Printer Friendly

The real test of the Akedah: blind obedience versus moral choice.

ff; III, 4, p. 137 ff. See also J.D. Bleich, With Perfect Faith (N.Y.: KTAV, 1983), p. 417; and Julius Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism (N.Y.: Schocken, 1973), pp. 243-4.

44. Ramban notes at Gen. 22:12 that there is significance in the fact that God ordered the slaughter of Isaac, but an angel ordered Abraham to desist (Chavel, Ramban, p. 279). Mysteriously, that explanation, promised to be provided at Gen. 48:16, is not there forthcoming. The Ramban does say earlier, at Gen. 18:1-10, that God often commanded by prophecy, but revoked the command by the word of an angel, although the Midrash claims that Abraham rejected the angelic order to GENESIS 22:1-19 RECOUNTS THE STORY OF the binding of Isaac, known as the Akedah. The traditional interpretation is that God tested, nisah (Gen. 22:1), Abraham by commanding him to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Abraham was about to sacrifice the boy on the altar when an angel called out to him to stop, "because now I see that you are a God-fearing person and you would not withhold your son ... from Me" (Gen. 22:12). Thereupon Abraham looked about and saw a ram, which he sacrificed in Isaac's place, calling the place "where God will be seen." A second angelic voice then swears in God's name to bless Abraham by multiplying his seed (22:17).(1)

In the traditional understanding of this story, God never intended for Abraham to slaughter Isaac, because it was wrong -- as we know from the end of the story when Abraham is told to desist. Abraham, on the other hand, out of fear of God, was willing to violate God's moral law against murder,(2) to which Abraham was committed, as we know by virtue of the earlier discussion between Abraham and God about the immorality of killing even ten innocent or righteous people who might live in Sodom and Gomorrah: "Hashofet kol ha'arez lo ya'asseh mishpat?" "Will the Ruler of the universe not do justice?" (Gen. 18:25).

The message of the end of the Akedah is quite plainly that God does not want even his God-fearing adherents to go so far as to murder in God's name or even at God's command. Implicitly, we are being told, God will never ask for this proof of loyalty or fear of God again. He asked it only of Abraham, the first Jew, the first forefather of the Jewish people, to demonstrate Abraham's boundless fear of God. How far Jews must be willing to go in demonstrating their faith is not to be learned from the Akedah but from specific rules promulgated by our Sages over the centuries in interpreting the Torah.(3) Clearly, Abraham is to be emulated for his fear of God, but not for the lengths to which he was willing to go to prove it. (In fact, some later traditions and uses of the Akedah "lesson" may be problematic.)(4)

Because Abraham is praised for being prepared to do what we may not do, and because God, the source of all morality, asked Abraham to do what no moral person before or since should ever contemplate, and expected Abraham to obey, the Akedah has remained one of the most difficult texts in Tanakh to understand, justify and transmit to new generations.

In the spirit of shiv'im panim la-Torah (the Torah has seventy, i.e., many facets), I would like to suggest the possible existence of a remarkable, coded, counter-message in the Akedah, that exists in parallel with the traditional meaning of the text -- which has always been accepted but never fully understood. Specifically, I propose, first, that God was testing Abraham's willingness to refuse to commit murder even when commanded by God to do so; second, that Abraham went along with that command with faith that -- in the end -- he would not be required to do so, and not with the zealous intent to consummate Isaac's murder, although he was prepared, in the end, to resist the command to kill his son if he had to; and third, that Abraham was rewarded for his moral stance, and his faith that God really does not need or want child sacrifice, or any violations of His moral law, to prove man's love or fear of God. This view of the Akedah is consistent with fundamentals of Jewish law and philosophy.

For example, we do not pay attention to heavenly voices or signs on matters of Jewish law;(5) murder is one of the three sins which one should refrain from committing even at the cost of one's own life;(6) the inquiry concerning a false prophet is not simply whether God has spoken to him or her, but whether the prophet commands the violation of Jewish law;(7) and worthy ends never justify anti-halakhic means except when the halakhah itself -- through the rule of hora'at sha-ah -- gives the Sages (and prophets) the authority temporarily to set aside a law when special circumstances threaten the halakhah.(8) Finally, we are supposed to emulate God in our actions, ma hu, af ata;(9) thus, "Just as God is compassionate, so you |man~ must be compassionate." Similarly, we must emulate our forefathers: "Ma'asse avot, siman le-banim." Yet, one of the quintessential statements of the traditional view of Abraham's greatness at the Akedah is found in the Zikhronot section of the musaf service on Rosh Hashanah, where he is described as having "suppressed his compassion to do Thy will ...!"(10) (emphasis added). Is this what we should learn?

Some of the more novel interpretations or homiletics of the Akedah exacerbate the problematic nature of its traditional interpretation. Ramban and Rashi tell us how morally difficult God made it for Abraham by emphasizing the details of the command.(11) Saadia tells us that the moral of the story is that Jews should be ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctification of God's name, seemingly overlooking the fact that the traditional interpretation of the Akedah requires murder, not to sanctify God's name in the accepted sense of adhering to God's Commandments, but in the sense of violating those Commandments, including the fundamental precept of "be killed rather than kill another without proper cause."(12) Rambam says that God knew that Abraham would pass the test,(13) which is consistent with Rambam's view of a philosophic, all-knowing God; but this confidence, shared by the Ramban,(14) does nothing to eliminate the problem of Abraham being tested based on his willingness, through faith and fear, to commit one of the three most heinous crimes in Jewish law. Franz Rosenzweig says(15) that we and Abraham cannot and could not understand God's true purpose. Perhaps; but are we to understand that we must suspend our moral judgment when a holy person or a divine voice, or a prophet says: "Violate the halakhah?" That may be Rosenzweig's Judaism but it is hardly authentic (see Part III). There is an interpretation of the text that says that Abraham misunderstood God, who never intended a real sacrifice.(16) Then what did God intend, and how does Abraham's willingness to slaughter Isaac make Abraham great? There is another interpretation(17) that says that killing one's child was not known to be clearly wrong in Abraham's time, which is strange, given Abraham's concern about killing the righteous in the earlier story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And, if killing was not known to be wrong, in what sense was the Akedah the ultimate test of Abraham's faith? Elie Wiesel's view is that God was wrong for asking, and Abraham for agreeing -- which does nothing to make the text Jewishly palatable; quite the contrary. For one eminent world historian, the Akedah makes "perfect sense" because Abraham's "covenant with God was of such transcendent enormity that it demanded |of Abraham~ something more |than animal sacrifice~: a sacrifice of the best loved in the fullest sense ...."(18) But transcendence should involve greater morality, not the greatest immorality.

In my midrashic view of the Akedah, it is a morality tale of Abraham's staunch defense of God's moral law against any temptation -- even God's command -- to violate it. It established Judaism's unique insight, among ancient religions, cults and cultures, about the dangers of having human beings submit to the orders of individuals who claimed unique access to the wishes of "the Gods," or of any God, and who might be forced, through ignorance and fear, to submit to a cultic elite that, by its unique power and authority, could reign unchecked in human affairs and make man a moral slave. Judaism, alone, sought to make man morally free, and, to do so, it had to eliminate societal arrangements in which the majority were forced to accept the word of the few, as revealed only to them, as expressing God's wish, without any limitations or constraints to assure their authenticity and consistency with God's moral design of the world.

