Monday, November 17, 2008

The Akeida: Of Sacrifices and Paradigms

For years, the Left has said I'm Right and the Right has said I'm Left. I'm dyslexic to matters of Left and Right," said Israel Beiteinu MK Yisrael Hasson on Thursday, hours after he announced he would join Kadima and run in the faction's upcoming primaries. (The Jerusalem Post 6/11/08)

I don’t remember the first time I started having trouble with the story of the Akeida – when Avraham silently accepts God’s decree to take his one and only son (who he loves) and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. The event and the price paid for it (his wife's death and estrangement from both his son and God) is stranger still when one considers Avraham's previous argument with God over the fate of the city of Sdom.

What I do remember though is actively searching for a commentator arguing that Avraham had failed the test, that instead of agreeing, his job was to refuse; a parshan a la Kant who believed that a commandment which flatly contradicts morality can’t ever be from God, even if it seems that way; Someone who would affirm my intuition that there are certain sacrifices that we should just not have to make…that one’s family comes before all else.

The contrasting stories of Sdom and Akeida are adopted as paradigms for how we should serve God. Those emphasizing Sdom believe that moral autonomy is integral to religious consciousness and call on us to bring our subjective sense of dignity and justice into our relationship with God. Others who see the Akeida as the ultimate reflection of divine worship emphasize self sacrifice – that at its core, religion demands ‘heroic withdrawal’ from what we believe to be good and right in the service of the Divine.

As a modern Jew who values his autonomy and rationality I knew which model I preferred…

Then I read a fantastic article by Israeli educator Shai Zarchi (which I blogged about last year) on the comparisons between Avraham and the founders of the State who all made sacrifices for an ideal they believed in. I came across a beautiful Dvar Torah suggesting that however uncomfortable we may feel with Avraham, many of us, in our own small way, make sacrifices for, or coerce our children into the service of certain values. (Unlike me, my children will not be Israeli citizens by choice [with all the consequences and responsibilities that come with that]).

And while I still preferred the Sdom paradigm, I wondered whether a post ideological society unprepared to make sacrifices could ultimately survive.

Yet perhaps the most powerful idea on this hauntingly frightening story comes from the commentary of the Hasidic Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica. For the ‘Izbicer’, the origin of the voice commanding Avraham is unclear and he must therefore look into his deepest self to understand what he should do. In the meantime, his test is to be able to act within the uncertainty of not knowing what the right thing is, to act without clarity in the face of ambiguity.

And I began to think that maybe the story comes to break the idea of a single paradigm; the concept that we can ‘model’ how to act before God in all situations – to always surrender ot stand our ground.

Because the reality we're faced with is more complex than overarching theories of right and left, on being able to rely on ideologies to tell us how to act.

And maybe in the face of such uncertainty the only genuine response is to be 'dyslexic'.


Danny Brill said...

Great stuff mate.
I think that sacrifice, by definition means that your willingly not happy with the outcome, but see the bigger picture and have a positive motivation behind it. People do it everyday, only G-D isnt the one doing the talking. The fact that G-D told Avraham to go against his morals can definately teach us something about dedication as well.

cornflake girl said...

I have never heard that opinion before - that Avraham was punished as a result of his decision. Interesting take and I would like to learn more. Sources?

Anonymous said...

have you read Avivah Zornberg on the Akeida - she quotes Kiekergaard....shoudl have a look its very interesting....