There’s No Need to Sacrifice Sacrifice: A Response to Rabbi Herzl Hefter
Rabbi Herzl Hefter has made remarkable contributions to Jewish education and Jewish thought. It is therefore with trepidation that I respond to his post, “Surrender or Struggle: The Akeidah Reconsidered.” Still, given the high exegetical and theological stakes, I feel compelled to write.
The Problem of Choice
Rabbi Hefter opens by summarizing and critiquing an interpretation of the Akeidah that he calls “The Problem of Choice.” On this reading, the fundamental question is whether or not Abraham will obey God’s theologically disorienting and emotionally wrenching command. Abraham passes the test by listening despite the apparent absurdity. Rabbi Hefter ascribes this view to Soren Kierkegaard, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Rabbi Soloveitchik.
The invocation of these three thinkers, however, biases the discussion from the outset. The Problem of Choice interpretation is not just the favored interpretation of three (outstanding) thinkers; it is the overwhelmingly obvious interpretation of the Akeidah. Abraham’s affirmation “hineni, here I am,” connotes humility and piety, implying a readiness to perform the divine will (Tanhuma Vayera 22; cf. Rashi on Genesis 22:1 s.v. hineni). God’s emphasis on Abraham’s love for Isaac underscores the emotional devastation the father inevitably will suffer. At the story’s climax the angel declares, “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me” (Genesis 22:12). The emphasis on fear of heaven, even setting aside the rabbinic assertion that Elokim denotes divine justice, favors The Problem of Choice. To ascribe this reading to Kierkegaard, Leibowitz, and Soloveitchik papers over the fact that The Problem of Choice is nothing more than peshuto shel mikra (the face reading of the text). The author of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, for one, certainly agreed: “And [Abraham] suppressed his compassion to perform Your Will with a complete heart.”
What is more, Rabbi Hefter’s selection of the each of these thinkers may be construed as representing a non-normative view, implicitly marginalizing The Problem of Choice. As Rabbi Hefter notes, Kierkegaard’s theory of “the teleological suspension of the ethical” is inextricably bound up with his fideism, a philosophical standpoint that is anathema to the majority of traditional Jewish thinkers. The same may be said of Leibowitz, an important but extreme thinker for whom the introduction of an autonomous moral compass is synonymous with idolatry. Finally, in the case of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Hefter sidelines the Rav’s interpretation by historicizing it as a response to the members of the 1970s “me generation.” To select these unrepresentative philosophies is to unfairly stack the deck before the cards have been dealt.
Rabbi Hefter’s critique of The Problem of Choice similarly falls short. While acknowledging that this interpretation “emphasizes and safeguards God’s radical Otherness” and can both reflect and engender profound humility, Rabbi Hefter rejects this reading on the strength of three arguments. First, the Torah explicitly asserts that the nations view God’s laws as steeped in wisdom (Deuteronomy 6:8). This is contrary to the Tertullian credo, “I believe because it is absurd,” which Rabbi Hefter notes has “unfortunately gained traction in recent years.” It is impossible to reconcile a rational, humane Torah with the Fideistic faith system demanded by a Kierkegaardian Akeidah.
Second, because this interpretation “divorces religion from the most refined human sentiments,” it leaves people vulnerable to rabbis “less worthy than the Rav.” The well-meaning Jew is at risk of outsourcing his ethical autonomy to unworthy guides.
Finally, Rabbi Hefter forcefully asserts:
the authoritarian reading of the Akeidah has subtly led to intolerance, self-righteousness, and arrogance… This orientation has resulted in a dulling and distrust of moral sensitivities in favor of what is deemed to be God’s revealed will and identified with “The Halakhah,” “The Torah,” or “The Gedolim.” Often, when moral considerations are raised in halakhic discussions, they are labelled and dismissed as Christian, secular humanist, western, or just plain “goyish” influence. “Authentic Judaism,” the argument goes, “has the Torah, and we know what to do. The Akeidah teaches us that eternal lesson.”
