The Biblical story of the akedah—Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac at the command of God—has been a wellspring for the most diverse theological commentary, from the Talmud to Existentialism. David Baumgardt here examines the various meanings that have been attached to the story, one of the great pillars of the Jewish religious tradition, and offers his own reading.
And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’
And He said: Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’
And Abraham took the wood of the burntoffering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.
And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.’ And he said: Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?
And Abraham said: ‘God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’
And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.
And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the Lord is seen.’
And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven,
And said: By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son,
That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice. (Gen. 22.)
Goethe credited himself with having put a good deal of mystery into his Faust. How much more merit then must be given to the author of the akedah—the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac—for the more than one hundred thousand interpretations (literally) elicited by the few sentences of his story! The fundamental distinctions between religion and ethics, laws of aesthetics, the nature of all moral and legal obligations, whole modern philosophies, have come into being and have matured through an interpretation of these few lines of the Old Testament.
Philologists and historians have again and again tried to ascertain the “true,” the literal sense, “the correct and only meaning” of this Biblical story. There is no doubt that such a critical analysis of texts and the contriving of hypotheses as to the genesis and final composition of the Scriptures are interesting and valuable. But when historians and philologists claim that they can establish a single exclusively valid interpretation of the meaning of any great Biblical myth, they are floundering in deep waters. Some levels of interpretation are only relevant to men as scholars, while others, directed to men as men, present truths wrested from life and preserved in the religious and poetical documents of mankind.
Indeed, it may be said that a poetical or religious document remains alive only insofar as it gives rise to new and changing interpretations according to the needs and insights of later generations. As soon as it becomes a mere topic of historical research and no longer an occasion for personal concern and personal meaning, it ceases to be living religion, living art, or living poetry, because it ceases to be experienced “subjectively,” as personal emotion and insight.
Countless efforts have been made to spell out the true moral of the Abraham and Isaac story, sometimes in a rather cheap and even theatrical way. As early as about the end of the 1st century CE, the so-called Antiquities of Philo—which was certainly not written by that great Jewish thinker himself—added a number of touches to the original Biblical account designed to make the blind obedience of the two main actors even more conspicuous. The Bible says only that Abraham “rose early in the morning” after he had received the divine call. The Antiquities, however, says that after Abraham had heard the harsh divine command he “immediately . . . set forth . . . and . . . did not gainsay” Isaac. And Isaac proudly shows his firm resolve to offer himself up joyfully by delivering a long and bombastic speech to his father. For, contrary to the report of the Bible and the Book of Jubilees, the Antiquities says that Abraham had not told Isaac evasively that God would provide a lamb in time for the offering; Abraham was barbarous enough to tell his son “the whole truth,” that he would be sacrificed “for a burnt offering.” There is certainly a little too much easy bravura in the Antiquities’ version of the story. Heroes who feel so little difficulty in sacrificing their sons or in being sacrificed themselves are the fancies of bookish minds.
In a similarly unconvincing way, the fearlessness of Isaac is emphasized in the Fourth Book of the Maccabees; here we are assured that “seeing his father’s hand lifting the knife against him, Isaac did not shrink”—although the Bible does not say one word about such doubtful bravery on Isaac’s part. The Sefer Hayashar (which even as late as the early 19th century was sometimes thought to be the book quoted in Joshua 10:13 and II Samuel 1:18, but could hardly have been written before 1100 CE) tries to “improve” on the Biblical account in the same way. It, too, frees Abraham from the reproach of having told Isaac that a lamb would be provided for the offering. And here—no less demonstratively than in the Pseudo-Philo or in the Christian First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians and numerous other post-Biblical writings—Abraham and Isaac are said to be especially cheerful, and even gay, as they go to slaughter and be slaughtered. The Sefer Hayashar, however, compensates for this improbable heroism by inserting at least a touchingly naive motif of filial tenderness. As he lies bound on the altar Isaac asks his father to bring his ashes, the “smell of Isaac,” to his mother Sarah; but not to announce his death to her when she is sitting on a high place or a well “lest she should cast her soul after me” in the shock of her sorrow.
