Akeidah: Heroism or Murder? I
Why Did God Ask Abraham To Sacrifice His Son?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How can we understand the Binding of Isaac as an act of heroism and not intended murder? Abraham, the first advocate for the theology of monotheism, commits his life to fighting a battle against Molech, the sacrifice of children, which was the most prominent act of polytheism of the time. How is it possible that the most outspoken opponent of murder could then dismiss his own will and rise up to sacrifice his own son Isaac? How can we view Abraham's decision as an act of heroism, deemed acceptable by our tradition? What does it teach us about our own will and its relationship to God's will?
Rabbi Fohrman grapples with the toughest of questions in this audio series on the Akeidah. By taking a close look at the story, he helps us understand if Abraham should be commended for his obedience to God – or condemned for nearly murdering his son?
The Bible, obviously, is a classic of not just Western literature, but of world literature, and oftentimes it's easy to read this document as a stale relic of the past, without really understanding how it is that it impacts me. I find that you have got basically two general schools of approach to this, neither of which is particularly satisfying to me. One approach is a very academic approach. Oftentimes you'll go to university – I actually teach some of this in university – but you go to your typical university course on Bible and you have a very studious, academic approach. But oftentimes you're left with understanding the archeological significance of the cities that are described in Numbers and it's all very interesting, but the question is, "What do those cities have to do with me?" And that's never a question which is really addressed in the course. It's not a course about you, it's a course about this document, and it's up to you to try to make the connection, and it's a difficult connection to make. Another approach is the non-academic approach, which is an approach which you'll sometimes find Rabbis will take in sermons – and I don't know, your Rabbi, my Rabbi, their Rabbi -- but sometimes you'll hear a sermon that's not particularly good, and it will sound like fire and brimstone, and somebody is trying to convince you of how you should just be a better person and will spend half an hour telling you what you already knew and trying to beat it over your head using three Biblical verses to do that to you. I call that, from my experience in camp as a youngster, the "so-too-here-in-camp approach."
Do you ever have that? Like, the counselor gets up and gives you this fire and brimstone talk along the lines of, so too here in camp, this teaches us that we should all be very good people and we shouldn't do bad things. But I didn't need the Bible to tell me that, and it doesn't seem to come out of the text. It just seems to be this fellow's pet theory that he's reading and cramming into these words with a crowbar.
So, somewhere between those two extremes is what I'd like to try and reach with you this evening and for the rest of our time together over these ten sessions, and that is to try to use an "academic approach" or to try to take a really responsible approach to the text where we're not trying to read our own stuff in. You know, we already have plenty of baggage – me included – and it's very easy to just read all of your baggage into the Bible. You know: "Abraham had a dysfunctional relationship with his child! If he only played basketball more with Isaac, he never would have been willing to sacrifice him on top of the mountain!" Now that actually is a comment which I didn't make up in my head. That came from Bill Moyers' television show on Genesis, and somebody who was a reputable scholar got up and said that. This is an example of reading your own baggage into a Biblical story.
What we're going to try and do is keep our own baggage to ourselves and try to actually study the text and figure out: What does the text have to say about that? What story is the text trying to tell us? Trying to be very objective about it as much as possible. After that, we can come to it with our own baggage and then say, okay, that's the story, what does it have to do with me and everything that's going on in my life? That's stage 2. But stage 1 is, leave your own world behind, try to understand the Bible through its own lenses, through its own world, and then try and see if and how that connects to our lives. More often than not, it does in a profound way.
Where do we begin? Well Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner, we've got three more weeks to the Jewish New Year, so I figured we'd talk about something that is appropriate for that. We celebrate the Jewish New Year much differently than the secular world does: There is no apple dropping from the top of Jerusalem or something, we don't have champagne, we don't have great, drunken parties or things like that. We have a rather sobering – it's a rather sobering experience. I dare say that if the rest of the world celebrated its New Year like we did, it wouldn't be – people wouldn't be necessarily looking forward to it as much. Spend a lot of time in synagogue, and it's a pretty serious affair. But one of the things that we read in the synagogue that takes pride of place is one of these stories from the middle of Genesis, and that is the story of the Akeidah – the story of the Binding of Isaac.
I'd like to begin by talking about that story with you, and I would like to set ourselves the unrealistic goal of finishing that by Rosh Hashanah. I give ourselves probably about a 30 percent chance of doing that, but we're going to try. It would be only three sessions, at least, to finish our main look at that story. It's only about 21 verses long, but it's a very packed narrative.
Frankly, I spent a fair amount – a little while today – debating about where we would begin. I was thinking of beginning a bit earlier and doing some other things with you, but I really wanted to talk about this, because it is timely. However, I'm just going to warn you that we will not be easing into things in this course. The Akeidah, the story of the Binding of Isaac, is probably one of the most wrenching stories in the entire Bible. It is not like we're starting with something easy and working our way to the hard stuff, this is really, it's just very heavy stuff. So keep that in mind. It's not an apology, it's just the way it is.
