Articles written by Rabbi Jacobs: The Problem of the Akedah in Jewish Thought

From Judaism and Theology reproduced by kind permission of Vallentine Mitchell, Publishers. (To visit the Vallentine Mitchell Website where many of Rabbi Jacobs' books are for sale click here)

The narrative in the twenty-second chapter of the book of Genesis, in which Abraham is instructed by God to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering, is known in the Jewish tradition as the Akedah,1 ‘the binding’ (of Isaac on the altar). The Akedah features prominently in the Jewish liturgy. It is, for instance, the Pentateuchal reading in the Synagogue on the second day of the New Year festival, and it is recited daily by some pietists. It became the prototype for Jewish martyrdom. And it has exercised a
powerful fascination over the minds of Jewish biblical exegetes and Jewish thinkers generally throughout the ages, each of whom has tried to bring his own understanding to the narrative.

 This essay is concerned with Jewish attitudes towards the most difficult problem connected with the Akedah: How could God have ordered a man to murder his son? The problem is aggravated by the fact that in no fewer than sixteen other passages in the Bible (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1–8; Deuteronomy 12:31;18:10; 2 Kings 13:27; 16:3; 17:17, 31; 21:6; 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; Ezekiel 20:31; Micah 6:7; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6) child sacrifice is condemned as an abomination before God. Arising out of the initial problem are the further questions regarding Abraham’s intention to carry out the terrible deed. How could Abraham have been so sure that God had, indeed, commanded him to kill his innocent child? Even if he was convinced that God had so commanded him, was it his duty to obey? Is obedience to God’s will so supreme an obligation that it can override man’s moral sense, demanding of him that he commit a criminal act of the very worst kind for the greater glory of God? Can or should one worship a being who wishes to be served by an act of murder? Moreover, the very God who demanded the sacrifice of Isaac had himself performed the miracle of giving Isaac to Abraham and Sarah when they were of advanced age and had promised Abraham that, through Isaac, Sarah would be a mother of nations (Genesis 17:15–19; 18:10–15; and 21:1–12).

 Three different attitudes to the problem have been adopted by Jewish thinkers. The first stresses the story’s ‘happy ending’. Abraham is, in fact, eventually commanded not to slay his son. The whole episode was only a ‘test’, a divine vindication of Abraham’s absolute trust in God. There was never any divine intention for Abraham to kill Isaac. God, being God, could never so deny his own nature as to wish a man to commit a murder in obedience to him. The second attitude stresses, on the contrary, the original command. This view, very close to Kierkegaard’s attitude, can imagine God commanding Abraham to slay his son. True the order is revoked at the last moment but the point has been made, none the less, that, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, there can be, so far as ‘the knight of faith’ is concerned, a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. As ‘ethical man’ as well as ‘knight of faith’, Abraham goes in ‘fear and trembling’ but the ultimate for him is not the ethical norm but his individual relationship to his God. A third attitude seeks to dwell on both aspects of the narrative. On this view, it is impossible that God could ever, in reality, be false to his own nature and command a murder, and yet if he could, then Abraham would indeed be obliged to cross the fearful abyss. These three attitudes, it must be said, are rarely given sharply defined expression in the Jewish sources. They tend to shade off into one
another, and among some of the Jewish thinkers, all three are combined without any awareness that a contradiction is involved. It is thus far more a matter of where the emphasis is placed than one of precise categorization.