While Rabbi Hefter does an important service by calling attention to the potential pitfalls of an overemphasis on blind submission, the argument seems overly reactionary and, in any case, the exegesis doesn’t follow. That Kierkegaard’s interpretation can lead—or, according to Rabbi Hefter, even has led—to unhealthy excesses is not ipso facto reason to reject it outright. An alternative would be to place an educational emphasis on achieving a healthier balance between autonomy and submission. Presumably Rabbi Hefter would agree that kabbalat ol malchut shamayim (submission to the yoke of heaven) plays a critical role in the halakhic tradition. So why throw out the baby with the bathwater?
The Problem of Hearing
Rabbi Hefter’s preferred interpretation, “The Problem of Hearing,” while ingeniously creative, seems similarly implausible. He begins by invoking Immanuel Kant, who claims that Abraham should have disregarded the command because it might have been a mere figment of Abraham’s active imagination. Rabbi Hefter further cites a midrash and Zohar in support of the thesis that God’s command is ambiguous. This ambiguity, moreover, is not particular to Abraham’s vision preceding the Akeidah, but is a fundamental feature of prophecy generally. As the Hasidic masters taught, prophecy is not a mediated revelation. Instead, the prophet filters his or her understanding through one’s consciousness and personality. Prophecy, on this account, does not involve a purely external command but becomes an essential part of the prophetic personality. The Akeidah is therefore not about Abraham’s obedience to an external command but to his innermost voice.
This theory of prophecy gives rise to what Rabbi Hefter calls “The Problem of Hearing.” Due to the human element, there is a risk that the prophet has heard his own voice, not that of God. The prophet must therefore ascertain the divine origins of the vision. In Hasidic thought this is known as the need for berur. On this reading, the Akeidah no longer hinges on a conflict between Abraham’s inner moral instincts and God’s heteronomous will. Instead, it is about the patriarch’s struggle to ascertain that the inner voice demanding the sacrifice of his son is truly that of God. How does Abraham know? How does he arrive at his berur?
Here, Rabbi Hefter suggests that we must begin with a wider observation regarding Abraham’s chosenness. While constituting a tremendous privilege, chosenness generates a significant degree of ambivalence for Abraham, as it does for the modern Jew. Abraham asks himself, is it possible to be the progenitor of a chosen people while maintaining compassion for all humanity? This leads the patriarch to question whether, from the dawn of his career, his election was credible. If his selection is morally questionable, perhaps it is a product of Abraham’s desire and not truly the word of God.
It was the Akeidah that enabled Abraham to resolve the problem that had been haunting him. The events of Genesis 22 taught him that his election was not about his selfish aspirations but about serving a higher cause:
Paradoxically, only when Abraham hears that same voice once again saying “lekh lekha,” but this time telling him to destroy that which he desires most—a sense of security in the knowledge that his destiny and progeny are linked with God forever—can he feel certain that the initial voice, the voice of promise, is authentic as well.
The Akeidah, in other words, served as a berur for the veracity of Abraham’s entire life mission.
This approach, Rabbi Hefter concludes, allows the reader to avoid the pitfall of reading the Akeidah as a clash between submission and autonomy. Instead, we may read the narrative in a fashion that preserves Abraham’s healthy sense of autonomy—the Akeidah confirms that his visions were authentically his own—and emphasizes the humane and universal dimensions of Abraham’s chosenness.
Rabbi Hefter’s reading, as stated, is highly creative. On both textual and analytical grounds, however, it seems indefensible. First, the citation of Kant seems off the mark. Kant’s interpretation was intended not as an interpretation of the Torah but as a critique thereof. Of course, this does not mean that Kant’s interpretation cannot offer us any insight into our question. Still, it is significant that Kant cannot, on his own, support The Problem of Hearing. Au contraire. He rejected the biblical account precisely because, like Kierkegaard, he read it as following the Problem of Choice. It is just that instead of defending Abraham, Kant instead denounced Abraham’s act as immoral.
Second, the hypothesis that Abraham had questioned the verity of his chosenness throughout his career is specious. True, Abraham questions his worthiness, and perhaps even God’s commitment, in chapter fifteen. Yet following the Covenant of the Pieces, there is nary a hint of Abraham’s ambivalence. (Note that it is Sarah, not Abraham, who is critiqued for having laughed upon hearing the news of her impending pregnancy.)
Third, Rabbi Hefter asserts that Abraham followed his internal compulsion to kill his son not due to God’s command but because it clarified his mission’s selfless nature and therefore his chosenness. This is extraordinarily difficult to accept. The text of chapter 22 notes only God’s recognition that Abraham is God-fearing. According to Rabbi Hefter, the text should have spotlighted Abraham’s personal enlightenment.