I'd like to devote our next three weeks at least to look at this story. Okay, let's take a look at it.
The Story of Isaac's SacrificeI assume that most of you know the basic outline of the story. God appears to Abraham one day, His trusty servant who has been a paragon of faith and growth. God has promised him that he will be the progenitor of the Jewish people and that he will occupy a central place in world history, that kings will come from him, and that Isaac will be his heir. At the end of all of this, towards the very end of his life, God unloads the – almost the unbelievable – command that he's supposed to take Isaac to the top of the mountain and kill him. Abraham travels three days to do just that, and at the end of that God calls out to him from the top of the mountain and says, just kidding, and you can take Isaac down now, and Abraham does just that. That's the end of the story. That's the very short version.
There's lots of questions in this, but there is one question that really pervades the story – and, well, actually I shouldn't say that pervades the story, but I would say that most modern people when looking at this story are bothered by, and myself included – the following question. Here we read this story on Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah because – in harking back to this story. We blow the shofar because the ram that was caught in the thicket, the shofar reminds us of that ram, and it's as if to recall the heavenly merit of Abraham's deed that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. You can look around the room and ask yourself the following question: How do you live with yourself reading this on Rosh Hashanah? How do you understand looking at Abraham as a hero on Rosh Hashanah?
Did Abraham Make the Right Choice to Sacrifice Isaac?If you look at this story and you ask yourself, was this the right thing to do? God comes down and says, I want you to take your son and I want you to kill him at the top of the mountain. If you put yourself in Abraham's place for a moment and you imagine that God is telling you, you need to do the unspeakable, to take your child and to kill your child, now I mean, you don't even want to think about this. But – see, a lot of the times these stories, I call it the lullaby effect. You read these stories so often and – as young kids and in Hebrew School – that you sort of become inured to them, they fail to make the impact upon us that they once did. It's sort of like a lullaby: You sing the words to the child and the child falls asleep, but if you actually think about the words that you've become inured to for so long, it's not such a funny lullaby anymore.
My classic example of this is Rock-a-Bye Baby on the Treetop story. So here you are singing this very nice tune about this baby that falls off a tree. Now imagine the baby falling off the tree, this is what you're singing to your child about as they go to sleep. So if the child is really thinking about this, is this going to foster a great sense of security about them going off to sleep at night, especially in your care? Probably not, if this is how you get your jollies, singing to your child. But this is how we sing to them. And it's jarring. But if you imagine yourself as an adult first coming across Rock-a-Bye Baby for the very first time, if you had never been exposed to this culture and you heard a mother singing this to their child, you would be really shocked. But you're not shocked, because you grew up with it.
Well, it's the same thing with these stories. Often as not, we're not shocked, because we grew up with it. But if you just pull back for a moment and pretend that you've never heard this story before, this is the very first time that you've ever heard this story, it's a mind-boggling story. God tells a father to go and take his son and to kill his son. And in a certain way, it is, I think, a story that, of all the ones in the Bible, is the one which I think we Jews, who worship in our temple on Rosh Hashanah, view this story differently – our view of the story is, I don't know the correct English here – is more radically different than the rest of the population around us than any other Biblical story. Because what everyone else sees as murder, we see as heroism. The question is – our tradition sees it as heroism, and all of you, whether you like it or not, you will go to synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, barely three weeks away, and this is how it's going to be seen.
And you can look at the story, and you ask as a modern thinking person, just looking at this story, you look at this and you say, maybe if God came down – I mean if you were the parent and God came down to you in the middle of the night and said, I'd like you to take your child and kill him, what's the correct answer? How do you even know that this is the correct answer? What's the right answer? Maybe the right answer is just say no – like the drug war, just say no. Sorry God, you got the wrong guy, go find somebody else to do this. Just say no. But Abraham didn't just say no.
So the first question to ask is,: What really is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this story in light of this question? How do we even approach this story in light of this question?
What I'd like to do with you, for the first part of our time tonight, is to go through a couple of answers that have been given to this question and to examine whether or not we agree with them. Do we as intellectually honest human beings feel that these are reasonable responses to this problem?
I dare say that -- let me put it to you this way -- I would go far as to say that modern scholars oftentimes, when dealing with this question, they've come up with a number of theories. But if you read some modern scholarship about the story, there's this sort of note of fury in some of the writing. People are -- there's something infuriating about this story, and let me try and put my finger on it. I think what's so infuriating about this story is -- read it through for a moment, and what I'd like you to do is just read the story for a second. Take a minute, read it, is it chapter, what, 22?
[Response from audience member: Yes.]
Read through this story and ask yourself just one question. Just skim the story and ask the following question. One of the first important distinctions to make when you study Biblical text is between a question that bothers you and a question that bothers the text. A question that bothers you or me, as David Fohrman standing in the twentieth century, and a question that the text wants us to be bothered with.