 The first attitude seems to have been the earliest among the Jewish thinkers. It is not without significance that the Akedah hardly appears at all as a distinct theme in the early rabbinic literature. The only reference to it before the third century is in the Mishnah (Taanit 2:4). Here there is a vivid description of the procedure adopted on a public fast-day when the rains had failed to come. The people congregated, we are told, in the town square where they were led in prayer by a venerable man free of sin and experienced in offering supplication to his maker. One of the prayers he was to offer is given as: ‘May He who answered our father Abraham on Mount Moriah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.’ But this is said to be only one of the special ‘May He who answered …’ prayers. Others recited on that day contained references to other biblical characters, such as Joshua and Jonah, whose prayers in a time of crisis and danger were answered. Abraham’s crisis, it is implied, was basically no different from that of the other heroes. When God answered Abraham’s prayer it was to spare Isaac. Implied, too, is the idea that God’s ‘answer’, his true will, was revealed not in the original command but in the second command for Abraham to stay his hand and save Isaac. In a later talmudic passage (Taanit 4a) it is stated explicitly that God never intended Abraham to kill his son any more than God wishes Baal worshippers to carry out human sacrifices. In a comment to Jeremiah’s fierce castigation of the people for burning their sons in fire as burnt offerings for Baal ‘which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind’ ( Jeremiah 19:5), this passage elaborates: ‘“which I commanded not” refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:27); “nor spoke it” refers to the daughter of Jephtah ( Judges 11:31); “neither came it into My mind” refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, son of Abraham’. Similarly, a rabbinic midrash (Genesis Rabbah 56:8) describes Abraham, after the angel had told him in the name of God to spare Isaac, puzzled by the contradictory statements: ‘Recently Thou didst tell me (Genesis 21:12): “In Isaac shall seed be called to thee,” and later Thou didst say (Genesis 22:5): “Take now thy son.” And now Thou tellest me to stay my hand!’ God is made to reply in the words of Psalm 79 verse 35: ‘My covenant will I not profane, nor alter that which is gone out of My lips.’ ‘When I told thee: “Take thy son,” I was not altering that which went out from My lips [i.e., the promise that Abraham would have descendants through Isaac]. I did not tell thee: “Slay him” but bring him up [i.e., take him to the mountain and make him ready to be sacrificed]. Thou didst bring him up. Now take him down again.’

 In addition to this idea emerging from specific comments to the Akedah, it seems to be implied in the typical rabbinic view that God himself keeps his laws. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:3), for example, the Greek maxim is quoted that the law is not written for the king (i.e., the law is for the king’s subjects whereas the king himself is beyond the law). God, it is said, is not like a human king who decrees laws for others but need not keep them himself. God orders man to rise in respect before the aged and God did this himself, as it were, out of respect for Abraham.

 All this lends powerful support to an anti-Kierkegaardian understanding of the Akedah. Drawing on passages such as those we have quoted it is easy (far too easy, as we shall see) to generalize and to argue that there is no room in Judaism for a doctrine that accepts any teleological suspension of the ethical.

 This is, in fact, the attitude adopted by the late Milton Steinberg in an essay entitled: ‘Kierkegaard and Judaism’.2 In a lethal attack on the Danish thinker’s interpretation of the Akedah, Steinberg roundly declares that there is nothing in Judaism to correspond to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical and continues:

From the Jewish viewpoint – and this is one of its highest dignities – the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstances and not for anyone, not even for God. Especially not for God [italics Steinberg’s]. Are not supreme Reality and supreme Goodness one and co-essential to the Divine nature? If so, every act wherein the Good is put aside is more than a breach of His will; it is in effect a denial of His existence. Wherein the rabbis define sin as constituting not merely rebellion but atheism as well.
 What Kierkegaard asserts to be the glory of God is Jewishly regarded as unmitigated sacrilege. Which indeed is the true point of the Akedah, missed so perversely by Kierkegaard. While it was a merit in Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his only son to his God, it was God’s nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute. And it was His purpose, among other things, to establish that truth.

 The opposite view, the ‘pro-Kierkegaardian’ interpretation of the Akedah, is, however, also found in Jewish thought, and certainly not as infrequently as Steinberg implies. Philo (De Abrahamo, 177–99) replies to hostile critics of Abraham who point out that many others in the history of mankind have offered themselves and their children for a cause in which they believed. Among examples these critics cite are the barbarians whose Moloch worship was explicitly forbidden by Moses, and Indian women who gladly practise suttee. Philo retorts that Abraham’s sacrifice was unique in that he was not governed by motives of custom, honour, or fear but solely by the love of God. It is, then, for Philo a token of Abraham’s great love that he was ready to suspend the ethical norm; his love for God overriding all else.

 The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b), in a legal context, asks why Isaac (who, in one tradition, was not a docile infant but a mature man) allowed himself to be led to the slaughter. True Abraham was a prophet but is even a prophet to be heeded when he orders another in the name of God to commit an illegal act, in this instance, what amounts to suicide? The reply given is that, indeed, an established prophet can be relied upon, not to cancel any of God’s laws entirely but to demand, in God’s name, a temporary suspension of them. The commentators4 rightly remark that no question is even raised about Abraham’s readiness to kill his son since the prophet himself is obviously obliged to heed God’s command even if it involves an illegal act. In the ‘Remembrance’ prayer, dating, according to the majority of historians, from the third century and still recited in Synagogues on the New Year festival, there occurs the phrase: ‘Remember, unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the loving kindness and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah: and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart. So may Thy compassion overbear Thine anger against us; in Thy great goodness, may Thy wrath turn aside from Thy people, Thy city and Thine inheritance.’

 Indeed, there was current in the Middle Ages a curious legend that Abraham actually killed Isaac at the command of God and that later Isaac was resurrected from the dead, the call of the angel to Abraham, commanding him to stay his hand, coming too late. The mediaeval Spanish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra (to Genesis 22:19) quotes this opinion (which, he says, seeks to explain why there is no reference in the narrative to Isaac returning home with his father) but rejects it as completely contrary to the biblical text. Yet in a splendid monograph Shalom Spiegel5 has demonstrated how widespread such views were in the Middle Ages, possibly, Spiegel suggests, in order to deny that Isaac’s sacrifice was in any way less than that of Jesus; or as a reflection of actual conditions when the real martyrdom of Jewish communities demanded a more tragic model than that of a mere intended sacrifice. It was not unknown for parents to kill their children and then themselves when threatened by the Crusaders.6

 It is highly improbable that Kierkegaard knew of it, but the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b), in the passage following the legal one we have quoted, has a Midrashic exposition of the drama of the Akedah in which there is expressed all the ‘fear and trembling’ of which Kierkegaard speaks, as Abraham, both ‘ethical man’ and ‘knight of faith’, is torn in his anguish. The passage deserves to be quoted in full:
‘And it came to pass after these words that God did tempt Abraham’ (Genesis 22:1). What is the meaning of after? Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Jose ben Zimra: After the words of Satan. It is written: ‘And the child grew up and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned’ (Genesis 21:8). Satan said to the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thou didst give a son to this old man at the age of a hundred, yet of all the banquet he prepared he did not sacrifice to Thee a single turtle-dove or pigeon!” God replied: ‘Did he not do all this in honour of his son! Yet were I to tell him to sacrifice that son to Me he would do so at once.’ … On the way (as Abraham was leading Isaac to be sacrificed) Satan confronted him and said to him: ‘If we assay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved?… Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands. Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened thc feeble knees. But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest” ( Job 4:2–5) (i.e., Abraham is being asked to commit a wrong against which his whole teaching has hitherto been directed7). Abraham replied: “I will walk in my integrity’ (Psalm 26:2). Satan said to him: ‘Should not thy fear be thy confidence?’ ( Job 4:6). He replied: ‘Remember, I pray thee, whoever perished being innocent?” ( Job 4:6). Seeing that Abraham would not listen to him, Satan said to him: ‘Now a thing was secretly brought to me’ ( Job 4:12). I have heard from behind the Veil ‘the lamb, for a burnt offering’ (Genesis 22:7) ‘but not Isaac for a burnt offering.’ Abraham replied: ‘It is the punishment of a liar that he is not believed even when he tells the truth.’ In the parallel passage in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 56:4) Satan says to Abraham: ‘Tomorrow He will condemn thee as a murderer’8 but Abraham replies: ‘Nevertheless!’

 The analysis of the Akedah given by Moses Maimonides (1135–1204),9 the greatest of the mediaeval Jewish thinkers, similarly comes very close to the Kierkegaardian understanding. Maimonides observes that the Akedah teaches two fundamental ideas (neither of these, it should be noted, has anything to do with the ‘happy ending’ of the narrative). The first of these is that man, out of the love and fear of God, is obliged to go even to the limits to which Abraham was prepared to go. According to Maimonides’ reading of the Akedah, the ‘test’ was not in order to provide God with information about Abraham’s steadfastness that God did not possess, but rather it was to provide a ‘test case’ of the limits to which a man can and should go in his love for God. Maimonides stresses not alone the natural love that Abraham had for the child of his extreme old age but the fact that in this child was centred all Abraham’s hope of establishing a religious community to carry on his teachings. Maimonides adds: ‘Know that this notion is corroborated and explained in the Torah , in which it is mentioned that the final end of the whole of the Torah , including its commandments, prohibitions, promises and narratives, is one thing only–namely, fear of Him, may He be exalted. This is referred to in its dictum: If thou wilt take care to observe all the words of this Law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and awful Name, and so on (Deuteronomy 28:58).’

 The second idea contained in the Akedah, according to Maimonides, is that the prophets consider as true what comes to them from God in a prophetic revelation. If the prophetic vision ever allows the prophet to remain in some doubt, Abraham would not have hastened to commit an act so repugnant to nature. The man, Abraham, who taught that God does reveal himself to man, was the most suitable instrument for conveying the further truth that there is complete conviction in the mind of the prophet that he is really the recipient of a divine communication so that he is ready to act on it no matter how severe the moral as well as physical demands it makes on him. Maimonides’ statement, that the final end of the whole Torah (as he says, including its commandments, which means, the ethical as well as the purely religious commandments) is one thing only, the fear of God, is as close to the idea of, at least, a possibility that the ethical can be suspended for this particular telos as makes no difference. The thirteenth-century exegete Bahya Ibn Asher10 develops the same line as Maimonides, that the Akedah teaches the great love of Abraham and adds that the reason that Abraham took only two lads with him (and ordered even these to remain at the foot of the mountain) was because Abraham knew that if others were present they would, in their horror of the deed he intended to perform, seek to prevent him from carrying it out.11

 The renowned contemporary Orthodox teacher Professor
J. B. Soloveitchick is the most determined exponent of a Kierkegaardian interpretation of the Akedah. In a famous essay, entitled ‘Ish Ha-Halakhah’ (‘The Man of Halakah’),12 Soloveitchick observes that the midrash (to which reference has previously been made) in which Abraham’s dialogue with Satan conveys all the anguish and uncertainty of the man of faith, is much closer to Kierkegaard than any idea of religion as offering ‘peace of mind’. The ultimate aim of ‘the man of Halakah’, the man who follows the Halakah, the legal side of Judaism, is to obey God’s revealed will which transcends man’s merely rational aspirations for the good life. The psalmist who speaks of the Lord as his shepherd who leads him beside the still waters (Psalm 23), affirms this only as the ultimate aim of the religious life. He does not mean to imply, according to Soloveitchick, that the religious way itself has anything to do with ‘still waters’. On the contrary, as Kierkegaard affirms, the deeper aspects of religious faith are only to be found in the man tormented by the demands God seems to be making both on his intelligence and his conscience. Soloveitchick only refers to Kierkegaard’s interpretation in connection with Abraham’s anguish and doubt, not with regard to the teleological suspension of the ethical, but J. B. Agus13 may be right in reading Soloveitchick’s essay as a statement that the full Kierkegaardian view is compatible with Judaism.

 Although some Jewish thinkers have stressed the ‘happy ending’ as the chief point of the Akedah narrative and others have stressed the original command to sacrifice as the chief point of the story, a compromise position in which both aspects are avowed is not as contradictory as might appear at first glance. It can be argued that, after all, the story does consist of these two parts, the original command and the ‘happy ending’; that this is the only occasion on which God is said to have commanded a man to commit murder as a test of obedience; that, on the other hand, to read the story simply as a homily on the sacredness of human life tends to reduce it to banality; and, at the same time, to overlook the finale is to ignore an element that the narrator never intended should be overlooked. For this reason some modern thinkers, especially, have tried to preserve both insights as essential parts of the Akedah.

 W. Gunther Plaut,14 in an essay entitled ‘Notes on the Akedah’, implying, perhaps, an avoidance of too tidy a schematic presentation of the complicated narrative, states the problem but offers more than one solution. Plaut first quotes Franz Rosenzweig’s understanding15 of the whole idea of God tempting man. God must, at times, conceal his true purpose. He must mislead man (as he misled Abraham into thinking that he was the kind of God who demanded that a murder be committed for his glorification) because if everything were clear men would become automatons. In Rosenzweig’s words, ‘the most unfree, the timid and the fearful would be the most pious. But evidently God wants only the free to be His: He must make it difficult, yea, impossible, to understand His actions, so as to give man the opportunity to believe, that is, to ground his faith in trust and freedom.’ Plaut continues: ‘What kind of God is He? How can the compassionate God of the Bible be presented as asking the sacrifice of a child?’ Plaut replies by referring to two different solutions that have been offered. The first is that the test came out of a time when human sacrifice was still an acceptable possibility; in terms of its own age, therefore, it was merely the extreme test and, after all, God did not exact the final price. The real test of faith and obedience consists in being ready to do the totally unexpected, the impossible, for the sake of God. Another solution is that God never intended the sacrifice to be made. According to this way of reading the narrative, concludes Plaut, Abraham’s test both succeeded and failed. It succeeded in that it proved Abraham to be a man of faith and obedience. And it failed in that Abraham’s understanding of God’s nature remained deficient. This latter observation does not seem to tally, however, with the narrative. It is nowhere suggested that Abraham failed in any way in his test, as Plaut would have it. Even if the Akedah be interpreted as a lesson on the sacredness of human life and the true nature of God it is nowhere implied that Abraham was mistaken in his understanding of the demand made on him.

 The religious thinker and educationist Ernst Simon,16 in a discussion of how the Akedah narrative should be taught in religion classes, refers to the two different interpretations of the Akedah in the Jewish tradition. He calls them the ‘rationalist’ and the ‘existentialist’ and believes that between these two extremes some intermediate possibilities exist, ‘not necessarily of a compromising nature, but authentic in themselves’. Simon refers to Kierkegaard’s analysis in his Fear and Trembling and remarks that though Kierkegaard was not aware of the Jewish traditions his attitude towards Abraham as the ‘knight of faith’ is, in some ways, kindred to them.

 Simon formulates the basic problem of the Akedah as: ‘How could Abraham believe that God asked from him the sacrifice of his son? Is that a moral demand? And if not, how can it be a religious one?’ The ‘rationalist’ view is that God never intended the sacrifice to be made. This line of interpretation can be followed all the way to Maimonides’ view17 that God does not really want even animal sacrifices and that these are commanded only as a concession to the psychology of the ancient Israelites who, under the influence of their milieu, could not conceive of divine worship without sacrificial offerings. The ‘existentialist’ school of thought, on the other hand, sees man’s highest perfection in the absolute submission of his will to God’s command, even when this seems most absurd. ‘According to this view’, writes Simon, ‘the real victim was not the innocent Isaac, but the knowing Abraham who brought a sacrifice of his intellect and his will, of his emotions and even of his morals, that is, of his whole human personality, ad maiorem gloriam Dei’.18

 Yet Simon believes that it is possible to read the narrative in a way in which both extremes are avoided but in which justice is done to the insights provided by both. The command to sacrifice can be read as a warning against too facile an identification of religion with naturalistic ethics. Ultimately, it is in the command of God that ethical conduct is grounded. The ‘happy ending’, on the other hand, precludes any religious approach that encourages ideas repugnant to our moral feelings. An anti-ethical religion such as that described in Gustave Flaubert’s historical novel Salammbô, about Moloch worship in Semitic Carthage, is a real possibility. Thus the Akedah teaches that Judaism is neither a secular system of morals nor a blind devotion to a supernatural power. Furthermore, the Akedah is the great exception, not the rule. The rule in Judaism is that religious and moral commands are very close to each other.

 To sum up, there is more than one Jewish interpretation of the Akedah. In this and similar matters of biblical interpretation there is no such thing as an ‘official’ Jewish viewpoint and it is extremely doubtful whether the whole concept of ‘normative Judaism’ is more than a myth. Both Steinberg and Soloveitchick are, therefore, correct in claiming that their understanding of the Akedah is authentically Jewish. They are both wrong in appearing to claim that theirs is the only possible authentically Jewish interpretation. It is not as if there is any question of the Jew ever being obliged to emulate Abraham’s example. Judaism supplies a categorical answer to the question whether a murder is ever permitted when it is believed that God has so commanded and the answer in all the Jewish sources is in the negative. The command to Abraham was, on any showing, a once-and-for-all matter, never to be repeated and not carried out in practice even in the instance of Abraham himself. Yet this does not allow a Jewish thinker to dimiss the Kierkegaardian ‘midrash’ as utter nonsense. There is point in the reminder, and sufficient support from the classical Jewish writings, that a true religious outlook demands of ‘ethical man’ that he acquire a vertical direction to his life and that when the brave  ‘knight of faith, goes out to do battle he does not tilt at windmills.

  1. Louis Jacobs ‘Akedah’ in Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 2 (1972), pp. 480–4.
  2. In his Anatomy of Faith (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), pp. 130–52.
  3. Ibid., p. 147.
  4. See the discussion in Reuben Margaliout’s commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, entitled Margaliyot Ha-Yam (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1958), Part II, No. 10, p. 128.
  5. Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial (New York: Schocken, 1969).
  6. Relevant to this question is a Responsum of Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg (d. 1293). Here (Teshuvot Pesakim U-Minhagim, ed. I. Z. Kahana [Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1957–62], Part II, No. 59, p. 54) Meir discusses a case arising out of certain tragic events that occurred in the city of Koblenz, where on 2 April 1265 a man killed his wife and four children in order to save them from torture and forcible conversion; he had intended also to kill himself, but the Gentiles prevented him from doing so. Asked whether the unfortunate man must do penance for the murder of his family, Meir replies that he is quite sure that it is permitted – indeed, obligatory – to commit suicide in order to avoid apostasy, but that he is not at all sure that it is permitted to murder others for the sake of the ‘sanctification of God’s name’. Nevertheless, Meir concludes that this, too, must be permitted, since we know that many of the saints killed themselves and their families when threatened with forcible conversion. He concludes that the man must not be allowed to undergo any penance, for if he did penance it would imply that the saints of old were wrong.
  7. This does seem to be the meaning of the quotation by Satan from Job, see Reuben Margaliout, op. cit., No. 17, p. 129, and the sermon by Hayyim Jeremiah Plensberg (nineteenth century) in his Divrey Yirmiyahu, S. P. Garber, Part I, Viona, n.d., to the Akedah narrative, pp. 157–60.
  8. Cf. the comment of the Hasidic master Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbica (d. 1854) in his Mey Ha-Shiloah, Vol. II, ed. M. J. Leiner (New York: Sentry Press, 1973), p. 12, that the command to Abraham was conveyed in an ambiguous manner and that Abraham had doubts as to whether it was really a divine command, since it involved the prohibited act of murder. Abraham emerged victorious from the test because he refused to allow his love for Isaac to persuade him that God could not really have commanded him to commit murder. This author quotes the Zohar (I, 120a) to the effect that Abraham saw his vision of this command ‘as in a glass darkly’.
  9. The Guide for the Perplexed, III, 24, Vol. I, trans. S. Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 500–2.
10. Bahya Ibn Asher, Commentary to the Pentateuch, Vol. I, ed. C. B. Chavel (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1966), pp. 192–4.
11. Plensberg, op. cit., states that, on the face of it, the Adekah is extremely strange. The command to commit a murder seems ‘a very ugly thing’ for God to do and appears to involve, in fact, a profanation of God’s name. But Abraham had hitherto only known the love of God. In order to become the perfect man of faith he had to learn to obey God and fear him even when commanded to do something that made it extremely hard to believe in God’s goodness.
12. J. B. Soloveitchick, ‘Ish Ha-Halakhah’, Talpiot 2 (1944): 651–735.
13. J. B. Agus, Signposts in Modern Judaism (New York: Bloch, 1954), pp. 37–8.
14. W. Gunther Plaut, ‘Notes on the Akedah’, Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal 17 (January 1969): 45–7.
15. Franz Rosenzwieg, Star of Redemption, second edn (1930), trans. William W. Hallo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), Part III, Introduction, pp. 265–7.
16. Ernst Simon, ‘Torat Hayyim’, Conservative Judaism 12 (Spring 1958): 16–19.
17. Guide for the Perplexed, III, 32.
18. Cf. Jiri Langer, Nine Gates, trans. Stephen Jolly (London: James Clarke, 1961), p. 156. Under the heading And now something for Kierkegaard, Langer gives this interpretation of the Akedah, which he attributes to the eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg:

The significance of Abraham’s testing lies not in the fact that his obedience to the Lord’s command made him prepared to offer up his only son for love of God, but in the way he behaved when God ordered him to set his son free and let him live. In other words, its significance lies in the fact that God declined the offering the moment after He had demanded it. If Abraham had rejoiced because the life of his beloved son was saved, or if he had grieved because he had not been allowed to show his love for God by actually carrying out his sacrifice – in either of these cases he would have failed the test. But Abraham rejoiced – as can be seen from a careful reading of the Scriptures – that, in carrying out God’s new command, to spare his son, he was allowed to bring to God a still greater sacrifice than the actual offering up of Isaac would have been. In being prepared to offer his son to God, he showed that for him the command to sacrifice was something even higher than his love for his child. But when God gave His second command, Abraham gave up the performance of this sacrifice, in other words, he sacrificed even that sacrifice which had
previously become so dear to him, for this was the only way he could show his
infinite love to the Creator. He rejoiced in the new sacrifice whose significance lay essentially in the fact that he had renounced the offering up of his son. This is the
climax of his testing.

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