The obvious question from a literary point of view regarding the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22, 1-19) in the Hebrew Bible arises in contrast with the previous story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18, 17-33) and in light of the apparent contradiction between the stories. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when God decrees to destroy the cities, Abraham questions and argues with God on behalf of wicked people who he doesn’t know – “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25); while in the story of the binding of Isaac, he is unquestioningly obedient and submissive when asked to offer as a sacrifice his beloved son who is innocent of any wrongdoing. The obvious question that arises is – how can the very same Abraham, who questions and argues with God on behalf of wicked people, be silent in the story of the binding of Isaac when asked to offer as a sacrifice his beloved son, innocent of wrongdoing? Abraham’s silence in the story of the binding of Isaac is deafening!
Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story of the binding of Isaac
One of the most popular ways of understanding the story of the binding of Isaac through the ages, especially from a religious point of view, is that Abraham’s silence and willingness to sacrifice Isaac are actually praiseworthy in that Abraham is being depicted as a person of profound faith and trust in God. Perhaps, the most famous thinker who understands the story in such a way is the existentialist philosopher, and devout Christian, Soren Kierkegaard, who lived in the 19th century, and has exerted an enormous influence in the modern world of Jewish thought among all the various ideological streams. He viewed the story of the binding of Isaac as constituting the supreme example of the true religious experience; and, although he did not exactly coin the term leap of faith, the term does describe this religious experience that Abraham exemplifies according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation. Abraham leaps from human conscience and reason to submission and obedience to the will of God expressing his profound faith and trust in God. Abraham’s leap of faith then is characterized by his willingness to be obedient to the command of God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, even though the command on the basis of Abraham’s subjective personal judgment violates Abraham’s conscience or is at least incomprehensible to him (otherwise there would be no leap of faith).
Literary problems with Kierkegaard’s interpretation
There are two main literary problems regarding Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story of the binding of Isaac. First, Kierkegaard’s interpretation leaves unresolved the apparent contradiction between the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the story of the binding of Isaac. On the basis of Kierkegaard’s interpretation, we now have a praiseworthy Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac, as Abraham’s unquestioning obedience and submission constitute his profound faith in God – his willingness to make the leap of faith. However, the price we pay is that we now have a blameworthy Abraham in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham’s questioning of God’s judgment in decreeing to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (“Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”) constitutes a profound lack of faith and trust in God’s judgment and authority – a clear refusal to make the leap of faith, and to submit to God’s judgment and authority. Thus, according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation we are left with a contradictory Abraham, praiseworthy in one story and blameworthy in the other.
It may be objected here that on the basis of modern, academic scholarship it is possible that the stories of the binding of Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah may have been written by different authors, even at different periods of time – and if so, then there is no necessary reason to reconcile the contradiction between the two stories. In my view, such an objection is misconceived because even if acknowledged that the two stories were written by different authors at different time periods; nevertheless, in any case, according to academic scholarship, the two stories were edited together as part of a series of stories telling of the life of Abraham. According to academic scholarship, then, the two stories of the binding of Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah are part of a larger literary unit telling of the life of Abraham; and, therefore, the two stories must be reconciled in such a way that we are not left with a contradictory Abraham who is praiseworthy in one story and blameworthy in the other story. Clearly, both of these great stories are meant to praise Abraham as the father of the Jewish people.
The second literary problem regarding Kierkegaard’s interpretation is that the term faith does not appear in the story of the binding of Isaac at all. Abraham is not described explicitly as displaying faith in the story itself. The Torah itself tells us that Abraham in his unquestioning obedience is displaying not profound faith but the fear of God – “for now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22, 12). The crucial question that now arises in the story of the binding of Isaac concerns the meaning of the concept of fear of God. The meaning of the concept in the story is not clear at all. However, fear of God is a central religious concept of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible.
The concept of fear of God in the story of the binding of Isaac and in the Torah
Professor Nechama Leibowitz, the Biblical scholar, points out (Studies in Deuteronomy, 250-253) that there are several other passages in the Torah (Genesis 20, 11; Genesis 42, 18; Exodus 1, 17; and Deuteronomy 25, 18) where the term fear of God is used in the context of a story, and in each of these other cases the meaning of the concept is clear. Nechama Liebowitz suggests (P. 253) that the common denominator in each of these cases is that the concept of fear of God is a universal and moral concept. Fear of God is a matter of moral conscience and commitment, which expresses itself in the avoidance of immoral behavior. I want to cite two such passages.
