The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac (Akedah Genesis 22:1-24)


Howard Adelman

It is not enough that the parsha of the past week (Vayera Genesis 18-22) is an amalgam of so many short stories – the strangers who visit Abraham and ask after his wife; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; the miraculous birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Sarah and Ishmael as well as the concluding binding of Isaac – but the key and final one has so many different inconsistent interpretations at the same time as it is generally regarded as the central and most important narrative of Judaism. Let me begin with a simplistic classification of various interpretations, simplistic because it emphasizes differences more than overlaps, and simplistic because it ignores the many variations within each type. Keep in mind that hermeneutics cannot be separated from the interpretations and lessons for life implied in the different interpretations.

I Ethical Superiority

One of the strongest traditions of interpretation is to regard the story as a tale of the superiority of Israelites compared to the surrounding tribes and the superiority of the Jewish God to competitors such as Baal. Non-Israelites sacrificed children to their god; the Hebrews did not. This story is the instantiation of that ethic. Abraham’s action is one of obedience, but not of blind obedience. The tension exists between two imperatives at work in Abraham – the imperative of faith and the imperative of love for his son. Man’s inner conscience is reconciled with God’s will where a balance is struck between the divine and the human.

However, the emphasis is on God’s original intention rather than on an evolving ethos in which humans play a major role. Obedience is favoured because ritual observance is at risk if the priority is not given to obedience. themselves embody the tension rather than overcoming them. Though that law is fallible, it is still rooted in divine authority that demands respect even as one debates the meaning and implications.

II Evolutionary Ethics

The above position is criticized for stressing the binding of Isaac as akin to the binding of all Jews to follow traditional Halakhah. This evolutionary ethical school tends to emphasize reason over obedience and takes ritualist observance off its lofty pedestal for a number of reasons. In the contemporary world, for most Jews observance and adherence to Jewish values are weakened rather than strengthened by emphasizing strict obedience. Further, norms have different roles and interpretations in different historical and cultural contexts. They are justified by a multiplicity of values and adherence requires an act of balancing rather than repression. Further, as historical relics, they do not in the end represent original law but an accumulation of which much may be detritus.

The ancient Israelites engaged in child sacrifice. Many of the biblically mandated laws reflect the social values of the time. The issue is not Israelite superiority at the time, but the revelation of a divine direction over time as we morally intuit or use reason in interpreting Torah to discover our moral compass and comprehend the divine will. In that context, the story reflects an internal tension among the Hebrews between values that condoned child sacrifice and values that viewed child sacrifice as immoral. The lesson is not one of obedience through which one can discover God’s will, but the question and inquiry about that will as discovered through the interpretation of the narrative. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, what does God want of Abraham?

Thus, the tension in the story is between the antiquarian notion of absolute obedience, even in following an authoritative command that is clearly intuited as wrong, and the emerging ethos of mercy, charity and justice. The Akedah does not endorse blind obedience but insisted that obedience had to be balanced with mercy and a sense of justice. In the first version above of the tension, that of ethical superiority, obedience emerges on top. In the second version, the vote is cast in favour of human choice and sense of ethical responsibility. Thus, in both I and II, there is a partnership of man and God. In the second, the Torah is dynamic and allows for understanding and comprehending how rationality and faith can be reconciled, but in favour of reason. In the first, there is also not an either/or but a both/and wherein obedience has the upper hand.

III Evolutionary Mysticism

Evolutionary mysticism offers a radical contrast of the above two positions which view Abraham as an agent who can run on two tracks – express absolute service to God’s commands and act to balance a call for absolute obedience with an ethic of mercy and justice. Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the story offer a totally contrasting cosmology rooted in Neoplatonism and the fundamental structure of most eastern religions. A mainstream of this Jewish mysticism can be found in Hasidism and those followers of Kaballah who see the Hebrew alphabet as the key to unlocking the mysteries of Torah.

An enlightenment modern orthodox interpretation, as in the example of I above, holds that God, and the norms God bequeaths to the Israelites through the law, through Halakha, are expressions of God’s power. God demands absolute obedience even at the risk of violence and bloodshed. God is all powerful and wholly other. In that view, Abraham, in complying with God’s commands, gave testimony to such a faith even in the most excruciating case possible, a willingness to kill his one son delivered to him by a miracle in Sarah’s old age. Normal human sympathies stand at odds to obedience. Abraham demonstrates his faith through obedience and the divine reveals Himself to be a God of mercy and justice, staying Abraham’s hand.