It is also true that in some selihot (prayers for forgiveness), such as an “Akedah” written by Benjamin ben Serah in Germany in the nth century, we read that at the sacrifice Abraham felt as if Isaac were being married and that Isaac felt as if united with a bride in wedlock. But in Benjamin’s “Akedah” this sort of forced beatitude is certainly outweighed by the profound feelings of contrition and anxiety that dominate the prayer.
The most detailed, though often rather tearful, glorifications of Abraham’s and Isaac’s heroism are perhaps to be found in old French mystères, in old Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, and English mystery plays, and in Theodore de Bèze’s Abraham Sacrifiant (1550). Theodorus Beza, the ardent follower, biographer, and successor of Calvin, devoted so many sentimental verses to the self-sacrificing spirit of the two patriarchs in his “tragédie françoise” that even Satan is moved by their dialogue and feels pity for them.
It seems to me that a far deeper layer of the meaning of the akedah is probed by those Christian interpreters who stress primarily the suffering of Abraham and Isaac rather than their unswerving courage and the rich reward their fortitude brought in the end. The Church Fathers, Irenaeus, Augustine, and especially Tertullian, already indicated that the firewood carried by Isaac on his way to Mount Moriah was the “cross” of human passion. And even the Jewish Bereshith Rabba compares the wood with a “cross that someone carries on his shoulder.” How profoundly, however, this theme has been elaborated in Christian thought may probably best be seen in the speculations of Jakob Böhme and Sören Kierkegaard.
Böhme dedicated a whole chapter to the akedah in his Mysteriutn Magnum of 1623. As the Zohar had done several centuries earlier, Böhme argues that it was only in this trial that Abraham came face to face with God’s rigor, and it is important that he himself was forced to exercise rigor against Isaac; for without exercising this rigor, by living only in the spirit of love, no one can “perfect himself.”
Isaac is, according to Böhme, a symbol of Adam and all humanity. Humanity is tried in the fire and wrath of God. In this trial, in the fire of God, humanity must mortify its own will in order to be reborn. As all the impure substances of metal “evaporate” in fire and only pure gold or silver “subsides,” so the fire of sacrifice morally purifies man; and as Abraham rose up “early in the morning” to follow the voice commanding him to sacrifice his son, so must man never postpone or evade the call to sacrifice and to repentance.
Since the days of Adam, the original union of “God’s love and anger” has been “rent asunder,” and this fracture has to be healed. Sin and weakness must be bound to the wood, as Isaac was bound to the wood and Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross. Only if this binding of blind self-love and vanity is carried out “in very real sincere earnestness,” will it mean anything. For it would seem nothing if we did not give ourselves “wholly into the process” with all our “thoughts and mind”—if only words were said and if sins were confessed only with our lips in our coming “before the altar.”
But if the true purification of self-will is carried out, then the divine spirit cries out in us: do “nothing to thy nature! For now I know” that thy nature “feareth God.” In the end “das Reich der Natur,” the sphere of nature and its needs, cannot be rejected and thrown away. The ultimate will of God is not to impose endless self-punishment on man, eternal martyrdom and self-flagellation; the ultimate aim is the rebirth, the greater wholeness and perfection of human nature. It is in this way that trial and reward are connected in Böhme’s searching comments on the story of the Old Testament.
Kierkegaard’s Christian asceticism, however, pays almost no regard to the reward promised to Abraham. In Fear and Trembling, it is the cruelty of Abraham’s trial to which our attention is primarily drawn; the glory of the reward is practically ignored. Kierkegaard relentlessly stresses that the divine command, “Sacrifice thy son,” enjoins the gravest immorality. Here the divine command means the command to murder and, moreover, to commit the vilest kind of murder: infanticide, and, at the same time, the most paradoxical murder: that of one’s own innocent and infinitely beloved child.
