And He said: “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” (Genesis 22:2)

 

The Akeida (the Binding of Isaac) is one of the most enigmatic and troubling stories of the Bible. Its utmost importance is underscored by its inclusion in the daily morning prayers and its central role in the Rosh Hashanah services.[1]

In summary, G‑d commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in the land of Moriah. Abraham hurries to fulfill the command and travels with Isaac to Mount Moriah, where he builds an altar, binds Isaac, and raises a knife, ready to sacrifice Isaac. At the last moment, an angel of G‑d interrupts him. Abraham then sees a ram and sacrifices it instead. The angel blesses Abraham.

The story of our forefather Abraham, ready to sacrifice his son to G‑d, invariably evokes strong emotions. This display of boundless and unquestioning commitment to G‑d is deeply moving. At the same time, this story is profoundly disturbing and raises many questions.

The Book of Proverbs describes the Torah thus: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace” (deracheha darchei noam vechol netivoteha shalom).[2] Human sacrifices are utterly incompatible with Judaism. Rabbi Benjamin Blech, describing a conversation  he had with Ernest Hemingway in 1956, recalls Hemingway’s respect for how Judaism emphasizes life over death. As Rabbi Blech wrote, “With his perceptive mind, he summed up the essence of Judaism perhaps better than most Jews themselves can. Judaism is a religion of life. ‘Choose life,’ says the Bible.”[3]

Indeed, Moses instructs the Children of Israel:

I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed. (Genesis 30:19)

Not only does the Torah forbid human sacrifice, but it is considered one of the most barbaric sins of paganism. The abominable pagan practice of sacrificing children for the Amonite deity Moloch is explicitly forbidden by the Torah in Leviticus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 18:10 under penalty of death.[4] As the Psalmist cries,

Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons. (Psalms 106:37)

With this in mind, how are we to understand this narrative in which G‑d demands that Abraham sacrifice his child? Furthermore, since Abraham’s discovery of monotheism at the age of forty, Abraham devoted his life to preaching the idea of one G‑d as well as Divine ethics, which first and foremost demands kindness to others. Indeed, Abraham was the embodiment of kindness. Abraham preached to his pagan neighbors the morality of monotheism, which values life above all and forbids all forms of human sacrifice. How then are we to understand Abraham’s unquestioning readiness to sacrifice his son? Was it an act of piety or an act of cruelty? Was it a manifestation of wholehearted devotion to G‑d, or an act of religious fanaticism?

Classical commentators explain the story of the Binding of Isaac as the story of boundless devotion to G‑d by our Patriarch Abraham, which stands in good stead for his children, the Jewish people, in every generation. This is why we read this story on the second day of Rosh HaShanah from a Torah scroll. We remind G‑d of Abraham’s merit to arouse G‑d’s mercy to mitigate judgment[5] and ensure His blessings for the new year. However, this explanation does not resolve the paradox.

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard[6] admits this irreconcilable paradox in his book, Fear and Trembling.[7] Pondering Abraham’s anxiety (or anguish, as Sartre[8] calls it), Kierkegaard writes:

The ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac, the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet, without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is. (Kierkegaard, Fear and Loathing, 1843)

Kierkegaard questions this teleological suspension of ethical norms. He calls Abraham the knight of faith, who is willing to relinquish all his earthly possessions and everything he loves for G‑d, by making a qualitative leap—the leap of faith.

Putting aside our instinctive reaction to the story—and such rhetorical questions as “How could G‑d have demanded such cruelty of a parent?” or “How could Abraham have been willing to go through with such a cruel act?”—let us instead examine this narrative on purely philosophical grounds.