Let me give you an example. You're reading, for example, say, we talked about the story of Jonah last night in a class I did. You're reading the story of Jonah. Somebody comes along and says, you know, I don't understand how a whale could come and swallow Jonah. I mean, that just seems so improbable, that a whale would come along and swallow this guy. Like how am I supposed to believe that? Now is that a problem that you have, or is that – in other words, that we as readers have – or is that a problem that the text wants us to ask? Which do you say it is? It's our problem. This is a problem that you as a twentieth-century reader have, because you don't believe in big fish coming along and swallowing people. All right, fine, so you grew up in a culture where that doesn't happen very much, so it [does] really bother you.
But that is not -- if you read through the text of Jonah, there's no indication that the author of Jonah wants you to be bothered by that question; it's just the way it is, a fish came along and swallowed him. He doesn't make any big deal about it, he just says that's the way it is. He doesn't say: And wait, you're never going to believe this one, then a fish came! Then you would say that the author was bothered by this problem, was trying to mitigate that question, or it's a problem that he's bothered with too.
However, when you're reading the story of Jonah and you say, why does Jonah run away when God tells him to go to the city of Nineveh and tell them to repent? Is that a question that I'm bothered with? Or is that a question that the text is bothered with, or the text wants you to ask? That's a question that the text wants you to ask. Why? Because if you read the text, the very sentence of the text is: The word of God came to Jonah and said, go to Nineveh and call out to them and tell them to repent. The very next sentence is: And Jonah got up and he ran away from God and he went off to Tarshish and he says, I'm having nothing to do [with this] and he goes off to Tarshish. Now you read those two sentences, and the first question that jumps out to you is: Here he is, he's a prophet, and God came to him and said go, and we have no explanation of why he doesn't want to go, he runs away. So there's an obvious incompleteness in the text, the text does not complete, so there's a problem in the text. It's not a problem that I have; the text is problematic.
Now those problems are clues. Those are not -- that means that our first clue to understanding this text is that we have to struggle with that problem. So now we know what our agenda is, at least, if we're beginning to study the Book of Jonah.
So what about the questions that bother us? How do we relate to these two questions differently? Well, a question that bothers the text, you're likely to find an answer somewhere in the text. In other words, if the text is a coherent document that is trying to present a vision, so somewhere there are clues in the text to allow you to answer textual problems. What about questions that bother us? How do we deal with questions that bother us? We have to deal with them, but not necessarily from the text; the text isn't concerned with it, you're not necessarily going to find an answer there. From the perspective of the text itself, you might say it's the wrong question to ask.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Imagine you're an English teacher and somebody comes along – somebody raises their hand, you're reading, I think it's Carl Sandburg's poem about, is it Carl Sandburg, the fog that crept in on its little cat feet, right? You're reading this poem, and somebody in the back of the room raises their hand and says, I don't understand this poem. You say, what's wrong? He says, what do you mean the fog crept in on its little cat feet? Fog doesn't have feet, it's not like a cat. Cats creep in. Sandburg obviously knows very little about cats, and he knows even less about fog.
So how do you answer this question? You can't answer this question, it's impossible. The question is not the right question, it's the wrong question, you can't ask this question about the text. You have to understand something about the rules of the game, a poetic sensitivity, to begin – there's no way to answer that question, it's the wrong question. The text, i.e. the poem, does not want you to ask that question of it. It's your problem, you have a problem; you don't understand how cats - so you have to deal with it. But once you deal with it, you can start talking about the text.
All right, so my challenge to you is the following. We have a terrible moral problem when reading this story of Abraham and Isaac. Is this murder? I mean, what's going on? It's a harrowing story, it sounds murderous. Abraham should have just said no, apparently. Why is he a hero for saying yes? He should be a murderer, he should be condemned. Now here's my question to you: Is that our question or is that the text's question? I want you to read through the story, find yourself a chavrusa - partner, read it through, come to a conclusion with them. Take three minutes, four minutes, read through the story. Ask yourself, do you think that the text is bothered by this and there are clues in the text to help us answer this? Or is the text just not concerned with this issue? Okay, read that through and I'll reconvene here in about three and a half, four minutes, you've got plenty of time.
Okay, so what do you say? Let's take a hand - is - which kind of question is this? Is this a question that the text is pained with and is struggling with, and if you look carefully enough you'll see that the text is providing us clues to answer why Abraham is not a murderer? Or is this a problem that the text just says: Tough, this is for you in the twentieth century to figure out, but we're not bothered by this? Which do you think it is?
What's that? You say the second. All right, Janet, says the second. Any other votes for the second? Janet, why do you think it's the second? Explain to me why you think that the text is not bothered by the question?
