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Reclaiming the Akeidah from Kierkegaard

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David Fried

A havruta of mine once complained to me that there is nothing anyone says about the akeidah (binding of Isaac) that does not boil down to either Kierkegaard or Kant[1]. Kierkegaard and Kant view the akeidah as confronting the same moral problem: how to navigate a contradiction between divine command and one’s sense of ethics. This reading seems quite natural: what could violate our ethical sensibilities more than the murder of one’s son? The two titans dispute the lesson we ought to draw regarding the proper resolution of this conflict.

For Kierkegaard, as his view is classically presented, the message is the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”[2] Religious life is fundamentally paradoxical. Normally, God asks us to set aside our temptations in order to behave ethically. However, our faith and devotion to God must be so absolute that we must set aside all other sensibilities, including the ethical, as mere temptations, or passions, when they conflict with an explicit divine command.

This explanation makes the akeidah one of the most challenging sections to deal with in the entire Torah. This is not because we are all committed to Kant’s categorical imperative and believe that the moral law admits no exceptions. Perhaps we could accept that occasionally some greater cause could justify killing an innocent person. The challenge is that every religious zealot believes that his or her cause is the one that warrants the teleological suspension of the ethical. Absent knowledge of the future, we don’t have a clear mechanism to determine who is right and who is wrong[3]. We could theoretically contend that Abraham, an established prophet who could be reasonably confident in his understanding of the divine will, differs from the terrorist. However, such an approach would leave the story with an insufficiently enduring lesson, namely to simply revere Abraham for his degree of divine understanding, a level to which none of us can aspire. Additionally, as we shall see, there are other good reasons for rejecting Kierkegaard.

Although I reject Kierkegaard’s interpretation, I must challenge those who claim that Kierkegaard’s line of interpretation is too anachronistic to have been the original meaning because child sacrifice was widely practiced at that time[4]. The ethical problems of child sacrifice are well-known throughout the Torah (See Deuteronomy 12:30-31). Although child sacrifice was commonplace in the Ancient Near East, it seems reasonable to assume that Abraham’s critique of the predominant pagan religion would have already included rejection of child sacrifice[5]. If Abraham had somehow not figured out the moral repugnancy of human sacrifice on his own, we would have expected God to have taught him this lesson early on in his career, not at its apex. Furthermore, rabbinic commentaries have long confronted the challenge of divine commands that seem to violate our ethical sensibilities[6]. It would not have been anachronistic for centuries of Jewish commentators prior to the 19th century to raise the ethical challenge of God commanding Abraham to do something He so clearly forbids elsewhere in the Torah. Yet generations of Jewish commentators looked at the akeidah and, with very few exceptions, did not see his test as having to go against his ethical sensibilities[7]. As devotees of the Jewish tradition, then, we must reject Kierkegaard because his interpretation runs counter to the classical view.

On the other hand, the classic alternative to Kierkegaard is Kant. For Kant, Abraham essentially failed the test. God, the Supreme Ethical Being, could not possibly ask of us to do the unethical. For Kant, as noted, the moral law must be universal and allow no exceptions. If killing one’s son is wrong, it is wrong under all circumstances. Abraham therefore should have recognized that since the command to sacrifice his son was unethical, it could not possibly represent the will of God[8]. This interpretation is still viewing the akeidah as being about navigating contradiction between divine command and one’s sense of ethics, against the classical Jewish view. Yet another problem with this explanation is that there is nothing in the text indicating that Abraham failed the test. On the contrary, the text effuses with praise for Abraham’s conduct (Genesis 22:12-18).

Of course, one could take the middle position that Abraham had to be prepared to do the unethical, but by ultimately sending the angel to tell him not to sacrifice Isaac, God teaches Abraham that He would never ask for this kind of service[9]. This, too, is difficult: if the lesson is truly just that God does not want human sacrifice, His methodology seems a bit over the top. Did Abraham really need to experience such immense suffering thinking he was going to have to kill his son? Couldn’t he have proven his devotion to God in some other way?

