Thoughts on the Akedah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Avram Schwartz

Every time I read the Akedah, I cannot help but recall Rav Soloveitchik’s extensive teachings about the importance of this passage to Judaism.  In Emergence of Ethical Man (p. 157 n.2) he calls it “the motto of the covenant and its symbol”, and in Ra’ayanot al ha-Tefillah he goes perhaps even further, describing the Akedah as the paradigm for prayer, and thus for Judaism itself:

Build an altar. Arrange the pieces of wood. Kindle the fire. Take the knife to slaughter your existence for My sake. Thus commands the awesome G-d Who suddenly appears from absolute seclusion. This approach is the basis of prayer. Man surrenders himself to G-d. He approaches the awesome G-d and the approach expresses itself in the sacrifice and Akedah of oneself.[1]

I have been haunted by these words since I first read them. Rav Soloveitchik insists that utterly submissive obedience is the theme of the Akedah, and therefore the ideal Jewish relationship with G-d. This does not sit well with me.

To be sure, this is by no means a far-fetched reading of the story.  And while the Rav’s reading is heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, its theology has ample precedents in Jewish thought.  Take for instance the language of Ibn Gvirol in one of his more famous poems:

אֲקַדֶּמְךָ בְּרֹב פַּחַד וְאֵימָה                                                         שְׁפַל רוּחַ שְׁפַל בֶּרֶךְ וְקוֹמָה

כְּתוֹלַעַת קְטַנָּה בָּאֲדָמָה                                                                לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי נֶחְשָׁב בְּעֵינַי

Lowly of spirit, lowly of knee and stature      I come before you with fear and awe abounding

Before you, I consider myself                         Like a tiny worm in the ground.[2]

Here too the prayerful Jew admits to something like worthlessness, helplessness in the face of G-d.

In spite of the power of the imagery of both Ibn Gvirol and the Rav, I wonder whether the value of this sort of submission is the best Jewish reading of the story.  For one thing:  To make the Akedah a model for prayer, one has to twist it slightly. The Akedah is a story of child sacrifice, of accepting G-d’s nullification of G-d’s own promises,[3] but the person bent in prayer, in Rav Soloveitchik’s words, lifts the metaphorical knife to their own neck, engaging in self-sacrifice.  For another: Many mefarshim explain the story very differently, and Ralbag in particular seems to directly undermine the claim that obedience is the Akedah’s core theme.

Even before Ralbag, Rashi[4] points out a feature that will become core to the Ralbag’s reading: the language of G-d’s commandment[5] does not precisely ask for sacrifice.  Rather, G-d  asks/commands Avraham to “bring Yitzchak up לעולה. ”  To be brought up לעולה generally means being wholly burnt as a sacrifice. A hyperliteral reading, though, would understand the phrase to mean “in order to go up,” implying that he will also be brought down again. In this case, as becomes apparent by the end of the episode, G-d actually meant the latter.

Ibn Ezra rejects this reading outright.  The opening of the passage (Gen. 22:1) says that “G-d tested Avraham” – Was this merely a test of Avraham’s ability to comprehend G-d’s instructions? Certainly not! says Ibn Ezra.  This is a test in order to give Avraham a reward, and any other reading, according to him, ignores the opening line: this was a test in the sense of a challenge. But Ralbag disagrees.

Ralbag’s focuses in on the same ambiguity as Rashi, and, with some elucidation, comes to a wildly different idea about G-d’s intentions.

This test, in my opinion, is that the prophecy came to him in an imprecise language (לשון מסופק). That is, that G-d, may He be exalted, said with regard to Yitzchak “And bring him up לעולה.”

This statement can be properly understood to mean that he (Avraham) should slaughter him (Yitzchak) and make of him a burnt offering (=bring him up as an olah).

Or – that he (Avraham) should bring him up there in order to offer a burnt offering (=bring him up for an olah), so that he (Yitzchak) will be educated with regard to the [sacrificial] service of G-d, may He be exalted. [6]

So what was the test?  We  must note here Ralbag’s  non-Maimonidean theology, which understands G-d to have imperfect knowledge of humans and their actions because otherwise we could not have free will[7].  Given this theology, it makes perfect sense for Ralbag to say that G-d wants to find out what Avraham will do when presented with a seemingly impossible request. The “test” is not a challenge, as Ibn Ezra has it, but an experiment. Avraham was not able to pass this test because it was only initiated so that G-d could glean information about his character.

He continues:

G-d, may He be exalted, tested him (Avraham) to see if it would be difficult for him to do anything that G-d commanded him, such that this would be a reason for him (Avraham) to understand from the statement something other than what might be understood at first glance, that is to say, if he would understand that he should offer up a different sacrifice, and not slaughter his son.

G-d seeks to learn about Avraham’s nature as a hearer/reader. Is Avraham a lamdan or a balabus? Will he look deeper for a different, more amenable way to understand G-d’s word, or will he obey its plain meaning?

In the end, as we already know, Avraham fulfills what he understands to be the divine request with a full heart, and in this he is an example to all of us (Gen. 22, Ha-to’aliot, 1).[8] Avraham’s love for G-d was so great that he did not even think to imagine that another meaning might be intended – although this was indeed the case.

One might ask whether it is implied in Ralbag’s praise of Avraham that we too ought to be balabatim in our study of Torah. I would argue that, while a plausible reading of the Ralbag, it is not sensitive to the particulars of the story. Ralbag, in re-envisioning the Akedah as an experiment, has particularized the challenge of G-d’s request/command. G-d does not regularly put before humans impossible choices to which submission is the only answer; indeed, G-d has never done so. Avraham shows G-d, in jumping at the bit before any significant iyyun, just how much love for G-d he has – so much love that it overcomes his love for his child and his intellectual faculties. And while this love is praiseworthy, we must recall that such actions were never even asked for. G-d does want our devotion, our obedience and yes, our submission, but it is not an overwhelming love. It is all-consuming – בכל לבבך, נפשך, ומאדך – even while it does not consume the self. It has to be mediated with study, with iyyun. This is not blind obedience, it is obedience with thought, and, more importantly, obedience with dignity.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Avram Schwartz (SBM 2015) is a third-year rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He is also an M.A. candidate at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He graduated from Columbia University and List College at JTS and has previously studied at Yeshivat Hahesder Yerucham. 

[1]    Translation based on Hartman, Love and Terror in the G-d Encounter, 181-182. Shalom Carmy’s excellent edited volume Worship of the Heart was unavailable to me at the time of writing.

[2]    Translation my own, based on Zangwill.

[3]    See the note from Ethical Man cited above. Medieval commentators have noted this element of the story, some only to reject it, e.g. ibn Ezra Gen. 22:1 s.v. Ve-ha-Elohim nissah. Ibn Ezra is responding to the opinion held by Rashi as well as Ralbag, which we will discuss below.

[4]    Gen. 22:2 s.v. Ve-ha’alehu,  citing Pesiqta Zutreta

[5]    Really a request, see Rashi Gen. 22:2 s.v qah na; Soloveitchik, Ethical Man,153-157

[6]   (Gen. 22:1, Be’ur Ha-millot, s.v. Nissah).

[7]   (cf. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, 134)

[8]    Note that for Ralbag this is an example of the supreme love of G-d, as opposed to fear or awe.




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