Response from audience member: Because it's so straightforward, it's so matter of fact, it's so vague … exist. It doesn't leave room, I don't think, for doubt.
Any dissenting voices? A dissenting voice? Go ahead.
Response from audience member: I say that it's purposely done to reinforce the dilemma. In other words, it says in the first sentence: It came to pass that God did prove Abraham and said unto him, Abraham. So it's telling you from the beginning that this is going to be a test, and then it's followed with the emphasis of, it's not saying take whoever is lying around, it's take your son, the one whom you love, and then that's underscored later with the innocence of the son saying, but why are you taking me, where is the sacrifice? Then he says, God will provide. To me while I'm reading it, that this is a wrenching, ironic kind of…
Okay, good, what's your name? Lydia? Okay.
So Lydia and Janet, I think you're both right actually, and let me explain what I mean by that. Let's first take Lydia's point and then we'll get to Janet's point. Can anyone of you buttress Lydia's argument from elsewhere in the text? Lydia says it's an ironic, wrenching, heart-wrenching story, and she points to a couple aspects of it that indicate that. One, it says it's a test to begin with, it must be a test of something. It doesn't just say, take Isaac, it says, take Isaac your son, the one that you love, your only son, the one that you love. So it's setting up the sort of heart-wrenching drama. Elsewhere, Isaac is portrayed as this sort of innocent lad where he sort of innocently asks, so Dad I see the wood, I see the fire, but where is the lamb? Then - and Abraham has to answer that question for Isaac.
Okay good, are there any other indications along those lines? You have one more?
Response from audience member: There's parallel kind of language. Like in the beginning it says: God says, Abraham, and Abraham says, here I am. Then later on the son says -- Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father and says, my father, and then the answer is, here I am my son. I mean why was that repeated and why was "my son" and "my father."
Okay, good, you're actually making two points at once. Let me just flesh out what you're saying.
First of all you astutely point out that the word Hineini, here I am, appears actually three times in the text. It appears in the very beginning when Abraham says it to God, and it appears again in almost an ironic twist when Abraham says it to Isaac. So let's look at the context for a minute. God calls out to Abraham and says, Abraham, and Abraham says, Hineini, here I am. And later on -- in an expression of readiness to perform whatever God wants of him -- later on he's forced to say those same words to his son when his son says, My father, about to ask him about what this command is about. So it sort of sets up the sort of heart-wrenching kind of similarity, that you answered Hineini to God and now you have to answer Hineini to your child.
Moreover, Lydia's second point is that -- and this is actually very interesting -- if you look at this text carefully, one of the rules in Biblical analysis that you can use to help you is what's called a Milah Mancha, or a leading word. Oftentimes it's a light word. Oftentimes you have a word or a phrase which is repeated over and over again in a Biblical narrative, as if to give it some sort of emphasis and to say the story revolves around that. Let me throw this out as a question for you. What words or phrase, reading through this text, is repeated over and over again? Just take a look through it, do you see any words -- now by the way I don't mean words that you would expect to be repeated over and over again, for example, the word Abraham. So it's a story about Abraham, so you'd expect to see it a bunch of times. A seemingly superfluous word which gets much more attention than you think it needs to have.
Okay good. "My son" -- actually 13 times in this narrative the words son or father are used. Every time that Isaac is referred to it's always "my son," "my son." Every time that Abraham is referred to, it's "his father" or "my father." There's this constant emphasis on son-father. So certainly the Bible wants you to look at this -- the Torah wants us to look at this and see that it's there. So that's Lydia's point.
Now let's take that, though, and rephrase it in terms of our question. Clearly this stuff is there, and it seems to set up this heart-wrenching struggle where a father is asked to do what fathers don't usually do. But now let me ask you, does the text seem to indicate that there is some question -- in other words, let me put it to you this way, perhaps I didn't phrase the question entirely clearly, let me put it to you this way, that one of the main points of this text is to answer to you the question of why it is that this is not murder. What is the answer to that question?
Response from audience member: Well I don't know if there is some foreshadowing here that it's not going to take place. There's the foreshadowing here that Abraham was confident because of his relationship or his knowledge of God…
Where do you see that?
Response from audience member: Well, there's two of them. One of them is where he says that they're both going to come back. And then in verse 8, that's when his son does say, what's with the sacrifice, where's the sacrifice? He says, God will provide.
Okay, let me respond to both of those in kind. First of all, are all of you convinced that this is foreshadowing, that Abraham knows it's not going to happen? Explain to me why it might not be foreshadowing. Let's take the first one. What happens? The hired help who comes along says, what should we do now, we're up to the place? Abraham says, oh, we're just going to take a walk for three days and we'll both see you back in a while. Does this prove that Abraham knows that he's coming down with Isaac? Does this prove that Abraham knows that he's coming down with Isaac? Why not?
Response from audience member: It's not clear, he may just be talking to assuage their concerns.
