Bereishit

Philosophy and Exegesis: Which Leads? A Review of Aaron Koller’s Unbinding Isaac

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 Zvi Grumet

 

A number of years ago, a question was floated on the LookJED educators’ listserv, which generated a considerable and anxious discussion. Imagine that your son had just finished learning the Akedah in school. When he came home, he asked: “Abba, if Hashem told you to sacrifice me, would you?” What would you answer?

The question raised a number of essential points. There is, of course, the immediate question at hand, which cuts to the heart of the story of the Akedah. Does God want us to listen to Him when it violates every fiber of what we believe to be true? There are the associated questions as well. Is our situation different from that of Abraham, since we have the story of the Akedah to teach us that this is not what God wants? There are also educational questions: at what age (or ages) should we be teaching the Akedah, and toward what end (or ends) should we be teaching it? Then, of course, there is the question of what to say to the boy.

The Akedah looms large among our Biblical stories, is incorporated into the daily liturgy, is one of the central narratives of Rosh Hashanah, and has served as a paradigm for Jews throughout history. Despite its centrality, there is little consensus on what it means, has meant, or should mean for Jews. Aaron Koller’s Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, 2020) tackles the meaning of the Akedah head on.

Koller does an admirable job of collecting and organizing the way the Akedah has been spun amongst Jews for the last two thousand years. He articulates an understanding of zekhut avot and explores Akedah literature as a response to Christianity, as a model of martyrdom, as faithfulness to God, as a model for grappling with the Shoah, and as a Zionist inspiration all the way through the Yom Kippur War. He shares how Jews have embraced and struggled with the Akedah at the same time, criticizing it or even laughing at it.

I.

The bulk of his book, however, focuses on Kierkegaard’s grappling with the Akedah. He begins with Kierkegaard in his historical and philosophical context and continues to flesh out Kierkegaard’s presentation of Abraham as “the knight of faith,” including an explication of what that means and, just as importantly, what it does not mean. Kierkegaard’s Abraham, the knight of faith, maintains his ethics but suspends them in the face of a Divine command. He knows that what he is doing violates his core principles, but he “does it for God’s sake because God demands this proof of his faith” (Koller, pp. 35-36). The historical context is important as he demonstrates that Kierkegaard was not writing in a vacuum. Koller suggests that certain Jewish luminaries even earlier than Kierkegaard, specifically Hatam Sofer and Malbim, expounded similar ideas, though not in a manner nearly as fleshed out. In later chapters, he examines how Kierkegaard influenced two of the key Modern Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth century: Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

Kierkegaard’s influence on 150 years of Jewish thought does not deter Koller from a serious critique of him. First, he demonstrates that Kierkegaard’s thinking reflects Christian thinking quite well but does not reflect historical Jewish thinking. Aside from that, he devotes an entire chapter to four separate critiques, which, for him, render Kierkegaard’s reading of the story untenable. One of those critiques is that Kierkegaard’s reading of the story focuses exclusively on Abraham, erasing Isaac from the story; a second critique challenges imposing the modern idea of a clash between faith and morality on a text written in a culture when such a clash was unknown. This leads Koller to present his own understanding of the Akedah at the end of the book.

II.

Before I address Koller’s take on the story, there are two issues the book raised for me. I am an educator and a reader of Tanakh, not a philosopher. I tried many times to read Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind, but to no avail. I just couldn’t follow what he was trying to say. Although Koller’s writing is much more accessible, there were entire sections where I found myself struggling to follow what he was arguing or the multiple nuances he was introducing. These included some of the extensive passages on Kierkegaard as well as the wide-ranging pieces on Leibowitz and Soloveitchik. 

A second issue was the centrality Koller ascribes to the Akedah. For Kierkegaard, his understanding of the Akedah was central to his personal philosophy. Koller also presents the Akedah as central to the religious philosophies of Leibowitz and Soloveitchik. Yet aside from the writing of Elie Wiesel, I don’t know many (or any) people for whom the Akedah is a core of their religious perspective. It is an important story, but one of many important stories. I know many people, like the LookJED contributor, for whom the story generates personal, educational, parental, and religious challenges, but for none of them is it a defining pillar of their religious life or orientation. That meant that for the lion’s share of this book, I felt like I was in the audience of a great debate, but one in which I would never be a participant because I too do not experience the Akedah as a central core of my religious life. 

III.

And now for Koller’s novel interpretation: Koller breaks the story into two halves, each with its own central question. For the first half, which is the command to bind Isaac, the core question is why God commanded Abraham to do this. Does God want child sacrifice? For the second half, the core question is why God chose to annul the command to sacrifice Isaac. 

Koller carefully constructs his answers to these two questions based on his knowledge of the scholarship about the ancient world, his analysis of a number of passages in Rambam, and the writings of Emanuel Levinas. I will leave the details of his careful construction for the reader to explore, but I will summarize and discuss what he says. 

Koller’s response to the first question—why God would command the sacrifice of Isaac—is surprising. Many readers, especially Orthodox ones and even more so those with a Maimonidean leaning, will find it difficult to read, much less swallow. Koller argues that God, at least in theory, desires child sacrifice. After all, many of the other religions in that time demanded it or desired it, so it was considered the highest form of worship. Should the God of Abraham be denied what all other gods receive? Koller’s formulation (pp. 121, 125) is jarring:

One can imagine an Israelite preacher thundering: It is inconceivable that the Phoenicians, who worship a fictional deity, could be more devoted to him than we are to the Creator of Heaven and Earth! Can it be that our encounter with the One True God does not provoke the devotion that the idolatrous Phoenicians have? How can the Phoenicians sacrifice their precious children, while we suffice with mere sheep?

