Update: Tzvi Sinensky responds to this post here.
The story of the Binding of Isaac, Akeidat Yitzhak, is often invoked to teach that we must sacrifice our autonomous sense of right and wrong on the altar of Divine authority. This reading of the Akeidah, too easily enlisted in support of the repression of our moral voice, begets damaging consequences. In this essay, we will consider the Akeidah from this perspective , offer a critique, and then propose a reading of the Akeidah that redeems healthy and refined human moral intuitions and restores to them their proper valence in the consideration of normative questions.
The Problem of Choice: Soren Kierkegaard, Professor Leibowitz, and Rabbi Soloveitchik
Most of us were taught that the ordeal was about 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 Akeidah was inspired by the great Protestant theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, who in Fear and Trembling, pits the ethical against the religious. Abraham’s obedience is a momentary suspension of the universal ethical imperative and an assertion of the superiority of divine fiat over any ethical system.
Kierkegaard’s basic assumption was accepted by the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Yahadut, Am Yehudi, u-Medinat Yisrael, p. 392). Like Kierkegaard, Leibowitz sees Abraham’s submission as central to the Akeidah narrative. Human surrender bears testimony to the theocentric nature of the Torah and the primacy of divine command over anthropocentric morality. Leibowitz would label a voice that calls on us to follow the humanistic ethical imperative (and thus prohibits the murder of one’s innocent child) as heretical and idolatrous because it places narcissistic self-worship over God worship.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik likewise understood obedience to God’s command and self-sacrifice as the central lesson of the Akeidah. In his popular work, On Repentance, we find the following:
The son does not “belong” to him [i.e. Abraham] and there is no room here for any arguments, symposiums or other evasive maneuvers. “And the Almighty called to him.” The attribute of Judgement calls. It is a command which demands fulfilment without hesitation. Abraham hears the command—he accepts and obeys. (Al Ha-teshuva, p. 167, Hebrew edition)
This interpretation emphasizes and safeguards God’s radical “Otherness.” It asserts that since God and His will are inscrutable, all that we can know is what God reveals to us, either through personal illumination (namely, prophecy) or collectively, through the law. According to this approach, subjective human experience and intuition are suspect and not a reliable medium for divine revelation or normative behavior.
This thesis is rooted in the authentic humility with which Rabbi Soloveitchik lived his life. Back in 1975 the Rav spoke these powerful words:
…the study of the Torah is an ecstatic, metaphysical performance; the study of Torah is an act of surrender. That is why Hazal stress so many times the importance of humility, and that the proud person can never be a great scholar, only the humble person. Why is humility necessary? Because the study of Torah means meeting the Almighty, and if a finite being meets the Infinite, the Almighty, the Maker of the world, of course this meeting must precipitate a mood of humility, and humility results in surrender…
For those who devote themselves to the study of Torah, these words are as resonant today as when the Rav spoke them more than 40 years ago.
The Rav goes on to state more explicitly what he thought needed to be surrendered. This also is the basis of how the Rav interpreted the Akeidah:
What do we surrender to the Almighty? We surrender two things: first, we surrender to the Almighty the every-day logic, or what I call mercantile logic, the logic of the businessman or the utilitarian person, and we embrace another logic—the logic m’Sinai. Second, we surrender the everyday will, which is very utilitarian and superficial, and we embrace another will – the will m’Sinai. (RCA Convention, 1975)
The Rav’s speech was a very meaningful response to the narcissism of the “me generation” of the 1970’s, which was characterized by an overemphasis on individuality, “self-actualization,” “self-realization,” and unapologetic hedonism. The negation of self through submission to the external authority of religion is an important corrective to “each man doing what is right in his eyes.”
Philosophically, in this statement, Rabbi Soloveitchik assumes that the Torah is rooted in an “otherworldly” reality that comes down to us with absolute clarity, demanding our submission. Our instincts, intuitions, and moral and aesthetic senses are belittled and perceived as obstacles to comprehension of the Platonic Truth of Sinai.
Thus, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Prof. Leibowitz, and Kierkegaard, the divine message of the Akeidah is clear and Abraham’s test is in the choice he must make: follow his heart, his paternal love, and his refined moral sense, or follow the unambiguous, revealed will of God.