The corrective was a religion based on a covenant between God and all of the people, in a revealed text to which all had access and which all could master, and the stipulation (with rare exceptions, discussed in Part III) that no one, claiming to hear God's message directly and privately, could require anyone in the covenantal community to violate the text, as understood by the judges and sages of the people with the authority to interpret and apply that covenantal text. God's word was revealed and written. Its interpretation, by a holy, learned, covenantal community and its leaders, could be oral, but also had to be open. This jurisprudential structure assured that no person or elite could misguide the people down paths of immorality in the name of a supernatural power. (It may be significant if, as some believe, the invention of the alphabet |i.e., the original, Semitic one~ occurred in Canaan circa the 18th century B.C.E., during Abraham's era, which broke the monopoly on knowledge previously enjoyed by society's ruling elites, allowing literacy to spread to ordinary people.) Thus, the Bible literally, and openly, commands parents to kill a "rebellious son," but that text has been so hedged about by publicly discussed and developed rabbinic exegesis, that the Talmud categorically states that, in juridical law, such a "rebellious son" never was found to exist.(19) One can imagine the much different results if such a law arose in a religion based on God's private revelations to a holy person.


Before examining the Akedah text to see if it supports the hidden midrashic interpretation that I propose, we need to answer two questions: first, is the traditional view of the Akedah any different from accepting, as God's will, a volcano that kills 10,000 people, including many who, in any halakhic sense, do not deserve to die? Second, aren't true prophets bound to agree to any Divine commands, and aren't all Jews bound to accept such prophetic messages? Aren't all such prophecies, per se, moral and consistent with Torah law?

Both questions can be answered simultaneously. Natural or miraculous acts of God should, indeed, be accepted as God's will without undermining a Jew's faith (Job 40:8), as difficult as this may be because of the event's personal impact or enormity.(20) We accept the acts of the Dayan Emet (the Judge of Truth) in this world, when humans are not asked to participate or evaluate God's actions; no halakhic issues are thereby involved. However, when humans are involved, the halakhah takes over, and man must exercise moral responsibility. The traditional view of the Akedah raises halakhic difficulties.

There are two issues to be distinguished. The first is: may a prophet object if he is told by God to do something, or told about God's plan to do something, that seems to be inconsistent with God's justice or compassion? The second is: what should Jews, including the prophet, do if instructed in God's name to participate in a violation of God's law?

In the first case, we have a number of examples. Abraham was told about God's plan to destroy Sodom, and objected, in contrast to Noah, whom our Sages criticize for not speaking up when God announced His plan to destroy the world by the Flood. Moses was told about God's plan to destroy the Jewish people and start a new nation from Moses' progeny, after the sin of the Golden Calf, and he is praised by our Sages because he objected. In Jewish tradition, a prophet's conscientious objection to a Divine plan or order is praise-worthy; it is not rare to find prophets who resist their Divine appointment and task. Jonah, who did more than question, but sought to escape his appointment even if he could not persuade God to relieve him of it, is considered a kovesh et nevi'ato, one who suppresses his prophecy, and is, thereby, subject to Divine punishment.(21) Therefore, we cannot justify Abraham's refusal to at least protest God's command that he kill Isaac on the grounds that prophets must silently obey whenever commanded or consulted by God. The opposite is true when God's justice or compassion are in issue. Moreover, as we shall see, even a true prophet may sometimes have to question the authenticity of his vision.(22)

Jewish law is similar in the second case. A Jew is generally not required to obey what appear to be Divine commands to violate the law. There are certainly cases, consistent with Jewish law, where Jews were required to obey Divine commands, through prophets, to cause enemies of Israel to be killed, as in the case of Samuel and Saul regarding Agag.(23) But the Talmud states that a command by a prophet in God's name to uproot God's law should not be obeyed. This raises questions about Abraham's and Isaac's willingness to participate in the Akedah.(24) Rambam -- based on the distinction made between "uprooting" and "suspending" the law, and the opinion of R. Abahu,(25) summarizing the Talmud's discussion -- asserts that there is a hora'at sha-ah exception for true prophets who order the violation of God's law in God's name in special, temporary cases, which Jews should obey unless ordered to commit idolatry.(26) Radbaz, three centuries after Rambam, still displays perplexity over whether we should obey a prophet who orders a violation of God's law involving relations between persons (e.g., murder); he concludes that a prophet should be obeyed even if he orders a violation of the Torah if his purpose is to protect the Torah, in those special circumstances where following the requirements of Torah law would lead to the undermining of Torah itself.(27) The paradigm is Elijah at Mt. Carmel, where -- to uproot idolatry -- he brought sacrifices outside of the Temple, contrary to Jewish law, to demonstrate to the people that God was supreme over the various idols which so many Israelites continued to worship.

In light of this discussion, the Akedah is plainly not a case of violating the law to save the law, as required by hora'at sha'ah. (Indeed, if it were deemed such a case, it would represent an act of extreme practicality rather than an act of supreme faith!). Therefore, the traditional interpretation of the Akedah assumes that Abraham (and Isaac) acted contrary to the halakhah, which prohibits murder, the obedience of prophets to heavenly commands to commit murder, and the compliance of others with prophetic transmissions of such commands.

Abraham was not ignorant of God's prohibition against murder, known since God's response to Cain's murder of Abel (Gen. 4:8-12) and the Divine Noahide laws (Gen. 9:1-17; Ex. R. 27:9). Recall Abraham's challenge to God for planning to destroy Sodom if any righteous persons lived there, and God's praise of Abraham after his death for his complete obedience to God's "commandments, statutes and laws" (Gen. 26:5). Thus, if he was not familiar with the law of hora'at sha'ah, there was no halakhic basis for killing Isaac, even by Divine Command. If he was familiar with it, he knew the limited exception to the Divine law against murder that it provides. I believe that it is far more likely that he was fully familiar with the law (B. Yoma 28b), not only because of the sweeping character of God's praise of Abraham noted above, but because the purpose of the limited scope of hora'at sha'ah is to protect the Jewish people and Jewish law from the imagined or improperly understood messages of true prophets, and the falsified messages of false ones. (For this reason, even true prophets cannot prophetically add to Jewish law.)(28) Surely Abraham -- who first found God and became the first prophet of the Jewish people -- was sensitive to these common sense concerns, which are so essential to protecting God's moral law and which, ultimately, were formally incorporated in the halakhah. This was Abraham's tenth and final test, and we should embrace the chance to know that he passed it.

To sum up, there is no doctrine or belief in Judaism that whatever God tells a prophet to do, or instruct others to do, even if it requires a violation of God's law, must be obeyed without any prior discussion or objection, and we adhere to a Divine command to commit such a violation only in situations of hora'at sha'ah, i.e., when necessary to protect the Torah, or the Jewish people (Esther R. 4:16). But if the Akedah is not a case of hora'at sha'ah, and if the halakhah did not prevent Abraham from challenging God's command to violate Divine moral law, how can we interpret the Akedah in a way that is consistent with Jewish law? What does the Akedah teach us?