The first case is the story of Abraham and Avimelech, the Philistine, which occurs, significantly, just prior to the story of the binding of Isaac. From a literary point of view, the story of Abraham and Avimelech serves to clarify the concept of fear of God just prior to the story of the binding of Isaac (where the concept is unclear and yet so crucial for a proper understanding of the story). In the story of Abraham and Avimelech, Abraham misleads Avimelech in not revealing that Sarah is his wife. When Avimelech questions Abraham as to why Abraham did not reveal such a matter, Abraham responds by saying – “Because I thought surely there is no fear of God in this place” (Genesis 20, 11). Abraham in saying that there is no fear of God among the Philistines is surely aware of their polytheistic theological beliefs, and this is not what frightens him. He tells us exactly what does frighten him (Genesis 20, 11) – the immoral behavior of the Philistines who are willing to kill him in order to steal his wife (“they will slay me for my wife’s sake”). The second case is the midwives who refuse to carry out the command of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to kill Israelite, male children. What stands out as striking in this passage of the midwives is that they are described as displaying the fear of God (Exodus, 1, 17). The term fear of God is clearly referring to the moral behavior of the midwives (regardless of their theological beliefs) in refusing to carry out the immoral and cruel command of Pharaoh, King of Egypt. Moreover, the moral behavior of the midwives in refusing to carry out the immoral and cruel command of Pharaoh is on the basis of their own reason and conscience, and they are not portrayed (as in Kierkegaard’s conception) as obedient to the authority and will of God at the expense of human reason and conscience.
The term fear of God then is used in these cases in a consistent way as a moral rather than theological concept. Fear of God is the avoidance of immoral behavior on the basis of human reason and conscience, and not (as in Kierkegaard’s conception of faith) obedience and submission to the will of God at the expense of reason and conscience. Thus, we must understand the story of the binding of Isaac to be portraying Abraham not as a person of faith but as a person of moral character and commitment in displaying the fear of God. This raises the crucial question as to how Abraham can be willing to carry out such an apparently immoral command as that of offering Isaac as a human sacrifice! This question, though, assumes that the command is indeed immoral. However, there is no necessary reason from a literary point of view why we must accept this assumption.
Is the sacrifice of a child immoral?
What the Hebrew Bible regards as an abomination – child sacrifice – is when such sacrifice is part of a ritual rite or ceremony. In the story of the binding of Isaac it is only on a literal level that Abraham is on the face of it to offer Isaac as a sacrifice as part of a ritual rite or ceremony. Yet, to understand the story of the binding of Isaac only on a literal level as a story of child sacrifice as part of a ritual rite (rather than on a metaphoric level) is to do a grave injustice to one of the most profound stories in all of literature. Even according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation the story is understood primarily on the metaphoric level, in which the true sacrifice of Abraham is not the actual offering of Isaac as a human sacrifice but the figurative sacrifice by Abraham of his own reason and conscience in making the leap of faith.
It is important to distinguish here between the plain meaning of a text and the literal meaning. In the messianic vision of Isaiah the prophet, Isaiah says (Isaiah 11, 6) – “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the tiger shall lie down with the kid”. The literal meaning of the verse is that there will be a change in the animal kingdom from a biological point of view in which animals of prey, such as the wolf or tiger, will no longer be carnivorous and prey upon other animals, such as a lamb or kid. Such a literal understanding of the verse is a complete distortion of the plain meaning, and is possible only by uprooting the verse from its literary context. It is clear that in the context of the passage, the prophet Isaiah is speaking in poetic and metaphorical terms of peace, justice and equality between people (see Isaiah 11, 4), and that his messianic vision is a moral vision. The wolf and tiger represent the strong and rich who oppress and exploit the weak and poor, symbolized by the lamb and kid.