The Problem with the Problem of Choice
The idea that Torah is somehow antithetical to common sense has emerged from this reading of the Akeidah. The notion that the less sense something makes the greater its religious value has unfortunately gained traction in recent years and has echoes of Tertullian’s credo, “I believe because it is absurd”. Indeed, Kierkegaard invokes the third century Church Father in his interpretation of the Akeidah. But 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 laws of the Torah, the Torah says of itself, are recognizable as “righteous and wise” not only by Talmudic scholars, but by the uninitiated nations of the world as well. (The Rav himself often quoted this verse in jest as a prooftext that it is prohibited to be foolish. Being stupid, he would say, is an abrogation of a positive commandment to be a wise nation.)
Moreover, as appealing as this interpretation is as a corrective to to the excesses of romantic individualism, it divorces religion from the most refined human sentiments and forces a choice between them. It undermines self-confidence and autonomy and represses the moral voice. This leaves sensible people vulnerable to the authority wielded by those less worthy than the Rav. We are enjoined to sacrifice our instincts and intuitions on the altar of divine revelation. By invoking the absolute authority of divine revelation and its derivative—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 what is divinely revealed by the text is a product of human interpretation; it is only as “good” as the interpreter.
In the words of R. Nahum of Chernobyl:
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 fatal poison. (Me‘or Einayim, Shemot)
In other words, when the Torah is interpreted by someone with morally repugnant character traits, it is made to yield “fatal poison” that reflects those traits. When it is interpreted by someone with refined character, it “makes the Torah into perfect good.”
Sadly, we are all too familiar with instances in which Torah interpreters attempt to serve us the fatal poison, invoking the Torah in support of morally repugnant positions. Is it really safe to jettison our own sense of right and wrong in the face of these interpretations?
This approach also begets manifestations of moral insensitivity that are less overtly injurious but, for that reason, more pervasive. The authoritarian reading of the Akeidah has subtly led to intolerance, self-righteousness, and arrogance. According to this reading, the Akeida settled, once and for all, the question of whether to follow anthropocentric, subjective morality or the divine command. We can now sleep soundly at night in the secure knowledge that when we are faced with similar challenges and choose obedience to the law , we are following the will of God as we are supposed to do. This orientation has resulted in a dulling and distrust of moral sensitivities in favor of what is deemed to be God’s revealed will and identified with “The Halakhah,” “The Torah,” or “The Gedolim.” Often, when moral considerations are raised in halakhic discussions, they are labelled and dismissed as Christian, secular humanist, western, or just plain “goyish” influence. “Authentic Judaism,” the argument goes, “has the Torah, and we know what to do. The Akeidah teaches us that eternal lesson.”
An Alternative: The Problem of Hearing
A second approach to the Akeidah begins by questioning the very nature of prophecy and Abraham’s apprehension of God’s commandment to him. The question is not whether Abraham will obey God ; that question, in a sense, may be deemed trivial. Rather, the question is: What is the divine command, and how does Abraham know what it is?
When we focus on what has been termed “the problem of hearing,” the Akeidah is no longer a story of submission to authority. It is a drama of excruciating soul-searching, played out in the recesses of Abraham’s heart.
Immanuel Kant sharply formulated the problem of hearing when he wrote:
Abraham should have replied to this putative Divine voice: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me are God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens.” (Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, quoted in Jerome Gellman, The Fear, the Trembling, and the Fire, p.3)
Kant’s portrait of the Akeidah (to which Kierkegaard was actually responding) makes a sharp contrast between the law (“Thou shalt not kill”), which is crystal clear, and the personal illumination of Abraham, which is enshrouded in a cloud of uncertainty.
The following midrash also locates the drama of the Akeidah in how Abraham will interpret the Divine voice.
When they were travelling, the Satan came to Abraham. 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)
The Satan should be read as a projection of Abraham’s inner turmoil and worst fear. Abraham is suspended between heaven and hell without a clear way of determining the True Will of God. Did Abraham actually hear the voice of God, or was it perhaps the voice of the Satan? Once the question is raised, Abraham’s ordeal becomes an agonizing nightmare.