I believe that there is a coded counter-message in the Akedah, which provides a simultaneous and necessary conceptual theological balance to the awesome mystery and the daunting problematics of the traditional interpretation. On the one hand, God was testing Abraham to see if he would remain loyal to God's revealed moral law even if ordered to abandon it. We know this because an earlier text expressly says that God wanted Abraham always to do what is "just and right" and to teach his children to follow this Divine path (Gen. 18:19). On the other hand, Abraham never intended to kill Isaac, and was terribly concerned at the fact that God had commanded him to do so. Abraham was testing the Almighty, as it were, as to what kind of covenant and religion he, Abraham, was being asked to join. Was it one that required man to follow heavenly voices to any length, even to immorality? Or was God, Himself, subject to the requirements of justice and righteousness, as Divinely defined and known, as Abraham had already indicated in his debate with God about the proposed destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah.(29)

After all, it was Abraham who found God, not the other way around,(30) and it is not surprising that he had certain moral expectations -- and perhaps even requirements -- of the all-powerful God of the ordered universe, Whose tradition he had received and studied, and in Whose Name he was about to establish a new, world religion.

In testing God, as it were, Abraham was, ultimately, testing himself. "I have found God," he seems to be saying, "and my tradition and experience have revealed Him and made Him known to me as an all-powerful, all-knowing, just and compassionate God. But I need to be sure that this is the God to which I truly wish to dedicate myself and my progeny and my followers for all time. If the God I have found demands the same kind of immorality that I saw in my father's pagan society, I must be mistaken. I must look further. To obey such a God is not a moral advance at all." To paraphrase our Sages, "better observance without God than God without observance."(31)

It may be asked why Abraham did not challenge God at the outset, when first commanded to sacrifice Isaac, as he did when he learned of God's determination to wipe out Sodom and Gemorrah. Indeed, challenge is necessary when it is God who is preparing to do something, as with Sodom, because God is in control of what He is about to do. But whenever one is asked to do something wrong by someone else -- in the case of the Akedah, Abraham by God -- there is an alternative strategy: stalling for time, whose exemplar (apart from Abraham) is Aaron in dealing with the Israelite demand for a Divine incarnation to worship (the golden calf).(32) As everyone familiar with the practice of a bureaucracy knows, those who seek simultaneously to obey their superiors -- whom they admire, respect and sometimes fear -- and give their superiors a chance to change their minds about what seems to be an unwise or immoral idea, rarely challenge the idea head on. They stretch things out, find problems at various steps of the way, move papers from one office to another, consult experts and conduct meetings to consider the various aspects. There are two things that they don't do: they don't tell their boss that his or her proposal is a bad idea -- in the hope that the boss will decide that way, eventually; and they don't agree that the boss's proposal is a good idea and rush off intending to obey it -- if they think that the idea is bad. The strategic objective is to keep faith with one's conscience, give the boss a chance to make the smart or moral decision in the long run, and make the bureaucracy look good -- obedient -- throughout. Similar behavior may be predicted among loved ones.

The matter may be compared to a father who asks his son to violate the Sabbath in some way. The child does not know whether the father is testing his obedience to the law -- which requires him to resist his father and observe the Shabbat commandments(33) -- or is testing the child's love (and fear) of the parent. The child can protest immediately, perhaps thereby showing disrespect and causing the parent anguish, or the child can make the necessary preparations to do what the parent has requested, seeming to go along with it, in the hope or expectation that the child's knowledge and obedience of the law is being tested, not its parental obedience, thus saving the need to object to the very end, when the actual consummation of the act that will violate the Sabbath is to occur, but confident that the parent will never let the child take the last step.(34)

Which approach is the more praiseworthy? The Bible gives the child the right to defy its parent, but never tells us how. Clearly, the more respectful, less insulting way, which also preserves the paramount nature of the Sabbath, is to stall, and give the parent the time and the opportunity to countermand the improper order.(35)

As we shall see, this is precisely what the texts tells us that Abraham did.(36) He did not rush -- he stalled! He broke up the task that he was given into numerous tasks, or steps, and at each one he stopped, waiting to see whether "the Boss" had reconsidered. It was never Abraham's intention to kill his son, and God never indicated whether He wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, or if He wanted Abraham to refuse to do so. Given Abraham's moral purity, we may reasonably conclude that if, at the very end, God had not rescinded His command for Isaac's death, Abraham would have rejected the command, chosen the moral course of not committing murder, and saved his son -- and then been forced to re-examine the prospects of his new religion, and the belief and faith on which it rested. Abraham was waiting for God to say: "Don't do it." Moreover, as we shall see, there is good reason to believe that God was waiting for Abraham to say: "I can't do it; it is contrary to Your moral law."(37)

The text can be interpreted to show Abraham stalling. It does not show Abraham leaping from receipt of God's command to his execution of it. Indeed, Abraham never agrees to accept it and perform it.(38) Instead, the text describes Abraham going through a series of separate steps: first he gets up, then he dresses his animals, then he gets his retinue in order, then he gets the rope, and the wood, and then he sets off, and then he sees Mount Moriah, and then he gets off the animal, and then he instructs his retinue to wait, and then he and Isaac walk (vayelkhu), but don't run, toward Moriah, and then there is a conversation, and then the various distinct preparations of the altar, and then he stretches out his arm, and then, finally, he takes the knife. Does this plodding, detailed sequence of steps connote a man rushing off to do God's bidding? Hardly.

The point of the text is quite clear. At each step Abraham was waiting for God to evidence a change of mind, to withdraw His command; when that was not forthcoming, Abraham took the next step, and put the Almighty to the next test -- as it were -- always showing obedience, always giving God the opportunity to make the moral statement that God does not want man to murder or to commit other immoral acts in God's name. And, at the very end, when Abraham took the last step before he would have been forced by his conscience to stop and challenge God's command, the angelic order to stop finally came.

The traditional view that, until ordered to desist, Abraham intended to kill Isaac as God commanded, thus meriting great reward, is not held unreservedly in the Midrash. Thus, as noted above, some commentators observe that Abraham misunderstood God's command; others, that Abraham and Isaac had doubts, and were tempted to disobey it.(39) Moreover, if the command was ambiguous, wherein lies the test and Abraham's merit in his willingness to kill Isaac? For, if that is not clearly what God commanded, there is plainly nothing praiseworthy in Abraham's willingness to do such a thing. Under such circumstances it would be, at best, misguided zeal. The midrash that interprets Abraham's promise to his retinue, in Gen. 22:5, that "we |Isaac and I~ will pray and |we~ will return to you" as indicating that Abraham then knew, through a spirit of prophecy, that he would not have to kill Isaac, further supports the view that, at least from that point, Abraham had no such intention.(40)

