in the daily morning prayers and its central role in the Rosh Hashanah services.[1]

In summary, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at the land of Moriah. Abraham hurries to fulfill the command and travels with Isaac to Mount Moriah, where he builds an altar, binds Isaac, and raises a knife, ready to sacrifice Isaac. At the last moment, an angel of God interrupts him. Abraham then sees a ram and sacrifices it instead. The angel blesses Abraham.

The story of our forefather Abraham, ready to sacrifice his son to God, invariably evokes strong emotions. This display of boundless and unquestioning commitment to God is deeply moving. At the same time, this story is profoundly disturbing and raises many questions.

The Book of Proverbs describes the Torah thus: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace” (deracheha darchei noam vechol netivoteha shalom).[2] Human sacrifices are utterly incompatible with Judaism. Rabbi Benjamin Blech, describing his conversation with Hemingway, wrote, “With his perceptive mind, he summed up the essence of Judaism perhaps better than most Jews themselves can. Judaism is a religion of life. ‘Choose life,’ says the Bible.”[3] Indeed, Moses instructs the Children of Israel:

I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed. (Genesis 30:19)

Not only does the Torah forbid human sacrifice, but it is considered one of the most barbaric sins of paganism. The abominable pagan practice of sacrificing children for the Amonite deity Moloch is explicitly forbidden by the Torah in Leviticus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 18:10 under penalty of death.[4] As the Psalmist cries,

Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons. (Psalms 106:37)

With this in mind, how are we to understand this narrative in which God demands Abraham to sacrifice his child? Furthermore, since Abraham’s discovery of monotheism at the age of 40, Abraham devoted his life to preaching the idea of one God as well as Divine ethics, which first and foremost demands kindness to others. Indeed, Abraham was the embodiment of kindness. Abraham preached to his pagan neighbors the morality of monotheism, which values life above all and forbids all forms of human sacrifice. How then are we to understand Abraham’s unquestioning readiness to sacrifice his son?

Was it an act of piety or an act of cruelty? Was it a manifestation of wholehearted devotion to God or an act of religious fanaticism?

The classical commentators explain the story of the Binding of Isaac as the story of boundless devotion to God by our Patriarch Abraham, which stands in good stead for his children, the Jewish people, in every generation. This is why we read this story on the Rosh HaShanah, from a Torah scroll. We remind God of Abraham’s merit to arouse God’s mercy to mitigate judgment[5] and assure His blessings for the new year. However, this explanation does not resolve the paradox.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard[6] admits this irreconcilable paradox in his book, Fear and Trembling.[7] Pondering Abraham’s anxiety (or anguish, as Sartre[8] calls it), Kierkegaard writes:

The ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac, the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet, without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is.

Kierkegaard questions this teleological suspension of ethical norms. He calls Abraham the knight of faith, who is willing to relinquish all his earthly possessions and everything he loves for God, by making a qualitative leap—the leap of faith.

Putting aside our instinctive reaction to the story and such rhetorical questions as “How could God have demanded such cruelty of a parent?” or “How could Abraham have been willing to go through with such a cruel act?” Instead, let us examine this narrative on purely philosophical grounds.

In his legal magnum opus Mishna Torah,[9] Maimonides retells the story of Abraham discovering monotheism.[10] Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idol maker. Maimonides tells us, based on the Talmud and ancient Midrash, that Abraham (at that time named Abram) worshiped various gods during his spiritual journey, before he discovered the One God, Creator of heaven and earth. He rejected all other deities he had worshiped one by one on intellectual or ethical grounds, because he realized that worshiping them did not make sense. For example, Abraham worshiped the Sun until he questioned a deity that can disappear at night. Thus, he rejected the Sun as a deity. Abraham also worshiped the Moon, until he questioned how a god who dies and reappears every month, as the Moon wanes and waxes? Thus, he also rejected the Moon as a deity. And so on. It is safe to assume that Abraham rejected some deities popular in his culture because of their cruelty, as expressed in human sacrifices in general and, in particular, the pagan practice of sacrificing children.[11]

The question arises, why didn’t Abraham reject God when he demanded of him to sacrifice his only son? When God revealed to Abraham that He was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with God to save their inhabitants even if only ten righteous people are found there. Why didn’t Abraham plead with God to save his son? Why did not Abraham question God as he questioned every other deity he had previously worshiped?  Why did not Abraham do what he had done so many times before—namely, realize his mistake and move on, in search of another, kinder God?

In fact, God made it easy for him. Recall that God promised Abraham that his progeny would be more numerous than the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And God said that his progeny would come from Isaac:

And God said, “Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.” (Genesis 17:19)

God rejects Abraham’s proposal to establish a covenant through his other son, Ismael:

But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year. (Genesis 17:21)

If Abraham sacrificed Isaac, this promise would not come through. God was contradicting Himself! Why didn’t Abraham say, “This makes no sense; this cannot be the true God; it’s time to look for another God.” None of the explanations offered by the classical biblical commentators answer this question.

Chasidic thought views the Binding of Isaac as the display of our forefather Abraham transcending the rational, rising above the limitations of human intellect. However, the question remains why didn’t Abraham rise above his intellect on all previous occasions when the deity he worshiped at the time did not make any logical sense to him? Why only here, for the first time, Abraham set his intellectual doubt and healthy skepticism aside and transcended reason?

In Jewish literature, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are called “chariots.”[12] This may be a hint to the answer to all these questions we raised above.