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 an occluded lens (aspaklaria de-lo nehira). (Zohar Bereishit, Vayera, p. 97)
The Zohar offers an original interpretation of the word “ha-makom,” which in the context of the verse simply means “the place.” However, since in other rabbinic contexts the word “makom” refers to God, the Omnipresent, the Zohar interprets the verse to mean that Abraham saw God from a distance. Seeing God from a distance, through an unclear glass, means that the revelation depends upon subjective interpretation and that certainty is elusive.
Thus, according to the midrash and the Zohar (as well as Immanuel Kant), Abraham’s apprehension of God’s voice was shrouded in uncertainty. This is an essential characteristic of all prophecy and not limited to Abraham’s experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, both Rambam and the Hasidic masters gesture in the same direction. In Rambam’s view, the phenomenon of prophecy is part of nature as created by God—not some miraculous occurrence. Human beings are endowed with an innate capacity to achieve prophecy. God is constantly broadcasting; the divine overflow is as much a part of the natural world as gravity. Through tremendous intellectual and spiritual effort, the refined human being can apprehend it. Consequently, the attainment of prophecy is considered the highest form of human perfection (Guide 2:32ff).
By extension, this means that prophecy is induced and conditioned by life circumstances: not only one’s spiritual efforts, but also one’s frustrations, trials, challenges, deepest desires, and most terrifying fears. The content and style of the prophecy is worked out in the prophet’s consciousness. It is in human consciousness that the divine encounter is absorbed, interpreted, and translated.
This point of view is consistent with how Hasidic masters describe the experience of divine revelation. Sefat Emet (Parshat No’ah, 5641-1881) relates to two models: God as the voice of authority, which is experienced as being external to the person, who hears the voice of God as unequivocal Lawgiver, and God as an interior and intuitive voice. In the first model, the voice of God has a transcendent quality, as one might experience the voice of conscience—a distinct voice in one’s mind. In the second model, one experiences as their own insights, awareness, and desires that, as a matter of faith, we attribute to God.
R. Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §261) emphasizes the second model when he explains that the “burning palace” (“bira doleket”; see Bereishit Rabba 39:1) that begat Abraham’s faith was actually the turbulence, confusion, and wonder in his very own heart. Faith in God, according to this model, is a product of immediate human experience rather than an encounter with something “out there.” The instrument of Divine revelation is the human heart; it is in the heart that He dwells and through the heart that (to the extent that it is at all possible) He may be known.
Back to the Akeidah
This brings us back to Abraham. We can now flesh out the elements of his experience that place him in this impossible situation and thus find the meaning in his predicament.
Based upon our understanding of revelation formulated above, we may suggest that there were two competing voices in Abraham’s consciousness: an external voice and an inner voice. The following midrash describes Abraham’s experience of an external voice, telling him that he may not kill: “The Satan says to Abraham: Tomorrow God will say you are a murderer; you are guilty of shedding your son’s blood” (Bereishit Rabba, Vayera 56). The second voice, the voice that tells him to sacrifice Isaac, is actually experienced as interior—his personal and subjective illumination—echoes of the voice of the Almighty calling for his beloved son’s blood.
The Akeidah, then, cannot be about submission to the unambiguous, express will of God through the subjugation of healthy moral and human sentiment, because Abraham experienced God’s will as personal illumination, fraught with uncertainty. There are contradictory elements shaping Abraham’s state of mind. His personal illumination, which he intuitively recognizes as divine, contradicts his deeply held love for his most beloved son, his internal refined sense of morality, and the clarity of the divine law prohibiting murder of innocents. The terrible demand Abraham experiences emerges from this compound. It is actually the finger of the Satan, according to the midrash, which points to the objective, “crystal-clear” law prohibiting murder.
We return to Kant: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain.” The source of Abraham’s terrible dilemma emerges when he brings the law, which he holds to be certain, into conversation with his powerful subjective illumination; the uncertainty of the occluded lens to which the Zohar refers emerges from this dynamic.
The interior/intuitive model of 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, p.118).
The Ambivalence of Chosenness and the Need for Clarification (Berur)
What is the meaning of Abraham’s terrible predicament, and how is he supposed to navigate his way through it?
In order to understand the meaning of the Akeidah, we must place the story in the context of the book of Bereishit, return to the dawn of Abraham’s spiritual journey, and explore the idea of being chosen by God.
