Take Your Son . . .

Genesis 22 tells us that “God tested Abraham.” That test began with something close to poetry. In the straightforward translation with which Aaron Koller prefaces his thought-provoking new book, God says:

Now take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the hills, which I will tell you there. (Gen. 22:2)

Why this stately threefold description—“your son, your only one, whom you love”—before Isaac is finally named as the sacrificial victim? Rashi famously paraphrases a midrash that reads the verse as suppressing Abraham’s part of a dialogue, as if the readers of Genesis were overhearing just God’s half of a phone conversation:

He [Abraham] said to Him, “I have two sons.” He said to him, “your only son.” Abraham said, “this one is an only child of his mother and that one is an only child of his mother.” He said to him, “the one you love.” He said to him, “I love both of them.” He said to him, “Isaac.” And why didn’t He reveal it to him from the beginning? In order not to suddenly shock him into confusion and incompetence, and so that he would cherish the commandment and receive a reward for each clause.

In filling in the uncanny gaps and silences of the “Binding of Isaac” (Akedat Yitzchak, or simply the Akedah), this midrash and many others tend to demystify it. Abraham, whose only quoted response to God throughout the ordeal is “hineni” (literally “here I am,” or in the Bible scholar E. A. Speiser’s crisp translation, “ready”), becomes a puzzled, obstinate father. In another ancient tradition, which Rashi earlier quotes, God’s unfathomable demand is given an exculpatory backstory that cribs from Job: he was tricked into making it by Satan, who questioned Abraham’s priorities. Such interpretations betray an anxiety about the Akedah’s disturbing power, giving motives and alibis to its protagonists and depriving it of its uncanny force.

Rashi’s question about the phrasing of God’s request of Abraham is not the first one that occurs to the modern reader of the most terrifying verse in the Hebrew Bible. Nonetheless, the midrashic revelation of a father who insists that he loves both of his sons equally and is perhaps desperately stalling the horrific demand that he can somehow feel coming is, as we now say, relatable. Then again, why should Abraham feel such a demand coming?

Sacrifice of Issac by Caravaggio, ca. 1603. (Gallerie degli Ufizzi, Florence, Italy.)

In a famous passage, which Koller quotes, Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have replied in indignant astonishment “That I ought not kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God, of that I am not certain.” As a child of the Enlightenment, of which Kant is a founding father, I find it easy to agree with him, and yet one also feels that it is a little too easy to do so, that we ought to at least understand what is going on in the biblical narrative before dismissing it. After all, Isaac was not merely Abraham’s “good son” or even just the only son (of Sarah), whom he loved, he was the child for whom Abraham had waited a lifetime and through whom God had promised that his line would be continued and become a great nation. Moreover, the idea that God is, in one sense or another, owed not only the first fruits of one’s field but the firstborn of every womb, “man and beast,” is shot through the Hebrew Bible, as are dramas regarding favorite sons.

To return to Rashi’s commentary, why should Abraham be more richly rewarded for forcing God to come to the point? The strangest rabbinic answer to that question of which I am aware is that of Rabbi Isaac of Volozhin, the son and successor of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon and the founder of the first modern yeshiva. In a textually ingenious, if perverse comment, Reb Itzele, as he was known, argued that Abraham’s part of the dialogue should be reread as an argument to sacrifice both of his sons. The surprise is that this topsy-turvy version actually works: at each step of the midrashic dialogue, Abraham can now be heard not as dimly groping his way towards understanding God’s awful meaning but as understanding it immediately—and then zealously bargaining to sacrifice both Isaac and Ishmael. This is certainly not what either the ancient midrash or the medieval commentator imagined when they staged the scene, but did Reb Itzele nonetheless get something right about the disturbing presuppositions beneath the biblical text? Namely, that Abraham fully acknowledged he had an impossible debt to God that he was prepared to repay.

And what should we make of the fact that just as the hill in Moriah on which Abraham bound Isaac is said to be the future Temple Mount, the Akedah itself is near the center of Judaism? It is recited daily in morning prayers and read publicly on Rosh Hashanah as a reminder to God to deal with his people mercifully because of the merit of “our father Abraham.”

Aaron Koller doesn’t mention Reb Itzele’s odd commentary (no one does), but a 19th-century Christian contemporary of his is at the heart of Koller’s argument about the troubling place of the Binding of Isaac in modern Jewish thought. That contemporary is, of course, Søren Kierkegaard.