A chariot (merkavah) is a carrier to carry its rider from point A to point B. In a broader sense, it is a vehicle to carry out the rider’s will. That is why the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, described in the Workings of the Chariot (Ma’aseh Merkavah),[13] depicts a chariot made of various heavenly beings driven by the “Likeness of a Man.” In this vision, angels carry out the will of God. Angels have no will of their own; they only exist to do God’s bidding. Similarly, a chariot has no other purpose but to carry its rider wherever the rider’s will takes it. This is why the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are called chariots. In selfless devotion to God, our forefathers set their will aside to carry out the will of God. Abraham was the first Patriarch, and he was the first to become a chariot of God.

Taking poetic license and borrowing the language of quantum mechanics, we might say metaphorically that, upon meeting God, Abraham became “entangled” with God.

When two quantum-mechanical objects (say, two electrons) become entangled; they are no longer independent of each other—they become one unit described by a single wave function. Suppose we were to collapse the wave function of the first particle and find its spin pointing in one direction. In that case, the wave function of the other particle collapses automatically, and the particle has no choice but to assume the opposite direction of its spin. The other particle becomes like a shadow or mirror image of the first particle, reflecting its every move. Similarly, by becoming “entangled” with God, Abraham became like a shadow of God—he had no choice but to carry out God’s will.

One might object that, in quantum mechanics, the entanglement of two objects is symmetrical, whereas there is no symmetry in our metaphor. However, the Psalmist calls God his shadow: “The Lord is thy shadow” (Psalms 121:5). What we do down here elicits a reciprocal reaction on high. Moreover, the sages taught that what the righteous person (tzadik) decrees—God fulfills” (tzadik gozer—HaKadosh Baruch Hu mekayem.”[14] Thus, at least to some extent, it appears to be a somewhat symmetrical relationship.

The patriarch Abraham became entangled with God; that is, he became God’s chariot. That is why when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham did not question God but hurried to carry out God’s will, as the chariot must. Being entangled with God, Abraham could not—so to speak—choose otherwise. God’s command was no longer a subject of questioning or skeptical deliberations. Abraham simply had to do God’s bidding.

One might ask, but why did God have to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son in the first place? What was the point of it? Being that Abraham was the first chariot in history to subjugate his will to the Will of God, his descendants had to be taught this lesson most vividly and memorably. Of course, God did not intend for Abraham to sacrifice his son, as is evident at the end of the story, when the angel stops Abraham at the last moment. All this drama was needed to impress upon descendants of Abraham what it means to be a chariot of God, to be truly entangled with God.

We may also ask why didn’t Abraham get entangled with all those deities that he had previously worshiped? The answer is, of course, that there are no other gods; there is only one God. All those gods were figments of Abraham’s imagination, and no one can get entangled with a figment of one’s imagination. Only when Abraham finally discovered the real God, he immediately got entangled with Him and thus became the first chariot, the first knight of faith.

—————————

Endnotes:

[1] The main commandment (mitzvah) of Rosh HaShanah is the blowing of the shofar—a ram’s horn—as a reminder of the ram sacrificed by Abraham instead of Isaac at the end of the Biblical narrative. This story is read from a Torah scroll on Rosh HaShanah and is also mentioned in the Musaf prayer.

[2] The Book of Proverbs (Mishlei) 3:17.

[3] Rabbi, Benjamin Blech, “My Encounter with Hemingway,” Aish.com, Aug 27, 2011. See https://www.aish.com/sp/so/My_Encounter_with_Hemingway.html (retrieved on 11/05/2020). See also Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, (Jason Aronson, 1993) p. 182 (“Judaism is a religion of life against death.”)

[4] The prohibition against Moloch does not necessarily involve human sacrifice—at least according to halacha (ritual law), the Maimonides, and Rashi. Rather, they interpret the verses as referring to a rite of passage, in which children were given to the priests, who passed them between two bonfires. The halacha is that doing so is considered violating this prohibition (issur) and sufficient for the death penalty. Nevertheless, Maimonides and Radak interpret the verses to refer to actually burning the children, as is explicit in several places in Joshua, Jeremiah, and Psalms. Similarly, midrashim describe in graphic detail the idol and ceremony, in which children were burned. It is not a dispute in fact (machloket b’metziut)—it is quite clear that the cult of Moloch did include human sacrifice as its ultimate form of worship (the midrash describes the six levels of its altar, the lowest for birds, second for goats, etc. until the seventh and ultimate level was on the outstretched arms of the idol, where they burned children), but it was not the routine worship, and most children of Moloch-worshipers were not actually sacrificed but rather just passed through the fires. The dispute is only how to interpret literal meaning (peshat) in the verses – whether it was primarily referring to sacrifice or to the giving of the children to the priests. Interestingly, Rashi on Jeremiah 7:31 (“And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded not, neither came it into My mind.”) remarks (from the Ta’anit 4a) on the contrast with the Binding of Isaak: “when I told Abraham to sacrifice his son, it did not enter my mind that he should slaughter him, only to show his righteousness.”

[5] Rosh HaShanah is called the Day of Judgment (Yom HaDin).

[6] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a danish philosopher, poet, and theologian who founded existentialism.

[7] Fear and Trembling was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio (John of the Silence).

[8] Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was a French philosopher and writer, one of the most prominent proponents of existentialism.

[9] Also known as Yad Chazaka.

[10] Yad, Avoda Zorah.

[11] The practice of child-sacrifice was particularly prevalent in the pagan cult of Moloch in the land of Canaan, where Abraham settled after leaving Horan.

[12] Bereshit Rabba 47:1; Zohar I, 210b, Zohar III, 184b.

[13] Ezekiel 1.

[14] For Talmudic sources of this expression see Ketubot 103b, Beraita in Taanit 23a; see also Bamidbar Rabba 14.

Originally published on QuantumTorah.com.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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