In his legal magnum opus Mishna Torah,[9] Maimonides retells the story of Abraham discovering monotheism.[10] Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idol maker. Maimonides tells us, based on the Talmud and ancient midrash, that Abraham (at that time named Abram) worshipped various gods during his spiritual journey before he discovered the One G‑d, Creator of heaven and earth. He rejected all other deities he had worshipped one by one on intellectual or ethical grounds, because he realized that worshipping them did not make sense. For example, Abraham worshiped the sun until he questioned a deity that can disappear at night. Thus, he rejected the sun as a deity. Abraham also worshipped the moon, until he questioned how a god could die and reappear every month, as the moon waxes and wanes? Thus, he also rejected the moon as a deity. And so on. It is safe to assume that Abraham rejected some deities popular in his culture because of their cruelty, as expressed in human sacrifices in general and, in particular, the pagan practice of sacrificing children.[11]

The question arises, why didn’t Abraham reject G‑d when he demanded that he sacrifice his only son? When G‑d revealed to Abraham that He was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with G‑d to save their inhabitants even if only ten righteous people are found there. Why didn’t Abraham plead with G‑d to save his son, too? Why did Abraham not question G‑d as he had questioned every other deity he had previously worshipped? Why did not Abraham not do what he had done so many times before—namely, realize his mistake and move on, in search of another, kinder G‑d?

In fact, G‑d made it easy for him. Recall that G‑d promised Abraham that his progeny would be more numerous than the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And G‑d said that his progeny would come from Isaac:

And G‑d said, “Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.” (Genesis 17:19)

G‑d rejects Abraham’s proposal to establish a covenant through his other son, Ismael:

But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year. (Genesis 17:21)

If Abraham sacrificed Isaac, this promise would never be fulfilled. G‑d was contradicting Himself! Why didn’t Abraham say, “This makes no sense; this cannot be the true G‑d; it’s time to look for another god”? None of the explanations offered by the classical biblical commentators answers this question.

Chasidic thought views the Binding of Isaac as a display of how our forefather Abraham transcended the rational, rising above the limitations of human intellect. However, the question remains, Why didn’t Abraham rise above his intellect on all previous occasions when the deity he worshipped at the time did not make logical sense to him? Why only here, for the first time, did Abraham set aside his intellectual doubt and healthy skepticism to transcend reason?

In Jewish literature, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are called “chariots.”[12] Perhaps here lies a hint to the answer to these questions.

A chariot (merkavah) carries its rider from point A to point B. In a broader sense, it is a vehicle to carry out the rider’s will. That is why the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, described in the Workings of the Chariot (Ma’aseh Merkavah),[13] depicts a chariot made of various heavenly beings driven by the “likeness of a man.” In this vision, angels carry out the will of G‑d. Angels have no will of their own; they exist only to do G‑d’s bidding. Similarly, a chariot has no purpose but to carry its rider wherever the rider’s will takes it. This is why the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are called chariots. In their selfless devotion to G‑d, our forefathers set aside their will to carry out the will of G‑d. Abraham was the first patriarch, and he was the first to become a chariot of G‑d.

Taking poetic license and borrowing the language of quantum mechanics, we might say metaphorically that, upon meeting G‑d, Abraham became “entangled” with G‑d.

When two quantum-mechanical objects (say, two electrons) become entangled, they are no longer independent of each other—they become one unit described by a single wave function. Suppose we were to collapse the wave function of the first particle and find its spin pointing in one direction. In that case, the wave function of the other particle collapses automatically, and that other particle has no choice but to assume the opposite direction of spin. The other particle becomes like a shadow or mirror image of the first particle, reflecting its every move. Similarly, by becoming “entangled” with G‑d, Abraham became like a shadow of G‑d—he had no choice but to carry out G‑d’s will.

One might object that, in quantum mechanics, the entanglement of two objects is symmetrical, whereas there is no symmetry in our metaphor. However, the Psalmist calls G‑d his shadow: “The Lord is thy shadow” (Psalms 121:5). What we do down here elicits a reciprocal reaction on high. Moreover, the sages taught that what the righteous person (tzadik) decrees—G‑d fulfills (tzadik gozer—HaKadosh Baruch Hu mekayem.)[14] Thus, at least to some extent, the relationship appears to be somewhat symmetrical.

The patriarch Abraham became entangled with G‑d; that is, he became G‑d’s chariot. That is why, when G‑d commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham did not question G‑d but hurried to carry out G‑d’s will, as the chariot must. Being entangled with G‑d, Abraham could not—so to speak—choose otherwise. G‑d’s command was no longer a subject of questioning or skeptical deliberations. Abraham simply had to do G‑d’s bidding.