As Koller takes pains to point out, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is an extraordinarily complex book, in which he works and reworks the story of Abraham’s trial. The book’s title comes from Paul, who told the Corinthians that he did not come to preach to them with reason but rather in “fear and trembling.” Kierkegaard’s argument similarly dwells insistently in the absurdity of faith. If one doesn’t have the courage to say that “faith can make it into a holy deed to murder one’s son,” Kierkegaard says, then it would be better to be done with the story altogether and let the moral “judgement fall on Abraham as on anyone else,” as Kant had argued.

The ethical expression for what he did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac; but in this contradiction lies the very anguish that can make one sleepless; and yet without that anguish Abraham is not the one he is.

Who was Abraham, according to Kierkegaard? He was a “knight of faith,” not because he resigned himself to sacrificing his child—Agamemnon could do that—but because he did so while, in an acrobatic “double-movement” of faith, also believing, absurdly but wholeheartedly, that Isaac would be returned to him.

As Koller points out, this is a thoroughly Christian reading, which presupposes the idea that Isaac’s almost-sacrifice and last-second salvation at the hand of “an angel of the Lord,” set the historical stage for the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the New Testament’s  Epistle to the Hebrews, we read: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. . . . He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Heb. 11:17-19) But it is hard to find any hint of this kind of faith in Genesis 22.

Koller makes two other important points about Kierkegaard’s interpretation. First, he argues that, for Kierkegaard, the story of the Akedah is essentially about surrendering one’s beloved for the higher love one owes to God, rather than about taking that person’s life. “The violence in Genesis 22,” he writes, “is beside the point in Fear and Trembling.” This is true at some level. As Clare Carlisle’s new biography makes vividly clear, when Kierkegaard wrote of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, he was often thinking of how he had just cut off his engagement to Regine Olsen in obedience to some inner spiritual imperative neither she nor his bourgeois contemporaries understood. Nonetheless, I think Koller overstates the point. After all, Kierkegaard repeatedly describes Abraham’s almost-act as “murder.” Moreover, he prefaces Fear and Trembling with several midrash-like variations on the story, including the following:

When Isaac saw [Abraham’s] face a second time it was changed, his gaze was wild, his mien one of horror. He caught Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground and said: ‘Foolish boy, do you believe I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you believe this is God’s command? No, it is my own desire’. Then Isaac trembled and in his anguish cried: ‘God in heaven have mercy on me, God of Abraham have mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then be Thou my father!’ But below his breath Abraham said to himself: ‘Lord in heaven I thank Thee; it is after all better that he believe that I am a monster than that he lose faith in Thee.’

So, Kierkegaard is attuned to the violence at the center of the Akedah. Still, Koller has a point, which I would amend to say that Kierkegaard had little interest in that violence as a sacrifice. Nor was he interested in the specific religious logic of biblical sacrifice.

Søren Kierkegaard in the Coffee-house by Christian Olavius Zeuthen, 1843. (Museum of National History, Denmark.)

Koller’s second criticism is morally trenchant and central to the argument of his book: Kierkegaard, and the many interpreters who have followed him in concentrating on Abraham’s existential dilemma, reduce Isaac to “a mere prop in the story.” He brings out the monstrosity of this position in a brief, illuminating discussion of Caravaggio’s painting, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1603). In Caravaggio’s painting (actually his second work with that name to depict the scene), Abraham is holding a terrified teenaged Isaac’s neck down on the rough stone altar. The young man stares out at the viewer helplessly, as the ram who will become his substitute ambles placidly into the picture, and an urgent angel grabs Abraham’s knife-hand. “Caravaggio,” Koller writes, “uses Isaac’s eye to break the illusion of tranquility . . . Isaac’s screaming gaze forces us to grapple with the fact that as Abraham is becoming ‘our father,’ Isaac is being murdered.”

As Koller points out, the Jewish tradition, by contrast, did not forget Isaac. Indeed, when the Akedah came to be taken as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom, Isaac’s willingness to die for God became at least as important as his father’s willingness to kill for Him. Thus, Ephraim of Bonn’s searing Akedah poem, written in the wake of Jewish martyrdom in the Second and Third Crusades, depicts Isaac as his father’s willing partner. In Judah Goldin’s translation of Shalom Spiegel’s classic study of the poem and its sources, Isaac says, “Bind for me my hands and my feet / Lest I be found wanting and profane the sacrifice.” A later stanza describes Isaac dying on the altar before being revived by a “resurrecting dew”—at which point his zealous father tries to kill him again before being stopped by the angel a second time. In the dark midrashic tradition this poem draws upon, Isaac becomes the story’s spiritual hero (though this version, too, lets Abraham off the hook).

