Akedat Yitzchak ~ exploring the Binding of Isaac ~ session 8/10 ~ Kierkegaard's influence

Let's philosophize a bit!

In this session we explore the solutions proposed by the Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard and elicit reactions from the students. In the next session we will explore other thinkers, mainly Jewish, reactions to his solutions.

Fear and Trembling (original Danish title: Frygt og Bæven) is an influential philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard, published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (John the Silent). The title is a reference to a line from Philippians 2:12, "...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." - itself a probable reference to Psalms 55:5, "Fear and trembling came upon me..." (the Greek is identical).

Main ideas

Kierkegaard wanted to understand the character of Abraham as present during the story of the Binding of Isaac. As Kierkegaard understands it, Abraham had a choice: to complete the task or to forget it. He resigned himself to the three and a half day journey and to the loss of his son.

Kierkegaard presents three problems he sees in the story:

Abraham has gained a prescriptive right to be a great man, so that what he does is great and when another does the same thing it is a sin. (...) The ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac, the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac – but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet, without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is[1].

• Problem 1: How a murderer can be revered as the father of faith? How does Ethics factored in Abraham’s decision?

• Problem 2: Is there an Absolute Duty to God?

• Problem 3: Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham to Conceal His Undertaking from Sarah, from Eliezer, and from Isaac?

Before we move forward

~ Please answer those questions for yourself, and share with the group.

Kierkegaard's method and answers

Kierkegaard says that everyone has a choice in life. Freedom consists in using that choice. We each have the right to speak or not to speak and the right to act or not to act. Kierkegaard's Either/Or is God or the world:

"Temporality, finitude - this is what it is all about. I can resign everything by my own strength and find peace and rest in the pain; I can put up with everything - even if that dreadful demon, more horrifying than the skeletal one who terrifies me, even if madness held its fool’s costume before my eyes and I understood from its face that it was I who should put it on - I can still save my soul as long as my concern that my love of God conquer within me is greater than my concern that I achieve earthly happiness[2]. "

Kierkegaard’s solution: Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

The solution Kierkegaard proposes is called teleological suspension of the ethical. Let’s understand the words first:

Teleology is the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by their postulated (imagined) causes. Meaning – it is how we explain what happens by the purpose those events have, and not by their causes.

So, to understand the name given to Kierkegaard’s solution: the idea of ethics is suspended (not erased) given the purpose(s) of the event, and not due to the causes that created the event.

That leaves Kierkegaard to deal with a few questions:

  1. What is ethics?
  2. What was or were the purpose(s) of the Binding of Isaac?

"Yes, when in mournful moments we want to strengthen and encourage our minds by contemplating those great men, your chosen instruments, who in severe spiritual trials and anxieties of heart kept their minds free, their courage uncrushed, and heaven open, we, too, wish to add our witness to theirs in the assurance that even if our courage compared to theirs is only discouragement, our power powerlessness, You, however, are still the same, the same mighty God who tests spirits in conflict, the same Father without whose will not one sparrow falls to the ground[3]. "

What is the ethical? Kierkegaard begins his discussion by quoting Hegel's book Elements of the Philosophy of Right where, in the chapter on The Good and Conscience he writes:

"It is the right of the subjective will that it should regard as good what it recognizes as authoritative. It is the individual’s right, too, that an act, as outer realization of an end, should be counted right or wrong, good or evil, lawful or unlawful, according to his knowledge of the worth it has when objectively realized. (…) Right of insight into the good is different from right of insight with regard to action as such. The right of objectivity means that the act must be a change in the actual world, be recognized there, and in general be adequate to what has validity there. Whoso will act in this actual world has thereby submitted to its laws, and recognized the right of objectivity. Similarly in the state, which is the objectivity of the conception of reason, legal responsibility does not adapt itself to what any one person holds to be reasonable or unreasonable. It does not adhere to subjective insight into right or wrong, good or evil, or to the claims which an individual makes for the satisfaction of his conviction. In this objective field the right of insight is reckoned as insight into what is legal or illegal, or the actual law. It limits itself to its simplest meaning, namely, knowledge of or acquaintance with what is lawful and binding. Through the publicity of the laws and through general customs the state removes from the right of insight that which is for the subject its formal side. It removes also the element of chance, which at our present standpoint still clings to it.[4]"

Abraham didn't follow this theory. Kierkegaard says Hegel was wrong because he didn't protest against Abraham as the father of faith and call him a murderer[5]. He had suspended the ethical and failed to follow the universal.

