This is the first of a series of classes that explore the ethical and moral questions around Akedat Yitzchak - the Binding of Isaac. The Akedah, as it is commonly known, is a pivotal moment for Avraham. We will explore what questions are raised by the Jewish tradition, how Jews have understood and used the Akedah in history, and how philosophers, Jewish and not, have dealt with the story. Finally, we will explore modern commentaries.
The first session is a slow reading of the text. This translation is supposed to reflect the difficulties of the Hebrew text, and therefore is not a fluent reading. The facilitator should point out the irritants in the text, but offer no answers to any. Some of those are in bold, but feel free to find your own.
Please have your students raise and present their own questions, and discuss the questions proposed below. Since this is an exploratory session, the idea is not to present straight answers.
Here are a few questions brought by the story. Add a few of your own:
What kind of test is this?
Who is being tested?
Why is there a test?
How old is Isaac?
Where is Sarah?
Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?
Why did Abraham argue with God at Sodom but not argue when told to sacrifice his son?
How must Abraham have felt during the journey?
What does it mean to you to say, “Hineini, Here I am”?
How do you reconcile morally challenging religious texts with continued reverence for tradition and Torah?
What are the consequences of Avraham's actions?
God and morality
Even though the Torah was not given yet, there is a presumption of basic morality in Bereshit.
One of the big questions is: what kind of God can ask a person to do this?
The sacrifice of a child - any child, of any age, really of any innocent person is immoral.
No fewer than sixteen other passages in the Bible (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1–8; Deuteronomy 12:31;18:10; 2 Kings 13:27; 16:3; 17:17, 17:31; 21:6; 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; Ezekiel 20:31; Micah 6:7; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6) child sacrifice is condemned as an abomination before God.
Another question is that God had performed the miracle of giving Yitzchak to Avraham and Sarah when they were old and had promised Abraham that, through Yitzchak, Sarah would be a mother of nations and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and the sand (Genesis 17:15–19; 18:10–15; 21:1–12 and 22:17).
Avraham and us -
He is Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham – we follow in his footsteps. He invented Judaism with his personality. While Har Sinai gave us the content, Avraham Avinu gave the personality of what it means to be a Jew. Other tzadikim exist in Torah, but Avraham is distinguished by knowing what to do and choosing himself before God tells him. It is through Avraham's actions that we figure out important aspects of our internal life.
How could Avraham have been so sure that God had actually commanded him to kill his innocent child? Even if he was convinced that God had so commanded, was it his duty to obey? Is obedience to God’s will so supreme an obligation that it should override a person’s moral sense? Should any person worship a being who wishes to be served by an act of murder?
It is also important to raise the idea that a tzadik sees the consequences of his/her actions. How could Avraham not see that this would kill Sarah?
Yitzchak and us -
How does Yitzchak figure in the narrative?
If he is not a child, why and how does he accept what is happening?
What are the many silences in the narrative?