The story of the binding of Isaac, like many great pieces of literature, can be understood in its plain meaning on different levels. The story may be understood in a literal sense from a historical (as opposed to literary) point of view. From a historical point of view, the story is an attack upon child sacrifice as a form of ritual rite and worship – a custom and rite that existed in the ancient near east, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. According to such an understanding of the story, Abraham is unquestioningly willing to carry out the command of God to sacrifice Isaac not because he is obedient despite the command violating his reason or conscience (as according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation). Rather, he is unquestioningly obedient because he does not perceive the command to be immoral at all as child sacrifice was an accepted custom and rite in the Biblical world. On a historical level, the conflict that Abraham faces is not one of personal human reason and conscience, on the one hand, and the external authority of God’s will, on the other hand, as according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation; rather, the conflict is between his natural love for his beloved child, on the one hand, and his devotion and loyalty to God, on the other hand.
The story of the binding of Isaac is teaching on a historical level that child sacrifice is unacceptable as a form of devotion to God to be replaced by animal sacrifice. However, such a ritual rite of child sacrifice (as well as animal sacrifice) has disappeared in the western culture, and thus if the story is understood only on a literal, historical level, then it has no relevance for a contemporary, western reader. Yet, the story without doubt stands out, beyond its literal, historical meaning and significance, as a truly profound piece of literature, which has exerted an enormous impact not just within the Jewish tradition, but upon the western culture as a whole. Clearly, such a profound and influential piece of literature must have some relevance beyond its literal, historical meaning and significance as an attack upon the ancient institution of child sacrifice as a form of ritual worship that has long ago disappeared in the western world.
In a literary analysis the focus, especially in regard to an artistic piece of literature, such as the story of the binding of Isaac, is the meaning of the text (as opposed to historical analysis in which the focus is the intention of the author in his or her historical context); and, the fundamental assumption of a literary analysis is that the text has a meaning and significance that transcends its historical context and meaning, and is relevant to readers living in a different time period or culture than that in which the text was produced. An author (whether understood to be human or Divine) who chooses to create a piece of literature of an artistic nature, such as a poem or story, is choosing such an art form so that the text will lend itself to many different interpretations, even those which the author may not have contemplated. In a literary analysis of texts the interpretation offered in order to be considered the plain meaning of the text must fit the words as a piece of clothing is to fit the body – and, an interpretation will be judged first and foremost by whether it fits the text as clothing fits the body, and, second, to what extent it contributes to the enlightenment of the reader by distilling some message or lesson from the text. Thus, literary analysis allows one to uncover a meaning of a particular text of an artistic nature beyond the original, historical meaning of the text, and beyond the intention of the author – and to legitimately attribute such a meaning to what the text itself is teaching in its plain meaning.
There is no necessary reason to assume from a literary point of view that the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in the story of the binding of Isaac is part of a ritual rite or ceremony, and thus immoral. I want to demonstrate that the actual sacrifice of a child that is not part of a ritual rite is not necessarily immoral by citing a true story that took place in Auschwitz in 1944. The story is told by Rabbi Zvi Meisels, as recorded in the book, The Holocaust and Halacha (Irving Rosenbaum, 1). Rabbi Meisels was himself in Auschwitz at the time and tells of an observant Jew who came to him with a question of Halacha (law). The Nazis had decided to put to death some 1400 boys who were in the meantime imprisoned under the guard of “Kapos”, Jewish guards. The observant Jew who approached Rabbi Meisels explained that he had enough to ransom his son who was among those being held by the Kapos. But, if the Kapos released his son, they would take another boy in his place, as the Nazis would count heads, and demand the exact number that they had designated to die.
The father asked Rabbi Meisels, if, according to Halacha (law), he is permitted or forbidden to release his son under such circumstances. Rabbi Meisels replied that he cannot interpret and determine law in such an environment as Auschwitz. He said that he has no books, no other Rabbi to consult with and that he cannot be expected to think clearly in such conditions. Rabbi Meisels thus refused to answer the question, and asked the father to make his own decision simply on the basis of his own conscience. The father demanded a proper Halachic, legal response, arguing that Rabbi Meisels is obligated to answer him, as there is no other Rabbi who he can ask. Rabbi Meisels, though, continued to refuse to answer. Finally, the father said that the refusal of Rabbi Meisels to answer him is a sign that he is not permitted to release his son – for, if he were permitted, Rabbi Meisels would have surely told him so. The father interpreted the refusal of Rabbi Meisels to answer as tantamount to a formal, Halachic legal decision that he is forbidden to ransom his son. He added that he accepts God’s decree with love and joy, and prayed that his act would be acceptable to God as Abraham’s binding of Isaac!
