Akedat Yitzchak ~ exploring the Binding of Isaac ~ session 9/10 ~ Answers to Kierkegaard

From the Jewish viewpoint – and this is one of its highest dignities – the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstances and not for anyone, not even for God. Especially not for God. Are not supreme Reality and supreme Goodness one and co-essential to the Divine nature? If so, every act wherein the Good is put aside is more than a breach of His will; it is in effect a denial of His existence. Wherein the rabbis define sin as constituting not merely rebellion but atheism as well.

What Kierkegaard asserts to be the glory of God is Jewishly regarded as unmitigated sacrilege. Which indeed is the true point of the Akedah, missed so perversely by Kierkegaard. While it was a merit in Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his only son to his God, it was God’s nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute. And it was His purpose, among other things, to establish that truth

(Milton Steinberg)

[1] Steinberg, Milton - Kierkegaard and Judaism, Menorah Journal 37 (Spring 1949): 163-180.

~ What is R. Milton Steinberg z"l's main point?

~ According to him, what is the purpose of the test?

“The substance of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy…makes naked the richness of an individual soul thirsting for salvation, and through this, the existential categories of religious psychology...

“What disturbs me in Kierkegaard may be reduced to two points.

The first point, Kierkegaard rehabilitated subjectivity – the unique, the singular – with incomparable strength… in its desire to avoid losing itself in the universal, rejects all form.

The second point. It is Kierkegaard’s violence that shocks me. … That harshness of Kierkegaard emerges at the exact moment when he “transcends ethics.” … The singularity of the I would be lost, in his view, under a rule valid for all. Generality can neither contain nor express the I’s secret. Now, it is not at all certain that ethics is where he sees it. Ethics as consciousness of a responsibility toward others, far from losing you in generality, singularizes you, poses you as a unique individual, as I. Kierkegaard seems not to have experienced that, since he wants to transcend the ethical stage, which to him is the stage of generality. In his evocation of Abraham, he describes the encounter with God at the point where subjectivity rises to the level of the religious, that is to say, above ethics. But one could think the opposite: Abraham’s attentiveness to the voice that led him back to the ethical order, in forbidding him to perform a human sacrifice, is the highest point of the drama. That he obeyed the first voice is astonishing: that he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience to hear the second voice – that is the essential. Moreover, why does Kierkegaard never speak of the dialogue in which Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah on behalf of the just who may be present there? Here, in Abraham, the precondition of any possible triumph of life over death is formulated. Death is powerless over the finite life that receives a meaning from an infinite responsibility for the other, from a diacony constituting the subjectivity of the subject, which is totally a tension toward the other. It is here, in ethics, that there is an appeal to the uniqueness of the subject, and a bestowal of meaning to life, despite death[1].”

(Emmanuel Levinas)

[1] Levinas, A Propos de “Kierkegaard vivant” in: Proper Names, p. 76-77, 1937

For Levinas, the presence of the other, the face of the other, the encounter with the other - all this gives rise to spontaneous acts of responsibility.

~ What are the problems he raises regarding Kierkegaard's approach?

~ What is the test for?

I recoil from all talk that goes round and round a single topic: that the observance of mitzvot is beneficial for digestion, for sound sleep, for family harmony, and for social position.

The religious act is fundamentally an experience of suffering. When man meets God, God demands self-sacrifice, which expresses itself in struggle with his primitive passions, in breaking his will, in accepting a transcendental "burden," in giving up exaggerated carnal desire, in occasional withdrawal from the sweet and pleasant, in dedication to the strangely bitter, in clash with secular rule, and in his yearning for a paradoxical world that is incomprehensible to others. Offer your sacrifice! This is the fundamental command given to the man of religion. The chosen of the nation, from the moment that they revealed God, occupied themselves in a continual act of sacrifice.

God says to Avraham: "Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, etc." That is to say, I demand of you the greatest sacrifice. I want your son who is your only son, and also the one whom you love. Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me and bring your son up for a burnt-offering, I will give you another son in place of Yitzchak. When Yitzchak will be slaughtered on the altar – you will remain alone and childless. You will not have another child. You will live your life in incomparable solitude. I want your only son who is irreplaceable. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak and remove him from your mind. All your life you will think about him. I am interested in your son whom you love and whom you will love forever. You will spend your nights awake, picking at your emotional wounds. Out of your sleep you will call for Yitzchak, and when you wake up you will find your tent desolate and forsaken. Your life will turn into a long chain of emotional suffering. And nevertheless, I demand this sacrifice.

Clearly the experience, which was rooted in dread and suffering, ended in ceaseless joy. When Avraham removed his son from the altar at the angel's command, his suffering turned into everlasting gladness, his dread into perpetual happiness. The religious act begins with the sacrifice of one's self, and ends with the finding of that self. But man cannot find himself without sacrificing himself prior to the finding[1].

(Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik)

[1] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafa, pp. 254-255

~ What is the purpose of mitzvot, for Soloveitchik?

~ What position does Soloveitchik take, regarding Kierkegaard?

~ For whom is this test?

~ In what should we, as Jews, focus? Do you agree with his approach?

To read Fear and Trembling is, to be sure, not to take lightly what Abraham is asked and commits himself to do. In light of the captivating power of this psychological profile, we are led to ask: what must have happened that Abraham so easily puts down the knife without so much as a question to the angel? If nothing else, inertia alone might have prompted him to execute God’s original command. Thus, we might ask if Kierkegaard has glossed over the real concern: the father of Israel has just been asked by God to kill his own son, for no reason other than to pass a mysterious test.

In other words, the story takes place as such, with the circumstances, as such. But what if the absurdity were not present? What if there was nothing in God’s relationship to Abraham that made it absurd that he would ask for Isaac’s life, but only horrifying? One cannot help but wonder what Kierkegaard’s reading of the story would be if the covenant had not been promised through Isaac. Is the teleological suspension of the ethical only an issue because of the promise of Canaan? What would we think of a God who had no reason to return the son to the father? What would we think of the father who was willing to sacrifice his son under that circumstance? Would faith still be a possibility? If so, what would it be like?[1]

(Claire Elise Katz)

[1] Katz, Claire Elise - The Voice of God and the Face of the Other: Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Abraham - The Journal of Textual Reasoning, vol. 10, 2001 http://jtr.lib.virginia.edu/archive/volume10/Katz.html

~ Find your own answers to the questions raised by Katz.