Love (and Trust) Conquer All: Another Angle on the Akeidah

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Alex Ozar


God’s command to Abraham to slaughter his son upon the mount was, one can only assume, an existential punch in the gut, the kind of word that shatters rocks (see Jeremiah 23:29). And so for us: confronting the story of Abraham’s trial, we are ourselves inevitably tried. But there’s more than one way for a rock to shatter, and more than one way to pick up the pieces and carry on. R. Herzl Hefter, in an incisively creative article, offered one approach; R. Tzvi Sinensky countered quite lucidly with another. Here I humbly offer a third way, seeking to maximize the stakes but then to discern a path forward to an existentially, morally wholesome life of faith. The argument turns on the relational and ultimately transformative possibilities of emunah, trust.

First a recap: R. Hefter opens with a presentation and critique of the quite common invocation of the Akeidah narrative as teaching that “we must sacrifice our autonomous sense of right and wrong on the altar of Divine authority.” Abraham, on this reading, faced the agonizing choice whether to spare his innocent child or submit to the Almighty’s will in slaughtering his son, and hence any autonomous moral identity he had left, in cold blood. He chose the latter, and so proved himself as the paragon of religious fidelity, an eternal model and merit for future generations.

R. Hefter worries that this reading can and has caused substantial moral damage—scuttling our identities as competent moral agents and repressing our own moral voice—and so offers a creative, philosophically and psychologically dynamic reinterpretation in its place, one in which the moment of crushing submission to divine fiat falls away.

R. Sinensky, though sympathetic in principle to R. Hefter’s concerns, objects that the reinterpretation is (a) exegetically nonviable—the submission-and-sacrifice-centric reading just is the “overwhelmingly obvious interpretation of the Akeidah”—and (b) morally and philosophically unnecessary. My first concern here is with the latter line of argument. Here is his summation:

Where does this leave us regarding the balance between submission and autonomy? Where human intuition unambiguously clashes with God’s heteronomous command, we must yield to God. Critically, though, before the chapter is complete, God reminds Abraham that such a request is the exception rather than the rule. On one hand, there are times when, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, “we embrace … the will mi-Sinai.” As a general matter, however, the righteousness of God’s commands will be evident to all those seeking wisdom.

R. Sinensky’s view gives us a split-level, two-plane morality: There is the “rule,” the general sphere of action in which we are competent, confidently autonomous moral agents, and the “exception,” those special cases wherein we faithfully sacrifice our moral independence, our capacity to discern right and wrong, on the altar of divine command. And importantly, God’s call to Abraham to refrain from the slaughter at the denouement of the story communicates precisely that the rule is to retain its primacy. Occasional flights of submission notwithstanding, we remain fundamentally moral beings, equipped and ready to fight for our moral convictions unless clearly instructed otherwise.

My worry is that this solution does not quite grapple with the problem raised by R. Hefter head on, as his claim is precisely that allowing (and celebrating) even this one exception really can do the rule severe injury, really can “beget damaging consequences” for our moral lives. To meet this challenge we have to appreciate the stakes; to do that, we have to first be sure we understand the problem. Why should valorizing one episode of exceptional moral submission endanger our moral identity more broadly? R. Hefter does not fully spell out his intuition here, but I’ll suggest a few possible reconstructions.

The Kant/Schmitt Argument

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, identifying the good will as the sole locus of moral value, saw good and evil as a necessarily single-state, zero-sum affair: An act done for the sake of duty is good, an act done for the sake of anything else is evil. What determines whether a given act is done for the sake of duty alone? (The question is vital, as our intentions are often mixed—even the simple satisfaction in having done the right thing, hardly avoidable, can count as corrupting if intended.) Kant proposes a counterfactual test: Imagine, in any case where you would otherwise do the right thing, that the cost to your happiness is raised arbitrarily high. Will you crack? If at any point you would, Kant reasons, then it is clear that your intentions were never pure; it was only ever happiness that you were after. For if duty were your true and only motive, considerations of your happiness could de facto hold no sway. Thus even your best deeds, since in principle subject to cancellation on account of non-moral concerns, are exposed as essentially non-moral.