Those who argue that Abraham intended to kill Isaac before being stopped, cannot prove it from the Akedah, because Abraham never agreed to kill his son, and never had to. Had he done so, and said "I still believe in God," we would have had proof. We would also have had a religion to which few and, perhaps, none of us could subscribe, because such a religion would never have endured. Those who argue that Abraham met the test, by virtue of his intent up to the last moment to kill Isaac, argue that God knew what was in Abraham's heart, that God gave Abraham a chance, through all the steps enumerated in the story, to change his mind, but Abraham was willing to obey to the very end.(41) Therefore, God -- knowing this -- could suspend the order to kill Isaac and, thereby, prevent what would have been an unjustified murder at the last moment. Unfortunately, this approach simply mires us even further in an interpretation of the Akedah in which God expects his followers to obey His commands whenever they believe that is what God wants -- even if the command is to perform -- without halakhic justification -- an unequivocally immoral act, one that is totally contrary to fundamental Jewish law.(42)

But how shall we interpret the statement at Gen. 22: 12: "For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me." One answer is that God did not know what Abraham would have done had the heavenly voice not called out to him to stop; all He knew was what Abraham had done up to then. We each have moral free will, and Judaism does not require acceptance of the idea that God knew in advance that Abraham would choose to slaughter his son. This philosophical problem has long been debated in Judaism. For Gersonides and Ibn Daud, for example, Abraham had free will to the very end on whether or not to kill Isaac, and his decision could not be known -- even by God -- until he actually made it by bringing down the knife on his son's body.(43)

But, apart from this theological rationale, I believe that a close reading of the text permits a midrashic interpretation along the following lines: God was testing Abraham to see if he would remain faithful to His revealed moral law even when Divinely commanded to violate it, in order fully and finally to expunge the belief and practice of child sacrifice, or any murder, (ostensibly) in God's name or for God's benefit. Abraham never intended to kill Isaac but was determined to stall, with faith in God's morality and a determination to uphold it. God was waiting for Abraham to say, "I won't do it," and Abraham was waiting for God to say, "Stop, don't do it, I didn't mean it." The command for Abraham to desist comes. However, while the original command to kill Isaac came from God, the command that he spare him, because "now I know that you did not intend to withhold your son ... from me," is not made by God but by an angel of God.(44) I submit that this change is crucial to a full, deep understanding of what occurred because, in Jewish belief, angels, unlike God, can have no foreknowledge of man's moral choices.(45) The text, therefore, could not attribute to God the knowledge of Abraham's intent to kill Isaac and, therefore, did not do so, because God, who does know what is in man's heart, knew that Abraham had no such intention!

Actually, there are two reasons why we are not required to credit the angelic statements (Gen. 22:12 and 16) that Abraham intended to kill Isaac. First, angels are not competent to know the intentions of human beings. They are purely mechanical in their perceptions; seeing (and hearing), for them, is believing. They unquestionably obey commands, and mechanically can observe acts of obedience or disobedience to commands. No angelic Sanhedrin would disobey Divine messages about the halakhah, as our Sages did.(46) They can also make prophecies and promises in God's name, as commanded. But they do not understand what is in the human heart. Only God is a bohen kelayot valev, one who understands what is in the innermost part of man's heart and the secret recesses of his mind.(47) What they see is what they know, or can reason about, and all they could see was Abraham seemingly executing God's command, step by step.(48) Second, angels are never given more than one task at a time.(49) In this case, the first angel's task was to order Abraham to stop, and not take the final step that would consummate the slaughter of Isaac. The task of the second angel (necessarily a second angel because of the second task involved) was to promise Abraham that God would multiply his seed. Thus, the added statement that each angel made that Abraham intended to kill Isaac (to justify, first, the order to desist, and, second, the promise of God's blessing), was also defective because, in each case, this observation went beyond the task that the angel was empowered by God to perform.

The incapacity of angels to know that is in the human heart may be deduced in a number of ways:(50)

1. To God, and not to angels, is universally attributed the power of knowing man's heart and mind. This is particularly evident in the liturgy. There is, also, the text in Genesis in which God turns to the angels and asserts that He (not they) knows or understands Abraham's intentions: Ki yedativ et asher yezaveh ("Because I know that he will command...." (Gen. 18:19).(51)

2. Man's understanding is equated to that of the angels. If angels could know the secrets of man's heart and mind, then -- under this equation -- man would have that power as well, which is clearly not the case. Indeed, the Bible chastises any belief in such human powers.(52)

3. Angels insist on strict observance of God's commands, having the quality of justice but not of compassion. This is because angels have no evil inclination, so that they cannot empathize with a person's moral dilemmas and wrong moral choices.(53)

4. The angels opposed man's creation, and oppose his repentance from sin.(54) Repentance requires an internalized resolution to abandon forever the sin that was committed. Angels, being pure goodness and lacking a bad inclination, manifestly cannot know whether or not a sincere "return" has taken place.(55)

5. The Sages say that God's power to know man's heart means both parts of man's heart: one consists of the good inclination and the other of the bad inclination. It is logically impossible that angels, who have only the good inclination, can know man's heart, which consists of both.(56)

6. Angels understand only Hebrew, lashon ha'kodesh (the "holy tongue"). But, if they can understand what man intends, what is in man's heart and mind, why can't they understand man's prayers in any language?(57)

The use of an angel to rescind God's command makes two important points. First, it tells us, or confirms for us, that Abraham never intended to kill Isaac, which is why God could not say that Abraham did so intend. Second, it draws a dramatic contrast between Abraham, representing a paradigm for mankind, and angels. For the angels, the test of the Akedah was the test that angels pass every day -- to give God mechanical, unquestioning, obedience. This is one meaning of the legends of Satan and the angels -- each, perhaps, with different motives -- asking God to test Abraham with the Akedah.(58) The angels wanted to see if Abraham would unquestioningly obey God's commands, which would make Abraham as one of them; for them, God's command -- once given -- had to be obeyed, and Abraham -- as far as he was allowed to go -- passed this test, as far as they could see. Thus, the twin angelic observations: "and you did not withhold your son, your only son" (Gen. 22:12 and 16).

But the Almighty had a completely different test in mind -- a test that would make sure that Abraham would not unquestioningly obey commands -- even Heavenly commands -- to commit immoral acts. In Jewish thought, man is not intended to be like the angels, but to exercise his free will to obey God's revealed moral law, indeed, all of God's revealed law, as interpreted by an educated, morally sensitized, pious, religious community. What God did not want, and does not want, is human beings who are prepared to commit acts which they know to be immoral just because a holy man has received a private communication from on high. The religion that Abraham and God agreed to at Moriah is the religion of a revealed God, a God who is revealed to all, and not privately, and Whose Law is similarly revealed, as Yehuda Halevi understood,(59) in a written text, publicly available for scrutiny, study and acceptance by all, and subject to subsequent interpretation and application -- not on the basis of private, esoteric orders to a select few from Heaven, but the understanding of a religious community based on continuing study and piety.