A key element of Koller’s book is his critique of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the central figure in 20th-century Modern Orthodoxy and the intellectual and spiritual leader of its flagship institution, Yeshiva University, where, as it happens, Koller now teaches. In a number of Soloveitchik’s essays, Koller astutely points out, he “describes religion in general as exemplified by retreat, recoil, sacrifice, and self-defeat and describes all of these as exemplified by the Akedah.” In short, he seems to have followed Kierkegaard in reading the Akedah as a parable for the existential crisis of the figure he famously called “the lonely man of faith.” Certainly, as Koller points out, his descriptions of the Akedah are often openly borrowed from Fear and Trembling:

The enormous feat of the knight of faith was demonstrated not in his actual compliance with the divine order but in the manner in which he behaved in the face of the most puzzling divine absurdity. . . . Abraham did not realize the absurdity and paradoxicality of the divine order, which canceled all previous promises and covenants. . . Abraham was great in his acting in accordance with the logic of the absurd.

This passage occurs in the course of a more than 700-word footnote in which Soloveitchik says the Akedah showed that the covenantal relationship was one in which “Man sacrificed himself to God, and God dedicated Himself to man.” The man in question is Abraham; Isaac, who was bound to the altar, is never mentioned.

In another essay, in which Soloveitchik takes the Akedah to be the paradigm for prayer, he does talk of Isaac, but in a way that underlines Koller’s critique of Kierkegaardian moral blindness. When the angel intervened and a ram was substituted for his son, Abraham’s “external drama changed, but the internal drama remained the same.”

Isaac, bound on the altar, turned into a ram, and Isaac was a ram, slaughtered, his blood sprinkled, his body burnt, the ashes piled on Mount Moriah for generations. The binding of Isaac, which plays such a prominent role in the Jewish liturgy and world-view, means: the binding of man and the sacrifice of him . . . The spirit of man, clothed in the body of an animal, is sacrificed to God. . . . Build an altar. Arrange the pieces of wood. Kindle the fire. Take the knife and slaughter yourself for my sake—thus commands the awesome God. (Italics mine.)

Koller does not deny that such passages may articulate something deep about the kind of passionate prayer that calls for self-negation, but he is at his strongest in showing just how morally troubling and textually implausible they are as readings of Genesis 22.

Later in the book, he quotes Soloveitchik’s contemporary Emmanuel Levinas’s perceptive criticism of Kierkegaard to great effect. “Perhaps,” Levinas wrote of Abraham’s response to the intervening angel, his “ear for hearing the voice that brought him back to the ethical order was the highest moment in the drama.” Whereas Soloveitchik writes of Abraham’s response to the angel as almost irrelevant (“the internal drama remained the same”), Levinas focused on the redemptive third act of the Akedah and the “others” who were there with Abraham at the top of the mountain: the restraining angel and the terrified Isaac.

Koller frames his critique of Soloveitchik and other Jewish Kierkegaardians in terms of the dire public consequences of their approach to religion. “Reading Genesis 22 with Kierkegaard,” he writes in the concluding chapter, “leads to an inability to explain why someone whose religion obligates them to marry more than one person, or to refuse contraceptive coverage [to others], or to deny vaccinations to their children, or to shoot a mosque full of people, or to fly a plane into a building full of people is wrong.”

It’s an extraordinary list. One wouldn’t have thought that the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor should be grouped with mass murderers, regardless of what one thinks of their position on employee health care plans. To be fair, Koller immediately notes that he is not drawing an equivalency among the religious bad actors he lists. But he does insist that the stakes are high, because “many people do seek guidance in biblical stories.” However, he cites not a single instance when anything remotely like such religious terrorism or even incivility has actually been justified by an existentialist reading of the Akedah.