… there is a part of the biblical God that does desire that worshipers offer their children in sacrifice. After all, God, too, is not immune to the sense of jealousy when other worshipers offer their children to their deities.

Regarding the second question, the annulment of the sacrifice, Koller builds on a comparison of Biblical laws with ancient Mesopotamian law codes, an analysis of Rambam’s philosophy of prophecy, and Levinas, arguing that God chose to stop Abraham because God is trying to demonstrate that children are not the property of their parents; rather, children are independent beings with lives that belong to them. Earlier, Koller had critiqued Kierkegaard for ignoring Isaac; for him, the entire story was about Abraham, the knight of faith. Koller insists that not only must Isaac be brought back into the story, but that he must be central in the second half. One cannot talk about Abraham’s sacrifice without talking about Isaac’s, and it is precisely because Isaac is a person in his own right that God must reject his sacrifice. 

The combination of the two questions and their answers tries to grapple with the paradox of why God would both want and not want child sacrifice. Koller uses an image which, again, made me uncomfortable in its radical humanizing of God (p. 139):

It is certainly a psychological commonplace for a person to want something but to not want it even more. Consider a health-conscious person looking at a piece of cake. He may want the cake, although in the end he won’t eat it. The rejection of the cake is a statement not of its despicability or fundamental abhorrence, but of a desire for health that is even more powerful than the desire for the confection.

The human example is understood, but its application to God is troubling.

IV.

The relationship between exegesis and philosophy is far from simple: which leads, and which follows? The pashtanim believe that exegesis leads, though philosophers would disagree. Rambam’s reading of the visit of the three guests to Abraham or of Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match (he considers the incidents to have occurred in a prophetic dream) likely did not emerge from a close reading of the text but from his philosophy. Rationalists will work hard to reinterpret portions of the Torah which seem to suggest that magic or sorcery have any validity. 

As a reader of Tanakh with a leaning toward literary readings, regardless of how good a philosophical reading is, I will remain unsatisfied unless the reading is somehow grounded in the text and its literary context. This brings me to my central discomfort with Koller’s thesis. 

Based on my familiarity with and understanding of Tanakh, there is little to lead me to believe that God wants human/child sacrifice. In fact, there is little to lead me to believe that God wants sacrifice at all—and I mean that both in the cultic and the broader sense of the word. Genesis features the building of many altars but few sacrifices. While Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham after the Akedah (22:13), and Jacob on his way down to Egypt (46:1) each bring sacrifices, not a single one of them was commanded to do so. Exodus, with all of its focus on the Mishkan, has almost no sacrifices—and the ones it does have are communal. There are no personal sacrifices until Leviticus, and even there those might be prescribed as part of a reconstruction of the function of the Mishkan in response to the Golden Calf. Later in Tanakh, God’s ambivalence toward sacrifices is well documented (Is. 1:11, Jer. 6:20, Jer. 7:22, Hos. 6:6).

Even regarding sacrifice in its broader sense and the common usage of the word—the personal kind not involving slaughtering an animal—there is little evidence that Biblical religion wants us to give things up as part of our worship of God. God wants us to perform mitzvot, heed the covenant, serve Him with joy, do justice, be modest. The prophets don’t demand that we give up lots of things, only that we adhere to the letter and spirit of what we committed to. In that sense, Koller’s understanding of what God wants from us seems to lack context in the Biblical arc. 

Similarly, although Koller notes a Biblical leaning away from seeing children as property, that does not seem to be a major theme in Tanakh. The Torah matches children not dying for their parents’ sins with parents not dying for those of their child (Deut. 24:16, one of his prooftexts), yet there is no implicit understanding that this is a polemic against the reigning notion that parents belong to their children. 

Even more, given that the Akedah is at the close of the arc of the Abrahamic narratives, it would make sense that it would be connected to them in some way. The text of the Akedah opens with, “It happened, after these things, that God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1), explicitly linking the Akedah to something which happened before. Identifying that something is subject to debate, but Rashbam links it to the covenant Abraham established with Avimelekh, textual cues link it to Abraham’s first encounter with Avimelekh, and elsewhere I have argued that it is to be read as the climax or near culmination of half a lifetime of interaction with God. Before Koller presents his own analysis, he suggests that the Akedah needs to be read in the context of the expulsion of Ishmael, which opens the preceding chapter, yet when he presents his own philosophical analysis of the story, he offers little in terms of reading the story in the context of the larger narrative. 

All of this is in the realm of context. In the realm of the text, I struggle to find any evidence that the text even hints that God truly desires the sacrifice or that in preventing the sacrifice, God is emphasizing that children are independent people. The one thing the text does say is that this is a test—something that both God and the reader know but of which Abraham is unaware. One could argue that God wants Abraham to believe that He wants child sacrifice, but that is a far cry from suggesting that God actually wants that sacrifice.

V.

Koller’s work is a great contribution for those who want to understand what the Akedah has meant to Jews throughout history. It is also a readable introduction to Kierkegaard, Soloveitchik, and Leibowitz for non-philosophers. His analysis is insightful, and he puts ideas together in really interesting ways: in one breathtaking section, he demonstrates how Hasidut, the Vilna Gaon, and Mendelssohn were reacting to the same philosophical currents as Kierkegaard—they were all focusing religious life inward toward the individual’s relationship with God rather than seeing religion as a product of belonging to a community. Furthermore, he offers a novel reading of the Akedah, which is no simple feat given the volume of literature written on it already. That his reading is valuable for philosophers, for philosophically oriented exegesis, and for people seeking a meaningful interpretation in the twenty-first century, is also no simple feat. The book’s great weakness, however, is its lack of fidelity to both the text of the story and its context.