In contrast, version II suggests that Halakha (and Torah) is sometimes immoral and that it is the responsibility of humans through their actions and interpretations of God’s will to put in place a higher morality that is part of God’s intention, if not of his apparent convictions at one point in history. The emphasis is on God’s self-revelation over time. Halakha can be immoral when it complies with a predominant morality and ethos of the time. It is the duty of humans to look into the pattern of revelation and intuit or discern God’s intention. The position, in lacking a transcendent moral compass, risks interpreting what ought to be by what is.

Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the Akeda story takes no such risk, not by expressing the absolute transcendence of God to the natural world, as in modern orthodoxy, or interpreting history as the dialectical realization of the tension between the two in favour of the emergence of a higher morality, but through a religion that unites the natural and the transcendent by making the latter fully immanent in this world in a religion of interiority as Peter Singer characterizes all mystical religious expressions. Religion is not about confrontation. Religion is not about reconciliation. Religion is about the process of harmonizing the human and the divine which are never really at odds, for the goal is facilitating the dissolution of the self in the oneness of God.

Thus, Judaism is not a story of the war between God and Baal, nor the story of how a tribe which, on the popular level, shared in the practices of Baal overcame those practices to achieve a higher ethical order, but a tale of the unity of the natural and the divine, a unity in difference, a world which in all its expressions are projections of one divine being that allows the isolated self to be absorbed in a greater unity.

In the writings of Milt Markewitz or Ken Hoffman (, Abraham travelled from Kadish to Shir as primarily a time of interior reflection and transformation more that a physical movement towards the mountain on which he would bind Isaac and offer his son as a sacrifice to God. The Hebrew language, and Hebrew letters more particularly, express the revelation of the one divine cosmic force that allows for rebirth in a transformed self that now enjoys a oneness with God. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the confrontational character of Abraham’s relationship with God is finally overcome. “abc

Without getting into the details and the structure of the mode of Kabbalistic interpretation, and without tasking the reader with any effort to make the interpretation clear, but to get the flavour of the interpretation, a few quotes convey the cosmological order and this hermeneutical method shown by “the Dallet in the word Kadish, and …the Vav in the word Shir,” the latter an expression of the cosmic force that facilitates a new birth, the coming into being of a new person. Instead of the divine and the human existing in tension, the story is a tale of their combination, of their merger. “This famous Biblical story is generally understood to be about G*d asking Abraham, Isaac’s father, to sacrifice Isaac. The name of this Torah portion is Aiqidat and when we look at the Hebrew spelling, there is both the recurring pattern and insight into the essence of the story…The two Cosmological forces Tav—birth, and Qof–the lifedeath-life cycle, combine to create Archetypal birth–Dallet, from which Existential possibility–Ayn, and life-death-life—Yod, emerge. Clearly, we have a story about birth, driven by cosmological forces, and full of life and possibilities.” In this interpretation, Abraham is in constant communion with God through nature.

“Revelation was facilitated by our Hebrew language, in which each character is a sacred geometry of sound and shape—a symbiotic energy with every other character. The language kept us deeply connected to place both locally and globally, as well as to time—past, present and future—from which emerged the ethics of how we must live each day. It was this language that informed us of our cosmology, and our responsibility to maintain the balance and harmony with which we are blessed.” “Hebrew is no longer a shamanic language–the characters exist as letters but their energy and meaning has been lost. Also, our oral tradition has been largely replaced with the written word. Without the language and the conversations, we’ve lost the capacity for deep understanding. You read the Torah as if you know it is Truth, but the Truth has been obscured by written words that lack energy, and, paradoxically, an ambiguity that is necessary if our stories are to retain their essence.”

A story which appears to be about a father commanded by God to kill his son is really a story about revelation, a successful test of adversity overcome to ensure perpetuation.

IV Pietism: The Story as a Conundrum of Faith

In this version, God is inscrutable. Why would He order his singular acolyte to sacrifice his beloved son who is born only through the grace of God rather than any natural pattern? Abraham obeys without challenge or question. The narrative is the ultimate expression of piety. As in the mystical version, a personal transformation takes place. There is a spiritual rebirth and renewal. But it rests not in the mystical meaning of the language of the story, but in solid everyday practices of piety and devotion, an emphasis which emerges from the tradition of the Lutheran pietism of Sören Kierkegaard who was brought up in a Moravian household that resisted the imposition of “new” catechisms and hymns that were more in tune with the times and spoke to how people behaved in ordinary life. For Kierkegaard, religion was not a mechanism for being uplifted, but a means to challenge one’s complacency and become aware of the extraordinary demands God presents to humans.