An alternative interpretation of the story of the binding of Isaac
Although this true story from Auschwitz and the story of the binding of Isaac do not correspond in all their details, nevertheless the father himself in the true story saw the parallel from a spiritual and religious point of view between his own situation and that of Abraham. The details of the story of the binding of Isaac are important only on a literal level, and irrelevant on a metaphoric level – as what is of importance from a metaphoric point of view is the enduring spiritual and religious message of the story. The enduring spiritual and religious message of the story (beyond the literal historical meaning) can be understood only on the metaphoric level, and on the metaphoric level the parallel between this true story of Auschwitz and the story of the binding of Isaac is striking (such that the father himself in the true story understood this).
In the true story of Auschwitz, the father not of his own choosing, against his will, was thrust into a horrible situation that represented a true test of character, as Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac – “And God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22, 1). In the true story, the father was demanded to offer his son as a sacrifice, like Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac – “Take now your son” (Genesis 22, 2). In the true story, the father, like Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac, was displaying what the Bible terms the fear of God in avoiding the committing of a wrong act, and undoubtedly experienced a distance from God as reflected in the Biblical concept of fear of God (rather than a closeness to God as reflected in the concept of love of God) – “for now I know that you are God fearing” (Genesis 22, 12). There is one tragic difference between the two stories, though. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the angel of God stops Abraham from actually sacrificing Isaac – the intention and willingness to sacrifice Isaac being enough to demonstrate that Abraham is a God fearing person. In the true story, an actual sacrifice was required of the father. I have cited this true story from Auschwitz, in spite of the fact that it does not correspond to the story of the binding of Isaac in all its details, because it does serve to demonstrate that there are situations in which it is not necessarily immoral to sacrifice a child.
From a literary point of view the story of the binding of Isaac ignores the question of theodicy (of how a good God can allow evil). That is, the story ignores the question of how a good God could thrust Abraham into such a horrible situation in which he would be demanded to offer his son as a sacrifice. I will therefore leave aside such a philosophic question that is foreign to the story. I emphasize that the story of the binding of Isaac is concerned not with an abstract, philosophic question of why God allows evil (and why Abraham has been thrust into such a horrible situation), but with a psychological and moral issue of how a particular human being, Abraham, faces and deals with his own character test (or trial) and personal suffering.
The story of the binding of Isaac is teaching, in my view, that there are such situations in life in which we may be tragically thrust, like the true story of Auschwitz, that demand the sacrifice of a child not in violation of moral conscience. Thus, in light of the true story of Auschwitz, it is possible to interpret (on a metaphoric level from a literary point of view) the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in the story of the binding of Isaac as being in accordance with Abraham’s own reason and conscience (rather than as in conflict with his reason and conscience as according to the interpretation of Kierkegaard). In the true story of Auschwitz, the father did not find himself in a situation where what he understood as the decree of God to sacrifice his son was in conflict with his own conscience.
The story of the binding of Isaac is indeed one of obedience to external authority. Abraham is especially singled out for praise because of his obedience to God’s will when the angel of God blesses him saying – “because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22, 18). However, the nature of Abraham’s obedience in the story is unclear. Kierkegaard, in accordance with his authoritarian conception of religion, interprets Abraham’s obedience in an extreme, heteronomous sense of obedience to the authority of God, in violation of Abraham’s own reason and conscience. The text itself, though, tells us only that Abraham is obedient to God’s will, and does not explicitly tell us that the command to sacrifice Isaac violated Abraham’s reason or conscience allowing for a metaphoric understanding of the text beyond the literal level, in which the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice may be understood not as part of a ritual rite, and not as immoral – and not in violation of the reason or conscience of Abraham.