Applied to our case, we might reason as follows: Imagine, in any case where you would normally exercise your moral autonomy, that God were to command you to do otherwise. Would you submit? If you would, then, per Kant’s reasoning, it is clear that your moral intentions were never pure. For if they were, how could any other consideration hold sway?

Next, consider legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s theologically-freighted application of this idea to the concept of political sovereignty: For Schmitt, whenever there are competing forces in play, the true sovereign is “he who decides on the exception”—he who calls the shots when the chips are down, and importantly, he who decides when it is that the chips are indeed down and the shots must indeed be called.[1] There may be situations, Schmitt notes, where no one involved meets this description. In such situations there is no sovereign, and so long as there’s no crisis, the usual norms will simply proceed on their merry way. But where some party can declare a state of exception, and dictate a departure from the norm in that case, then that party is revealed as the true, sole sovereign in every case. The constant threat of exception means that, even when business does proceed as usual, the rule is never safe. Or: it is never truly a rule.

So, if on any given moral question God holds the authority to declare an exception, and we would justly heed His command if He did, does not that compromise the rule of morality as a whole?

The Epistemological Argument

Suppose you discover that, contrary to all you’ve ever known, “3+3=6” is false. No explanation of your error is given, but it has been made incontrovertibly clear that you are and have always been in profound confusion on this point. Wouldn’t you begin to doubt your arithmetical judgments more generally? Having made so basic and egregious an error—your arithmetical instincts having failed you so cruelly—could you ever trust them again? And even if, lacking further recourse, circumstances compel you to follow their lead on occasion, won’t you always be looking over your shoulder?

Now let’s take a comparably basic judgment in the moral sphere, say that one should never slaughter innocent children in cold blood. Suppose you’re reliably informed that in this one case you should, with no explanation given as to your seemingly quite basic, radical error. Would you not begin to doubt your moral competence more generally? Wouldn’t you have good reason to keep your moral judgments at a distance, lest you be fooled once more? Could you ever be morally confident again?

The Personal/Pedagogical Argument 

This line of reasoning follows upon the last. Suppose you’re a teacher hoping to shape the moral character of your students, specifically to cultivate in them the independence, fortitude, and critical thinking requisite for self-responsibility in moral decision-making. You want them to be able to do what’s right because it’s right, without needing to be told. And you want them to have the moral strength and conviction not only to obey but to lead, to show through word and deed the right and true path for all.

Now suppose that when your best and brightest pupils proudly have done their best work, shown their fullest promise, achieved near-perfect, historically-unique aptitude in moral autonomy and leadership, you bluntly inform them that they’ve made some massive moral error, that they should reject their hard-won instincts and completely disregard everything they thought they knew because in this case the truth so categorically transcends their puny mortal capacities to know as to render them wholly, utterly without use. They must submit, no questions asked—the truth is not for them to understand but to dutifully obey because you said so. And then a moment later you tell them to get up off their feet and exercise their moral autonomy again. How well do you think they’ll do?

R. David Hartman, one of our more eloquent and forceful opponents of the authoritarian Akeidah reading, spells out the religious result of such an exercise: “What kind of human being then stands in the service of God? A person, it stands to reason, who is drained of moral passion, having forcibly suppressed that part of him- or herself.”[2] Protest that moral autonomy remains the rule all you want, but the inevitably, inexorably traumatic experience of abject submission is liable to hobble, if not crush, even the most robust moral personality. In R. Hefter’s uncluttered prose, this kind of experience “undermines self-confidence and autonomy and represses the moral voice.” That is a serious problem, one that needs to be grappled with.