First, there is a revolt against any of the various forms of intellectual understanding of the story, whether via a mystic understanding of the secrets of the Hebrew language and its letters, an ethical comprehension of an unveiling of higher norms in history or traditional rabbinic commentaries on text that reconcile the ethical and the divine which openly stand in tension. In the existential pietism of Kierkegaard, the emphasis is on faith versus reason. What God has asked Abraham to do is absolutely unreasonable. So why in Abraham’s evident willingness to kill his own son is Abraham treated as a great prophet and closer to God than anyone except Jesus?

As in the mystical interpretation of the tale, in Kierkegaard there is an emphasis on inwardness, but not an inwardness that leads to a reunion with an all-encompassing divine cosmic force, but an inwardness expressed in decisions and actions. Abraham is not engaged in a mystical exercise. He decides to do what God tells him to do. He collects the wood. He musters his servants. He travels for three days. But in the process, he experiences not a lifting of the self into a transcendent sphere, but an immersion into the angst of the human-all-too-human. Kierkegaard in his midrash reimagines the utter despair of Abraham caught between his absolute faith in God and his total devotion of and love for his son.

True and deep religion is not reconcilable with reason but rather challenges reason’s claim on absolute authority. God is not a god of reason but a god that demands a commitment of faith by those who worship at God’s feet. The issue was not adapting the church to conform to the conventional, but challenging believers to understand the profundity and the terror of what was being asked of them.

In that sense, the Abraham of Fear and Trembling is the archetypal religious figure. Abraham is a “knight of faith,” not because he challenges the predominant ethos of Baal at the time, not because he serves as a step in the emergence of a higher ethos, not because his trip is a mystical much more than a physical one in which he is transformed and allowed to become one with the divine, but one who recognizes that what God has asked him to do is totally unethical. The test of faith is whether one is willing to obey God even when one knows that the commandment goes against all common sense, all decency and is even a betrayal of the covenant God once made with Abraham. The story is one of a teleological suspension of the ethical as Abraham absolutely submits to God’s will which is not only unreasonable but insists that reason itself must be set aside if one’s faith is being tested.

What is a contemporary Jew to make of such a schism between the realm of faith and the realm of reason and ethics? More specifically, what is a Jew to do with Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Isaac as one who does not accept his father’s behaviour but is more than bewildered? Isaac cringes. Isaac begs for his life to be spared. Isaac appeals to the memories of the joys they had together. Abraham both consoled his son and admonished him. And Isaac could not understand his father’s decisions and actions.

Isaac is portrayed as the snivelling, cowardly and conniving Jew who will use anything to save his own life and can never understand his father. And Abraham acts (it is a performance) like a wild rogue and sacrifices his son’s belief in him so that Isaac can retain his faith in God. Jews are descended of this failure to take the leap of faith by Isaac that Abraham took.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz ignored this pietist depiction of Jewish failure to accept a God who would sacrifice his only son so that humans can be saved. Leibowitz ignored the barely latent antisemitism of the interpretation. In Leibowitz’s existentialist re-interpretation of Kierkegaard’s version, unlike previously, Abraham was silenced when ordered to sacrifice his own son. Abraham does not confront God for His contradictory behaviour and the apparent emptiness of his promises. Leibowitz offers a Jewish version of unconditional faith not bound by accepted moral norms.

In contrast, and in the name of one version of evolutionary ethics, David Hartman accepted this existentialist interpretation of the tale, but challenged the binding of Isaac as the archetypal core of religious life in which Jewish survival depended upon surrender and total obedience to God’s will requiring the suspension of one’s reason and one’s ethical convictions. Instead, the archetypal story is that of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham challenges God with a call of the ethical. Abraham in obeying God’s crazy command is a madman who is unable to question or challenge God; he is not an exemplar of faith and courage.

With the help of Alex Zisman


God’s Coercive Power

God’s Coercive Power: Va-eira Exodus 6:2 – 9:35


Howard Adelman

This is not a segment of the Torah about influence, either the influence of ideas or the influence of material attractions, either of which can impel an action. Nor is it a segment about authority, either the authority of expertise or of a foundational document, a type of authority Donald Trump seems to be dedicated to ignoring, nor the authority of an office or position, that which is often called formal authority. God does not say, let my people go because I am the one true God. Nor does he insist they be let go because their rights were being abused. The authority of the Ten Commandments, yet to come, was not invoked, only the coercive power of the ten plagues.

God does not ask for compliance because he is the Lord on High. This parshat is all about power, not any kind of power, but coercive power. Genesis started with the power of God as a creative being. Exodus gets into the dramatic action with a display of coercive power, power that brings about change through physical intimidation.

Last week, God announced that he was Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), a name never heard before nor since attributed to God. That segment ended with verse 6:1:

  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עַתָּה תִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה:  כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.  {ס} 1 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’

Because of God’s strong hand, Pharaoh will be forced to let the Israelites go and then they will only be let go with Pharaoh’s armies hot on their tail. This week’s portion is a tale of two sources of coercion battling, not just for a people, but for their allegiance.