The emergence of Israel as God’s chosen people is the leitmotif of the narrative arc of Bereishit. 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.
And Abraham, being the first of the chosen line, is consumed with this idea 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?”
Chosenness stirs ambivalent feelings for Abraham as well as for us, his descendants. For Abraham there is a conflict between his universalistic tendency (expressed in his deep concern for wicked Sodom, Lot, Ishmael, his angelic guests, and his special comrades) and the desire to father a particular people who will carry on his legacy and serve as a vehicle for the divine presence in the world. For us, millennia later, it can still be said that the most orienting belief that many of us share is the notion that we are God’s chosen people. Some view being chosen by God as a sacred responsibility toward humankind, while others view it as a sort of privilege or entitlement, an attitude that can devolve into clannishness and even xenophobia. Even if we set aside the odious expressions of the belief in chosenness, the doctrine raises inherent tensions between universal concerns for humanity and the particular concerns we are entitled to have for our people.
In addition to stirring the conflict between universalism and particularity, chosenness carries another complicating characteristic: It is a divinely bestowed blessing. In Bereishit 12:1, God commands Abraham: “lekh lekha…” (“go forth”). Rashi cites a midrash to explain the repetitive language: “lekh lekha”—“go forth for yourself.” Go forth for your own benefit. The verses go on to guarantee Abraham and his descendants everlasting blessings:
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)
Being chosen by God is complicated. It is accompanied by ambivalent feelings and comes with benefits as well. And therein lies the problem.
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. That is why the Torah is so adamant in the prohibition of taking bribery—even to adjudicate a case justly. The Torah is not concerned exclusively, or even primarily, with the judge who will decide consciously in favor of the guilty party. The prohibition against bribery is primarily to protect against the judge whose judgement is tainted by self-interest.
We may be inclined to believe that this confusion only applies to common people engaged in the decisions and judgements of everyday life. Divine revelation—prophecy from God—is often understood as an objective experience of whose meaning the prophet is certain. Accordingly, the role of the individual prophet, like the ass of Bil’am, is reduced to that of a technical instrument to deliver God’s message.
But this is not so. We can now understand, as the Ishbitzer wrote, that “even prophecy requires great clarification.”
The Akeidah as the Berur of Abraham’s Chosenness
Abraham experiences in the deepest (prophetic) sense that he and his descendants were chosen by God, and he believes that this experience is the voice of God. He feels the destiny, the history, and the sacred responsibility. Yet 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.)
Here’s the rub. Precisely because being chosen is a source of comfort and security, Abraham cannot be certain whether the initial call and promise of “lekh lekha” are 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 interests, desires, personal loves, and familial connections. His life, his future, his destiny—everything is riding on this desperate determination. 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 comprehend the divine promise of chosenness with added force and conviction, experiencing it with an aura of finality:
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)
The divine intent here is twofold: to clarify for Abraham (as well as to us, his descendants) that our chosenness is authentic, and more significantly, that chosenness is rooted in selflessness and sacred responsibility, not in self-interest or privilege.
Reading the Akeidah as a problem of the choice that Abraham needs to make between divine authority and his human sense of love, fealty, and morality places submission at the center of the Akeidah drama. While submission to authority, particularly from a place of humility, has significant religious value, over-emphasizing it has negative consequences. What often follows is a devaluation of human autonomy, undermining of healthy self-confidence, and abrogation of moral responsibility. In place of these important qualities, we are often witness to insensitivity and self-righteous arrogance.
When we emphasize the problem of hearing, the fullness of Abraham’s experience is brought out and the drama becomes an interior one. As God’s revelation unfolds in Abraham’s heart, he needs to make sense of it. Abraham perceives that he and his offspring are God’s chosen. Is this perception self-serving or authentic? He needs to know—and so do we. When Abraham displays the ability to disregard the Satan, as represented in the midrash, and to interpret God’s revelation as he did, setting aside all self-interest, and even going against the clarity of the law in favor of his own illumination, we learn that our chosenness is not a self-serving, ethnocentric notion. Thus, we open ourselves to the possibility of comprehending it as a selfless vision, inspired by love and concern for all humankind.