Friday, 14 November 2008

What Are We To Do With the Akedah?

Desire to not always be speaking about binding of Isaac but tale looms over the parasha. Difficult to avoid.


This week two men and a woman have been found guilty of causing the death of baby P; brutally beaten and attacked.

Mother in Manchester held under the Mental Health Act stands accused of killing her two sons.

Last week, right on Abbey Rd, walking back from shul, Police were clearing up after the shocking accidental death of Jack, a local boy, aged 6 killed in a car accident.


Accidents are tragc, but calculated infanticide is sometime else and yet, here, in our most glorious text we have an order for infanticide

So what on earth are we to do about the Akedah?


It is the nineteenth century Danish existentialist Kiekegaard who, I think, puts the case for finding a redemptive meaning in the Akedah most clearly.

For Kiekegaard, at the essence of the Akedah is the notion that we, as mere human beings, have to acknowledge the limits of our final grasp.

The whole point of the Akedah is to move beyond the realms of the finite, to move beyond the realm of human understanding.

As long as we use human, finite, reasoning, Kiekegaard states, we cannot fathom the Akedah. If we use human reasoning we have to charge Abraham with attempted murder.


We need recourse to faith as opening up a world that is beyond the powers of human reason, ‘no thought can master,’ says K.[1] ‘how God could possibly pleased with the action of Abraham, ‘no thought can master,’ how this act of murder bequeaths to the Children of Israel an inexhaustible pool of kudos we can use to demand – zochreinu bzikaron tov – God’s mercy even today. We need instead faith since, says K. ‘faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.’


So Abraham, who is prepared to suspend his own morality, his own love of his child, his own dreams of a future for his seed and the nations promised to him, Abraham becomes a Knight of Faith, operating beyond the realms of human comprehension.


This is the theology of Job.[2]

God tests Job and Job protests that by any kind of human, rational, comprehensible, logic he can’t deserve the suffering imposed upon him and God’s response is to blast away Job’s pitiful human attempts to understand that which is beyond human.

God’s answer to Job is basically this -

You, pathetic human, can’t even understand the power of a volcano, an earthquake or even a lion’s roar and you want to double-guess the infinite mysteries of the Divine


So if we are willing to accept that there is a space, a realm of sense beyond the edges of human understanding, we can accept the Akedah.

We can find a way to believe that out of something so seemingly horrific there can come something good and holy.


This, for Kiekegaard is black and white. Either[3] Abraham is a murderer or we are confronted by a ‘paradox that is above meditation’ and since he is so loath to pass such a harsh judgement on a patriarch he, as a Christian, shares, he accepts the ‘paradox above meditation.’ It may be paradoxical to believe that religious triumph and glory come from death - from the command to kill, but that is precisely, says K. the meaning of faith.

And if we follow this it becomes possible to get something redemptive from the experience of the Akedah – the experience of a man commanded to kill his son. It is possible to say that the Akedah works, religiously, for us, as a tale, as liturgy.


Indeed, in many ways we desperately need this model to work. We, as Jews have a vast history of being taken, as the Psalmist says ‘like lambs to the slaughter.’[4] We need to find something redemptive in this tale of a man who wished to bring death to Isaac – bearer of the Israelite faith, otherwise all the actual deaths could be left unredeemable.


In the eleventh century, at the height of Crusader attacks on the Jews of Germany we have an extraordinary contemporary record, the Chronicles of Shlomo bar Shimshon. He details not only how many Jews were killed horrifically at the hand of the Crusaders but also how some Jews, knowing the Crusaders were coming took their own life.


He claims,

‘And Zion’s precious sons, the people of Mainz, were put through the ten trials, exactly like father Abraham, they too offered up their sons, exactly as Abraham offered up his son Isaac. There were 1,100 victims in one day, every one of them like the Akedah of Isaac son of Abraham.’[5]


Now I have no problem accepting the decisions of these victims of the crusades as holy, on hearing the advancing hooves of Christian soldiers, I don’t wish to double judge the impossible decisions they faced.

What however fascinates me is the way these poor, poor, souls grab tight to the story of the Akedah to give their seemingly pointless suffering some redemptive quality.

Rather than blame godless human thuggery for their demise, these victims of the Crusades attribute responsibility for their own deaths on God. It might seem almost blasphemous to attribute these human acts of savagery to God, but in the mind of the Mediaevals, because death in the name of the religion was redemptive in terms of the God-commanded sacrifice of Isaac, their own sacrifices – now deemed as equally God commanded, can also be redemptive.


There is, if we accept the Akeidah, a redemptive possibility in our own painful history of being slaughterwed.