This parshat begins with the first two verses of chapter 6 (my italics):

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה. 2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the LORD;
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. 3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God, accepted God as the Almighty, but not one of them ever asked for that might to be really demonstrated. And it could not be. How could one prove one was all-powerful? One could only demonstrate that one was more powerful than another, having greater coercive capacity and able and willing to exercise that power. God, who now has a personal name, YHWH, will display that might, that coercive power. God promises: “I will deliver you from their [Egyptian’s] bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments.” By judgement, God does not mean the edicts of a judge who is the supreme authority in a court of law, but judgment that follows wrath and a display of power. This segment is all about strong hands and outstretched arms.

No longer will obeisance to God be simply a matter of tradition, simply a matter of a habitual response and fealty. It is under the shadow of coercive power that the Israelites will now become God’s people. I will be to you, the Israelites, a God in a very different way, says the Lord. The text makes very clear that this was going to be a very tough task, not because it would be hard to display that mighty power, but because the Israelites had become suspicious, had become cynics, had lost the ability to have faith, to trust. Because of the cruel bondage that they had suffered for years, the people were impatient of spirit” (6:9), מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ. They were in anguish. Further, God Himself had admitted that He had forgotten them, forgotten the Israelites, forgotten the covenant to deliver them to the land of Canaan that He had made with their founding fathers. But now he remembered his covenant. (6:5) God was not exactly the paradigm of reliability, but God in Egypt would prove to be a great transformative power.

Moses was instructed to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” But Moses asked querulously, why would the Pharaoh listen to me when I am “of uncircumcised lips” עֲרַל שְׂפָת (6:12 and 6:30). My body may have been transformed through the covenant of circumcision, but not my thoughts, not my words, not the language that springs from my mouth. It is with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand that Moses will be transformed, in good part, to a political leader of a nation that knows and exercises power, from a shepherd of a nation in bondage to a warrior nation with generals in charge, a nation governed by the fundamentals of coercive power – as much as the rule of law to manage that power will be introduced at a later date.

Chapter 7 begins with God reiterating that the Egyptians will learn, not because they respect God, not because they recognize God, but because they will learn to fear God. It is as if God was telling Moses that the only thing the Egyptians understand is force. More importantly, it is through the exercise of that force that the cynical unbelieving and untrusting Israelites will once again come to know and recognize God as their saviour and protector.

The first round is a competition of magicians. When Aaron threw down his rod, it became a serpent. But the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could match that magic act. Thus, Pharaoh was even more disinclined to pay any attention to the words of Moses spoken by his brother Aaron. God had to up the ante and the plagues followed. In the first plague, Aaron lifted his rod and caused the water in the Nile River to turn blood red so that the fish died. But the Egyptian magicians were also able to replicate that act and Pharaoh became even more sceptical of the power behind the threats of Moses and Aaron.

Then the second plague – frogs, swarms of frogs – but once again the magical act was replicated. Nevertheless, this time Pharaoh entreated Moses to ask his God to let up. Pharaoh offered Moses a deal. Let up and I will let the Israelites go. So Moses did let up, withdrawing the frogs from the clothing and the houses, from the courts and from the field, while still letting the streams and rivers team with them. But Pharaoh double-crossed Moses. “(W)hen Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken.” (8:11) At this point, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

God then delivered the third plague. gnats or lice or sand flies. And this time, He did so without forewarning the Egyptians. According to scholars, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) in the 12th century was the first to notice this 2 then 1 pattern of each cluster of three plagues. Further, in the first cluster, it is the last of the plagues that will be delivered by the hand of Aaron. (Bahya ben Asher, 13th century; Don Isaac Abravanel, 15th century.) In the medieval period, structural analysis had come to the fore.  The Egyptian magicians could not replicate the third plague. The pattern included the agent, the response and the mode of communication of the coming of the plague. We are introduced to intellectual rhythmic patterns overruling those of nature.

Why did Pharaoh not recognize God’s power at that point? To understand that, we have to first understand the clustering of the plagues and their significance. We also have to recall that God was not trying to prove that he was all powerful, that He was Almighty, but only that He was more powerful than all the Egyptian gods. This was the character that God had to establish to go with His name. God for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been Shaddai. For Moses, God was now Ehyeh.

Further, the Egyptians, unlike the Israelites later, were not being punished because they had fallen away from their faith in God. The Egyptians were not being hit with an intifada, with terror attacks, with extreme hunger, with a disease like tuberculosis, with defeat by their enemies or with crop failure, let alone wild beasts that devour their children. (Leviticus 26:14-26) These were acts of magic and, at this point, just unbearable nuisances rather than killers.