How the Akeidah Was Traditionally Understood

Perhaps owing to these questions, unlike Kierkegaard and Kant and contrary to what has become conventional wisdom, most traditional Jewish commentaries did not understand Abraham’s test at the akeidah as centering on the tension between human moral sensibilities and divine command. Rather, Abraham was being tested in his ability to set aside the natural mercy he felt for his son[10]. Put differently, Abraham was not being asked to do the unethical but to do the ethical despite his powerful inclination to the contrary.

Ralbag makes this implication explicit, adding his own twist by arguing that Abraham must have assumed that Isaac had done something to deserve the deed Abraham was being asked to carry out (Genesis 22:8 s.v. Elokim). While one might critique Ralbag by saying that the text’s usage of sacrificial language does not make it sound like Abraham is being asked to carry out a punishment, this approach does fit very nicely with Ramban’s understanding of sacrifices. Ramban (Leviticus 1:9 s.v. Olah) explains that when we offer an animal as a sacrifice (including an olah, the model used for the akeidah), we are meant to see ourselves as deserving of death; the animals take our places only by the grace of God.

It would thus be reasonable for Abraham to assume that if God wants him to bring Isaac as a sacrifice, it is because Isaac deserves to die. And why shouldn’t Abraham make this assumption? He has already been assured of God’s justice in the story of Sodom. He has every reason to believe that when God commands him something, it is because the dictates of strict justice require it. Kierkegaard specifically said not to compare Abraham to Brutus of the old Roman Republic, who had to carry out the strict justice of the law on his own sons[11]. Yet, in Ralbag’s read, that is exactly what Abraham is being asked to do. When Abraham passes the test, it may be said, similar to what Kierkegaard said about Brutus, that while many have loved justice, none have demonstrated it so gloriously as Abraham[12]. While Ralbag may have been the only commentator to explicitly adopt this particular interpretation, we shall see that his view that Abraham believed his son deserving of death not only aligns with the classic reading of the akeidah as being about the tension between mercy and justice, but also fits thematically into a careful read of the wider narrative arc of Abraham’s career. To appreciate this point, we turn to Abraham and Sodom.

Abraham and Sodom

God reveals to Abraham his intentions regarding Sodom, “For I have known him, that he will instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right (tzedakah u-mishpat). (Genesis 18:19).” Upon hearing God’s plan, the man who was destined to teach his children about justice demands justice from God: Would you save the entire city if there were fifty righteous people? Forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten (Genesis 18:23-32)? To each of these God responds in the affirmative.

There are many strange aspects of this dialogue. It is presented as a demand for justice. “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:25)” In contrast with this rhetoric, though, Abraham seems to be asking God to save even the people who are not righteous[13]. Furthermore, why does Abraham stop asking at ten? Why not see if God would spare the city for even a single righteous person? Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room, though, is Lot. Abraham and God have a full conversation about Sodom, yet neither one mentions Lot. Radak (Genesis 18:32 s.v. Akh) offers two possibilities as to why Abraham does not mention Lot in the course of his advocacy. The first is that he knows Lot is not righteous; it is therefore not in Abraham’s interests to bring up his name. The second is that he is not sure if Lot is righteous or not. I believe this second approach to be more compelling. Lot’s character, after all, is somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, at great personal risk, he shows hospitality to the visitors, even defending his actions against the people of Sodom (Genesis 19:3-6). And unlike his wife, he is able to refrain from turning back while leaving Sodom (Genesis 19:26). At the same time, he encourages the Sodomite mob to violate his daughters (Genesis 19:7-8).

Yet we can take a step beyond Radak. It is not just that Abraham is unsure as to Lot’s righteousness. He is afraid to know. Abraham stops at ten and does not go down to one because he fears the answer. Lot has a family of eight (him, his wife, four daughters, and two sons-in-law)[14]. If God were to tell Abraham that there is not a single righteous person in Sodom, that would be telling him that Lot too is not righteous, which Abraham cannot bear[15]. While Rashi and Ramban (to Genesis 19:29) point out ways in which Lot was more righteous than the other people of Sodom, the verse makes clear that he was only saved because “God remembered Abraham” (19:29). As Radak says explicitly (ad loc.), even though he may have been more meritorious than the other Sodomite residents, were it not for Abraham, that merit would have been insufficient to save him from being killed. In this regard, then, Lot is ultimately a failure[16]. For all the years that Abraham was childless, Lot was the closest thing he had to a son. Lot’s failure to live up to Abraham’s mission was, to some degree, also his own failure.

