The Maimonidean Akedah
A person should not say that if God commanded me to sacrifice my son I would do as Avraham did. – Yitzhak Arama, Akeidat Yitzchak, “Vayera” 21
There is little doubt that the episode called the Akedah, a compact and compelling narrative that appears at the end of Parashat Vayera, is in the list of the top 5 most discussed portions of the entire biblical canon and holds a prominent place in the liturgy, especially in the prayers recited around the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). The Akedah represents a challenge to theologians and philosophers of all faiths who struggle to find the meaning and truth conveyed by this riveting but problematic story.
The question that has troubled readers for centuries is how a beneficent and just God could have demanded that Avraham perform a deed that violates all of the ethical imperatives that had guided his life, a life of “charity and justice”? As Yosef ibn Caspi, a 14th century scholar who lived in Provence, asked, “How could God ask Avraham to perform such a deplorable act?”
There are those who interpret the verse (Jer 19:5) thusly: “Which I never commanded” – this refers to Yiftach [who sacrificed his daughter]. “Never decreed” – this refers to Mesha king of Moab [who sacrificed his son]. “And which never came to My mind” – that Avraham should sacrifice his son upon an altar. – Devarim Rabbah (Parashat Shoftim, 148)
Kierkegaard’s “Nobel Challenge”
The most well-known interpretation to Western readers is Søren Kierkegaard’s characterization of Avraham (in his Fear and Trembling) as a “knight of faith.” For Kierkegaard, Abraham’s behavior represents the zenith of human faith. Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command and sacrifice Yitzhak with full confidence that everything would still work out well, demonstrates a level of belief that is unique and admirable. Kierkegaard label’s Abraham’s belief the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”
All this explains Avraham’s behavior, but what about God’s? According to Kierkegaard, God’s demand that Avraham slaughter his beloved son is legitimate; otherwise, God could not have demanded it. This is a difficult position to understand, let alone accept.
God Never Really Wanted Avraham to Sacrifice his Son
This is a bold statement about God and ethics, but how is one to read that into the text?
The challenge was taken up by Martin Buber, whose ethical outlook is predicated on dialogue with and a mutual recognition of the dignity of the other. For Buber, it is inconceivable that God could have issued such a demand. Cleaving to God alone and abandoning individual connectedness to people and the world is contrary to a Buberian conception of God’s benevolent will. Thus, Buber believes that the challenge of the Akedah for Avraham as a moral creature was to overcome the inclination to follow God’s command and recognize that true fear and love of God could never entail the sacrifice of his son.
Buber’s thinking has precedent in Chassidic thought. Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, a contemporary of the Maggid of Mezeritch, asserted that Avraham knew that Yitzhak would survive and realized from the outset that God did not want him to kill his son. The challenge to Avraham was to act as if he would, on the assumption that it was not an authentic request by God.
Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Leiner of Izbica (1801-1854) wrote in his work, Mei Hashiloach, that Avraham’s challenge was to clarify what the word of God really was. Unlike Kierkegaard, he does not imagine God forcing Avraham to confront the dilemma of reconciling a religious versus an ethical imperative. Instead, Avraham was confronted with the urgent need to decipher the meaning of God’s words. Avraham knew that murder was forbidden, especially to kill his favored son. But at the same time, Avraham recognized that he had to obey a divine command even though God’s words, ambiguous though they might initially be, seemed to mandate a violation of his ethical code.
According to R. Leiner, the trial of the Akedah was to discern the true meaning of God’s word and gain an appreciation of God’s rules of moral conduct. Avraham achieved this as an independent autonomous individual when he ultimately realized that God did not demand the sacrifice of Yitzhak and knew that he could not ignore the ethical norm NOT to kill his son.
Maimonides' View of Prophecy
Prophecy is… an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain.– Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed II:48
The above interpretations all work to defend God in some way or another, since they read the text as the story of God’s command to Avraham and Avraham’s reaction. Although this is most probably the peshat of the story, I would like to offer an alternative reading. What if we read the story as not as a dialogue between God and Avraham, but as an inner monologue. I suggest we read the Akedah as the story of a man trying to follow God’s will and struggling to understand what it is God wants from him. Admittedly, Avraham hears God’s voice in the story, but that does not mean God directly communicated with Avraham. To clarify this point, it is worth looking at Maimonides and his view of prophecy.
Maimonides and the Nature of Prophecy
Although the Torah seems to describe prophecy as an almost physical communication, with God speaking and the prophet listening, Maimonides offers a radically different model. For Maimonides, people and God are on opposite sides of a divide and no amount of human effort or divine involvement can bridge that gap. Any biblical passage that does, in fact, describe God in physical terms must be read as an anthropomorphizing allegory. Thus, God cannot speak to a person.
Maimonides defines the highest form of prophecy attainable by anyone other than Moses as occurring when the prophet “sees an angel that speaks to him in the vision.” Yet he goes on emphatically to state that the word “angel” simply means a medium, and the medium in this case is “the imaginative faculty that hears God speaking in a prophetic dream.” God does not actually speak; much less send an inferior divine being to do so on His behalf. Rather, the true prophet’s highly developed intellect is capable of correctly imagining divine speech, and only in dreams.
In other words, for Maimonides, a person’s intellect may become powerful enough to gain an appreciation of God’s will. God’s will is constantly being broadcast into the world, and certain people can tune into the channel, so to speak, if their intellects are sufficiently sharpened to do so. But there is no avoiding the fact that, in this model, it is the human reaching out to understand God and stretching his or her mind to capacity to do so. Thus, a person who believes that he or she has tapped into God’s will or message must always keep in mind that they might be interpreting it incorrectly. This point becomes particularly important when faced with the phenomenon—ancient and modern—of people who hear God’s voice.