There is another distinction between the first six plagues of this segment and the final four. The first six could possibly take place and be explained by extreme climate and ecological changes. They were not cosmological in character like hail, locusts and darkness that came from the heavens above even though the first plague was indirectly a product of heavy rains, the observed consequences were earthly. Water changes to blood when the red clay is swept down the Nile after intense and huge rains in the Upper Nile in Ethiopia killing all the fish in waves of mud. The poisoned rotting fish forced the frogs to leave the river en masse and invade the countryside. Their rotting carcasses in turn introduced swarms of flies. The next three plagues were again consequences of the first three, beginning with the death of cattle from the diseases spread by the flies which in turn produced an economic disaster equivalent to when mad cow disease was diagnosed in western Canada. Finally, humans were affected with boils on their skin.

However, the main pattern was not the clustering, nor the differentiation by agent, nor whether there was forewarning, not whether there was resistance or temporary and partial compliance, nor the naturalistic sequence, but the individual target of each plague, the power of one of or more gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The one God of the Israelites had to prove that he was more powerful than all of the Egyptian gods. The target of turning water into a blood red fluid was Hapi.

Hapi was the Egyptian God of the Nile, a water bearer, a source of change, but in the Egyptian experience, change came with a pattern. Change was not a matter of creating something new. Change was cyclical as illustrated by the flooding of the Nile. The first plague introduced a unique event that disrupted the whole pattern of control of Hapi. The significance can be further developed in reference to the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a hieratic papyrus from the chaotic period in Egypt before 2050 BCE or by others ascribed to the period 1850-1450 BC. The papyrus is located in the Dutch National Museum in Leiden. However, what is important is the reference and not the time of composition or the historical events that may have given rise to this composition, or whether or not the poem provides a proof text of the historicity of the Exodus story.

Ipuwer is a poem of a world turned upside-down when the Lord of All was active in destroying his enemies, the noble gods, each responsible for a different aspect of human experience. It is a period of desecration, of chaos, of disrespect for the law. This is a political ethical treatise akin to Machiavelli’s Prince that insists that the first responsibility of a ruler is to maintain order and not sow disorder, even though disorder may be a requisite to establishing a new order. When two mighty powers fight it out, like two roosters fighting to be head of the pecking order, only one can prevail and order be restored. This is even truer when a God of All fights to suborn lesser gods. This is the tale of the first battle against Hapi when, “the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water,” or against Osiris whose bloodstream was the Nile.

God’s second battle is with the Egyptian god, Heket, the wife of the creator of the world, the goddess of childbirth represented as a frog, the symbol of fertility and creation as well as harmony. The frog’s life cycle is characterized by radical transformation in a life form from what appears to be a little fish into a land animal living on the periphery of water and land. In the plagues, that animal is driven from the waters of the Nile into the countryside and once again the whole natural order is disrupted, no longer just the natural order of the seasonal cycle, but the natural order of species transformation. Thus, the issue is not the specific god being undermined – after all, the Egyptian pantheon included about a hundred gods – but the type of order being turned topsy-turvy to demonstrate the power of the One God.

The third plague of lice or sand flies or fleas – from the Hebrew root meaning to dig (under the skin), was the challenge of the One God to the great Egyptian god of the earth, Geb. After the third plague, the One God proved that he could defeat and overturn the order established by the natural cycle of the seasons brought about by water, the god of fertility itself symbolized by the frog, of organic transformation. In the third plague, the One God now was really getting under the skin of the Egyptians and proving that what was taking place was not just a shift in power, but a radical transformation. Khepri, the Egyptian God of creation governing the movement of the Sun and ruling over rebirth, had the head of a fly.

In the fourth plague, the mechanism of the way fertility worked was itself attacked. The fourth plague of “swarms” now made the turmoil and disorder no longer confined to a specific and limited time, but became incessant. In Egypt, Amon-Ra is represented by the head of a beetle, a dung beetle that guarantees that decaying matter with be recycled and provide the mechanism for fertilization. The systematic order of the Egyptian world was being undermined a step at a time.

Hathor was the Egyptian Goddess of Love and Protection usually depicted with the head of a cow. The fifth plague was an attack on Hathor. Hathor personified joy, feminine love and motherhood. In the war of the One God against the many, the very foundations of stability and experienced natural order in the family was itself attacked and overturned. Mothers, young children and babies now became the target of this one all-powerful God filled with wrath.