There is one last textual problem to solve. In Gen. 22:15-18 we read the second angelic observation of Abraham's intent:

15. And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16. and said: "By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord, that, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17. that I will indeed bless you and I will indeed multiply your progeny ... 18 ... because you listened to my voice." (emphasis added)

Isn't it clearly God, and not an angel, saying here that Abraham intended to kill Isaac? I believe that the text can be read, midrashically, otherwise. The words, "By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord," at the beginning of verse 16, relate to the blessings in verses 17-18; God swears, as it were, that He will greatly multiply Abraham's seed. The concept of God swearing has no relevance to the intervening statement at the end of verse 16, "that because you ... have not withheld your son ...." This is not a fact about which one swears. I suggest, therefore, that it is an angelic interpolation. Significantly, the angel here mechanically repeats the same observation about Abraham's intent to kill Isaac that was mechanically made by the first angel, without invoking the authority of God, when ordering Abraham not to harm Isaac (verse 12).

A stronger reason for considering the second statement, "because you have not withheld your son," as an angelic interpolation, and not as God's view of Abraham's intent, is redundancy. That statement is offered (Gen. 22:16) as the reason for God's blessing of Abraham (Gen. 22:17), but the same reason seems to be offered again immediately after the blessing (22:18): "eykev ...," "because you listened to My voice." But the Torah is never superfluous; therefore, a different reason is evidently intended by the eykev formula, representing the Divine and not the angelic view -- namely, "because you never intended to violate My moral law." Further support for this view can be ascertained from Gen. 26:5, where God repeats, for Isaac, His earlier blessing to Abraham to multiply his seed, using exactly the same reason, exactly the same verbal formula, as is used at the Akedah after His blessing of Abraham: "eykev ..." -- "because Abraham listened to My voice." However, to Isaac, God explains the meaning of the eykev formula: "and he |Abraham~ kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws." The commentators generally agree that this statement includes such basic commandments as the prohibition against murder, etc., which would be plainly violated by the slaughter of Isaac. Although some believe that 26:5 includes a reference to the Akedah, the Targum Onkelos, the authoritative, Aramaic translation of the Torah, interprets this text as referring to Abraham's obedience to God's moral and other commandments, and the rabbinic "fences" surrounding them, and not to Abraham's intent to disobey them by killing Isaac.(60)

Moreover, if the highpoint of the Akedah was Abraham's willingness, even eagerness, to kill Isaac, his announcement that on this "mountain of God" his descendants would in the future build a temple to worship Abraham's commanding God (22:14) (as commentators, e.g., The Targum and Rashi, understand this verse) would have come when he was about to kill Isaac. Instead, it comes after he is told to spare Isaac -- suggesting that it was only then that Abraham accepted the charge to become the father of the nation that would spread God's name and word throughout the world -- a God who now revealed and proclaimed Himself as a God of compassion and morality, who did not require or desire of His faithful total moral surrender and intellectual submission as proof of their loyalty and faith, but wished them to do what is "just and right" (Gen. 18:19).

When we read, and listen, to the end of the Akedah text, we should hear two voices, God's and that of the angels. God's voice is saying, "Stop, I promise to reward you for being staunch in observing my Commandments, including the Commandment not to kill -- you passed the test; I wanted to be sure you were not an immoral, mechanical, 'Yes' man;" and the other voice, that of the angels, who would know about Abraham only what they saw, because they are, in their nature, without ability to know what is in the human heart and mind. Thus, they were applauding Abraham for having the very opposite intention from that for which God was rewarding him, because that is what they would have done in Abraham's place had they been similarly ordered and tested.


Even if we assume that it was God speaking through the angels on both occasions, there is another, simpler interpretation of the Akedah that rejects any intention by Abraham to kill Isaac, but accepts Abraham's actions, as far as they went, as reflecting his faith in God -- specifically, faith in a God who does not want human sacrifice or murder of any kind, and Who would rescind His command rather than permit such an act even when it was Divinely commanded. Abraham's faith was in a God of justice, righteousness and compassion,(61) Who wants man to wage his mightiest struggle to the end that God's revealed moral law is made manifest in the world that God created. "Because you have done this thing, and did not withhold your son" (Gen. 22:18) does not say that Abraham intended to kill Isaac if God did not countermand His awesome command at the last moment. It says only that "you were willing to endure the confused agony of going ahead and acting in obedience to My command, to the very point of killing Isaac -- with faith that I would never allow that to happen."(62) We may understand this as the same kind of faith as that which the children of Israel had when they plunged into the waters of the Red Sea at God's command -- not the serene faith that God wanted them to kill themselves and their families by drowning, and the zealous intention of doing so, but the confident faith that God would, somehow, save them and keep His redemptive promises to them. Such a faith demonstrated, as did Abraham's, that God is, indeed, a God of justice and righteousness and not a God who tests the faith of His followers by testing their willingness to kill themselves or their loved ones just because God asks it.

Abraham could have protested God's command to kill Isaac then and there, when God commanded it, and passed the test that God had in mind, of being staunch in his defense and observance of God's commandments -- even at the risk of challenging God's commands. Indeed, out of compassion and love for his wife, Sarah, and his son, Isaac, Abraham surely felt the almost irresistible compulsion to speak out against God's command right away, and, in that way -- knowing God's answer -- sparing them the agony of seeing Abraham go forward in obedience to God's command -- an agony that would cause Sarah's death and Isaac's alienation from him forever after.(63) Yet, Abraham refused this course. His faith in God's justice and righteousness allowed him to pursue an even nobler course. He did not want God's moral law against murder to be affirmed merely as a Divine response to a human plea, as occurred at Sodom, nor to be proclaimed merely as a response to human arguments about God's mercy, God's promises,(64) what the other nations will think, or even about God's justice and righteousness. To achieve this, Abraham had to have an enduring, unshakable faith in God's justice and righteousness, a faith that allowed him to proceed with the Akedah, not with the steadfast, zealous intent to kill Isaac, but with the steadfast, serene faith that God, without the need for human pleas, would ultimately pronounce for all, and for all time, the prohibition against murder -- even for God's glory and in God's name.

If I am right, it is possible to understand in a new way the strange formulation of the Akedah in the Rosh Hashanah musaf liturgy. There, at the end of the Zikhronot section, we recall how Abraham "suppressed his compassion to do God's will with a full heart," and we ask God: "Similarly (sic) suppress your anger at us, and deal compassionately with us" (emphasis added). But why should God have compassion on us, if Abraham suppressed his compassion for Isaac in his determination to kill him? I suggest that the text may mean, simply, that Abraham suppressed his compassion for Sarah and Isaac by going along with God's command despite the agony that he knew this would cause them, so that God could manifest His abhorrence of murder without having to be pressed to do so by human pleas. Similarly (it is now possible to say), we ask God to suppress His anger and be compassionate with us, in the merit of Abraham who suppressed his feeling for his wife and child in order to demonstrate to the world his unshakable faith in God's justice and compassion.

In his determination not to kill Isaac, and his willingness to go forward with God's command until ordered to stop, Abraham passed the twin tests of the Akedah, the tests of the strongest moral courage, and the purest religious faith.

LIPPMAN BODOFF is Associate Editor of JUDAISM Magazine.


1. For Rambam's classic discussion, see The Guide for the Perplexed, M. Friedlander, tr. (New York: Dover, 1956), Part III, Ch. XXIV, pp. 306-7.