Kierkegaard has a different theory about the difference between right and wrong and he stated it in the little discourse at the end of Either/Or[6]. He wrote:

"If a person is sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong, to some degree in the right, to some degree in the wrong, who, then, is the one who makes that decision except the person himself, but in the decision may he not again be to some degree in the right and to some degree in the wrong? Or is he a different person when he judges his act then when he acts? Is doubt to rule, then, continually to discover new difficulties, and is care to accompany the anguished soul and drum past experiences into it? Or would we prefer continually to be in the right in the way irrational creatures are? Then we have only the choice between being nothing in relation to God or having to begin all over again every moment in eternal torment, yet without being able to begin, for if we are able to decide definitely with regard to the previous moment, and so further and further back. Doubt is again set in motion, care again aroused; let us try to calm it by deliberating on:

The Upbuilding That Lies In The Thought That In Relation To God We Are Always In The Wrong. "

[1] Fear and Trembling, p. 30

[2] Fear and Trembling, p. 49

[3] Two Upbuilding Discourses p. 7

[4] Quoted in Fear and Trembling, p. 62-63

[5] Fear and Trembling p. 55

[6] Either/Or was Kierkegaard's first published book; it was released under the pseudonym Victor Eremita, Latin for "the victorious hermit". Published in 1843, Either/Or portrays two life views, one consciously hedonistic, the other based on ethical duty and responsibility.

~ Kierkegaard goes on to explain the "upbuilding". Think about the meaning of that title. Do you personally believe in such upbuilding? Why?

Kiekegaard says, "Hegelian philosophy culminates in the thesis that the outer is the inner and the inner is the outer.” Abraham had to choose between the ethical requirements of his surroundings and what he regarded as his absolute duty to God.

Abraham performs a teleological suspension of the ethical when he decides to kill Isaac. Abraham knows that killing Isaac is unethical. However, Abraham decides to suspend the ethical—in other words, to put ethical concerns on the back burner—because he has faith in the righteousness of the end (or telos) that God will bring about. Abraham’s faith that God will not allow an unethical telos allows him to make what seems to be an unethical decision. Abraham puts religious concerns over ethical concerns, thus proving his faith in God.

So here is the purpose of the Binding of Isaac, as seen by Kierkegaard: the absolute duty to God. What does that mean?

~ How do you think about "duty to God"?

~ How do you understand this "teleological suspension of the ethical"?

~ How does it explain the questions both about God and about Avraham?

Absolute Duty to God

…We have wish and duty face to face with each other. Happy is the life in which they coincide, in which my wish is my duty and the reverse, and for most men the task in life is simply to adhere to their duty and to transform it by their enthusiasm into their wish. The tragic hero gives up his wish in order to fulfill his duty. For the knight of faith, wish and duty are also identical, but he is required to give up both. If he wants to relinquish by giving up his wish, he finds no rest, for it is indeed his duty. If he wants to adhere to the duty and to his wish, he does not become the knight of faith, for the absolute duty specifically demanded that he should give it up. The tragic hero found a higher expression of duty but not an absolute duty[7].

Kierkegaard introduces the idea of the paradox and the leap in Fear and Trembling:

The act of resignation does not require faith, for what I gain is my eternal consciousness. This is a purely philosophical movement that I venture to make when it is demanded and can discipline myself to make, because every time some finitude will take power over me, I starve myself into submission until I make the movement, for my eternal consciousness is my love for God, and for me that is the highest of all. The act of resignation does not require faith, but to get the least little bit more than my eternal consciousness requires faith, for this is the paradox.

Concealing His Undertaking from Sarah, from Eliezer, and from Isaac

The world of Ethics demands disclosure and punishes hiddenness but aesthetics rewards hiddenness, according to Kierkegaard.

Greek tragedy is blind. A son murders his father, but not until later does he learn that it was his father. A sister is going to sacrifice her brother but realizes it at the crucial moment.

In contrast, Abraham has vision:

He said nothing to Sarah, nothing to Eliezer. Who, after all, could understand him, for did not the nature of temptation extract from him a pledge of silence? He split the firewood, he bound Isaac, he lit the fire, he drew the knife.

Abraham hid everything he did. He kept everything from Sarah, Eliezer, and Isaac. But Abraham's 'inability to become open - is terror" to him. He keeps absolute silence about the whole affair. A single individual like Abraham might be "able to transpose the whole content of faith into conceptual form, but, it does not follow that he has comprehended faith, comprehended how he entered into it or how it entered into him." Abraham was experiencing "reflective grief", according to Kierkegaard, but not just grief but joy also because he was beginning a new association with an unknown power. Grief and joy can both keep an individual quiet in inward reflection.

What prevents reflective grief from being artistically portrayed is that it lacks repose; that it never comes into harmony with itself nor rests in any single definitive expression. As a sick man throws himself about in his pain, now on one side and then on the other, so is reflective grief tossed about in the effort to find its object and its expression. Whenever grief finds repose, then will its inner essence gradually work its way out, becoming visible externally, and thus also subject to artistic representation. … the reflective grief moves … like blood retreating from the surface of the body, leaving only a hint of its presence in the sudden paleness. Reflective grief is not accompanied by any characteristic outward change; even at its very inception it hastens inward, and only a watchful observer suspects its vanishing; afterwards it keeps careful guard over its outward appearance, so as to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Retiring thus within, it finds at last an enclosure, an innermost recess, where it hopes it can remain; and now begins its monotonous movement. Back and forth it swings like a pendulum, and cannot come to rest[8].