What is a boil, the sixth plague, the plague of shechiyn? The fight for power was no longer just getting under the skin, but bubbling that skin into enormous balloons. The body is the foundation of material pleasure and satisfaction. With an eruption of boils, you can no longer sleep. Discomfort and pain wracks the body. The plague may even have referred to leprosy and the unremitting burning sensation of that then incurable disease. This was a direct attack on Thoth, the ibis-headed god of medical research, the foundations of Egyptian science.

Next week we will return to the celestial plagues and the plague about killing the first born, but this portion of the text clearly establishes a tale about the mightiest political struggle of all time, the one between the One and the Many, the one most powerful God and the many lesser gods. The Israelites were merely the tokens in this war, the symbols of whether a group of humans would be in bondage to a system in which there were a multitude of sources of power versus one in which power could be traced to a single source. It is a struggle between established and repetitive order to a new transformational order governed by God named Ehyeh, one who transforms “I am that I am” into “I shall be he who I shall be.” It is a war to make orderly change rather than orderly stability the ruling ethos of the world.

Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

Part II: Cases


  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

“Solidarity Forever,” written by a member of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Ralph Caplin, in 1915, and sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the most widely belted out tune by the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) when I was a kid. It was the anthem of the Jewish communist organization. It was popular among unions and socialist groups. We sang it at our non-communist summer camp and it was adopted by the social and racial protest groups of the sixties in which communists played a very minor role. When I was active in the cooperative movement in my twenties, however, the “Battle Hymn of Cooperation” was sometimes sung as a substitute and rival. The words of the original are as follows:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.



Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.


It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;

Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;

Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;

But the union makes us strong.


All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.

We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.

It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

While the union makes us strong.


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong.


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,

Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

The themes are simple. The lone individual is weak. The collective – in this case the collective of the trade and labour union – makes us strong. Why do we need that unity and strength that comes through membership in a worker’s union? Because the employers, the capitalists, the greedy parasites and idle drones, are exploiters who would, if they could, turn workers into serfs, even though what you see all around you has been built by those workers and is ostensibly owned by those workers. Yet when times get tough, workers are dispensable even though what has been constructed, what feeds us, has been built and supplied by those very same workers. The only way we can repossess what was once rightly ours is to break the power of the capitalists. The only way to do that is through the union, through solidarity. That is the only way that the exploitive character of the capitalist system can be overthrown and a new world order rise from its ashes.

Why were we singing this song in camps in the forties and fifties and in the protest marches against nuclear testing and then against racial segregation in the sixties? The words did not match our positions, our beliefs or our role as students, at least for the vast majority of us. We did not think of capitalists as slave drivers and exploiters, idle drones and parasites. Workers in unions were earning good wages. Nor did we in the New Left believe that the individual was powerless without belonging to a collectivity.

I raise this issue for two reasons. First I want to introduce the vertical bar of power and the horizontal bar of solidarity. The premise of the song is that the less power you have, the closer you are to the bottom of the vertical bar of power, the wider and the more unity needed in the horizontal cross bar of solidarity. The undisclosed ironic premise was also that, in such a world view, more coercion was required to maintain and enhance that solidarity. The union was not just the aggregation of individual interests, but a larger entity to which the individual owed his or her proportionate rewards.

The second reason is because I want to telegraph a theme – the incongruity between what we said and sung and our own predominant values. In the sixties in the nuclear protest movement and in the striving for the rights of those who suffered from racial discrimination and social injustice, we did not identify with their struggle because we experienced the absence of power at the root of their suffering or because we shared in their interests. Nor did we believe that the ruling order was intent on blowing us all up or even were just lackeys of the military-industrial complex. Nor were they drones and exploiters. They were just politicians inattentive to our priorities, values and concerns. Countervailing power was not needed to bring them around. Pressure and education would be sufficient to influence them. Nevertheless, we sang the old Wobbly union song to express our solidarity with the downtrodden and those who were racially excluded or segregated in inferior situations. We wanted solidarity among people with very different interests and we did not believe that we needed power to challenge power.

These incongruencies and contradictions are apparent in periods of historical transformation. In the sixties we were in the final stages of society’s transformation from a modern society based on rights and freedoms. Solidarity played a very ambiguous role no longer linked to the acquisition of coercive power. The secular religion that developed vied with a secularist religion which relegated both morality and traditional religion to the private sphere as it manipulated to acquire and hold power in partnership with economic interests that worshipped at the feet of the idol of the free-market. This was the new postmodern world. In this world, traditional religion was sidelined. The two forms of religious secularism occupied the main space. To understand the character of this shift, it is necessary to offer a very potted overview of fundamental paradigm shifts in the structure of our beliefs, thoughts and passions. But first a note on coercive power.