2. Abraham's courage at the Akedah was precisely his willingness to do what he recognized was the morally heinous act of murder -- dating back to God's punishment of Cain; the punishment of the Flood for acts of violence (Gen. 6:13 and Ramban, ad. loc. in his Commentary on the Torah, C. Chavel ed. |N.Y.: Shilo, 1971~); and the Noahide prohibition against murder at Gen. 9:6. As Rabbi J.H. Hertz comments on Gen. 22:12: "All that God desired was proof of Abraham's willingness to obey his command, and the moral surrender had been complete" (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs |London: Soncino Press, 1938~). According to the Talmud (B. Yoma 28b, citing Gen. 26:5) and many commentators (e.g., Ramban on Gen. 26:5, Rashi on 26:5 and 32:5, Albo, Ikkarim, Bk. 3, Ch. 10), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob fulfilled the Torah before it was given at Sinai and, surely, the prohibition of murder. Some believe that Jewish tradition recognizes a morality independent of Torah; see n.12 and authorities cited in Michael Harris, "The Shared Moral Universe of God and Man: A Re-reading of the Akedah," L'Eylah, September, 1992: 15-19. Cf. Walter Wurzburger, "Breuer and Kant," Tradition (Winter, 1992): 72. In the Midrash, even Satan warns Abraham that he dare not obey God's command to kill Isaac, citing the Noahide laws applicable to all mankind long before the Ten Commandments (B. Sanhedrin 89b; Gen. R. 56:4; see other citations in Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews |Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968~, Vol. I, pp. 272-4). Shlomo Riskin says, citing Ramban, that "from the very beginning of the world there lived in Canaan believers in the One God, who had maintained the traditions of Adam and Noah, and whose king -- Shem, son of Noah -- was priest of God on high." (See "Abram: Finishing His Father's Journey," Jerusalem Post, Week Ending November 7, 1992, p. 23).

3. The halakhah deals with Divine commands to prophets to violate the halakhah. Generally, the halakhah prohibits the violation of three commandments -- murder, idolatry and incest -- even if martyrdom results (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei ha-Torah, V: 1-5), although this rule was modified by the Jewish people in extremis (see H. Soloveitchik, "Religious Law and Change," AJS Review, Vol. XII, No. 2 |Fall 1987~: 208-17).

4. Thus, there is a remarkable legend that Abraham completed the sacrifice, and that Isaac was miraculously revived, although Ibn Ezra (on Gen. 22:19) rejects it. See B. Ta'anit 16a and Tosafot, ad loc., and the penitential prayer of Isaac b. Reuben Barceloni (1043) (referring to the "Ashes of Isaac"), in Selichot for the Whole Year, p. 337. Midrash Da'at Zekenim 8a states that Abraham wished he could have been permitted to complete the slaughter of Isaac, lest his failure to do so reflect badly on his desire to obey God's command. The Midrash also notes that Abraham resisted the order not to kill Isaac because it came only from an angel, whereas the command to sacrifice Isaac came from God (Abarbanel on Gen. 22:15; Tanhuma, Vayera 23, Tanhuma |Buber, ed.~, 46, 114 ff; and Ginzberg, Legends, Vol. I, p. 282). On whether Abraham actually did physically harm Isaac at the Akedah (and whether that tradition resulted from Christian influences), see Spiegel, pp. 3-8, 38, 43-59. See, also, Bruce Zuckerman, Job the Silent (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), Ch. 2; Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer 31; and Midrash Ha-Gadol on Gen. 22:19.

The traditional view of the Akedah influenced the willingness of Ashkenazi Jews, as discussed by H. Soloveitchik, Op. cit., to turn the Biblical prohibition against murder into an act that became recognized as a legitimate form of kiddush ha-Shem, when fathers killed their children and wives and then committed suicide rather than face forced baptism during the Crusades; it was "the paradigm and leitmotiv" of the chronicles of these events. See Y.H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), p. 38; see also Gerson D. Cohen, "Messianic Postures of Ashkenazim and Sephardim," Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures (Phila.: JPS, 1991), pp. 290-1, and notes 44-50; Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, Judah Goldin, tr. (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1967), ch. 3; the piyyut of Kalonymous B. Judah, Amarti She'u Mini (11th cent.), and the piyyut of Joseph of Chartres (12th cent.), Elokim Be'alunu, in Kinot, A. Rosenfeld, tr. and ann. (N.Y.: Judaica Press, 1979), pp. 140, 170; the selihot (penitential prayers) composed by Ephraim B. Isaac (12th century), Meir B. Isaac (11th century) and Benjamin B. Zerah (11th century), Selichot for the Whole Year, A. Rosenfeld, ann. and tr. (N.Y.: Judaica Press, 1978), pp. 204, 232, 320; David G. Roskies, Against the Apocalypse (Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), p. 46 (14th century kiddush ha-Shem). More recently, the Akedah has inspired the modern conception (beginning around the turn of the century) of Daas Torah as "an expression of the ethic of submission," which is "viewed in hasidic sources |from which it originated~ as a reenactment of the Akedah, whereby the individual sacrifices his intellect on the altar of blind obedience to the words of the sages ...." See Lawrence Kaplan, "Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority," The Orthodox Forum -- Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, Moshe Z. Sokol, ed. (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1992), pp. 54-5.

5. See, e.g., B. Baba Meziah 59b; Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 2:9; and the discussion in Eliezer Berkovits, NOT IN HEAVEN: The Nature and Function of Halakha (N.Y.: KTAV, 1983), Ch. 2, pp. 47-53.

6. See n. 3.

7. See discussion in Part III, below.

8. See, e.g., B. Yevamot 90b (Tosafot); B. Avodah Zarah 24b; B. Yoma 69b; I Samuel 6:14, and Nehemiah 8:4. In brief, this is a halakhic doctrine (hora'at sha-ah) used by the Sages for situations of unique significance. Its applicability to prophets who are Divinely commanded to act or command others to act, contrary to God's law, is discussed in Part III.

9. B. Sotah 14a, see also Hertz's discussion of this principle at Gen. 3:21, Ex. 33:19, and Lev. 19:2. See, also, Reflections of the Rav, adapted from the lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by A.R. Besdin (Jerusalem: WZO, 1979), Ch. II, pp. 23-30.

