The ethical framework of the Akeida

The binding of Isaac is our greatest Biblical challenge.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

Judaism Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

God’s commandment to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God (Genesis 22:2) usually known as the Akeida (the binding of Isaac) was the greatest challenge which Abraham endured.  It has also become our greatest Biblical challenge.  How can we explain, or at the very least understand, this command by a just and merciful God and Abraham’s complete obedience to that command?

Rashi indeed indicates that God phrased the command in a way which obscured the meaning without immediately specifying Isaac in order not to cause Abraham to lose his mind.  See Ibid Rashi.  Once Abraham became convinced that it was God who was commanding him, he responded without hesitation.  He woke up early in the morning, loaded his own donkey, and took his son Isaac on this dreaded mission.

There are several inherent logical difficulties which challenge us. If Abraham obeyed God’s command, would not God be violating his own promise to Abraham that assured him that he would become a great nation only through Isaac?  In addition, Abraham argued with God in what appeared to be other injustices such as when he wondered how God could kill both evil and good people when destroying the cities of the plain (Sodom).  

Finally, in this scenario, Isaac was a totally innocent person.  How could God order the killing of a totally innocent person?  This is especially problematic when considering that later in the Torah God expressed outrage at those who worshipped Molech by killing and burning their children to their god?

What we have to understand is what was the ethical framework in which Abraham operated which allowed him to disregard of all these questions and without hesitation obey God’s will.   

In Western civilization, one can identify three principles in defining or inculcating what we call moral or ethical behavior.  The three can be identified as follows: 1. Aristotelian – the Nicomachean Ethics; 2. Kantian – Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals; 3. Hebraic – the Torah.

Aristotelian – According to Aristotle, moral behavior is determined by how one responds to a myriad of conditions and situations.  He maintained that the proper or moral response to all situations should be what he called “behavior according to the mean” or the middle way.  The mean is defined as the state between two extremes.  One extreme is overreaction and the other is under-reaction.  Ultimately, the goal of Aristotle is human happiness, and ethical behavior expresses an important element of human happiness.   

Kantian –  To Emmanual Kant, the ultimate goal is not for happiness, but rather for man to act in a rational manner.  Kant maintained that an ethical system cannot be based upon instinct, nature, passion or emotion.  Behavior based upon those principles he calls psychology and not ethics.  For example, charity offered to a poor humble person, is not an ethical act, but is done as a result of emotion – feeling sorry for the individual.   Above all else, ethics are based upon reason and a sense of duty.  Feelings and personal desires do not enter this equation.

Reason is informed by what Kant called the Categorical Imperative.  These are principles upon which all rational human beings will agree are true and which must be acted upon as a result of duty (not emotion).  Duty is the sense of obligation which one accepts which functions in accordance with that imperative.  As a universal principal, the imperative does not allow for any deviation.  For example, telling the truth is a universal moral imperative and thus lying is evil under all circumstances, even when human life is at stake.  

Hebraic – The Torah offered a totally different response to the issue of the definition of morality.  In Judaism, human behavior is not rooted in human reason or nature, but rather the command of God.  The Jew must view himself as being commanded by an external force, God.  God becomes the source of all truth and all morality.  The ultimate role of man (the Jew) is to obey God’s commandments in order to sanctify the name of God which is known as Kiddush Hashem. See Mishneh Toda, Yesodai HaTorah 5:1.

This is radically different from the Aristotelian and Kantian positions, because even though they are polar opposites they share one crucial element: both operate as a function within the human mind and human nature. Judaism, however, deferred all moral judgments to God as the true source of all morality.  This was best expressed in the Talmudic dictum: “One who is commanded (by God) to fulfill a commandment and does so, is greater than one who is not commanded and does so voluntarily.”  Kiddushin 31a. 

Tosafot explains the reasoning behind this dictum.  One who is commanded to fulfill a commandment undergoes greater anxiety than one who fulfills a commandment voluntarily.  This anxiety exists because his obligation requires him not to make any mistake in his undertaking.  This is not the case in voluntary activities for one is always free to simply stop the activity. Ibid. “Gadol.”  In addition, one who relies upon God to establish his moral foundation through the act of commandment may be subject to doubts, reservations or uncertainties about the act he’s about to do.  But he puts those aside in order to fulfill the Commandments established by God as revealed by the Torah.

There are certain key advantages to the Torah system.  First, unlike the Aristotelian system and the Kantian system, they are not totally based upon human reason or nature which may lead to dangerous unintended consequences.  For example, in the Kantian system what is dangerous about the Categorical Imperative is that it allows for the sacrifice of innumerable innocent human lives rather than the violation of that imperative.  Is one required to tell the truth to Nazi killers which will cost the lives of countless Jews?  Kant would say yes, because he separates the consequence from the act.

Second, by responding to God’s command, man becomes a partner with God in the guidance of God’s universe.  If we accept that God created the universe, and that God by definition is good, then his commandments must also be, by definition, good. 

In order to give meaning to man’s acceptance of God’s commandments, man must be given free will.  The commandments and their fulfillment become the point of intersection between man and God.  It thus becomes an honor to man to accept the obligation placed upon him by God to complete the nature of creation.  Such moral behavior enables man to possess an aspect of the Divine spirit and elevates him above the angels who are denied free will and thus that special relationship with God.  

In accepting the command of the Akeida, Abraham understood that he truly recognized that the command was given by the true God.  That recognition required the acceptance of the principle of Kiddush Hashem (Sanctifying the name of God).  Once God commanded the Akeida, it became a moral command specifically because God commanded it.  Abraham did not ask, does this command conform to the mean or is this a command with which all rational people would agree.  Abraham’s only analysis was whether it was a command of God. 

On its surface, this appears to be similar to Soren Kierkegaard’s concept of the “leap of faith” (i.e. putting aside one’s personal doubts and just trusting in God).  However, it should be noted that the principle of Kiddush Hashem had already been established in Jewish tradition for several millennia prior to Kierkegaard. 

Kiddush Hashem mandates relinquishing even that which is most precious to someone.  It may require the sacrifice of a child or one’s assumed understanding.  Indeed, many people would rather give up their own lives than that of their children.  In this major test, Abraham was the first individual that demonstrated the principle of Kiddush Hashem, i.e. sacrificing all for God. That would be the primary legacy given to Abraham’s descendants.