Kierkegaard as a philosopher reads into the text simply on the basis of his authoritarian conception of religion that Abraham’s obedience is in violation of his own reason and conscience. Yet, there is no textual warrant for such a reading of the story. Abraham is depicted in the story not as a person of profound faith and trust but as a God fearing person – and, the concept of fear of God in other passages of the Torah means not obedience to authority at the expense of reason and conscience, but the avoidance of immorality on the basis of reason and conscience. Such a portrayal of Abraham as obedient to authority in violation of his own reason and conscience is a distortion, and in direct contradiction to the portrayal of Abraham in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In light of the true story of Auschwitz then, it is possible to understand the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on the metaphoric level as a moral command in the eyes of Abraham, and not in violation of Abraham’s reason and conscience. Abraham is being portrayed as a God fearing person, as a person of moral conscience, commitment and character, who is willing to make the supreme sacrifice – the sacrifice of his child – if God and morality so demand. In light of the true story of Auschwitz, Abraham is not being portrayed as obedient to God at the expense of his own reason and conscience, but, rather, as obedient in accordance with his reason and conscience. The basis of such a reading of the story is not an a priori, prior philosophic conception of religion in light of which the story is then interpreted (as in the case of Kierkegaard), but in the main a critical, literary analysis and close reading of the story in its literary context.
Implications of the alternative interpretation that I have suggested
Several points emerge from such a metaphoric reading of the story of the binding of Isaac, as I am suggesting. First, there is now no contradiction, regarding Abraham’s behavior, between the story of the binding of Isaac and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather, the stories complement each other. The story of Sodom and Gomorra depicts Abraham as a person of moral conscience and moral principle, who is willing to argue even with God on the basis of his own reason and conscience, while the story of the binding of Isaac demonstrates the extent of Abraham’s moral commitment in showing how far he is willing to go in serving God, when he perceives God’s decree to be moral – he is, in such a case, even willing to sacrifice his own child. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham questions, and argues with, God because he understands God’s decree to be in violation of his own standards of justice. In the story of the binding of Isaac, he is silent and unquestioningly obedient simply because he understands the command of God, “Take now your son”, to be moral (as in such a case as the true story of Auschwitz), and thus there is no room for questions or argument.
The complementary nature of the stories is supported by the literary structure, in which there is a reciprocal relationship between the stories. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is praised as a person of justice by God – “For I know him, that he will command his children…and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 17-19); which is followed by the demonstration that this is so when Abraham argues with God on the basis of his own conception of justice. In the story of the binding of Isaac, Abraham first demonstrates the extent of his moral commitment to God, which is followed at the end of the story by praise of Abraham in being blessed by the angel of God (Genesis 22, 15-18) – not because he is abandoning his reason and conscience (as according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation); rather, because he is willing to make the supreme sacrifice of his beloved child in being obedient to what he understands as the moral imperative of God. The literary structure of A, B, B, A – praise, demonstration, demonstration, praise – indicates that there is a reciprocal relationship between the two stories strengthening the feeling that they are complementary rather than contradictory with both coming explicitly to praise Abraham.
Second, a comparison of the story of the binding of Isaac with the story of the midwives (Exodus 1, 17) is enlightening regarding the concept of fear of God, which appears in both stories. The very same motivating factor, fear of God, expresses itself in proper, moral behavior in both stories – though the nature of the proper behavior is different in each case due to differing circumstances. In the case of the binding of Isaac (according to the interpretation that I have suggested), fear of God manifests itself in obedience to the moral imperative of God, whereas, in the case of the midwives, it expresses itself in disobedience to the immoral command of Pharaoh.
According to Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story of the binding of Isaac, the distinction between the two cases would be that in the story of the midwives an apparently immoral command is given by Pharaoh, while in the story of the binding of Isaac (according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation) an apparently immoral command in the eyes of Abraham is given by God. The main determining factor regarding the story of the binding of Isaac is the difference in authority between Pharaoh and God. Abraham, in making the leap of faith is abandoning his own reason and conscience (in being obedient to an apparently immoral command in his own eyes) in placing his faith and trust in God, the supreme authority. A major problem with such an interpretation is, as I already indicated, that in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham does not abandon his reason and conscience standing before the supreme authority of God. Rather, Abraham questions the authority and judgment of God (“Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”), demonstrating that even if God, the supreme authority, were to give him an apparently immoral command to offer his son as a sacrifice (as according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation) Abraham would at least question or object, if not refuse to carry out the command (rejecting the pagan conception that God is beyond morality).