One might ask, But why did G‑d have to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son in the first place? What was the point of it? Because Abraham was the first chariot in history to subjugate his will to the Will of G‑d, his descendants had to be taught this lesson most vividly and memorably. Of course, G‑d did not intend for Abraham to sacrifice his son, as is evident at the end of the story, when the angel stops Abraham at the last moment. All this drama was needed to impress upon the descendants of Abraham what it means to be a chariot of G‑d, to be truly entangled with G‑d.

We may also ask why didn’t Abraham get entangled with all those deities that he had previously worshipped. The answer is, of course, that there are no other gods; there is only one G‑d. All those gods were figments of Abraham’s imagination, and no one can get entangled with a figment of one’s imagination. Only when Abraham finally discovered the real G‑d did he immediately become entangled with Him and thus became the first chariot, the first knight of faith.

 

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Endnotes:

[1] The main commandment (mitzvah) of Rosh HaShanah is the blowing of the shofar—a ram’s horn—as a reminder of the ram sacrificed by Abraham instead of Isaac at the end of the Biblical narrative. (Talmud, tr. Rosh HaShanah 16a). This story is read from a Torah scroll on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Talmud, tr. Megilah 31a) and is also mentioned in the Musaf prayer.

[2] The Book of Proverbs (Mishlei) 3:17.

[3] Rabbi Benjamin Blech, “My Encounter With Hemingway,” Aish.com, August 27, 2011. See https://www.aish.com/sp/so/My_Encounter_with_Hemingway.html (retrieved 11/05/2020). See also Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way (Jason Aronson, 1993) p. 182: “Judaism is a religion of life against death.”

[4] The prohibition against Moloch does not necessarily involve human sacrifice—at least according to halacha (ritual law), the Maimonides, and Rashi. Rather, they interpret the verses as referring to a rite of passage, in which children were given to the priests, who passed them between two bonfires. The halacha is that doing so is considered violating this prohibition (issur) and sufficient to merit the death penalty. Nevertheless, Maimonides and the Radak interpret the verses as referring to burning the children, as is explicit in several places in Joshua, Jeremiah, and Psalms. Similarly, midrashim describe in graphic detail the idol and ceremony in which children were burned. It is not a dispute in fact (machloket b’metziut)—it is quite clear that the cult of Moloch did include human sacrifice as its ultimate form of worship (the midrash describes the six levels of its altar, the lowest for birds, second for goats, etc., continuing until the seventh and ultimate level, where, was on the outstretched arms of the idol, they burned children), but it was not routine worship, and most children of Moloch-worshipers were not actually sacrificed but rather just passed through the fires. The dispute is only how to interpret the literal meaning (peshat) in the verses—whether it was primarily referring to sacrifice or to the giving of the children to the priests. Interestingly, Rashi on Jeremiah 7:31 (“And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded not, neither came it into My mind”), remarks (from the Ta’anit 4a) on the contrast with the Binding of Isaac: “when I told Abraham to sacrifice his son, it did not enter my mind that he should slaughter him, only to show his righteousness.”

[5] Rosh HaShanah is called the Day of Judgment (Yom HaDin).

[6] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a danish philosopher, poet, and theologian, often considered the first existentialist. Fear and Trembling was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio (John of the Silence). who founded existentialism.

[7] Fear and Trembling was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio (John of the Silence).

[8] Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was a French philosopher and writer, one of the most prominent proponents of existentialism.

[9] Also known as Yad Chazaka.

[10] Yad, Avoda Zorah.

[11] The practice of child-sacrifice was particularly prevalent in the pagan cult of Moloch in the land of Canaan, where Abraham settled after leaving Horan.

[12] Bereshit Rabba 47:1; Zohar I, 210b, Zohar III, 184b.

[13] Ezekiel 1.

[14] For the Talmudic sources of this expression see Ketubot 103b, Beraita in Taanit 23a; see also Bamidbar Rabba 14.

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