Love (and Trust) Conquers All

I should say, after all that, that I’m not convinced the Akeidah narrative is about morality and its tribulations at all. All the text says in clarifying the ordeal is that Isaac is “your son, your favored one, whom you love” (Bereishit 22:2), and then in conclusion, “For now I know that you are a God-fearer, as you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me” (22:12). What is stated as under examination is not Abraham’s willingness to contravene his moral impulses but his readiness to part with—to sacrifice—an especially prized possession and the last living hope of perpetuating his covenantal legacy. The whole existentialist, suspension of the ethical, flight unto the morally absurd motif may just be a basically anachronistic retrojection for all the text says, and we can’t just assume that Abraham read the Euthyphro.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument (lehagdil torah u-leha’adirah), that the story is at least in part about the dynamics of moral autonomy and divine authority. Is there a way to read the story that (a) is uncontroversially faithful to the plain meaning of the text, (b) takes seriously the challenges presented to moral autonomy by such an episode, and (c) allows the story’s protagonist and his heroic deed to be celebrated without harm to the celebrants’ ongoing moral identities?

On a logical level, the first step is to resist seeing God’s command to slaughter Isaac as a communication of moral knowledge per se. The command does not say that slaughtering innocent children is morally exemplary, but simply that God commands it in this instance. Logically, then, the action in question is not ‘slaughtering an innocent child,’ but the more complex ‘slaughtering an innocent child under divine command,’ and one can hold the former to be morally prohibited and the latter morally permissible without contradiction.

More fundamentally and existentially, commands are by nature not atomic, self-sufficient entities in themselves—they are rather two-place relations between persons. As such the specific valence of a command will depend not only on its content but on the dynamic chemistry of the personalities involved and the evolving relationship between them. Is a command to slaughter a favored son tyrannical? It certainly could be, and issued from a tyrant to a vulnerable subject it certainly is. That is just the kind of command which could crush a person, forever scarring their moral autonomy.

But suppose the command is issued by the ultimately loving Being to their ever-faithful covenantal partner in the context of reaffirming that covenant as unshakably, eternally valid. Is the command tyrannical? Again, it could be: depending on the personality, attitude, and fortitude of the receiver, the result may well range from servile submission to prideful rebellion. But it seems likewise possible for a person with enough strength of character and faithful devotion to embrace the trial, trying as it is, as a uniquely powerful opportunity to deepen their relationship with their covenantal senior partner.

And so Abraham, in heeding the command, needn’t take a moral position at all: He may not and may never understand it, but if he trusts in the God he knows to be good, he can trust God’s judgment, have faith that, despite appearances, his God intends the best. God doesn’t say “you’re wrong and I’m right.” He just asks Abraham to take His hand and follow His lead.

In notable contrast to the passages from R. Soloveitchik rightly cited by my predecessors in this discussion, in his posthumous (and clearly unfinished) Emergence of Ethical Man R. Soloveitchik strains to weave the Akeidah story into the broader narrative of covenantal partnership:

Even in the Akedah episode, the absolute imperative is lacking… The tone is almost solicitous… Abraham’s performance is not to be equated with a compulsory submission to a tyrannical power who overwhelmed him; nor should it be understood as an act of fatalistic despair… Far from it. Abraham did not realize the absurdity and the paradoxality of the divine order, which cancelled all previous promises and covenants … Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive the demand as somehow compatible with the whole. He carried it out as if it were another means leading to the realization of the eternal covenant.[3]

R. Soloveitchik wrote more than I’ve quoted here, and surely had far more to say here than the manuscript he left behind lets on. But the central insight is clear: When read in the broader narrative context of God’s covenantal friendship with Abraham, and as the climax in that relationship’s development, the story becomes not one of unilateral tyranny but one of partnership, not of blind submission but of knowing, loving trust. The moral for us, then, is that God and His Torah really do trust us and our moral aptitudes—we just have to trust Him and His in return.

[1] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 5.

[2] R. David Hartman, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011), 63.

[3] R. Joseph Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, ed. Michael Berger (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2005), 155-57.

Alex S. Ozar serves as a rabbi with OU-JLIC and the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, where he is also recently completed a PhD in philosophy and religious studies.