According to the interpretation of the story of the binding of Isaac, which I have offered, the distinction between the two cases is that in the story of the midwives the command of Pharaoh is understood by the midwives to be immoral, while the command of God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice is understood by Abraham to be moral. The determining factor is entirely the nature of the command, whether perceived as moral or immoral – and the source of authority (whether Pharaoh or God) is irrelevant. On the basis of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we can justifiably infer that, were Abraham, in the story of the binding of Isaac, to have understood the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice as immoral, he surely would have asked “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”.
Finally, the assumption of this interpretation of the story of the binding of Isaac that I have suggested is not one of conflict between personal reason and conscience, on the one side, and external authority, on the other side, as according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation. Rather, the assumption is one of conflict between personal happiness and morality. The true sacrifice of Abraham is not the actual offering of Isaac as a sacrifice, but on the metaphoric level the sacrifice of his own personal happiness (rather than the sacrifice of his own reason and conscience, as according to the interpretation of Kierkegaard) in order to fulfill the moral imperative of God. In the true story of Auschwitz, the father, in choosing to fulfill what he understood to be the moral will of God in not releasing his son, was not acting in violation of, and sacrificing, his own conscience – but, he was sacrificing his own personal happiness in perhaps dooming (or at least being willing to doom) himself thereafter to a life of sadness and unhappiness.
Happiness and the Bible
Personal happiness is simply not presented as an ultimate value (in the sense of an ultimate goal) in the Torah and Hebrew Bible. As far as I am aware, the term happiness does not appear at all in the Torah. The Torah does command us to be joyful on certain festive occasions, but there is no command or general directive to be happy. The one book in the Hebrew Bible where the terms happiness and joy are central, religious concepts, is the Book of Psalms, which opens with the words – “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalms 1, 1). However, even in the Book of Psalms happiness is not conceived of as an ultimate value (or goal). Happiness, as indicated in the opening verse of the Book of Psalms, is conceived of as the result of the moral life, and not as an end, goal or ultimate value in itself. The ultimate values of the Torah and Hebrew Bible are moral values, such as peace, justice, compassion, love, freedom and equality.
The Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible are duty oriented. An important aspect of the Torah is legal material (commandments, statutes and judgments) and moral teachings that consist of duties and obligations both of a positive (requirements) and negative (prohibitions) nature, regulating ethical as well as ritual matters. The Halacha (Jewish law) is a highly sophisticated legal system based upon the commandments of the Torah representing a central aspect of the Jewish tradition together with ethical teachings and obligations, and ritual practices. Duties and obligations necessarily imply corresponding rights. It is an obligation in the Jewish tradition to visit the sick. Correspondingly, the sick have a right to be visited. The emphasis, though, in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition is upon duties rather than rights. By contrast, the legal system of the United States is a rights oriented system, in which every citizen is guaranteed “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Similarly, rights necessarily implies corresponding duties. If a person has a right to freedom of speech, or of religion, then there is a corresponding duty for others not to infringe upon that right. The emphasis, however, is upon rights. When the emphasis is upon individual rights, then the corresponding focus is upon personal happiness of the individual. Conversely, when the emphasis is upon duties and obligations, then the corresponding focus is upon social justice and kindness to others.
The Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, in being duty oriented, presuppose the notion of sacrifice. In order to fulfill a duty, or obligation, a person must be willing to sacrifice personal happiness. I would rather not go to a hospital to fulfill the obligation of visiting a sick person. The hospital may be a depressing place, and there may be any number of other things that I would prefer to do instead, if I were concerned primarily with my own personal happiness. If we transcend the literal level, and understand what is implied philosophically in the concept of sacrifice, then it is clear why the ultimate story of sacrifice, the story of the binding of Isaac, as well as sacrificial offerings, including animal sacrifices (as a central form of ritual worship prescribed by the Torah), are so central in the Hebrew Bible and traditional Judaism. Both the story of the binding of Isaac and the sacrificial offerings prescribed by the Torah symbolize the willingness to sacrifice personal happiness in order to fulfill the moral imperative of God. The duties and obligations, both legal and moral, which so characterize the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, presuppose a willingness to sacrifice personal happiness in order to fulfill them. The concept of sacrifice, philosophically, is the basis of the religious life of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition.
