Off the Shelf: Morality versus Divine command by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Thou shalt not murder” is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet, twice a year – during Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Vayera – Jews read the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which could also be called “the attempted murder of Isaac.” God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. Is obeying this command immoral or the ultimate sign of faith? Aaron Koller explores this question in his fascinating and complex “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” (The Jewish Publication Society). 

Koller notes the dilemma underlying the story: “The core claim, put as concisely as possible, is that the biblical God would like to want child sacrifice – because it is in fact a remarkable display of devotion – but more does not want child sacrifice, because it would violate the autonomy of the children.” According to Koller, many people think of the trial as one between God and Abraham. Yet, they forget there is a third person present – the one for whom this is a life and death matter – and that person is Isaac. Koller uses the story to discuss individual faith and whether faith should ever triumph over a person’s moral compass.

Koller offers Jewish interpretations of the Akedah from the ancient rabbis to poetry written in contemporary times. He includes both those who see the story as a true test and those who condemn God for making the request. Some believe Abraham is a shining example of faith. Others rebel against the story, claiming that Abraham failed the test by not arguing with God. The author then explores the interpretation of Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher. Although not Jewish, Kierkegaard’s writings have influenced commentators of all faiths. In his writing, he calls Abraham a knight of faith – someone willing to sacrifice his son even though he loves him: “The love [Abraham] had for his son is part and parcel of the sacrifice. Without that love, Abraham becomes cold, a killer in the name of God. With that love of Isaac burning hot, he is Our Father, the knight of faith and the bearer of the ultimate sacrifice.” Koller sees this as a very Christian interpretation in that Abraham steps outside morality, the rules and laws that govern Judaism. Even so, many Jewish philosophers have adsorbed Kierkegaard’s ideas, even if they don’t always directly address it in their work. 

Two major Jewish thinkers who were influenced by Kierkegaard are Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Koller notes that they both put a Jewish spin on Kierkegaard’s ideas. Leibowitz sees the Akedah as the story of a conflict between religion and ethics. He believes that “true devotion to God takes no heed of human considerations, even moral judgements.” Koller has a problem with this interpretation because it separates religion and morality, and makes the Akedah the center of all Jewish action. Soloveitchik believes no one can be certain redemption will follow any human action. He connects the Akedah to prayer and suggests that praying three time a day reflects Abraham’s actions. His act of prayer is the act of someone alone, though, someone who can only connect to God when alone. Keller sees this interpretation as incorrect because it doesn’t take into consideration that a third individual is affected by this action: the philosopher concentrates on Abraham and God, while ignoring the bodily harm that Isaac faced.

Koller also addresses what he sees as the major flaws in Kierkegaard’s thought. One problem is that the role of Isaac in the story – or as Koller sees it “the erasure of Isaac from the narrative” – is not addressed by the philosopher. Kierkegaard’s ideas can lead to what Koller calls “radical subjectivity,” something that allows each person to decide their own morality. But Koller thinks that will lead to chaos. As the author notes, “Ethics, divorced from religion, is now free to go in dangerous and indeed horrifying directions.” He also believes that religion – at least Judaism – is not a solitary activity; it is a covenantal one and its rules help people understand how to behave in a moral manner. In addition, Koller doesn’t think that God and ethics can be separated: “The ethical cannot be purposely suspended because God aspires to the ethical.” That is what makes the story so difficult to interpret, but the author believes that any Jewish interpretation needs to take at this idea seriously. In the end, he suggests a Jewish ethical teaching based on the Akedah: “As much as it is enticing to do so, one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another.” 

It’s impossible to do justice to “Unbinding Isaac” in a short review because this challenging work is so rich with differing interpretations. That means that even those who are familiar with the commentary on the story may still find a great deal to ponder. Anyone looking to seriously grapple with one of the most difficult stories in the Bible should read “Unbinding Isaac.” It offers an amazing amount of food for thought.