Kierkegaard writes: “What ordinarily tempts a man is that which would keep him from doing his duty. But in this case,” paradoxically, “the ethical, the doing of one’s duty, is itself the temptation.” The seeming absurdity of Abraham’s case is this: if he had insisted on doing his moral duty and had refused to kill his son, he would not have passed the trial; fulfillment of his ethical duty would have meant disobedience to God.
Kierkegaard carefully distinguishes the conflict that is won by the moral hero from that mastered by Abraham, the “knight of faith” and the “father of faith.” The moral hero has to sacrifice only his personal inclinations for the sake of something that is evidently of higher universal value. This sacrifice of personal happiness may often be very difficult and even tragic, yet it is negligible in comparison with the “fear and trembling” that must be endured in those diabolic conflicts of life in which the moral choice is not that between a clear-cut, universally acknowledged right, and an evident wrong, but a choice between two kinds of right—or the “moral” alternative between wrong and wrong. Abraham knew that it was wrong to disobey God and wrong to kill his son.
No references to universal moral laws can guide us in these dilemmas. In Abraham’s case, obviously, a “suspension” of all moral imperatives takes place, since here the will to murder is explicitly praised as true obedience to God. In other words, if the story of Abraham’s trial means anything, it means that when it comes to the hardest decisions of life no other human being can advise us. No longer free to wander on the broad highway of “universally valid” morality, we are confronted as solitary individuals with God alone; and no one can accompany us on our climb “outside the universal” on the “narrow . . . steep and solitary path” of faith.
It has been rightly said, and only recently repeated in COMMENTARY, that Judaism—in contradistinction to Kierkegaard’s Christian teaching—cannot tolerate any ultimate suspension of morality. It is certainly justifiable to say that “if the separation of religious faith from ethical conduct is not essential to Christianity, it at least finds a much more favorable theological climate there than in Judaism.”1 After all, even in the akedah, God does not accept the sacrifice of a child in the end. But this does not mean that he did not even demand the sacrifice, as Jewish apologetics—somewhat precipitately and far too assiduously—have often assured us.
If the many modern attempts to harmonize the differences between Judaism and Christianity are so unsatisfactory, too many of the attempts to celebrate them are, alas, equally so—on both sides. If Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the akedah is unsatisfactory because he almost neglects the final restoration of morality after its “suspension,” it seems to me even less pardonable to lose sight of the truly paradoxical nature of the divine command in the Abraham and Isaac story, to overlook the “absurdity” of the moral conflict involved, and the torment, the fear and trembling endured. To explain all this away and celebrate a far too easy triumph over the amorality, the non-rationalism, the “polytheism” of Christian belief has made many a Jewish apologetic as pointless and flat as the Christian distortions of the meaning of Jewish Law.
Kierkegaard already answers beforehand certain modern Jewish ways of ironing out the difficulties in the akedah. “A trial!” he exclaims ironically—alas, it means far too little if the whole thing is got over as quickly as the word “trial” is pronounced. “One mounts a winged horse, the same instant one is at Mount Moriah, the same instant one sees the ram; one forgets that Abraham rode only upon an ass which walks slowly along the road, that he had a journey of three days, that he needed even time to cleave the wood, to bind Isaac, and to sharpen the knife.” All of us know that what Abraham had to go through on his way to Mount Moriah was “just a trial,” merely a trial; but he certainly did not know that. The farcical element in all the popular “cheap editions” of the Abraham story is, according to Kierkegaard, that they blot out the most important point in it—the “dread”—and make the happy ending intervene just as handily, just as “unexpectedly” and “easily as a prize in the lottery.”
Kierkegaard also protests strongly against any confusion of this “suspension of ethics” with easygoing immorality. Jewish criticism of Kierkegaard has insisted that by the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” by “the divorce of religious faith from the practice of ethical works, the content of religious life is emptied out. Each subjective thinker may replenish the cisterns from the vagaries of his own mind. There is no check on the quality of the inflow beyond the intensity of the individual’s appropriation” (Gumbiner). But to this criticism Kierkegaard has already retorted: “He who believes that it is easy enough to be an individual can always be sure that he is not a knight of faith, for vagabonds and roving geniuses are not the men of faith.” The true knight of faith knows only too well how “glorious” and beatifying it is “to belong to the universal,” to be the individual who acts according to the universal moral law in a way morally “intelligible to all.” But he also knows that now and then fate or the will of God confronts us with dilemmas in which universal moral law in the generally accepted sense of the word ceases to be a guide.
If, as Jewish apologetics say far too often, Torah means nothing but “sound correctives for man’s propensity towards sin,” then the Torah does not teach us anything about the conflict in the akedah, the conflict of that solitary individual who had to choose between two sins, the sin of disobedience to God and the sin of murder. And Kierkegaard would not be wrong then in replying to his Jewish critics by saying that it is not he who has emptied religious life by the “elimination” of the ethical (he had spoken only of a “teleological suspension” of common morality), but his critics who let God become merely “an invisible vanishing point, an impotent idea,” thus “emptying” basic realms of life and filling the whole of reality with the ethical—that is, the ethical in the grossly oversimplified sense of an absolute protection from sin.
But are not, perhaps, the Torah and the greatest leaders of Jewish tradition better guides through the depths of human suffering and moral conflict than the modern moralistic defenders of the Torah, better even than the greatest representatives of mere asceticism? As ancient a Jewish interpreter of the Bible as Philo can show us how to combine the emphasis on the anguished “narrative” of the akedah with the “purpose” of the narrative and its happy ending. In his “On Abraham,” Philo explains, in the best tradition of the Jewish midrash, that “Isaac” means literally “laughter.” “But the laughter here understood is not the laughter which amusement arouses in the body.” It is “eupathy” of the mind. This joy the sage is said to sacrifice as part of his duty to God, thus showing in a parable that rejoicing is most closely associated with God alone, mankind being subject to grief. God, however, “fitly rewards by returning the gift [of joy] insofar as the recipient’s capacity allows.” Thus sacrifice and the return of joy for sacrifice are coupled in Philo.
This will to sacrifice Isaac, to sacrifice the highest joy, ranks—for Philo just as for Kierkegaard—higher than all the heroism of the great Greek patriots and even higher than Abraham’s other achievements. For no pressure of custom cleared the way for Isaac’s sacrifice, nor was any promise of fame and “universal” recognition held out to Abraham; the hero of this conflict had even to experience the fear of ignominy. Yet, as Philo adds far more emphatically than Kierkegaard, just because this hero was willing to bear this loneliest kind of fear and pain did he receive back his highest joy.
The Talmud, too, emphasizes that to understand Abraham one must take into account his fear of God as much as his love. His fear is attested by the text of the akedah; his love must—in fact, somewhat forcibly—be inferred from Isaiah 41:8. Abraham’s fear and despair, his “crying aloud,” is—contrary to modern moralizing interpretations—further stressed in numerous Jewish midrashim.
The most dramatic specification of the reality of Abraham’s conflict is perhaps to be found in Midrash Bereshith Rabba, where Samael, the Devil, indicates in a veritable climax the different degrees of the gravity of Abraham’s temptation. With the telling wit and realistic causticity of the tempter, Samael first turns against what is possibly the weakest point in Abraham’s personal moral armor, his old age, his presumptive senility. “Old man,” says the Devil to Abraham, “are you out of your senses already? Are you going to slaughter a son born to you at the age of a hundred?” This argument failing, he ridicules the pious obedience of the patriarch in another way by saying to him: Would you do, perhaps, even more for God than murder your son? “Canst thou stand even more?” And only after this argument fails does the Devil advance his most devastating piece of skepticism and his most dangerous temptation by asking Abraham: “Will not God say to thee tomorrow that thou art a bloodshedder? Thou hast murdered thy son! Thou art guilty!”
The Midrash Bereshith Rabba adds that this trial—the conflict between “self-evident” moral law, the universally valid law forbidding murder, and God’s command, in which the alternative was between two wrongs—weighed as much on Abraham as all the previous trials put together. “If Abraham had not stood this test, all he had done before would have been in vain.”
Even Maimonides, who generally shuns any discussion endangering the strength of purely rational argument in his metaphysics and ethics, does not omit to indicate in his Moreh Nebuchim that to ask the sacrifice of one’s own life or one’s possessions would have been a morally rational demand on God’s part; but that the divine command issued to Abraham at his trial was something surpassing all that is thought morally possible and rationally comprehensible, something that seemingly goes against the very emotional as well as moral nature of man.
Small wonder that an earlier Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, Abraham ibn Daud—though he, too, was a great rationalist in many respects—went even further than Maimonides in this direction. It has been frequently said that the Bible is not afraid on certain occasions to show man engaged in a rational moral dispute with God; there is the case of Job, for instance, and there is also Abraham arguing about the number of the righteous and the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. But as Abraham ibn Daud emphatically says in the very last sentences of his Emunah Ramah, in the akedah Abraham does not argue with God but silently obeys him, realizing that “there is no common standard by which to compare his insight with divine wisdom.”
It appears to me to be most significant that Abraham behaves so silently and passively in the akedah. Granted, that the primitiveness of the narrator may provide some “excuse” for his having said so little about the intellectual and emotional stirrings inside Abraham. But if this is the reason, then primitiveness may here express great profundity. When such a “visitation” comes over us as came over Abraham, only charlatans can feel that they are being called on to do “great things.” The true hero, when placed in a situation like that of the akedah, thinks only of “saddling his ass” and of going on without being in any way sure of where the road leads.
The only sign of Abraham’s inner reaction, as mentioned in the Biblical story, is, grossly expressed, that he tells a “white” lie when he says to his son that God will choose the Iamb for the burnt offering, although it had been made quite clear to him that God had already chosen a definite sacrifice—namely Isaac, his son. Kierkegaard, Rashi, and the Ptrke Rabbi Eliezer try hard to exculpate Abraham on this point, but in my opinion they fail completely. It seems to me far more true to the text to admit what is clearly stated there: that Abraham did not tell the truth to his son.
But this certainly does not demonstrate that the Pentateuch regards the telling of a lie lightly. The Old Testament takes the most serious view possible of lying and cheating. Yet it obviously thinks that the telling of a “white” lie is not only justifiable but even morally required, if it can spare a human being the feeling of doom for even a short time. The Old Testament leaves to St. Augustine, Kant, and Fichte the task of teaching that a lie is immoral under any circumstances. The moral hero of the akedah was evidently not capable of such a spectacular suppression of his paternal feelings. He could not even for a few hours inflict inner torture on his son for the sake of an ephemeral confession of truth. He was prepared to slaughter him on the ground of an irrevocable command, but he was not willing to inflict gratuitous, avoidable torment on him.
The akedah conveys more than anything else the impression that Abraham silently, and under pain hardly grasped to its full extent, bore the brunt of a hardly bearable destiny. He goes ahead silently and tries to do his task without the slightest sign of self-assuredness, as sincere men in the most difficult moments of their lives always have had to tread their paths alone—without knowing where the journey to Moriah would lead, with a heavy heart and even with a gnashing of teeth.
Isaac is, of course, even more in the dark and totally unaware of what is going on when he asks: where is the lamb for the burnt offering? This question becomes even more pathetic in that it reveals the gulf between his familiarity with the technicalities of sacrifice and his utter ignorance of the real meaning of the one that stands before him. With all the practical interests characteristic of his age, the lad is well acquainted with the usual routine of the service but totally unaware of the diabolic meaning that the very word “offering” takes on in his mouth when he asks his father his innocent question! Thus, too, Isaac’s fate is characteristic of a situation laden with symbolic significance: that in which one is crushed as a blameless victim in a great moral conflict whose nature is entirely beyond one’s grasp.
Finally, the happy ending, the great award! The angel’s first announcement does not make Abraham’s reward appear so magnificent. The angel says only that Abraham has sufficiently documented his obedience to the divine command. The angel’s second announcement may be taken as a mere variant on this from the viewpoint of critical text-analysis. But the two pronouncements do seem to me of great symbolic expressiveness.
In the moments when great moral deeds are to be performed they do not appear so dazzling. And even immediately after they have been done fate simply states that the test was met, the examination passed with a satisfactory grade; the right moral decision was made in a conflict in which no fixed moral code could provide a ready-made, self-evident rule. Only the ultimate evaluation and clarification of world-history—like the second announcement of the angel—reveals the full impact of these great and lonely moral decisions. That man who once, in the throes of his most difficult inner struggle, could not find the heart to tell the truth to his own son but had to bear his blackest grief alone, silently riding on his ass into the unknown—this man has become for all times one of the shining incarnations of a great life. And in his seed all the nations of the earth shall take heart.
Once more, what does all this amount to? Can it ever mean that, in the end, Judaism advocates the complete surrender of ethics to faith, to a philosophy of life in which a nonrational “fear and trembling” is the highest value and has the final word? By no means. What Judaism, in my opinion, stands for and what we need more than anything else today is a revision of our narrow, pseudorationalistic notions of ethics, and a considerably revised interpretation of what ethics means in its relation to faith.
One may, I believe, say with Rabbi Gumbiner that Judaism on the whole keeps itself aligned with the best traditions of hedonism from Democritus to Bentham. That an epikores is an atheist in the Talmud is not counter-evidence. The Jews, the people who have in the past two millennia gone through more suffering than any others, have not idolized suffering as the highest value. Not suffering as such and in itself, but joy is for them the highest legitimate aim of man. True joy is for them more profound than pain—in this world and any world to come.
But Judaism also teaches that there are highest joys that, in the nature of things and according to the unfathomable will of God, are linked up with suffering. These joys can be bought only at the price of pain; and the only comfort religion can give is to establish that they are worth that price.
Judaism has laid down a considerably body of strict moral principles—the Ten Commandments and others. These do not demand national honor and national aggrandizement, but they do demand that one tell the truth and love one’s fellowmen. It might be said that Judaism considers certain moral principles self-evident and obligatory under all ordinary circumstances. But beyond even the best fixed moral rules, there is what Judaism calls the will of God. If this word is not a mere conventional phrase or a superstitious belief, then the will of God must mean something like fate, as fate is experienced by the purest energies of morally wrestling men. This will of God confronts us with situations like that of the akedah, where the fixed moral commandments do not become wrong, but remain silent.
But even then our ultimate moral and religious aim must remain the increase, the maximization, of joy. This aim must never become irrational or subjectively capricious. But, as in the case of the akedah, there are instances of the will of God that permit us to rely no longer on simple strict adherence to the Ten Commandments; we are forced to choose between two moral commandments, and the breach of either of them spells guilt. In these extreme conflicts of life, the supreme rational command to work ceaselessly for the maximization of happiness leaves to us the risk and responsibility of applying the command properly. This is certainly no elimination of ethics and even no “suspension of the ethical,” if the term ethics is taken in its true and most vital sense.
I feel that I cannot kill. But I cannot dare to condemn morally him who may hate the spilling of blood as much as I do but who, nevertheless, fights and kills because, while considering all the possible consequences, he sees no other way to avoid the endless slaughter of far more innocent victims. And who can say, without wishful thinking, that peaceful methods always achieve a good greater than that which can be achieved by even the limited use of force? I may be mistaken in thinking and feeling this way. Perhaps they are much wiser who restrict the “unfathomable character of God” to his regulation of the cosmos and insist that no unfathomable sign of God can intrude upon or suspend the rigid, abstract rationality of those moral commandments that ordinarily govern our lives. The teaching of the akedah is, as it seems to me, incompatible with such a view of Judaism. Why in any case does the contemporary boasting about the rigor of Jewish morality and the purity of Jewish monotheism sound so strangely hollow when it tries to explain away the concrete features of that great old stirring myth of the akedah?
1 Joseph H. Gumbiner: “Existentialism and Father Abraham,” COMMENTARY, February 1948.