That's right. If he goes and he tells them, I'll be back in a while, and Isaac, gee I don't know what's going to happen to him, so they're likely to rebel or to -- I mean, they're going to think something is up. Abraham is not advertising, he's holding his cards close to his vest. One can certainly read it that way.
Also, look carefully at the second point which you made, and that is that -- read the verse carefully when Isaac asks, Isaac says, what's up with the sacrifice? So look at Abraham's response carefully. Can someone read it to me?
Response from audience member: God will see to a lamb for an offering, my son.
Okay, read that carefully: אֱלֹקים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי
Abraham says, God will show us a lamb for the offering my son. There's two ways you can read that verse.
Why do you have add "my son" at the end? You can read it in Hebrew: God will show a lamb for the offering my son, as if it's a double-entendre, that, you know, who is going to be the offering? So it's almost not so clear what Abraham is saying there.
By the way, look carefully at what it says immediately after that. That verse of that little dialogue between Abraham and Isaac is sandwiched by something, by two phrases that appear right - one right before and one right after it. What are those two phrases?
[Response from audience member: The two walking.]
And the two walked together: וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו.
It says vayeilchu sheneihem yachdav, the two walked together, right before that conversation, and vayeilchu sheneihem yachdav, right after that conversation. What do you think the significance of that sandwich is? Why is it saying before, Then they walked together, and then right after this conversation, And they walked together? You knew they were walking together. Why does it repeat it? What's the difference between Abraham and Isaac's relationship before this dialogue and after this dialogue?
Response from audience member: It's the same.
It's the same. Why is that so significant? What's the significance of the dialogue? I would say -- my sense of it is -- first of all, historically, Isaac was not six years old at the time, he was in his 30s. So he's a strapping young man, and his father -- I mean, it's almost an ironic, comical position. His father is hobbling along on his cane in his 90s, and here's this 30-year-old strapping guy who is going to get bound and sacrificed on the altar. But be that as it may, the father says this to the son and says, God will show Himself a lamb for the offering, my son. Then it says, And they walked together. Rashi argues that the significance is that the same way they walked together before this conversation, they continued to walk together after the conversation.
So for example, if you imagine, what do you think the greatest source of family disharmony might be in a family? Can you imagine a greater source of disharmony than your parent coming along and telling you that they had a dream and God came to them and tells them that they're supposed to kill you, in a dream. I mean this is pretty lousy for family harmony. But yet the same sense of walking together that they had before Isaac knows, after Isaac knows -- perhaps -- they're still walking together. So again it twists the knife a little bit deeper in your heart, it makes it even more poignant.
For those of you who are interested, by the way, you might even want to read Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling where he constructs four possible elaborations of what it might have been like for those three days when Abraham was travelling up to the mountain, and what Sarah might have been thinking and what Isaac might have been thinking and what Abraham might have been thinking. It really tugs at your heartstrings.
So all of that is true. But now let's come back to the central question. Okay, that's true, but now, is the Bible concerned with this moral dilemma that maybe Abraham ought not to do it? And that in the text lies the answer to why Abraham -- at least in a superficial way -- to why this is not murder? Is this a struggle for the text?
My sense: I have to say that I side with Janet on this one, or those of you who said it -- I think that what Lydia said is correct, that there is that clear sense of wrenchingness, but I don't have the sense from reading the text in its plain meaning that we're meant to be troubled morally. We're meant to be troubled in the same way that a tearjerker troubles us when we leave the theatre. It's a tearjerker, but it's not morally troubling, but it will get you to cry because it's so sad. So clearly, the Bible wants to make us cry, it wants to make us feel the tension of what it must have been like as a father to be commanded to kill your son, and what it must have been like to be a son hearing this. The Bible clearly wants us to feel that and understand that pain, and clearly that's part of the issue. But it's very possible, and I think likely, that the text is meant to be read as simply that part of Abraham's struggle is to be able to bring himself to do this, what he must do.
But the sense is never there that morally this might be a wrong act, or that it's even a questionable act, and that Abraham comes to a vision of why this is the right thing to do. The struggle seems to be, at least from a plain reading, that this is the right thing to do, but it's a very hard thing to do and it goes against every instinct of human nature. But for some reason, the fact that it's right doesn't seem to be questioned. There's a command, God says do it, and it sounds like Abraham is just going to do it. Then the angel comes and says, you did a good thing but you don't have to kill him. And it just seems to be taken for granted that Abraham was supposed to say yes.
Let me try and flesh this out to you a bit by entertaining an alternative. One of the modern theories about this story is that this indeed is the central issue in the story. In other words, another way of phrasing this question is: When you look at this story and you ask, what am I supposed to get out of this text, is the answer, I am supposed to understand why this isn't murder? Or is the answer, I'm supposed to get something else out of this text? I believe that it's the answer, I'm supposed to get something else out of this text. I don't know what yet, but I think it's something else. Now, do I have to struggle with why this isn't murder? You bet! I can't begin to understand this text before I understand why it's not murder. But I don't think the text is trying to teach me that.