10. The suppression concept is midrashic, and not uniform; in some forms Abraham suppresses his compassion for Isaac -- in others, his urge to argue with God (Spiegel, pp. 88-97). The Talmud is relatively quiet about the Akedah, favorably noting Abraham's arising early the morning after the command, to start his journey to Moriah -- as an example for the diligent in observing God's commands; and the credit that subsequent generations receive for Abraham's binding of Isaac, as if they had done so, (B. Rosh Hashanah 16a, San. 89b and Pes. 4a). Scholars differ as to when the concept of Abraham suppressing his compassion became part of the musaf text. Spiegel says (Ibid.) that it was probably some time during the period of the Amoraim (Talmudic sages between the 3rd and 6th centuries, C.E.). More recently, scholars believe that it was not part of a single, original integral text, but was added later (9th -- 11th centuries) by the Geonim as part of their battle against the Karaites. See, e.g., Leon J. Liebrich, "Aspects of the New Year Liturgy," HUCA 34 (1963): 136-47; Naftali Widder, "Investigating Ancient Babylonian Practices," (Hebrew) Tarbiz 37 (1967-8): 135; Daniel Goldschmidt, Mahzor Le'Yamim Nora'im (Mahzor for the High Holidays), (N.Y.: Leo Baeck Institute, 1970) (Hebrew), Introduction, p. 29 and n.7; I.M. Elbogen, The Historical Development of Prayer in Israel (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1972), p. 109; and Lawrence Hoffman, The Canonization of the Synagogue Service (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 1979), pp. 98-100. The current text of Zikhronot, including the Akedah material, is included in the 10th century mahzor of Saadia Gaon and in the liturgical compilation, Seder of Amram Gaon. The Mahzor Vitry (Nuremburg: Hurwitz, 1924) sheds no light on West European practice in the 12th century.

11. See Ramban, Op cit., p. 276; Rashi, on Gen. 22:2.

12. Saadia gives ten reasons for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the sixth being to remind us of the Akedah, to teach us that we, too, must be ready at all times to offer our lives for the sanctification of God's name. See Emunot V'De'ot (Leipzig, 1859). But Saadia also claims that basic morality exists even without revelation (Hartman, Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest |Phil.: JPS, 1976~, pp. 238, 242); if so, shouldn't Abraham, in the name of basic morality, have at least questioned God's command?

13. Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Ch. 24.

14. Chavel, Ramban, p. 275.

15. Star of Redemption, William W. Hallo, tr. (N.Y.: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1971), p. 266.

16. See Gen. R. 56:8; Rashi on Gen. 22:2; Hertz, Op. cit., p. 74; Ibn Ezra on Gen. 22:1; Abarbanel on Gen. 22:2, 12.

17. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, G. Plaut, ed. and ann. (N.Y.: UAHC, 1981), p. 149, where the contradictory observations are made that the Akedah was a test of Abraham's faith, but Abraham could have considered the command "legitimate" in the "framework of his time and experience." "Otherwise," says Plaut, "he might have protested God's command with the kind of insistence he exhibited at Sodom and Gomorrah."

18. Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (N.Y.: Random House, 1976), p. 108; Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 18. Some strangely argue that sin redeems sin: viz., that the Akedah atones for Abraham's expulsion of Ishmael, and that Abraham made a deal with God to kill Isaac then, in exchange for God's forgiveness of Israel's sins later (David Polish, "The Binding of Isaac," JUDAISM |1957~: 17-21; Marvin Fox, "Kierkegaard and Rabbinic Judaism," JUDAISM |1953~: 160-9; Louis Feldman, "Josephus: The Akedah," Jewish Quarterly Review |Jan. 1985~: 238-40; and Ginzberg, Legends, Vol. I, p. 284).

19. Deut. 21:18-20 and Rashi ad loc.; B. San. 71a. As to the alphabet, see "Interview with Frank Moore Cross," Bible Review (December 1992): 18, 24. Isaac's birth, when Abraham was 100 years old, precedes the Exodus (circa 1225 B.C.E.) by four hundred years, thus placing Abraham's birth toward the end of the 18th century, B.C.E. Cf. I.J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963).

20. Even God's right to kill was challenged by Moses in his plea to God to enter Canaan: "You killed an Egyptian ... who was smiting a Jew," God says. "I killed one Egyptian. Look how many You have killed," replies Moses. See Avraham Weiss, "Why is God so Unrelenting Toward Moses?" Jewish World (Long Island), July 19-25, 1991: 5; Midrash P'tirat Moshe, quoted by Nehamah Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Vol. I (WZO, 1976), at Exodus 2:12.

21. See 1 Samuel 16:1-2 (Radak cites other cases, ad. loc., of prophets who objected to their mission); 1 Kings 19:7, 20:42; cf. 1 Kings 21. There were other prophets who objected to God's command for personal or other reasons. See Jeremiah 11:14, 15:1, 32:16-25; Isaiah 6:5-7; Ezekiel 21:5; Amos 7:1-6. As to Jonah, see B. Sanhedrin 89a-b, 90a.

22. See Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot Ha-Kodesh 138 (p. 157), as supplemented in Tarbiz 59 (1990): 497, n.59. Moreover, there is a suggestion in Rambam that even a true prophet must be alert to the possibility that he has not actually or accurately heard or seen, or properly interpreted a "prophecy," just as a witness with proper qualifications, who must be believed, may -- in fact -- not be telling the truth (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Ch. 7).

23. 1 Samuel 15; see also 1 Kings 20:42.

24. B. Sanhedrin 90a. B. Sanhedrin 89a-b mentions Isaac's obedience to Abraham in the context of discussing a prophet known to be true (navi muhzak); cf. n. 22.

25. B. Sanhedrin, 90a; see also Yevamot 90b.

26. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, 9:3, citing B. Sanhedrin 90a, and Deut. 18:15; Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Joseph Kafih, tr. (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1963-8), pp. 11-14.

27. Responsa, #652; see, also, Encyclopedia Talmudit, Vol. 8, Hora'at Sha-ah; Jonathan Sacks, "Creativity and Innovation in Halakhah," The Orthodox Forum -- Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, Moshe Z. Sokol, ed. (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1992), p. 138.

28. See n.22; Rambam (la-Am, edition), Commentary to the Mishnah, Vol. 18, pp. 27-8; Mishneh Torah, Yesodei ha-Torah 9:4; Sefer ha-Mizvot, Root II; B. Shab. 104a, Tem. 16a, Yoma 80a; Sifra to Lev. 27:34; Lev. R. 1:14; Ex. R. 28:6, 42:8; Deut. R., Nizavim 8:6; M. Eduyot 8:7; J. Ber. 1:4; B. B.M. 59 a-b (even God cannot interfere with the ongoing process of rabbinic interpretation and application of the Torah). See, generally, Z.H. Chajes, The Student's Guide Through the Talmud, Jacob Schachter, tr. and ed. (N.Y.: Philipp Feldheim, Inc., 1960), p. 34; cf. p. 86 and B. Suk. 44 a-b; Elliot N. Dorff and Arthur Rosett, A Living Tree (Albany: SUNY, 1988), pp. 187-190; Louis Jacobs, A Tree of Life (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1984), ch. 5, esp. pp. 70-1; Urbach, The Sages, ch. 6; David Hartman, Op. cit., pp. 108-119, 238-242.

29. Recall Abraham's direct direct challenge to God at Sodom regarding the death of innocents: "Will the Ruler of the entire world not do justice?" (Gen. 18:25).

30. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:1-3; Guide to the Perplexed, 1:36, 2:39, 3:29, 3:37. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, quoting the Midrash, writes that "until Abraham arrived, God reigned only over the heavens....(Sifri, 313, Ha'azinu). It was Abraham who 'crowned' Him God on earth, the God of men .... (Rashi, Gen. 24:7; Ber. 59)" (Man of Faith in the Modern World, Reflections of the Rav, Volume Two, adapted from the lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Abraham R. Besdin |Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1989~, p. 50). Similarly, Yehuda Halevi in The Kuzari (N.Y.: Schocken, 1964), Part Four, para. 27 (p. 239), observes, through the Rabbi: "Perhaps this was Abraham's point of view when divine power and unity dawned upon him prior to the revelation accorded to him" (emphasis added). See also Ginzberg, Legends, Vol. I, pp. 189-217 and Vol. V, p. 210.