Kierkegaard says of Abraham:

If the task had been different, if the Lord had commanded Abraham to bring Isaac up to Mount Moriah so that he could have his lightning strike Isaac and take him as a sacrifice in that way, then Abraham plainly would have been justified in speaking as enigmatically as he did, for then he himself could not have known what was going to happen. But given the task as assigned to Abraham, he himself has to act; consequently, he has to know in the crucial moment what he himself will do, and consequently, he has to know that Isaac is going to be sacrificed.[9]"

The task God gave to Abraham was so horrifying that he could tell no one about it because no one would understand him. Ethics forbade it as well as aesthetics[10].

Kierkegaard says:

Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.[11]

Once Abraham became conscious of his eternal validity he arrived at the door of faith and acted according to his faith. In this action he became a knight of faith. In other words, one must give up all his or her earthly possessions in infinite resignation and must also be willing to give up whatever it is that he or she loves more than God.

Abraham became a knight of faith because he was willing to do what God asked of him. Abraham was wrong as far as ethics is concerned but right as far the Absolute is concerned.

Wishing to be in the wrong is an expression of an infinite relationship, and wanting to be in the right, or finding it painful to be in the wrong, is an expression of a finite relationship! Hence, it is upbuilding always to be in the wrong – because only the infinite builds up; the finite does not![12]

What was the most Abraham could do in his relationship with God? Remain faithful to his commitment to God. He accomplished that by actually lifting the knife with the intention of carrying out his mission. In short, he acted. Here the intention was more important than the result. He had faith and had to go no further to please God:

Faith is the highest passion in a person. There perhaps are many in every generation who do not come to faith, but no one goes further. Whether there are also many in our day who do not find it, I do not decide. I dare to refer only to myself, without concealing that he has a long way to go, without therefore wishing to deceive himself of what is great by making a trifle of it, a childhood disease one may wish to get over as soon as possible. But life has tasks enough also for the person who does not come to faith, and if he loves these honestly, his life will not be wasted, even if it is never comparable to the lives of those who perceived and grasped the highest. But the person who has come to faith (whether he is extraordinarily gifted or plain and simple does not matter) does not come to a standstill in faith. Indeed, he would be indignant if anyone said to him, just as the lover resents it if someone said that he came to a standstill in love; for, he would answer, I am by no means standing still. I have my whole life in it. Yet he does not go further, does not go on to something else, for when he finds this, then he has another explanation[13].

Summing it all up

Kierkegaard believes ethics are important to society but that only an individual can approach God, and an individual can only approach God through faith. Kierkegaard argues that Abraham’s faith in God was a faith that God wouldn’t really make Abraham kill Isaac. If Abraham had not had enough faith, he would have refused to kill his son. Abraham’s faith allowed a teleological suspension of the ethical.

Kierkegaard uses this story to illustrate strong faith. Abraham’s faith was tested by God, and Abraham passed the test. In this way Kierkegaard attempts to draw a distinction between the blind obedience required by the church and the true faith of the individual. Kierkegaard would argue that if Abraham had only been willing to kill Isaac because God ordered him to do so, this would have demonstrated obedience, not faith. Instead, the Abraham of Kierkegaard’s retelling is willing to kill Isaac because of his faith that God won’t actually make him kill Isaac. This sounds like a paradox, or an inherently contradictory situation. However, the seeming paradox highlights the distinction between faith and belief. Abraham has faith that God won’t make him kill Isaac, but that doesn’t mean he believes it. To believe something is to be assured of it; to have faith requires the possibility that you will be proven wrong. If Abraham genuinely believed that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, the sacrifice would be no kind of test. However, Abraham cannot be fully assured that his son will be spared. He must have faith that Isaac will not die, even though he believes that he must kill him.

Kierkegaard illustrates one of the essential paradoxes, or seeming impossibilities, of ethics. An ethical system consists of rules that are established to promote the welfare of large groups of people. However, sometimes the rules actually harm people, and following a rule may help one person but harm ten.

Ethical systems are created to achieve certain ends, but humans lack the ability to see into the future. Therefore, no one can be completely certain of how to reach these desired ends. Faith in God answers this uncertainty because it removes the burden of prediction. Faith involves the teleological suspension of the ethical, in which faith allows one to believe that an unethical action will actually result in a better end. Humans alone have no access to this kind of information, only God does. Therefore, humans must put their trust in God whenever doing so conflicts with society’s ethical systems. The decision to do this produces anxiety because a person can never know if he or she has passed the test until the test is complete. Kierkegaard thinks anxiety is a negative feeling, yet it can be taken as a positive sign that one is pursuing the correct relationship with God.

[7] Fear and Trembling Note p. 78

[8] Either/Or Part I, p. 168

[9] Fear and Trembling, p. 119

[10] Fear and Trembling p. 76–77 and 117–119

[11] Fear and Trembling, p. 46

[12] Either/Or part I p. 37-38

[13] Fear and Trembling, p. 122-123

~ How do you like the solutions proposed by Kierkegaard?

~ Do you think this can be a Jewish solution?

~ What other problems in Avraham's actions did Kierkegaard point out that you hadn't seen before, if any?