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