Let me give you an alternative example to show you. One of the modern theories about this story is that indeed the text means to teach you why this isn't murder, and the way it is phrased is the following: The moral of the story is that human sacrifice is wrong. Have you heard this? That what this story is teaching is that human sacrifice is wrong, and it goes like this: Human sacrifice was practiced often at this time, and God wanted to make an example to show that human sacrifice is wrong, and this text was God's way of advertising to humanity that human sacrifice is wrong.
Look through the text and tell me, do you -- I think there are problems in the text with that possibility. What's problematic in the text with that understanding? What doesn't seem to go in the text with understanding that the moral of the story is human sacrifice is wrong? Can you disprove this from the text or at least raise some problems with it?
Response from audience member: Why did God say in the first place, Go and sacrifice your son?
Maybe He wants to be dramatic. He wants to get everybody's attention. He wants to tell Abraham to do something and then once He's got -- He wants to set up this dramatic thing and then at the last minute say no, no, no, don't touch him, and the moral of the story is, never touch another human being. Maybe this is what the story is about? Maybe this is what we're supposed to walk away from, from Rosh Hashanah? Do you think so? Yeah?
Response from audience member: Well because His response is, So now that I know that you fear God, it has nothing to do with it being wrong.
Okay, exactly. If you're the angel that tells him not to touch Isaac, and the whole point of this crazy exercise was that everybody should learn from now on that you never touch another human child, so what are you going to say in the few sentences that you get in the Bible, the greatest bestseller on earth, to make that point? You're going to say something like: Don't touch that child, everyone should know that I never demand from you to touch children. It was very nice of you, Abraham, you poor, primitive, Mesopotamian Indian, you thought that you should sacrifice, and I can't blame you for your naïveté, but a more sophisticated understanding of the Deity which I'm now revealing to all of humanity says, don't touch this child. And if he's not going to be so verbose, so he should at least say, don't touch the child, I never demand that of My creatures.
But nothing of that kind. What does the angel say? The angel says, don't touch the child. Why? Because it's not necessary: כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹקים אַתָּה.
I know that you're a fearer of God, it's not necessary to kill him. The implication of the story clearly is that if the angel did not stop him and he actually went through with this, it would have been the right thing to do, which is scary.
By the way, I would also tell you that if that's true, then what role does -- if that theory is true, that the moral of the story is human sacrifice is wrong, so what role did Abraham play in this story? What kind of guy is Abraham? If you look back in the story, what's your view of Abraham? What's your view of him? What?
Trusting. Another few adjectives? Picture it, there's this poor Mesopotamian fellow. God picks him out and says, I'd like you to take your son to the top of the mountain and kill him. Obediently he trudges up the mountain and is ready to kill him. Then God then reveals Himself and shows His more sophisticated side and teaches the heathens that never do we sacrifice our children. So is Abraham a hero or is he not a hero in the story?
Response from audience member: He's a pawn.
He's a pawn. He's not a hero, he's a pawn.
But it's very clear at the end of the story that Abraham is a hero. The angel comes and says no, you are a fearer of God and I bless you and you'll have all these blessings and you'll have this land and everything is fine and you've reached the pinnacle of holiness. That's clearly what the angel says. So the angel seems to characterize Abraham as a hero, which seems to imply that the problem that we're all bothered with -- in other words, it would be nice and convenient if the moral of the story was that God is really trying to tell us that He would never, ever demand this of us. That would be comforting in a way. But unfortunately, the text doesn't seem to want to comfort us in this way.
What I would like to suggest to you is that this question is not a problem that the text itself is bothered with. You could read this text, and the text is almost addressed to people that already understood the answer to this question. For some reason they knew -- in other words, the text takes it for granted that you walk into this text understanding why this isn't murder, or that's just not the issue that they were dealing with. Now is it an important issue to struggle with? You bet it's an important issue to struggle with, and we have to struggle with it. We have no chance of understanding what the story is really about before we get that baggage out of the way, because I don't think there's a twentieth-century person alive that can really begin to understand what the story is about while having that question lurking in the back of their mind. But I think it's important to distinguish an understanding that what we're doing, what we will be doing now, is trying to prepare the groundwork for understanding this story, and then we will have a second task ahead of us.
Our first task is to understand: Morally, why the heck should Abraham have said yes? Why does the Bible take it for granted that that was the right response? That is our question number one. Then after we're done with that -- when we're done with that we have not even begun to understand the story of the Akeidah, we haven't even started. All we've done is laid the groundwork for us to be able to approach the text at its own level and then to figure out, what does the text want me to understand from this? What does the text think the point of this story is? That will be stage 2. So we're going to go on two stages. Stage 1 is, deal with our problem, why this isn't murder, is there an answer to that, is there any answer to that? Stage 2, if the moral answer to this is -- if Abraham is on strong moral ground with agreeing, so then what really is this story all about?