Solidarity is horizontal. It attacks the problem of how one achieves unity among a myriad of individuals. There are three dimensions to that effort. The first is power, the vertical bar discussed above. It has two faces – the creative use of the energy of each of the members of the group and the group as a whole, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the way coercion is applied to exclude outsiders, identify outsiders as threats and enemies, and promise security and protection for the members within the collectivity.

The second dimension is influence. That influence may be material focused on how an organization serves and enhances the material interests of its members to maintain their sense of identity and inhibit a desire to leave – exit. Alternatively, that influence entails ideas and ideology, a common set of principles and values to bestir loyalty and a system for ensuring input to defining those values. The third is authority which also has two faces.  On the one hand, there are the formal rules and regulations by and through which the organization is run. The tensions between the coercive versus creative uses of power and the competing interests and ideas are provided with boundaries by those rules and regulations. However, those same rules and regulations do not let us discern whether the leadership is authentic behind that exercise of authority or whether the authority is merely formal. Does the leadership represent the interests and articulate the best ideas to allow the organization to persevere with the minimal application of coercion or does the leadership simply pick and choose among rules and regulations as an exercise of power (Adelman 1976)?

How does one know whether the authority of an organization or the state as a whole is being used in a manipulative way or, alternatively, to represent the interests and values of an organization? One clue is whether the leadership emphasizes and exaggerates the role and place of external enemies and plays on the fear of its members about dangers from within or without, and, in turn, induces flight and exit from that collectivity altogether. On the other hand, to what extent are ideals allowed and encouraged, to what extent are interests represented? And how is authority actually exercised? These various dimensions of authority, influence and power determine the degree of solidarity of a group. This essay, will, however, primarily focus on the interaction of power and solidarity and largely bracket the other two dimensions. But a few notes on authority and influence first.

In the case of the solidarity which we praised and sang hymns to in my youth, we were free of any authority of any organizational rules which governed our behaviour. Further, we usually had leaders truly identified with the interests and values of the membership since there were few material or other rewards. Authentic authority counted, not formal authority. In the area of interests, we were fighting for interests that were either not our own (people suffering from racial discrimination or, in the case of aboriginal Canadians, from neglect and material exclusion), though in the beginning in the nuclear disarmament movement we were focused on interests that were our own and, as in the contemporary environmental movement, interests that encompassed us all. We fought battles through ideas, not material influence. But most of all, we fought against the misuse of coercive power that could end up blowing up the whole world in the name of providing for our collective security.

Because we ourselves lacked coercive power, because the authority of the organizations were weak and the continuation ephemeral, and because we had never really worked out how to reconcile power and authority while enhancing both material and intellectual creativity, we could sing songs of solidarity with a substantial message that had virtually nothing to do with reality. They were the hymns of the Old Left adopted by the New Left already inhabiting a very different world. The totally apparent contradictions of the hymns offered the best clue that the issue of solidarity in reconciling power, influence and authority had not been resolved.

We were not free of identifying an enemy without (the political-industrial complex), though most of us eschewed such simplistic reification of those responsible for the nuclear arms race. The common interests were usually one-themed objectives – stopping nuclear testing and the production of strontium 90 that got into the milk of babies. The organizations fostered open dissent and disagreement, but had difficulty working out methods of resolving fundamental differences that avoided exit or sectarianism. (Hirschman 1970). For the core question with respect to solidarity is who is included and who excluded. In our modern states, this fundamentally revolves around the basic question of who can and cannot become citizens of that state and the entry or exit routes for that decision.

On the level of solidarity, the major question is one of either exit or participation. There are two basic alternatives:

  1. A normative method, such as in traditional religion or in what I argue are the elements of a new secular religion, wherein every individual is instilled with a common set of rules and practices that are internalized to form habits. In that way, political systems need the least coercive power to attain and maintain solidarity while fostering individual freedom;
  2. Structural control so that system of distribution of power as defined formally wherein that formal system infuses every relationship and provides a hierarchy of power and stratification that defines how power is distributed and how influence, both material and ideological, may be exercised.

There are three routes to travel in dealing with these two alternatives. On the one hand, the principle of solidarity may take from traditional religion the internalization of rules, values and practices, and, via state structures, the system of authority and organization of power in a dialectical tension to promote the self-realization of the individual. Second, one can break away from a system of internalizing rules altogether and foster material self-interest through the discipline of economic market forces now operating globally on the foundations of an ostensible rational choice model. Third, one can build a system which decreasingly rests on the rule of any law, internalized or external, though often using traditional internalized rules and practices to undermine the rule of law, and instead rest authority on a single leader or party, usually married to nationalism, as the way of translating and using the rules of the traditional religion to foster a new one.