This leads us to a tantalizing conclusion. The verse states that “Abraham arose in the morning and hurried to the place where he had stood before the Lord. Looking down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and all the land of the Plain, he saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln” (Genesis 19:27-28). In that rising smoke, Abraham sees the answer to the question he was afraid to ask. While Radak (Genesis 19:29 s.v. Va-Yehi) assumes that God told Abraham at that point that Lot was saved, according to a simple read of the text, Abraham fully believes Lot is dead, and never finds out otherwise. In this vein, we may newly appreciate the nature of the prayer that the Talmud ascribes to Abraham upon his arisal in the morning (Berakhot 26b)[17]. Of course, we can never know the exact words he spoke to God, but we can imagine him expressing a sense of personal remorse for Lot having gone astray from his mission, and a promise to do better with Ishmael and Isaac.

Abraham and Ishmael

Abraham is given another chance, but again he fails to appreciate the shortcomings of those he loves. Though commentaries disagree widely about the precise nature of Ishmael’s misdeed, he too fails to live up to Abraham’s mission (Genesis 21:9; see Rashi, Ramban, and Radak ad loc.)[18]. Again, Abraham has difficulty confronting his relative’s failure . Only Sarah notices at first (Genesis 21:9).When she tells him that Ishmael needs to be banished (Genesis 21:10), “the matter was very bad in the eyes of Abraham (Genesis 21:11).” Bereishit Rabbah (53:12 in Vilna; 56:11 in Theodor-Albeck) associates the verse, “He who shuts his eyes from seeing evil (Isaiah 33:15),” with Abraham’s failure to acknowledge Ishmael’s demerits. Radak and Ramban (to Genesis 21:11) explain that he disliked the idea because of his great sympathy toward Ishmael; his love for his son obscured his capacity to clearly perceive his faults[19]. God therefore issues a direct command that Abraham listen to Sarah and banish Ishmael (Genesis 21:12). For a second time, “Abraham arose in the morning (Genesis 21:14)” to face the reality of a son who has not lived up to his values. This time, he passes this test. When given a direct command from God, he trusts God and does not disobey. In a sense, though, he got off easy with Ishmael. All he had to do was banish him, and he had assurances from God that Ishmael would live even after the banishment (Genesis 21:13).

The Akeidah in the Context of Lot and Ishmael

But what if Abraham’s son deserved more than banishment? What if he had done something so horrific that he deserved the death penalty? Would Abraham be able to carry out such a charge, or would his fatherly love interfere? To answer this outstanding question, God devises a test. He tells Abraham that his “son, the only one [remaining in his household], whom [he] loves (Genesis 22:2)” must be killed. In light of his prior experience, Abraham has no logical choice but to believe that Isaac is deserving of this punishment. He knows that his blind spot is his inability to see the failings of his loved ones. He knows he couldn’t see Lot’s failings or Ishmael’s failings until it was too late to prevent their death (in Lot’s case) or banishment (in Ishmael’s case). Now he has every reason to believe that Isaac has failed him as well. Moreover, Isaac must have failed even more spectacularly than Lot or Ishmael: in neither of those cases did God demand that Abraham carry out the death penalty himself.

For a third and final time, then, “Abraham arose in the morning (Genesis 22:3).” He sets out on the three day journey to Mount Moriah. He knows that if he kills Isaac, he is killing not just his son, but his last hope at a legacy. And that is precisely the test. The one whose legacy is to teach his descendants about tzedakah u-mishpat must come face to face with the reality that his descendants will sometimes fail to live up to that commitment. He must put his commitment to tzedakah u-mishpat ahead of even his commitment to his family. As he raises the knife, God sends the angel to stop him (Genesis 22:11-12). From here Abraham learns that Isaac was in fact not liable for death. But he will have descendants who are guilty, and Abraham needed to model that when strict justice requires it, we must be willing to carry out harsh punishments even against our own. According to Ralbag’s interpretation of the classical commentators, then, the akeidah’s enduring lesson is not about the need to suspend our commitment to the ethical. The akeidah ultimately takes no stance on that question since the conflict between divine command and our personal sense of ethics is not its subject. Rather, the akeidah’s enduring lesson is about the importance of our commitment to the ethical, even at great personal cost.

Abraham Versus Moses

Did Abraham pass the test of the akeidah? On the one hand, assuredly, yes. “For now I know that you fear God[20], since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me (Genesis 22:12).” It is hard to read this verse as offering anything but praise for Abraham. On the other hand, Abraham’s understanding of God did not reach the highest possible level available to humankind. God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Sha-ddai, but by my name Y-H-W-H I was not known to them (Exodus 6:3).” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that they did not appreciate the full measure of God’s true attributes for they did not see the promises fulfilled[21].We can understand Rashi’s comment in light of what I have said. The God Abraham knew was a God of strict justice, Who at times demands the sacrifice of a son. This answers the question I posed above about why, when Abraham argues with God about Sodom, he presents it as a demand for justice when in reality he was asking for mercy for the guilty: he couches his argument in terms of justice because that is the only God he knows. Abraham never knew the God who rescued an undeserving Lot on his behalf (Genesis 19:29). He never knew the God who listened to the supplication of the undeserving Ishmael ba-asher hu sham (where he is) (Genesis 21:17). Abraham, who learned to forego his legacy and God’s promises for the sake of justice, could not possibly relate to a God who would fulfill those promises even to undeserving descendants.

Like Abraham, Moses too “arose in the morning (Exodus 34:4).” But when Moses arises, God conveys to him the attributes of mercy (Exodus 34:6-7). God does not need to test if Moses is capable of confronting the failure of his loved ones. Moses has already demonstrated he can do this. “Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!’ And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin (Exodus 32:26-27).’” God reveals His attributes of mercy only to the one who, when justice calls for it, is willing to “say of his father and mother, ‘I consider them not,’ to disregard his brothers and ignore his own children (Deuteronomy 33:9).” What if Abraham had reacted differently at Sodom? What if he had inquired all the way down to one? What if he had been able, from the beginning, to fully come to terms with Lot’s failings? Perhaps, then, God could have revealed His attributes of mercy to Abraham. Perhaps He could have told Abraham that Lot would be saved on Abraham’s behalf. Perhaps Abraham could have asked for the cities to be saved as a pure kindness the way Lot himself did with Tzo’ar (Genesis 19:18-22). Perhaps the entire akeidah would not have been necessary.


[1] For additional discussion of this topic, see Herzl Hefter, “Surrender or Struggle: The Akeidah Reconsidered,” Tzvi Sinensky, “There’s No Need to Sacrifice Sacrifice,” and Alex Ozar, “Love (and Trust) Conquer All.”

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 64-77.

[3] In defense of Kierkegaard, he was keenly aware of this problem and proposed a way to distinguish a legitimate teleological suspension of the ethical from an illegitimate one. For it to be legitimate, the person must be fully aware of the paradox, and not believe he is in any way ethically justified. Furthermore, there must be no personal desire other than coming closer to God. Had Abraham felt any hatred or anger toward Isaac at the moment he was prepared to slaughter him, or had he been part of a sect that would have given him approbation rather than scorn for the act, it would have been an act of murder and not an act of faith.

[4] See Robert Gordis, “The Faith of Abraham: A Note on Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,” ​Judaism ​25 (1976): 414-­419; and Ethan Tucker, “Redeeming the Akeidah, Halakhah, and Ourselves,” (2016) 19-21, available at: https://mechonhadar.s3.amazonaws.com/mh_torah_source_sheets/CJLVakeidahhh.pdf.

[5] It is not my intent here to claim that God had revealed to Abraham the verses in Deuteronomy prohibiting child sacrifice. Rather, as the founder of ethical monotheism, Abraham was presumably a critic of the ethical system of those around him and could not be assumed to believe something was ethical merely because they did. As child sacrifice was their most morally repugnant practice, it makes sense that if Abraham was going to criticize any part of their ethical system, this would have been it.

[6] See Vayikra Rabbah 32:8. See also Rashi on Sanhedrin 101b s.v. Nitmakhmekh be-vinyan.

[7] See Bereishit Rabbah 56:4.

[8] Immanuel Kant, On the Conflict between the Faculties (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 115

[9] See Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s introduction to the akeidah, especially his quotation from Abraham Geiger in footnote 2. See also Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Iggerot ha-Rayah 2:43.

[10] See Bereishit Rabbah (Vilna) 56:10, Pesikta Zutartah 22:14, et al. See also the numerous liturgical compositions about the akeidah. For an unconventional approach that sees the entire incident as a punishment for Abraham, see Rashbam to Genesis 22:1 (s.v. va-Yehi, ve-haElokim).

[11] Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 2:5

[12] Cf. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 68-69.

[13] This point is made by Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman in his introduction to the section.

[14] See Genesis 19:8, 19:14, and Rashi ad loc.

[15] Rashi (to Genesis 18:32) suggests that Abraham stops arguing at ten based on Noah’s family. If God did not save the world for them, Abraham could reasonably assume He would not save the city of Sodom for a group of that size either. Noah’s family, like Lot’s family, consisted of eight people: Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. In his comments, Rashi provides an explanation as to why Abraham did not go down to nine, which would apply to my suggestion as well. See also Saadia Gaon, ad loc. (long version, available at: http://mg.alhatorah.org), where he raises several possibilities as to why Abraham stopped arguing at ten, one of which is based on his limited knowledge about Lot’s family. He suggests that Abraham is not actually aware as to how many of Lot’s daughters are married, and, had all his children been married, the family might have been as large as ten. Contrast this with Radak (ad loc.), who assumes that Abraham does not mention Lot because he knows Lot has been influenced by the people of Sodom and is no longer righteous.

[16] Rashi’s language suggests that he may disagree with Radak’s reading, and holds that Lot was saved based on his own merit. On this view, the Torah’s reference to God remembering Abraham indicates not that Lot was unworthy, but that Lot only acquired his own merit on account of his association with Abraham.

[17] The English word ‘prayer’ derives from the Latin ‘precaria’ meaning to beg or entreat, and thus generally connotes a specifically petitionary communication with God. The Hebrew tefillah, for which prayer is an inexact translation, does not have this connotation and can refer to any communication with God. See, for example, Jonah’s tefillah (Jonah 2:2-10), which contains no textual indication of a petitionary element.

[18] A minority of commentators view Ishmael’s behavior as basically innocuous and see the banishment episode as being primarily about inheritance. See Abravanel for this approach.

[19] See also the commentary of Rabbi Avraham ben ha-Rambam on Genesis 21:11, who similarly highlights that Abraham had been unaware of Ishmael’s failings. It is interesting to compare this with the midrashic approach that associates Isaac’s blindness later in life (Genesis 27:1) with his inability to see Esau’s wickedness (see Bereishit Rabbah 65:5). Perhaps he inherited this trait from his father.

[20] The Hebrew for “fear God” is yerei Elokim. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), 252-253, notes that whenever the phrase yerei Elokim is used in the Torah, it refers to the ethical treatment of the weak and the stranger. Accordingly, that God identified Abraham as yerei Elokim as a result of the akeidah underscores the point that the test was to see if he would act ethically , not if he would suspend his commitment to the ethical.

[21] Though my focus here is on Abraham, it should be noted that the verse mentions Isaac and Jacob as well. See supra., note 19, for a discussion of this trait as it relates to Isaac. Regarding Jacob, see Genesis 32:11, which Rashi takes to indicate that he, too, believed in a God of strict justice who would not fulfill promises to the undeserving.