In the remainder of our time, which is not much, I'd like to just quickly entertain a couple of other theories which have been bandied about, about this problem. Some other possible ways of dealing with this issue. Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling, which is a profound meditation upon this story, a recommended reading -- and I cannot tell you that I understand everything that Kierkegaard says - honestly, it's a deep book and I don't think I've got it all. But this is one of the issues that he struggles with. It's not the main issue that he struggles with, but it's one of the issues he struggles with . Why was this not murder?
Kierkegaard puts forth a theory, which I'm just going to sketch out to you the outline, as the following. It has a fancy philosophical name, but this theory is known as -- he says that Abraham did what he did because there was a teleological suspension of the ethical. Now what do those fancy words mean?
You really have to read Kierkegaard, but here's basically what it means. What does teleological mean? Teleological means -- telos from the Latin means striving towards an end. Teleology is a theory of philosophy where if you have a teleological system, it's a system that doesn't get pushed from behind but instead gets pulled towards an end, it's being pulled somewhere. That's something which is teleological.
So a teleological suspension of the ethical means the following. Kierkegaard's theory -- and I'd like to ask you whether you're comfortable with this or not? Kierkegaard's theory is that ethics applies almost always, but not always. It applies in normal human affairs, but once God enters into the picture, all bets are off. When God enters into the picture, there then starts to be what's known as a teleological suspension of the ethical. The ethical becomes suspended because God is just a fundamentally qualitatively different being, you can't talk ethics when it comes to God, and when you're confronted by God telling you to do things, it no longer becomes the right question to ask whether it's good or bad. Ethics just becomes suspended, it's just a whole new realm. He calls it the absurd.
The absurd -- it's a particularly Christian approach, I guess it's a good theme tonight, we have the other thing going on in 15 minutes. It's apparently a Christian approach. Kierkegaard was a religious Christian. And it's that it's absurd, it makes no sense, because you apparently have this good God commanding a murder, but it's tough, when God arrives on the scene, all bets are off. It's just an entirely new realm of reality, and ethics and good and bad cease to have meaning, and the ethical becomes suspended in view of the teleological imperative of following God.
Okay, now I ask you this -- I realize you haven't had a lot of time to digest this, but are you prepared to accept a notion of a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Response from audience member: Well no, and I don't - I can't explain my answer. But my gut reaction is we're supposed to be in the image of God and it doesn't make sense.
Okay good. Jewishly we are supposed to be in the image of God, so one could question whether that is Kierkegaard's view and is in fact a Jewish view. We're actually, in Jewish philosophy we're supposed to derive all ethics from God and therefore it would seem strange to say that God Himself is a non-ethical being or that ethics cease to make sense. So I would agree with that. Okay, so that's a particularly Jewish view.
What about just as a human? Is there anything problematic with living with this notion of a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Response from audience member: ...system of chaos rather than…
Yeah, then what happens is you have a chaotic system where God can say whatever He wants and you have to listen. I mean, if there's a teleological suspension of the ethical, you are stuck with the following philosophical dilemma. Let me put it to you another way. There's another slightly different version of Kierkegaard's theory which is very similar to this, and this runs along the following lines. Here's your Philosophy 101 class. If you read one of Plato's dialogues, known as the Euthyphro dialogue, and you're invited to read it, it's a very nice piece of reading. The Euthyphro dialogue struggles with one basic issue, and it is very similar to Kierkegaard's issue. That issue is: What exactly is the nature of good? What makes good things good? We all take for granted that good things are good, but in the Euthyphro question Plato asks us to consider, why are good things good?
In particular, he asks us to deal with God's relationship to all of this. In other words, is God relevant to good things being good or is He irrelevant to good things being good? Euthyphro puts in it a very pithy little way. Here's what he says. If you're looking for cocktail discussions, you can throw this question out to somebody in a cocktail party. He says the following. Are good things good because God wills them and that's what makes them good, or does God just happen to will good things? Again, do good things become good because God wills them and then that's what makes them good? Or are good things good anyway and God just happens to will good things?
Now this is a very problematic problem that all of moral philosophy has not succeeded in answering. But some see the Akeidah as answering that question. The truth is, if we had more time I'd get into this in detail with you. Either side of the Euthyphro problem is problematic. You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. In that question, there's no way out, and Plato shows you why there's no way out of that question. It's a very basic problem in moral philosophy. Some thinkers have held that the Akeidah is Judaism's answer to that story. The answer is that good things are good because God wills them; what makes something good is God deciding to decide that it's good. The proof is that God says to murder, and all of a sudden it's good to murder. So you thought it wasn't good, but God decided that He wanted to do it and now that became good.