Finally, the entire line of argument seems difficult. Abraham has been commanded to kill his son. On its face, this contravenes the ethos of “justice and righteousness” that God had set out as the mission for Abraham’s family (Genesis 18:19). It similarly seems to deny the merciful message God conveyed to Abraham by showering mercy upon the residents of Sodom. In directly contradicting His promise that Isaac would continue Abraham’s line, God obviously muddies the waters of Abraham’s mind. It seems implausible to assert that it was precisely the charge to sacrifice his son—the ultimate ethical absurdity—that clinched Abraham’s decades-long quandary.
The Problem of Hearing, then, is an exegetical long-shot. The Problem of Choice reading of the Akeidah remains the most compelling.
The Problem of Choice Reconsidered
Having rejected his novel interpretation, though, Rabbi Hefter’s fears loom large again. Is there no place for natural morality in the aftermath of the Akeidah? Have we no alternative but to embrace Tertullian Fideism or a Leibowitzean theology of submission?
The answer begins with a critically important observation: the narrative does not end with Abraham’s obedience but with the angel’s admonition to refrain. Rightly understood, this episode is no mere afterthought. God teaches Abraham: “If I unambiguously ask you to sacrifice everything, you must do so. But unlike the capricious pagan Gods, I do not ask for your son.” To us, this message seems self-evident. At the time of the patriarchs, it was revolutionary.
In a letter that deserves to be better-publicized, Rav Kook makes the point well:
The Akeidah showed that fervor and addiction to the divine idea does not necessitate that the perception of the divine should be covered in shameful trappings as those of pagan worship… (Igerot Ha-Ra’ayah, 2:43)
Radical passion need not beget pagan fundamentalism. Monotheistic worship is intended to be humane.
In the eloquent words of Dr. David Shatz:
The Akeida, thus read, testifies to God’s wanting religious acts to be controlled by sanity, moral judgment, and compassion. The consequence is that we, emulating God, won’t abandon morality and compassion either; in our lives we will find a way to have both (along with obedience).
This, I think, is the import of the midrash’s comment, cited by Rashi, to the effect that God never explicitly asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. In retrospect, Abraham comes to understand, it is contrary to God’s nature to make such a request.
Where does this leave us regarding the balance between submission and autonomy? Where human intuition unambiguously clashes with God’s heteronomous command, we must yield to God. Critically, though, before the chapter is complete, God reminds Abraham that such a request is the exception rather than the rule. On one hand, there are times when, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, “we embrace … the will mi-Sinai.” As a general matter, however, the righteousness of God’s commands will be evident to all those seeking wisdom.
Ultimately, I think this reading is more compelling than that of Rabbi Hefter. Due to legitimate concerns regarding the dangerous extremes of an imbalanced ethic of submission, he adopts a reading that is textually and logically unconvincing, and appears to unnecessarily swing the pendulum too far from the extreme of submission to that of autonomy. As a holistic reading of chapter 22 demonstrates, the Akeidah narrative emphasizes both that there will be inevitable conflicts between instinctual and halakhic logic, and that this is the exception rather than the rule.
Rabbi Hefter is correct that we must safeguard against the temptations of pan-halakhism and blind faith. Rav Kook too understood this well. At the same time, to paraphrase Ahad Ha’am’s classic witticism, as much as the Jews have kept halakhah, halakhah has kept the Jews. Despite arguments to the contrary, the Akeidah reminds us that “The Problem of Choice” is crucial to cultivating a healthy, if balanced, ethic of submission.
 If I understand him correctly, Rabbi Hefter makes a similar argument in his July 19, 2015 Times of Israel blog post, “Why I Ordained Women.” Although there too Rabbi Hefter emphasizes the importance of submission alongside autonomy, in the end he seems to side strongly with the autonomy view instead of attempting to hold the two in healthy balance.
 David Shatz, “From The Depths I Have Called to You”: Jewish Reflections on September 11th and Contemporary Terrorism,” in Jewish Thought in Dialogue: Essays on Thinkers, Theologies, and Moral Theories, ed. David Shatz (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2009), 265.