This is the case in Putin’s Russia or in Iran’s theocracy or Egypt’s military state or in a host of would-bes, with a particular concentration in states where one sect or other of Islam is ascendant, and corrupt. Authoritarian governments and leaders disrespect internalized norms of traditional religion that foster tolerance and respect for differences. Instead, they use external norms and dress codes to control populations, particularly the population of women. Most of all, these regimes rely on fear to keep their populations in line. Stephen Harper’s divisive efforts in Canada and disrespect for many established democratic norms, however much hated by a majority of Canadians, have been a very weak and insipid version of such mechanisms.

Western democracies faced with these two outliers find that the political party most wedded ideologically to both extremes – the worship of the free market with minimal political input and the worship of an authoritarian leader – also generally emphasize most of all a set of values inculcated through habits and traditional practices, usually religious, to foster solidarity. That religious secularism has the strongest tendency to rely on the politics of fear. That party also faces an opposition that tries to meld market forces that are policed and governed by polities and the rule of law, with political institutions that protect against authoritarian tendencies by marrying the internal coherence of the market with lawful authority through the new religion of universal human rights. Unfortunately, the effort operates as an abstraction representing the actual invisible and internalized practices fostering tolerance in such a society. As such, that opposition lacks the power and appeal of such forces for bonding as nationalism. Inability to foster loyalty and solidarity is the Achilles’ heel of the religious secularism of HRH.

I will next spell out how these tensions manifest themselves in one case study of citizenship rites and another case study of refugee policy in Canada, particularly the policy on the intake of Syrian refugees.

Authority, Influence and Power

At my Monday talk at Massey College, my good friend, Abe Rotstein, challenged me to define populism, implying that it was just a useful smear word with too many equivocal meanings, that my account of populism was simply a series of political practices without a central core definition and that Tommy Douglas was a populist.Below, find my answer to Abe. It is NOT a definition, for populism is, as I implied, an equivocal term applied to a number of varieties. But it it can clearly be differentiated from representative responsible democratic government using benchmarks rather than a singular univocal definition backed up by what I previously presented as a series of illustrative practices. I further suggest that Tommy Douglas was NOT a populist.


Benchmarks of Populism (P) versus Responsible Democratic Government (RDG) 


Howard Adelman

(Cf. Howard Adelman (1976) “Authority, Influence and Power,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, December Vol. 6, 335-351.)

Formal Authority

P:         Political authority is vested in the people

RDG:  Political authority is vested in institutions, most basically, but not exclusively, in    the legislature in a parliamentary democracy

Authentic Authority

P:         The People are the source of virtue

RDG:  Virtue is vested in process; insofar that there exist officers who assess virtue and   vice, they are either parliamentary officers – on the federal level, the auditor       general, the ombudsman, the parliamentary budget officer – or in standing            commissions such as the Public Service Commission, the Canadian Human             Rights Commission and the Security Intelligence Review Committee

Power – Coercive

P:         Power always remains ultimately with the people, including the right to bear arms

RDG:  Coercive power is vested in the state and cannot be delegated back to the people; militias are armed units that must be armed and authorized only by the state             through its legitimate government

Power as Creative Energy

P:         Power in the form of creative energy comes from the people as a collective

RDG:  Power in the form of creative energy comes from politicians who are elected          to represent political constituencies

Influence – re Thoughts and Ideas

P:         The primary influence on representatives’ decision-making resides in and goes        back to the people      

RDG:  Influence comes from those ideas which pass the test of coherence and       congruency with reality in terms of evidence-based documentation

Influence as Money

P:         Monetary influence, and power wielded through accumulations of wealth, is          often perceived as the greatest threat to the predominance of the people

RDG:  Monetary interests are but one factor to consider in making policy, but must not     be allowed to become the dictating influence

The essential difference between populism and representative democratic government is the emphasis on institutions and rule-based processes of the latter versus the constant reference back to the “will of the people” of the former. Though populists and economic plutocrats were envisioned as being on opposite political poles, they are, in fact, often aligned against other corporate entities – such as the resource and energy-based units of the economy (on the side of the people versus the “environmental” elites) versus the airlines, communication companies and banks in relationship to consumers or the “little guy”. This does not mean that popular movements opposed education or research or evidence-based policy-making and were inherently populist. Cooperatives and credit unions were examples of grass-roots movements to facilitate the development and prosperity of the ordinary individual. To be anti-establishment and in touch with grass roots needs did not make a political party antithetical to responsible representative government. It is no accident that Stanley Knowles of the NDP became master of the rules of parliament.

RDG has historically been associated with progressivism with a strong emphasis on evidence-based research, reasoning and scientific advancement to develop cognitively-based options to formulate solutions to problems. In populism, ideas are said to emerge from the masses and there is a belief that decision-making has to refer back and be congruent with the people’s will.