Hearing God’s Voice: Tanya Luhrmann and the Vineyard Evangelical Church
[T]he absence of definitely sensible images is positively insisted on by the mystical authorities in all religions as the sine qua non of a successful orison or contemplation of the higher divine truths. – William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
In a truly remarkable book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God, (Knopf, 2012) Tanya M. Luhrman, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford, offers a study of this type of religious experience. The question that prompted her studies was the following dilemma: How do people make something that is invisible to the senses, something that modern scientific men and women are poised to dismiss, a real element in their lives?
Luhrmann spent two years living among members of a Vineyard Evangelical church in Chicago. As a group, the Evangelicals accept the literal word of God, believe in a personal, non-transcendent God, and accept an obligation to spread the good word or gospel. The Evangelicals that Luhrmann met and describes in her book were not fire breathing fundamentalists who argued with her about evolution or the age of the world. Instead, they tried to persuade her to develop a personal relationship with God, a being that was her friend and with whom she could communicate openly and freely. They believed that God was always available to converse about the full gamut of human concerns from “What is the meaning of life?” to “What shirt and tie should I wear to tomorrow’s interview?” The Evangelicals use prayer groups and text study to promote awareness of God and to foster the ability to communicate with God.
Luhrmann approached the Evangelicals with an open mind and an absence of cynicism. Although she was not a part of their communal experience, she examined their worship and interactions as a trained scientist encountering an unsolved problem. She began with the assumption that for a person to be able to hear God’s voice or to experience God’s presence meant that in regard to God, the person had to deny that his/her inner thoughts were private and believe that they were accessible to an outsider. Moreover, the person had to believe that his/her thoughts were coexistent with the world. Communication with God requires an adult to recapture these thought processes that developmentally characterize childhood.
From her work, Luhrmann concludes that some people really do develop the ability to hear God—or what they think is God—and that the brain can be trained to acquire this capacity. But the ability to hear something and the ability to understand or interpret it are two different things, which brings us back to the story of the Akedah and my “monological” interpretation of it.
The Akedah as Avraham’s Inner Struggle
When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. – Genesis 22:13, NJPS
In the story of the Akedah, Avraham has an intellectual or emotional experience (a.k.a. a prophecy) that makes him believe that God wants him to sacrifice his beloved son. Although such a notion seems impossible to the modern reader, the idea would not have been foreign in ancient times. Throughout his three day journey, Avraham believes that this really is what God wants from him. And yet, with Isaac on the altar and knife in hand, Avraham begins to doubt that he understood God correctly. Can this really be what God wants? Avraham puts the knife down when he has another experience, described in the story as the voice of an angel of the Lord. But the angel is really the voice of Avraham’s conscious rebelling against the command Avraham believes he understood.
Did he misunderstand? What is it that God wants from him? This is when Avraham sees the ram and reaches the conclusion that God really wants him to sacrifice a ram and not his son. His moral sense as a rational human being leads him to this conclusion.
Avraham can never be sure that he has interpreted God’s intentions correctly, or that he really knows the meaning of his prophetic experiences; in the end, prophecy is as much about him as it is about God.
When understood as a narrative reflection of Avraham’s inner struggle, the message of the Akedah becomes that—even for those who believe that they can hear God’s voice—we can never claim to understand God’s words in the same way that we understand each other. We cannot rely on our supposed comprehension of God’s commands as a sole guide to our moral behavior. We need our moral intuitions at all times to help guide us in our attempt to do good and walk in God’s path.
Implications –The Search for Answers
People relate to God in different ways. Some think of God as a wholly other abstract being that cannot be described let along comprehended. This is the approach of Maimonides. Others relate to God as a powerful friend or parental figure. This is the approach of the Evangelicals group in Luhrmann’s study. They worship a personal God who is always by their side and they are always paying attention. They are certain that if they work hard enough they can become receptive vehicles and be capable of hearing God’s answers, clearly and on point.
Nevertheless, from a Maimonidean perspective, we can never aspire to be comprehending participants in a dialogue with God, and no physical instrument or moral sensitivity training will make God’s speech, as it were, understandable. Although it is legitimate to pray to God with this mindset, and even to hope for an answer, this approach carries with it a certain danger. It is one thing to believe that God has responded to your request or query, it is another to believe that you fully understand this response. According to this Maimonidean reading, this is Avraham’s message to us, his children, in the Akedah.
Venerable Father Abraham! In marching home from Mount Moriah thou hadst no need of a panegyric which might console thee for thy loss; for thou didst gain all and didst retain Isaac. – Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling
Avraham began his journey with the belief that he understood what God wanted. This belief could have led him down a very dangerous path and ended with the death of his beloved son and the end of the Jewish people before we ever got started. Avraham’s moral impulse stopped him from taking this path. Another voice broke through into Avraham’s consciousness telling him to stop, that there is another way, that God meant something else. We, the proverbial children of Avraham, can take heart in the knowledge that God has given us the capacity to find meaning in our lives, and feel encouraged by Avraham’s successful struggle to balance his devotion to God with his moral intuition.
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November 7, 2014
March 20, 2020
Dr. Chaim Trachtman is chief of pediatric nephrology at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is on the board of Yeshivat Maharat and is editor of Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives (KTAV, 2010).
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