Koller’s framing leads one to expect to read of some deeply problematic halakhic ruling or theologically driven moral lapse on the part of Soloveitchik or some other prominent Jewish Kierkegaardian. The closest he comes is to quote an academic article that mentions an Israeli rabbi who wrote, “Are we not obligated to the Torah’s laws even when they appear, in human eyes, to be unethical norms?” I have no doubt that I prefer Koller’s religious humanism to the apparent position of this unnamed (and almost certainly un-Kierkegaardian) rabbi. Still, the reader was certainly led to expect more. Moreover, while Jewish law, like all legal systems, may come into tension with the dictates of morality, it cannot be equated with the existential brain-fire of some “lonely man of faith.” Perhaps the problem in “reading Genesis 22 with Kierkegaard is just that it is ultimately a bad reading, textually and morally obtuse, as Koller has shown, but without implications for public policy.

Unbinding Isaac is a lucid thesis-driven tour of some of the most important interpretations of the Akedah. Although I don’t know if it was, I imagine it as one of those books that began as a terrific undergraduate class in which a central question is traced through a dazzling, dizzying series of texts and thinkers, ending with a sketch of the teacher’s own speculative answer.

Koller’s reading of the Akedah takes off from the interpretation of the 14th-century commentator Joseph ibn Kaspi. Ibn Kaspi took Maimonides’s somewhat counterintuitive statement in the Guide of the Perplexed that Abraham’s hearing of God’s original demand was a lower form of prophecy than his response to the angel who stayed his hand. The first was like an equivocal dream vision, while the second was a more direct prophecy. Ibn Kaspi supported this interpretation by noting that, in fact, two different names of God are used in the story. When God makes his terrible request, He is identified as Elokim, the generic biblical term for God, but the intervening angel is described as “the messenger of the Lord,” that is, the divine being as designated by His proper, or “explicit,” name, the Tetragrammaton. This makes sense, Ibn Kaspi says, because Isaac’s sacrifice was “in fact, not desired by the Lord.” And when the “angel of the Lord” says to Abraham, “Don’t stretch your hand against the boy, and do not do anything to him, for now I know that you are a fearer of God, as you have not spared your son, your only one, from me,” he was speaking quite precisely because it wasn’t really the Lord who made the original demand, it was God, or rather Abraham’s dim, imperfect perception of Him.

Koller takes this claim in a more passional or personalist way than Ibn Kaspi would have been likely to when he summarizes that “God wants child sacrifice, as an expression of love and commitment. But God more does not want it, as a reflection of a higher value.” That higher value, he goes on to argue, is the biblical recognition that children are not the property of their parents: “children, like all other human beings, cannot be mere adjuncts in someone else’s religious experience.” This is, I think, a profound teaching; we have all seen children—or, to put it less dramatically, their childhoods—sacrificed on the altar of parental desires, including spiritual ones. But is this the teaching of the Akedah?

I am not so sure. Or, rather, since Genesis 22 overpowers and confounds all interpretations in the end, let me briefly note some of my qualms about Koller’s reading by returning to the question of how Abraham understood God’s terrible request and why it would have made sense to him (or to the earliest readers of the Akedah). Koller describes the ancient desire to sacrifice one’s child as a misguided “expression of love and commitment,” and he describes the practice of ancient Near Eastern child sacrifice and the Bible’s somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it. But he spends little time on the biblical preoccupation with firstborn and favorite sons and the way in which they specifically are owed to God. Israel itself is, after all, described as God’s “firstborn son,” and it becomes so only after Abraham has passed the test, because, the angel tells him, “you have not spared your son, your only one.” What seems missing to me in reassuring interpretations of the Akedah such as Koller’s is that they read it as eradicating the notion of a father’s debt to God as a religious mistake. In contrast, the Bible itself returns to it obsessively, almost inevitably subverting or sublimating it, but never simply giving it up.

The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches that 10 things were created on the evening of the first Sabbath. Among them, some authorities include “the ram of our father Abraham,” which is to say that from the outset of creation an animal substitute was intended for Isaac but not that the trial itself was a mistake. Elsewhere, we learn that the horn of that same ram was the one blown at Sinai. The blasts of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah, it would seem, recall not only the revelation at Sinai but our father Abraham’s attempt to repay his terrifying, yet obscurely comprehensible debt to God.


Suggested Reading

Silence of the Lambs

Jeremy Wanderer

Sacrifice is both foreign and familiar. Actually sacrificing an animal is difficult to imagine, and yet we continue to speak freely of sacrifice in connection with political and moral obligations.