Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook on the Self Sacrifice of Abraham

Two types of Jewish heroism.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The Palestinian hatred and terror has again brought forth countless-small and big- heroic deeds among the Jews of the Land of Israel. We have witnessed two types of personal courage.

One type of heroism is the mother who overcame a day of inner debate of doubt and anxiety and decides, in an act of faith and commitment, to take  her family to visit  the  Old City's Jewish Quarter and pray at the Kotel,or to visit her family in Judea and Samaria, amidst a period of Arab terror.

The other type of heroism is the unarmed civilian who risks his life and rushes to save a victim of terror, motivated by an instinctive, inner identification with the Jewish People.

These two types of heroism, or better termed, two types of self sacrifice, have their origin in the way that Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook define the self sacrifice of Abraham at the Akeidah of Issac.  Rav Soloveitchik describes Abraham's self sacrifice as one of transforming a traumatic, internal psychological debate into a heroic act of faith and commitment to G-d.  In contrast, Rav Kooks describes Abraham's self sacrifice as a transformation of his inner selfhood into a glorious, all-consuming spiritual embodiment of G-d's redemptive, historic love of the Jewish People and Creation.

This article describes their differing understandings of Abraham's self sacrifice/heroism. It suggests that these two types of heroic self sacrifice are probably present, at the same time, in every Jew who today struggles to build a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

Rav Soloveitchik's understanding of the self sacrifice of Abraham

G-d's command to Abraham to kill his beloved son confronted Abraham with a incomprehensible disparity between G-d' previous promises and teachings, and an act of murder which betrayed the whole content of Abraham's previous life. In other words, G-d's command meant that Abraham had to 'return to G-d' all of what he had learnt about G-d's ethical teaching, and all of Abraham's personal accomplishments in spreading G-d's message. G-d thus demanded that a life of G-d directed, self fulfillment would be completely nullified in a single, tragic moment, if that is G-d's will. This sacrificing of a lifetime of personal accomplishment is the subject of G-d's opening address to Abraham to slay Issac, and the subject of the traumatic, internal debate incited by the inner 'satanic voice' that assaulted Abraham during the three day journey from Beer Sheva to Mt. Moriah. The Rav describes this inner, psychological struggle in the following two passages.  He writes:

"G-d told Abraham: I claim from you the greatest possible sacrifice. I want your only son whom you love. Do not delude yourself into thinking that after you listen to my voice and raise him upon the altar, I will give you another son in place of Issac….You will remain utterly alone. Your existence will be enveloped in an incomparable solitude….Do not harbor the illusion that you will be able to distract yourself….you will think about him incessantly. I am interested in your son …whom you will love forever. Through restless nights you will scratch you spiritual wounds….your tent will be desolate and bereft. Your life will be transformed into an endless cycle of emotional pain. Still I claim this sacrifice."        

And the Rav writes:" Man must not always be the victor. From time to time, triumph should turn into defeat as man experiences the act of self-sacrifice. Because Issac meant so much to Abraham, God instructed him to withdraw, defeat himself by giving Issac away….Abraham found victory in defeat..Man cannot discover himself without sacrifice."

Rav Kook's understanding of the self sacrifice of Abraham

Rav Kook presents us with a starkly different picture of Abraham's self sacrifice and self transformation. According to Rav Kook, G-d's command to sacrifice his son ignited a tremendous spiritual transformation within Abraham. Abraham did not enter into a conflicted inner debate and turmoil. Rather he understood the incomprehensible commandment as a reason to demonstrate to the world an unlimited love of G-d, and an unbounded desire to do His will. During the three day journey, Abraham attained spiritual heights never before attained by any of G-d's creatures.

Abraham ‘used’ G-d's command to do the seemingly immoral act of sacrificing a son as a means of demonstrating how a servant of G-d can spiritually transform himself into becoming, 'as-if', one with G-d' will. Such an act brings great spiritual light (teaching) to the world. Such an act actualizes and embodies an historic, redemptive bond between both G-d and the Children of Israel (Abraham's descendents), and the whole of creation. In brief, according to Rav Kook, at the Akeidah, Abraham 'sacrificed/transformed' his personal, rational selfhood into being a means of increasing the manifestation of G-d's presence in this world.

Lessons for Today

We who want to build a Jewish State in the Land of Israel frequently are called upon to respond to crisis. We are engaged in frequent crises because we are still in a 'revolutionary' stage of building our homeland and state, and hastening the redemption. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook describe ways of heroically coping with crisis. Sometimes, like Rav Soloveitchik's Abraham, we cognitively and emotionally debate- within ourselves and with others-the anxieties, demands, and dilemmas of the crisis, and then we make a heroic leap of faith and commitment, and engage the crisis with all of our powers.

Or, like Rav Kook's Abraham, we respond to the crisis by instinctively and 'explosively' identifying and feeling one with our People of Israel (Clal Yisrael), our G-d, and our Torah. We then heroically rush into action, like an attacking soldier in an elite fighting unit. As the adage says, for true believers there are no questions, only a plethora of answers. Total identification with our People and our G-d brings us to spiritual heights we could not achieve simply relying on our own sense of selfhood.

In my own life, I understand and identify with Rav Solveitchik's description of Abraham's self-sacrifice/transformation. I was only able to make the leap of faith and become an observant Jew through a very incremental, lonely six year internal debate of 'trial and error' doing of mitzvoth.

In contrast ,most of my children and sons/daughters in law more spontaneously and dramatically throw themselves in spiritual self transformation.

I did my spiritual searching in America. They did their spiritual 'leaping to heights' in Israel, growing up in embattled Judea and Samaria. G-d seems happy to accept both types of self transformation and self sacrifice. 

Both types of Jewish heroism are necessary.