Won’t You Catch Me If I’m Falling?<1>
By Rabbi Uri Cohen
A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.
Most of the time, having made up our minds about something, we don’t give it much thought. But every now and then, as in the old quip above, something forces us to look at the subject in an entirely new way. I am going to present here an entirely new way of understanding the Akedah, Avraham’s binding of Yitzchak. It is not my own idea; it is that of Dr. Berel Dov Lerner, a member of Kibbutz Sheluchot who teaches philosophy at theWestern Galilee College. The following is a summary of Lerner’s article, entitled “Saving the Akedah from the Philosophers.”<2>
Lerner boldly claims that the philosophers such as Kant and Kierkegaard – who portray the Akedah as a clash between being ethical and obeying God – are simply wrong.
For starters, imposing this philosophical dichotomy on the Torah is an anachronism, as ridiculous as Lawrence Olivier assuming that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based on the Oedipus Complex that Freud theorized hundreds of years later.<3> God praised Avraham for teaching his family “to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right” (Bereisheet18:19). The Torah here explicitly equates the way of God with doing what is just and right. Just because the modern mindset sees a conflict between the two does not justify projecting that conflict 4000 years into the past.<4>
More importantly, Lerner calls our attention to a little-noticed verse. God promised Avraham that “Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you should name him Yitzchak; I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come” (Ibid. 17:19). Avraham must have realized that for God to fulfill this Divine promise, Yitzchak would need to survive in order to have children who could continue the covenant. So when God later tested Avraham, asking him to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice (Ibid. 22:2), it was as if He was saying, “Offer him, but trust Me – nothing will happen to him!” Keep in mind that Avraham had just witnessed the miraculous heavenly destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so had every reason to believe that God could intervene, even miraculously, to save Yitzchak’s life. Lerner concludes that “Given God’s absolute guarantee of Yitzchak’s safety, Avraham’s predicament is of no particular interest for ethics.”
So how was the Akedah a test of Avraham? The test was in the huge difference between theory and practice. In theory, Avraham knew that Yitzchak would survive the Akedah. In practice, however, could he actually go through the motions of slaughtering his son? Even with the intellectual knowledge that God will save Yitzchak, Avraham would still need to overcome his instinctive, powerful love for his son. Lerner compares theAkedah to a trust fall, the exercise in which I am supposed to fall backwards and trust that my friend will catch me.<5> Easier said than done! In theory, I know my friend will definitely catch me. In practice, however, could I actually go through the motions of hurting myself? Even with the intellectual knowledge that my friend will save me, I would still need to overcome my instinctive, powerful desire for self-preservation.
I may think I trust my friend. But it isn’t until I try to fall backwards that I know how deep my trust really is. So too, the Torah tells us that “Avraham put his trust in God” (Ibid. 15:6). He trusted that God would keep His promise and keep Yitzchak alive. But it wasn’t until the Akedah that Avraham knew how deep his trust really was. By going through the motions of sacrificing his son (Ibid. 22:9-10), Avraham proved to himself, to God, and to us that our trust in God can be deep enough for us to overcome our natural instincts. In short, the Akedah teaches us nothing about ethics. It teaches us everything about trust.
We can support Lerner’s thesis from the siddur. Before the recitation ofkorbanot in the morning, it invokes the Akedah and asks God to emulate Avraham. Yet it does not say that Avraham overcame his natural morality, as Kierkegaard suggests. Rather, the siddur tells us that Avraham overcame his natural emotion – mercy for his son. So too, it continues, God should overcome His natural emotion – anger at us – and deal with us beyond the letter of the law. I hope that we can learn from the Akedah to emulate Avraham’s trust, and thus reap the benefits.
- This formulation is from “Round Here,” the first song by Counting Crows on their first album, August and Everything After(1993).
- Prof. Berel Dov Lerner, “Saving the Akedah from the Philosophers,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, July-September 1999, pp. 167-173. InHTML form, it’s on Lerner’s website: http://jewishbible.blogspot.com/2005/10/saving-akedah-from-philosophers.html In PDF form, the entire issue of Jewish Bible Quarterly in which it appeared is on the journal’s website:http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/27/JBQ_27.3.pdf
- See, for example, J.C. Maçek III, “It’s 1602, Do You Know Who Your Parents Are?” http://resurrectionjoe.tripod.com/film.html
- For a much more extensive critique, including the original citations from Kant and Kierkegaard, see Prof. Jon D. Levenson, “Abusing Abraham: Traditions, Religious Histories, and Modern Misinterpretations,” Judaism47:3 (Summer 1998), pp. 259-277. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/_/print/PrintArticle.aspx?id=54599973
- For an overview, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust_fall For other trust-building activities, see http://wilderdom.com/games/TrustActivities.html