What to Sacrifice: God or Morality?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Steve Gotlib

The Akedah portrays a stark conflict between moral intuition and the direct, unquestionable word of God. Rav Soloveitchik commented that “God demands that man bring the supreme sacrifice, but the fashion in which the challenge is met is for man to determine” (Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch).  What should we readers choose to sacrifice as we finish reading the Akedah? Our sense of human morality, or our devotion to God?

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously argued that a human’s duty is to nullify his or her will before God even when that means suspending one’s ethical assumptions. Whatever God wants done must be done without question. When God tells you to jump, you can’t even ask how high. When God tells you to slaughter your son, you start sharpening the knife.

Kierkegaard’s view is in direct contradiction to that of Immanuel Kant:

Abraham should have replied to this putative Divine voice: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me are God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens. (The Conflict of the Faculties)

According to Kant, the only thing we know for certain is that it is utterly immoral to kill our children. No one can know with the same degree of confidence that God is communicating to them. It was therefore incumbent on Abraham to question the voice he heard commanding the akeidah and make no move whatsoever until proof of it being God’s voice could be ascertained – and no sufficient proof would be possible.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) each wrote responses from within Jewish tradition to both Kierkegaard and Kant.

According to Rav Lichtenstein, a person cannot and should not suspend their own ethical judgement when faced with the word of God. They must rather work on themselves until they and God want the same thing. “One must nullify his own will and accept God’s will as the driving force in his life. Ultimately, one should strive to reach the level where he can translate God’s will into his own” (Mitzva: A Life of Command).

Rav Lichtenstein says more on this in a different essay:

…the grappling must all be done within the parameters of the understanding that, however much I wrestle, I do not for a moment question the authenticity or the authority of the tzav… I may grope, I may ask, and I may ultimately seek resolution.(“Being Frum and Being Good”)

This approach allows for Kierkegaard’s acceptance of God’s command as the be-all-and-end-all, while simultaneously allowing for a degree of Kant’s moral push-back. With this view, a person may search for the reason that they are faced with this apparent contradiction between God’s word and their moral intuition. They can wrestle with the command that they have been given and come to their own conclusions about the reason for it. But at the end of the day, a command is still a command. Upon reaching resolution, that command must be carried out as the will of God, and as their own will as well.

Rav Shagar by contrast gives doubt a legitimate and essential role in religious decision-making. He develops his position via a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4) in which the Satan tells Abraham Avinu that it was really he, not God, who commanded the slaughter of Isaac.  God will accuse Abraham of being a murderer the very next day if he goes through with this crazy act. Abraham’s responds that he will go through with what he perceives as the will of God, even though he knows that he can’t demonstrate the truth:

[This answer] expresses Abraham’s unremitting dedication, his willingness to forfeit everything – not just his ethics, but even his very religion – which is his only path to unqualified devotion, if not utter certainty. In any event, it appears as though Abraham’s insistence on the divine origin of the imperative to slaughter his son can be facilitated only by the seed of doubt planted by Satan. This is what sets it apart from ordinary obstinacy, especially if we read Satan as a manifestation of Abraham’s own misgivings. Intransigence that does not take doubt into account is meaningless and false. (Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akeda)

Rav Shagar argues that one can achieve true religious devotion only be experiencing and overcoming doubt. A devotion that ignores doubt entirely can be very dangerous in an age where we no longer have direct prophecy. How are we to know that the path that we are on is truly the right one and we are not misguided? Furthermore, how do we know that what we are doing is truly the word of Hashem?

Rabbi Hayyim Angel answers this question:

The Akedah teaches several vital religious lessons. Ideal religion is all about serving God, and is not self-serving. Because we expect God to be moral, the Torah’s protest tradition also emerges with Abraham’s holding God accountable. We may and should ask questions. Simultaneously, we must obey God’s laws in our mutual covenantal relationship. We aspire to be extremely religious, and Abraham serves as a paragon of the ideal connection to God, an active relationship, and faithfulness. The Akedah also teaches the key to avoid what is rightly condemned as religious extremism, using religion as a vehicle for murder, persecution, discrimination, racism, and other expressions of immorality. Morality and rationality must be built into every religious system, or else its adherents risk lapsing into immorality in the name of their religion. (The Binding of Isaac: Extremely Religious Without Religious Extremism)

Judaism is about serving God, not about serving ourselves.  But since God is a wholly moral being, His commands must also be moral. The Akedah narrative demonstrates to us that we should love God enough to do whatever it is that He demands of us, but also that God does not want us performing immoral actions in His name. Reading the Akedah with this in mind makes clear that neither moral intuition nor trust in God should ever be sacrificed.

Steve Gotlib (SBM 2017 and 2018) is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. He is now in his first year of semicha at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

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