In the beginning was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Or at least, it was Rabbi Boteach who placed the New York Times advertisement that was the spark for Dr. Aaron Koller’s latest book, “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought,” published by the Jewish Publication Society this summer. Dr. Koller, a professor of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, will speak about the book Saturday night for Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. (See below.)
The 2014 ad, which ran during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, quoted Elie Wiesel: “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” The rejection the ad referred to was the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac — what in Hebrew is called the Akeida, the binding. The ad sparked arguments, including some among biblical scholars as to whether the Akeida “may or may not have anything to do with child sacrifice,” Dr. Koller said.
The controversy got Dr. Koller thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac, and how it has been used in a political context. “It dawned on me that this text is not just of historical interest, but actually matters in current discourse,” he said.
Dr. Koller had taught a course on the history of the interpretation of the Akeida, so he knew that the story had been giving many meanings over the centuries, even as basic plot details — for example, some interpreters argued that Isaac in fact was killed but came back to life — become hazy in multiple retellings.
And that got him thinking about the way the Akeida was used specifically in the Orthodox community at Yeshiva University, where Dr. Koller had earned his undergraduate degree and his doctorate before joining its faculty. The use was based on an interpretation offered by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the university’s rabbinic pillar for much of the 20th century. Dr. Koller summarizes the argument like this: “The Rav taught us that the Akeida teaches us a lesson of submission to God’s inscrutable will. So even when things seem morally problematic to us, we have to listen to God and go ahead with our active faith and trust that it will work out and not question the Divine will.”
Dr. Koller has a lot of problems with that approach, and in large part devoted his book to rebutting it.
“It’s true that Rabbi Soloveitchik said that a lot of the time, but that’s not really the common way of reading the Akeida. That’s Kierkegaard’s approach,” he said, referring to Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who in his book “Fear and Trembling” described Abraham as a “knight of faith” whose faith led to the “suspension of the ethical” in the binding of Isaac.
“It’s very new,” Dr. Koller said of Kierkegaard’s interpretation, published in 1843. “It’s very un-Jewish. It seems odd to keep quoting this interpretation of the Akeida that was a Danish Lutheran interpretation from relatively recently and saying this is the lesson of the Akeida. Most of the book is actually trying to explain where Kierkegaard’s interpretation comes from, why it’s bad, and what a better way to read the Akeida in the modern world would be.”
Dr. Koller maintains that the suppression of moral qualms in the name of faith is not what Rabbi Soloveitchik and, before him, Kierkegaard, were focused on in their interpretation of Genesis.
Instead, “they were very much attuned to the fact that faith — in Kierkegaard’s terms — and halacha — for the Rav — were ill-placed in the modern world. The nation state was a new thing for Kierkegaard in the early 1800s. You’re a citizen and you effectively put your faith aside to enter the public sphere.
“For the Rav, until the creation of Israel” — seven years after he was appointed the head of YU’s rabbinical seminary — “there was no country where Judaism was an official religion. You had to put religion aside if you were a citizen. As Napoleon said, ‘To Jews as people all the rights in the world; to Jews as Jews no rights at all.’ That’s the challenge of the modern world: How do you deal with religion where you’re not allowed to bring your full self into the vision of society?
“Kierkegaard looks at the world around him and says the Akeida is a story that explores exactly this question. You have a universalist ethic that obviously requires you to be a good parent and not murder people. Then you have a call from God to one individual that no one else understands. No one else shares this call. And that person now has to decide if I put my own faith ahead of my ethical responsibility to everyone else. Kierkegaard writes, ‘Either we accept that sometimes faith suspends ethics, or we have to condemn Abraham as a murderer. I don’t know what the answer is.’ Kierkegaard wants us to concede that sometimes faith can take precedent over ethics.
“The Rav in his writings is not so interested in the clash between faith and ethics, but is very interested in the fact that religion is a personal matter the rest of the world can’t get involved in,” Dr. Koller said. “Religion can’t be scrutinized by anyone else. This is the life of halacha: consonance to one’s mission, to the call of God, even at the expense of what otherwise would seem universal drives or values.
“He doesn’t talk about a having a public policy question where you have ethics on the one side and halacha on the other side. He’s saying that this is what it means to be a Jew in the modern world: Sometimes Jewish practice makes us say, ‘Here we have to stop. Here we have to commit to God and go no further.’
“At YU today, this is basically deployed when you have a clash between what people acknowledge as ethics and traditional Jewish values. Take a hot button issue: What do you do with gender egalitarianism or gay marriages? There are a lot of different ways that Orthodox Judaisms have opposed both of those. One way, and I’ve heard this, is to essentially say, I agree, ethically speaking of course women should count in a minyan, of course men should be able to marry each other if they love each other. I’m totally with you on the value side; I’m a full blooded 21st-century modern citizen. However, we just can’t allow it because it’s against halacha, and the Akeida teaches us that even when it’s unethical we have to submit to halacha.”
Dr. Koller believes this is misconstruing Rabbi Soloveichik’s argument. “He’s concerned with carving out a place in modern society for a vibrant Orthodoxy that’s totally faithful to tradition. Can it exist in this kind of society or does it mean seceding from society? Gay marriage was not the pressing issue it has become. Does talk of suspending the ethical open a dangerous door to massacring people in a mosque? That was not a question on his agenda.”
Further, the Akeida had no one meaning or interpretation for Rabbi Soloveitchik. “He didn’t write a biblical commentary. He quotes the Akeida in a bunch of different ways in his writings over the course of roughly 50 years, none of which aimed to be a systematic interpretation of the story. There’s an extended discussion that was published posthumously that goes in a totally different direction than Kierkegaard, saying Abraham was basically doing God a favor in the Akeida.”
If there are so many conflicting interpretations, does that mean that Rabbi Boteach’s entire agenda of using the Akeida to make a public argument is inappropriate?
“I’m not so nihilistic about using texts,” Dr. Koller said. “It’s pretty easy to say there are wrong readings of any texts. That doesn’t mean I know what the right answer is. But we can get things down to a smaller number of potentially good readings.
“I do think that the Akeida has a lot to do with the rejection of child sacrifice but it’s more complicated. It’s an absolutely reasonable thing to say about the Akeida but it doesn’t mean it exhausts the story. In general, it’s probably a category error to reduce a story to a particular lesson.”
And what about that theory that Isaac came back to life?
“It’s the subject of a famous essay that became a book, ‘The Last Trial,’ by Shalom Spiegel, which traces that idea. He got interested in the subject because he was publishing a piyyut, a poem, from the 12th century written by a person who lived through the Second Crusade. In his piyyut he says that Abraham killed Isaac, and then Isaac came back to life, and then Abraham wanted to kill him again, and an angel intervened. Spiegel argued that that interpretation was very widespread, often behind the scenes. Why was Ephraim of Bonn who wrote this piyyut interested in this particular version of the Akeida? Because he actually knew people who have also killed their own children as an act of faith,” rather than have them be captured and converted by the Christian crusaders. “Where do we see a parent can kill their own children out of faith in God? There’s the Akeida. He latches on to a version where Isaac died. It also provides some comfort to the German Jews who did this, because he came back to life. They know their children won’t come back to life, but there’s the life of the world to come. The Akeida pulled in that way gives a positive framework to this horrific experience these people have gone through.”
What: Talk by Dr. Aaron Koller, “Did Abraham Fail the Akedah? Criticism of Avraham in the Jewish Tradition.”
When: Saturday, October 31, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Zoom space sponsored by Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, accessible from Rinat.org or Rinat Yisrael’s Facebook page.