I want to clarify two things in regard to the willingness to sacrifice happiness as a precondition to the fulfillment of duties and obligations. First, it does not follow that we must necessarily suffer, or that we are to seek suffering as a religious form of service of God. Abraham does not seek suffering. His goal is to fulfill the moral imperative of God (the true service of God). His willingness in the story of the binding of Isaac to so suffer by sacrificing his own child demonstrates how far he is willing to go in serving God. Furthermore, Abraham is rescued by the angel of God from the horrible situation that he had been thrust into, teaching that the willingness to sacrifice and suffer in order to fulfill the moral imperative of God is sufficient to demonstrate Abraham’s fear of God. He is not required to actually sacrifice Isaac. The tragedy of the true story of Auschwitz that I cited is that the father was not rescued from the horrible situation which he was thrust into, and he was required to make the supreme sacrifice.
Second, the willingness to sacrifice happiness does not mean that happiness is undesirable or unimportant. Happiness is not an ultimate value in the Torah and Hebrew Bible because it is self-centered rather than God-centered. The focus of the Torah and Hebrew Bible is upon what God demands and requires of us as human beings, as in the words of Micah the prophet – “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord demands of you, but to do justice, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6, 8). The essence of religion, according to Micah, is moral acts of justice and kindness, and a psychological-moral attitude of humility before God. This attitude of humility expresses itself in the bowing down and obedience to God’s moral demands, and not in a self-centered concern for one’s own happiness.
The essential demand of God in the Biblical conception is a moral demand. Morality is a concern for one’s fellow human being, and thus social in nature. Happiness, by contrast, is a psychological attitude or feeling, and is personal in nature. Happiness is not a matter of obligation, but simply something that we naturally desire and seek as human beings as a part of our animal nature. Moral duties and obligations require for their fulfillment the transcending of our natural, self-centeredness (as a part of our animal nature) and desire for our own happiness in being concerned for the welfare and happiness of our fellow human being. The Torah and Hebrew Bible, in my opinion, teach that our focus is not to be upon ourselves and our own happiness, but upon the welfare of others. However, it does not follow from this that happiness is unimportant. It simply means that our own personal happiness is not to be our ultimate goal or preoccupation. Indeed, as I pointed out, happiness is a central, religious concept in the Book of Psalms that opens with a Psalm that tells us that happiness is the result of living a moral life, which God demands.
There are modern, humanistic psychologists who suggest that, paradoxically, when our focus is upon ourselves and our own happiness, then we are actually less likely to experience happiness. It seems, the more we pursue happiness, the greater the likelihood that it will elude us. Preoccupation with ourselves, and our own happiness, often leads to anxiety and tension, and can easily degenerate into a concern with obtaining esteem in the eyes of others rather than self-esteem. When our focus is upon helping others, though, paradoxically, we ourselves, as according to the Biblical conception, are likely to experience happiness and fulfillment as a result of our concern for others. A concern for others often allows us to forget, or not be preoccupied with, our own personal troubles and worries, or to see that there may be others who suffer even more than we do, as well as perhaps improving our own self-esteem and feeling about ourselves in helping others.
In the case of the true story of Auschwitz, the father in not releasing his son (in accordance with what he understood to be the Divine will) was perhaps dooming himself to a life thereafter of sadness and personal unhappiness on the emotional, animal level. I say perhaps here because his emotional reaction will not only be influenced by external events, but even more importantly determined by his attitude and outlook. Even though the father might feel (on an animal level) deep sadness, and anger toward the Heavens at the injustice of such a horrible situation that he was thrust into; nevertheless, I think that he would at the same time feel a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment spiritually in not allowing the Nazis to reduce him to the level of an animal in acting only in his own self-interest, and not according to moral values (which in the Biblical conception God demands of us as human beings). In my opinion, had he chosen to release his son, allowing another child to die instead, he might have in any case experienced anger at the Heavens for having thrust him into such a situation, as well as terrible guilt and sadness in acting in what he understood to be an immoral way.
On the level of animal feelings and emotions, the father, in choosing not to release his son, was indeed perhaps dooming himself to a life of sadness and personal unhappiness. However, on a deeper spiritual level, the father, in acting in accordance with what he understood to be the moral imperative of God, was transcending the animal side of his nature, in fulfillment of moral ideals that distinguish us as human beings from animals. Paradoxically, he was likely to experience a deep sense of personal happiness and fulfillment, spiritually, even at the same time that he would perhaps feel sadness and anger in terms of his animal emotions; and, indeed, he responded by saying that he accepts God’s decree with love and joy. Moreover, the deep sense of fulfillment that he would experience would also help to reduce the pain and strength of his feelings of anger and sadness that he might experience on the animal level.