31. J. Hagigah 1:7; Gerson Cohen, Op. cit., p. 73.

32. Ex. R. 37:2 and Lev. R. 10:3. What follows, which is what I call "the bureaucratic model" because it can be commonly found in that context, can be extended to a variety of other relationships (e.g., marriage), specifically when two persons feel respect, admiration or other positive feelings toward each other such that neither wants unnecessarily to rupture the relationship even when cherished goals or values are threatened. In consulting with Professor James S. Uleman of NYU, Faculty of Arts and Science, Graduate Program in Social-Personality Psychology, I was advised that there is some experimental work that supports my view, e.g., the famous Stanley Milgram (1974) experiments (pressure exerted on the tested individuals to subject others to increasing intensities of electric shock), reported in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), and the studies of Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, Social Cognition (Reading, PA: Adison-Welsley Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 106-111 (procrastination to gather information). During the Holocaust, certain Jewish community leaders turned some of their people over to the Nazis "in the hope of putting off death for as long as possible, for as many as possible," in hopes that the situation might change -- pitting the view of Rabbi Avraham Duber Cahana Shapira of the Kovno ghetto (favoring such action) against Maimonides' medieval pronouncement. See Laurence Thomas, "Characterizing and Responding to Nazi Genocide: A Review Essay," Modern Judaism 11 (1991): 371-79, at 373; Berel Lang, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 68-76.

Professor Uleman, in a personal letter to the author, dated December 12, 1990, has stated that "procrastination for the purpose of information gathering" would be a predictable response if Abraham did not want to kill Isaac, and particularly if he was not sure whether this was actually being demanded of him.

33. See Rashi, and Hertz, Op. cit., at Lev. 19:3; B. Yeb. 5b; Sifra, Kedoshim 10:87.

34. See Part V, where I show why Abraham chose to obey God's command and wait for God's order to stop, rather than protest and try to change God's mind by human pleas.

35. The strategy of stalling is one of three paradigmatic Jewish responses to the travails and tragedies of the Diaspora. Another response has been to accept, if not embrace, these events as God's plan of punishment or purification, or perhaps even an opportunity for kiddush ha-Shem, as Rabbi Akivah is said to have viewed his martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. But cf. Gershon Greenberg, "Myth and Catastrophe in Simha Elberg's Religious Thought," Tradition 26 (Fall 1991): 45-6 (where the difference between the Akedah and anti-Semitism is recognized). The third response -- epitomized by Zionists and Ghetto fighters -- has been to fight back (Todd M. Endelman, "The Legitimatization of the Diaspora Experience in Recent Jewish Historiography," Modern Judaism |May, 1991~: 195-210).

36. Cf. the aggadah that Abraham rushed to kill his son, e.g., Rashi and Hertz, Ibid., at Gen. 22:3, compounding the moral problem of the traditional interpretation.

37. Although the views expressed in this article were independently arrived at by the author, I wish to acknowledge the prior publication by Dr. Joel Wolowelsky of a brief note, in midrashic form, of the basic idea that Abraham never intended to kill Isaac, but waited for God to rescind His command ("Testing God -- A Midrash on the Akedah," Dor le Dor, Vol. VIII, No. 2 |Winter 1979-80~: 98), and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's suggestion that God was unhappy with Abraham for his eagerness to obey God's command to slaughter Isaac and, therefore, after the Akedah God never spoke to Abraham again (Baltimore Jewish Times, Week Ending November 3, 1990, p. 52). Since the preparation of this paper, Neil Gillman commented on the Akedah in a similar vein ("A Sabbath Week," Jewish Week, October 25-31, 1991).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch used the terms "twisted mind" and "raving madness" when the Reform scholar, Abraham Geiger, suggested that Abraham's greatness at the Akedah lay not in his willingness to slaugher Isaac, but in his willingness to desist from doing so at an angel's command. See his commentary in The Pentateuch, Genesis, Vol. I, second edition, Isaac Levy, tr. (Gateshead, England: Judaica Press, 1976), pp. 373-4. One is entitled to speculate how Hirsch would have responded to the views of Riskin, et. al., rather than to those of a leader of Reform, which was anathema for Hirsch.

38. Hertz expressly points this out (Op. cit., at Gen. 22:3).

39. See Rashi (citing R. Abba), and Hertz, Op. cit., on Gen. 22:2, 12; Abarbanel on 22:12; Ibn Ezra on 22:1; Gen. R. 56:8, 56:12; The Midrash Says, Moshe Weissman, ed. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Benei Yakov, 1980), p. 200; Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer 31; and Feldman "Josephus ...," Op. cit., p. 237.

40. See Hertz, Op. cit., at Gen. 22:5. Similarly, Gen. 22:8 where Abraham assures a concerned Isaac that God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice, which could also mean: "The God whom I worship will never let me kill you." Cf. Ibn Ezra on Gen. 27:18-19, who says that Abraham lied when he said, in 22:15, "we will return."

41. See, e.g., Chavel, Ramban, p. 278, commenting on Gen. 22:2.

42. Contrast the rabbis' praise of Abraham with their general condemnation of Jepthah for killing his daughter to fulfill a pre-battle vow, as well as the religious leaders of the time for not finding a way out for him from his vow. Midrash Tanhuma (Jer. 19:5) tells of God's reaction to the "slaughter" of the daughter: "The Holy Spirit cried out: 'They have put their children to fire |clearly referring to more than just this incident~ ... which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came to My mind'" (emphasis added). See, also, Spiegel, Op. cit. p. 79. As to all child sacrifices as a profanation of God's name, see 2 Kings 3:27 ff., 16:3; Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5, 22; Deut. 12:30-31, 18:9-12. The horror at killing one's child, even when God's law seems to command it, is so great that some later commentators, e.g., Kimhi, Abarbanel, and -- most recently -- Steinsaltz, claim that Jepthah's daughter was not killed, but lived a cloistered life, as a virgin (Solomon Landers, "Did Jepthah Kill His Daughter?" Bible Review |August 1991~: 29-31, 42).

43. See Levi ben Gerson, Sefer Milhamot Adonai, III. 2, p. 126
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Jewish Congress
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bodoff, Lippman
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Dilemmas of modern orthodoxy: sociological and philosophical.
Next Article:The sacrifice of Isaac.

Related Articles
Mr. Mani and the Akedah.
Why some ask why.
Ethics and the Metaphysics of Medicine: Reflections on Health and Beneficence.
TOP DOGS; Family Day Out CRUFTS DOG SHOW, NEC, March 5-8 Crufts 2009 is all set to return to the NEC, just down the road near Bickenhill, from March...
Reviving the Milgram obedience paradigm in the era of informed consent.
The new Isaac; tradition and intertextuality in the gospel of Matthew.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters