Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda

Haim Watzman

Many years ago, when I lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a storm erupted in synagogue on Shabbat Vayare—the Shabbat, like this coming one, on which we read the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac.

The shouts of anger and dismay were occasioned by one of the plethora of pamphlets that appear in nearly every synagogue in Israel, each one offering interpretations and glosses on the weekly Torah portion. The pamphlet in question had been written by an American immigrant to Israel, and it broke with tradition by condemning, rather than lauding, Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.

This was many years ago, so I don’t remember the name of the author or his exact words, but he pointed out—and he was hardly the first to do so—the anomaly between Abraham’s attempt to deter God from his plan to destroy the evil city of Sodom and the patriarch’s mute acceptance of the command to slaughter his son. In pleading for Sodom, Abraham argues that the city’s righteous inhabitants would be killed along with the guilty—and that God, the world’s judge, would be seen as committing an injustice. Yet Abraham raises no objection at all to the unjust sentence imposed on his own innocent, beloved son, nor to God’s insistence that he, Abraham, be the instrument of God’s injustice. The writer expressed his horror at Abraham’s behavior, and censured it in no uncertain words.

My guess is that his visceral reaction to Abraham’s apparently mindless obedience was triggered by a liberal American liberal upbringing. Like me, he’d been taught by his parents and by his society not to remain silent in the face of injustice and never to obey an unjust command without question.

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Image: The Binding of Isaac by Roni Pinto

5 thoughts on “Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda”

  1. You seem to be defending the traditional interpretation of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as meritorious on the grounds that sometimes modern Israelis encourage their sons to serve in dangerous military units, which is sort of like an Akedah but which is a good thing. But this doesn’t follow at all. Even if you think that service in elite IDF units is unambiguously good (and I think it is ambiguously good–such units protect the country from real enemies but also enforce a cruel occupation), what possible connection could that have to a willingness to kill your son outright just because a hideous and evil god told you to? And moreover to accept the *rightness* of that killing, as opposed to simply being forced into it by superior power?

  2. David, I think the connection is that a commitment to higher values sometimes requires us to place those values above our lives and the lives of those we love. From the start, the Torah defines God’s demand for the sacrifice of Isaac as a trial imposed on Abraham–in other words, as awful as it was, the ultimate goal was not to kill Isaac but to teach Abraham something about his relationship with God. That lesson was clearly that God does not demand the direct sacrifice of children, but also that placing the physical safety of one’s children above all other goals is wrong. It’s very difficult for me, like any other parent, to say that straight out. Yet no just society can survive without self-sacrifice. So the lessons derived from the story both by the writer of the pamphlet and by the kibbutzniks are correct–we are meant to be horrified by a God who would demand the sacrifice of children, and we are meant to understand that keeping ourselves and our children alive is not in and of itself the correct superior goal of our lives.

  3. Haim, I don’t see how this follows at all. You have made the (correct) point that, horrible as it is, sometimes there are causes so important that they are even worth placing one’s children at risk to advance them. But what does this have to do with the Akedah? God is not telling Abraham to sacrifice his son for any such good reason. And the biblical text makes it clear that, while God does not in the end want human sacrifice, he regards Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a good thing. That is, God clearly regards, and wants Abraham to regard, “because I said so” as a valid reason for killing a child. So you have juxtaposed one good reason for risking a child’s life (necessary self-defense) with one terrible reason for taking a child’s life (because a sadistic god said so), and have somehow decided, for no reason that I can see other than that liberal religiosity requires you to come up with humane interpretations of obviously inhumane bible stories, to allocate to the latter some of the validity of the former.

    BTW, I hope these comments are not coming out as rude or combative. You’re obviously a nice, well-meaning guy, and I certainly don’t want to insult you. I do regard liberal religiosity of the kind that you advance on this blog as hopelessly flawed and incoherent, and politically problematic as it causes its adherents to be too soft on the hard-core variety, but if we were talking rather than writing you’d see that I’d be saying all that with a friendly smile, not a growl.

  4. David — I don’t mind at all! I like arguments.
    You write: “God is not telling Abraham to sacrifice his son for any such good reason.” But your reading of the text is colored by preconceptions and context–every reading is. The text doesn’t say why God makes this command to Abraham, except to say that it is a test. But a test of what? The traditional reading is indeed that it is a test of faith–to see how far Abraham is prepared to go, to see whether he will obey blindly. But certainly this is not the only reading, and even not the only traditional reading. The most powerful element in the biblical story is how much silence pervades it–Abraham’s silence in the face of God’s command, the silence along the three-day trek to the mountain. When Isaac finally speaks, asking where the sacrificial ram is, and when Abraham replies that God will supply the ram, we see an indication that even as he ascends the mountain, Abraham cannot believe that he will indeed in the end have to sacrifice his son. Is God being sadistic, or is he giving Abraham an object-lesson that could not be taught in any other way? All I can say is that, as a father, I often feel as if I am Abraham, holding the knife above his child, and hoping against hope for divine intervention.

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