Deeming the Akedah, despite all its problems, ultimately redemptive provides a sort of apologia for our suffering.

That may help too.


But it’s here that I start, again, to baulk.

The notion of finding something redemptive in the death, or near death, of some bearer of faith starts to ring bells that I don’t recognise as Jewish – Church bells.

Christians, of course, have far less problem in a divine command to slaughter a son, than Jews.

The death of a beloved son lies at the heart of Christian theology and, indeed, the Akedah features liberally in early Christian texts, texts like the Epistle of Barnabus.

Here, the sacrifice of Isaac, is read as a sort of redemptive pre-figuring of the death of Jesus.

And here it starts to be difficult to move beyond Kiekegaard’s own Christian faith, indeed at the end of the most important chapter of his major work on the Akedah, he embarks on a treatment of Miriam, the mother of Jesus who has to suppress her own feelings and ethics to see her son’s death.

And while its one thing for the Mediaeval Jews of Mainz, people who are under threat of massacre, to claim for a redemptive quality in death, in the Akeidah, for us, today, especially this week will not do.


Indeed the Jewish scholar of Jesus, Abraham Geiger, d. 1874, claimed that the whole notion of seeking redemption in the story of the Akeidah is of Christian origin. He called is ‘Akeidah Merit’ and found it inimical to Judaism.


And ultimately I am with Geiger.

I know it is too easy to attack the story of the Akeidah from a human perspective, (indeed the Rabbis put all the most incisive arguments against the acceptance of the Akeidah into the mouth of Satan – the conniving, niggardly, destructive spiritual force in all of us[6], but I nonetheless make this claim.


If I study, and study and study this passage and cannot find anything redemptive in it, I have to, at a certain point, believe that my refusal to accept its redemptive quality, is God-given.

I simply cannot accept that the role of human, created in God’s image, is to kick back in rocking chair and say, ‘well we just cannot fathom God.’


I don’t expect to understand every element of God’s ineffable plan for the Universe, but there are some things I refuse to redeem; child sacrifice being one of them.

I know that sometimes bad things only appear bad at first, and subsequently reveal themselves as blessings in disguise, but I refuse to consider a father binding his child and coming within moments of killing him capable of being redeemed.

I refuse to believe that, as Jews, we are supposed to let go of our revulsion, our deep discomfort with the binding of Isaac, despite the best inducements of K., Rambam and Rabbis before and since.


As Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote;[7]

“From the Jewish viewpoint – and this is one of its highest dignities – the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstances and not for anyone, not even for God. Especially not for God. Are not supreme Reality and supreme Goodness one and co-essential to the Divine nature? If so, every act wherein the Good is put aside is more than a breach of His will; it is in effect a denial of His existence.”[i]


Jewish heroes are not supposed to submit to God’s demands if they appear unethical.

Indeed this is one of the greatest critiques of Noah.

God informs Noah that He (God) will destroy the world and the Rabbis are deeply disappointed that Noah did not oppose this divine dictate.

God informs Moses that He (God), so alarmed with the Golden Calf debacle, will wipe out the Children of Israel, and Moses successfully opposes this divine dictate. Indeed the Rabbinic re-imagining of the debate between Moses and God, up Sinai, is one of the Talmudic pieces that moves me most. I want to quote it in full.


And GOD said to me [Moses], ‘Go, Descend’ (Deut 9) What is meant by ‘Go, Descend.’ Rabbi Elazar said the Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘Moses, descend from your greatness. For everything I gave you was for the sake of Israel. And now Israel has sinned, what are you to me?’ Immediately Moses became powerless and he had no strength to speak.

But when God said, ‘Let Me alone and I will destroy them’ (Deut 9) Moses said “This thing depends on me,” and immediately he stood up and was seized with prayer and pleaded for mercy.

Mashal - To a king who was angry with his son and beat him severely. And [the King’s] beloved was sitting before him, scared to say a word. The king said, ‘Were it not for my beloved sitting before me I would kill you.’ [The beloved] said, “This thing depends on me.” Immediately he stood up and rescued him.

Rabbi Abbahu said: ‘Were this not a written verse, it would be impossible to say this. This is to teach that Moses seized the Holy Blessed One, like one who seizes their friend by their garment and said before God: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.

(Brachot 32a)


This is our task, to seize our friend – even God – by the tallit and not let go until they yield to the commands of a universal ethic.

Shabbat shalom

[1] P. 64

[2] Let me put aside, just at this time, the role Satan plays in the Book of Job.

[3] P. 77

[4] Ps 44

[5] Cited Spiegel p. 25.


[7] In his Anatomy of Faith  (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), pp. 130–52.

[i] Ibid., p. 147.

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