Now there's a real problem -- this is very close to the teleological suspension of the ethical. My problem with all of this -- first of all I have your problem with all of this, which is that as a Jew, I don't think our philosophy supports it. But even as a human being I have a problem with it, forget Jewish or not Jewish. That is, I'm not sure if I would want to worship this Deity. I mean, would you? What makes God worth worshipping?
I mean, let's say God came to you in the middle of the night and says the following: This is God, in the morning you will find an AK-47 submachine gun underneath your bed. I would like you to take that and walk into your local nearest kindergarten, I don't care which, and just spray the room with bullets and kill all the children. Then in the middle of the dream you say to God, God, why are you asking me to do such an awful thing? If you have your reasons, then I as a faithful servant will be happy to comply, but could you please tell me, why do you want me to spray the room with bullets? God just says, oh you know, I'm just in a lousy mood this morning, and I get my jollies out of seeing people suffer. So go, take your AK-47 and spray it around the room. And you wake up in the morning.
Now, is it the right thing to actually comply with that request because it's God? I would say no. Who says that's the right thing to do? Why do you worship God? Because on some level God is an ethical being. Is it because God is powerful? What's going to happen if you say no? What's the worst thing that could happen? God is very powerful so what's He going to do to you if you say no?
Strike you down. And then what can He do that's even worse than striking you down? After you die, He could throw you in hell forever, right? All right. But that's a reason why you're supposed to comply? No. Then you should be a hero, and you should stand up and say, tough, so strike me down and throw me in hell forever, I'm not going to do this. You don't listen to God because He's powerful, you listen to God because somehow there's some great ethical imperative beyond that. It's a very problematic thing.
If you believe in some level that ethics ceases to make sense when it comes to God and it's just no longer a relevant question, you're stuck with a very problematic problem -- by definition a problem is problematic -- but you're stuck with the great problem of trying to deal with: So then God can will anything, without regard to any morality, and you're just supposed to listen and you don't even know why you're supposed to listen. Why? Because He's some powerful being. So fine. So Abraham should have just said no and said, throw me in hell, and kill me and do whatever you want, but I'm going to be a hero and I'm not going to do it. But that's not what happens.
So I have a problem with -- I think Kierkegaard's book is a profound book, and there's much in there that we can learn, and in some ways you don't really understand the Akeidah until you understand his analysis of what those three days is like. But I'm not sure that, at least as I understand the teleological suspension of the ethical, we can go for it.
So my challenge to you for next time is: So what's the answer to this question? How is it that we deal with this question? How is this indeed not murder? What I'd like to do is give you some quick homework for next week, and the homework I'd like to focus on is a point which Lydia brought up. Lydia pointed to a couple of very striking literary points in the text where the Torah goes out of its way to dig the knife a little deeper in us emotionally and to make us feel the pain of the father-son dilemma. She talked about Hineini appearing twice, in the beginning and at the end, the "my father" and "my son" in those dialogues, very important.
What I'd like you to do is just look at something -- this is really just an aside, it's almost a tangent, but it offers a fascinating sidelight into what the meaning of some of that stuff really is in a very deep way. That is, that on Rosh Hashanah when we read this text, when we read the text of the Akeidah in the Torah reading, we also read a Haftorah, we read a reading from the Prophets also. Does anyone know what the Haftorah reading is that we read alongside this reading is? Here's your trivia question: What's the Haftorah reading? Well, you can cheat and look in your Chumashim, but I'll tell you. The Haftorah reading is from the beginning of the Book of Samuel, and it talks about the birth of Samuel and Chana's prayer. Chana's prayer and the birth of Samuel and the story that happens after that.
In a nutshell, here is the story. Chana is like Sarah, an infertile woman, she doesn't have children, she prays to God and has this child. She promises that if she has a child she will dedicate him to the service of God in the Temple. Then when she has the child, she actually gives the child to the High Priest to serve in the Temple. That's basically the story.
The question is: So why is this the Haftorah? So the simple answer is: All right, two infertile women, the Bible -- they both have children, might as well put them together, here's the thing. But I think there's much more to it than that. What I'd like to ask you to consider is: Why really is this the Haftorah for the Akeidah? What are the real parallels between this story and the Akeidah story? What I'd like you to do is focus on Lydia's points in thinking about that and look in Samuel. I think you will find that there are striking parallels, parallel after parallel, linguistically, textually, one after another. The Book of Samuel wants you to be thinking Akeidah every step of the way when you're reading that story. Go through that story and try and list, what are the things that are striking? Go through the Haftorah, find the Haftorah, go through the Haftorah, ask yourself what reminds you of the Akeidah? Keep in mind all of the points that Lydia mentioned: The double Hineini, the context of it, the father-son, the whole thing. What is similar about this story and the Akeidah story? What light do each shed upon each other?
Take a look at that, and I will see you next week. Thank you very much.