The problem of evil and suffering
I want to suggest that the two great stories told of Abraham – Sodom and Gomorrah and the binding of Isaac – represent complementary psychological approaches to the problem of evil and suffering. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah concerns the suffering of others, while the story of the binding of Isaac concerns Abraham’s own personal suffering. The name given in the Jewish tradition (the binding of Isaac) to the second story indicates that it may be seen as a test of Isaac as well as of Abraham. However, explicitly the story is a test of Abraham, and he is the focus of the story as it is written, “And God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22, 1). In my view, the stories represent complementary psychological rather than philosophical approaches to the problem of evil and suffering. The focus of the stories, characteristic of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, is not the philosophic or theological resolution of the problem as to why God does not prevent evil (theodicy); but, instead, the focus is the psychological response of the human being to evil and suffering.
There is a Chasidic story, which exemplifies the two complementary psychological responses to evil and suffering that are reflected in the stories. The story is told of a rabbi who tells his students that everything in God’s creation serves some purpose. One student asks – if so, what is the purpose of atheism? The rabbi replies that atheism does indeed serve a very important purpose. The rabbi explains that when it comes to our own needs and suffering, we must have complete faith in God. However, in response to the needs and suffering of others, we must act as if there is no God, nor anyone else, who can help other than ourselves. According to this story, neither faith in God nor denial of God is an absolute good. Rather, the appropriate psychological response of faith or denial is dependent upon the particular situation.
The story of the binding of Isaac represents the first response of the Chasidic story, in which we must have complete faith in God when it comes to our own suffering. I have argued that the story of the binding of Isaac portrays Abraham as a person of moral character (a God fearing person), and not as a person of faith. However, I must clarify, in light of this Chasidic story, that Abraham is being portrayed explicitly and primarily as a person of moral character and commitment, who displays the fear of God in his willingness to sacrifice the life of his own child in fulfilling the moral will of God; and, implicitly and secondarily, as a person of profound faith in God (even though the term faith is not used in the story), in a psychological and experiential sense of accepting his own suffering unquestioningly, and with a joyful heart. The faith that Abraham displays is not in a theological sense, and not in the sense of a leap of faith, as according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation (in which Abraham is obedient and submissive to God’s will in violation of his own reason or conscience). The faith that Abraham displays is in the psychological sense of accepting his own suffering with a joyful heart, and not falling into despair or depression, in accordance with the psychological conception of faith in the Hebrew Bible as an optimistic attitude expressing trust in God. But, significantly, he is not accepting of the suffering of others, as reflected in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah represents the second response in the Chasidic story of faith and denial, in which we must act as if there is no God who can help in regard to the suffering of others. Abraham, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in effect denies God’s transcendence by relating to God the very same way he would relate to any human being in applying the same standard of justice that he would apply to a human being – “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”. When confronted with the suffering of others (even of wicked people), he doesn’t say “Blessed is the True Judge”. Regarding the suffering of others, Abraham in asking “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” not only holds God accountable to his own human, subjective understanding of justice, but actually denies God’s transcendence – and this, in effect, is to deny God as God, the “True Judge” (the ultimate, transcendent and absolute source of truth and justice).
The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and the binding of Isaac then represent complementary psychological responses to the problem of evil and suffering. In the story of the binding of Isaac, Abraham must accept his own personal suffering with a joyful heart. To question God, “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”, regarding his own suffering would only lead him ultimately to despair and depression. But, when confronted in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with the suffering of others (even of wicked people), Abraham must argue with God as a matter of moral conscience and principle. Were he to accept the suffering of others with a joyful heart, and were he to justify God by saying, “Blessed is the True Judge”, he would be displaying gross indifference to the suffering of others. Thus, the focus of the stories (the binding of Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah), characteristic of the Hebrew Bible, is not the philosophic or theological resolution of the problem of theodicy as to why God does not prevent evil, but the complementary psychological responses of the human being to evil and suffering.