Was Abraham a religious fanatic?

BY RABBI DR. EUGENE KORN

Yet who is the fanatic if not the unreasonable person who ignores normal considerations and social constraints to pursue an ideal without constraints? The religious fanatic is not necessarily one ensnared in logical fallacy and irrationality; on the contrary, he appears to be the perfectly consistent religious servant, unwilling to allow any personal interest or ethical constraint to interfere with his understanding of God and the divine command. Because absolute commitment and unconditional obedience seem built into the fabric of the human encounter with God, fanatical extremism is a philosophical difficulty for all theologies and a potential ethical horror for all faith communities.

Of course it was Soren Kierkegaard who famously portrayed this problem of religious life. He argued that when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He trapped the patriarch in a thicket of inescapable contradiction: In Kierkegaard’s understanding of the drama, to be loyal to God, Abraham was forced to become a murderer. He chose to “teleologically suspend the ethical,” and resign himself to God. For his choice of faith over morality, Abraham earned the eternal blessing of becoming a father of a great people (Genesis 22:16). To Kierkegaard and other Christian thinkers, the heroic Abraham was the perfect “knight of faith.” He became a religious role model precisely because he was a fanatic, refusing to allow logic, self-interest or morality to interfere with his obedience to God. In choosing the immoral, the violent, and the absurd, he became the homo religious par excellence.

Is the Bible not clear, then, on the requirements of religious devotion and imperative for faith to supersede morality? Genesis 22 poses a theological-ethical problem not only for Kierkegaard, but also for faithful Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all who accept the Binding of Isaac as sacred Scripture. For Jews in particular, this is a critical issue. Genesis 22 (known as “the Akedah” in Jewish tradition) is a Jewish story that traditional rabbinic theology considered part of the divinely authored and inerrant Torah. Moreover, Jewish tradition has given this drama high prominence, making it an integral part of the daily morning liturgy and instituting that it be read publicly on the solemn holiday of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).

For Jews too, Abraham is praiseworthy for his zeal in fulfilling God’s will. Precisely because Abraham voiced no critical judgment and displayed no hesitation in obeying the unintelligible command to take Isaac’s life, Jews consider him God’s paradigmatic faithful servant. Yet while the text and its exalted place within Jewish tradition contain the potential for a violent ethic and the rejection of moral constraints, normative Jewish tradition rejected Kierkegaard’s reading and its potential for the unethical. Rabbinic tradition refused to use the story as a precedent or basis for any normative conclusions regarding human relations, and Kierkegaard’s interpretation of it as a conflict between divine commandment and moral agency is not reflected in rabbinic teachings. Nevertheless, the essential theological problem and its potential for moral horror remain for all of us.

Rabbinic tradition interpreted the narrative in Genesis 22 differently from Kierkegaard, teaching that the text wants us to understand Abraham’s dilemma as one between piety and possession, not between faith and ethics. The language of the text supports the reading that sees no moral problem, since Genesis 22 contains only prescriptive language and no linguistic allusion whatsoever to a conflict between moral prohibition and religious imperative. This is in marked contrast to Gen 18:17-33, which is saturated with moral terminology (righteousness, justice, innocent, guilty, judge). According to Jewish tradition, Abraham stood at Mt. Moriah as a religious servant, not as Kierkegaard’s homicidal madman. In contrast, Abraham arguing to save Sodom and defending the innocent was a knight of morality.

Perhaps recognizing the potential for what in their eyes was a (Kierkegaardian) misreading of Genesis 22 that would justify violence and murder in God’s name, the rabbis achieved a remarkable inversion of text’s plain meaning. Departing from absolute textual fidelity and systematic coherence, they crafted an interpretive religious statement that is read today by religious Jews immediately after the morning liturgical recitation of the Akedah. As an antidote to the Akedah’s direct implications, this text stresses inculcating compassion as the divine quality worthy of human imitation:

…just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion to do Your will wholeheartedly, so may Your compassion suppress Your anger from us and may Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes. Deal with us, Lord our God, with the attributes of loving-kindness and compassion and in Your great goodness may Your anger be turned away from Your people…

Again, this prayer sees no moral dilemma in Abraham’s experience. Yet the important theological point is that the prayer’s plea for God’s attribute of compassion to prevail over other divine attributes implies that compassion is the ideal behavior for all human beings, all of whom are made in God’s Image.

The rabbis made another exegetical move in Genesis 22 that has momentous significance for our problem. Playing on the original Hebrew verb form “ve-ha’alehu,” (lit. “raise him up”) in v. 2 (“Take you son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and raise him up there as a burnt offering ….”), a number of talmudic, medieval and modern authorities claimed that Abraham misunderstood God’s demand. God’s real command was not to slaughter Isaac, but merely to “raise him up” to the mountain to jointly offer a sacrifice and then return together. This interpretation does detect a tension between faith and morality in the text’s plain meaning, but the exegesis relieves the story of the two theological problems of God commanding an immoral act and of God “changing His mind.”

The above rabbinic interpretation moves away from the text’s straight forward meaning evidently because the rabbis presupposed that God cannot and would not command Abraham to act immorally. The most important implication, however, is that we can never be certain of what God means when hearing His voice. If Abraham could misinterpret God’s message, then uncertainty must be built into the fabric of all God’s ongoing communication with us. While the biblical prophets and rabbis of yore may have heard God clearly and legislated with certainty, in our time when the Shekhinah (God’s imminent presence) is less apparent, we have no right to epistemic certainty about God’s will or divine commands in our particular circumstances. Indeed, as rabbinic tradition insists, the era of prophecy has long since ended and direct divine instruction is not possible today.

The article was excerpted from Eugene Korn’s “Religious Violence, Sacred Texts and Theological Values,” published in Plowshares into Swords?. Eugene Korn serves as the Academic Director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC)in Israel, Comments should be directed to info@cjcuc.com.

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