Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Ishbitzer on the Akedah

Colorseer mentioned the Ishbitzer's take on the Akedah today. Curious to find out more about it, I discovered Abraham! Abraham! Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac by Jerome I. Gellman. Unfortunately, I cannot find that book in the YU library (possibly because it's incredibly expensive), and have resorted to reading The Fear, The Trembling, and the Fire instead. I here cite a lengthy excerpt from the book, not in any way desiring to infringe on the copyright but simply to demonstrate why you should find this book and read it soon.

Rabbi Leiner's exposition of the Abraham story occurs twice, once in each of the two volumes of Mei Ha-shiloah. The two passages complement one another and converge to a common theme. The following is from the first volume:

    The trial of the akedah has to do with the greatness of Abraham's faith in God: even though God had told him [that his seed would be great] and that the covenant would be established through Isaac, and now he is being told to offer him up as a burnt offering, nonetheless, he believed in the first promises as before, and did not lose faith in them. And this faith is beyond human grasp. For in truth, Abraham did not receive an explicit command from God to slaughter his son. Therefore, [the Bible] does not say that "YHVH" ["the Lord"] tested Abraham, but that "Elohim" ["God"] tested him, meaning by this that the word came to him through a dim glass, so it says "Elohim," a term referring to power. That is why the trial is not said to be of Isaac, for Isaac believed Abraham when he said that YHVH had given the command. Hence, for Isaac it wasn't such a great test. But for Abraham, it was a trial, for he did not receive an explicit command. Now, had he any personal interest, of a father to a son, that would have forced him to have mercy on him. For in truth [it was God's plan] that he not sacrifice him, the test being only an appearance in the eyes of Abraham. And this is what he meant in his prayer for Sodom, when he said, "I am dust and ashes" [Genesis, 18:27]. "Dust" refers to an action that is not clarified and requires rectification, for from dust there can be growth." And "ashes" is something lost. And if, God forbid, he had sacrificed him, there would have been no way to rectify that act. Likewise with regard to the people of Sodom, if he had succeeded in his prayer that they live, and they were to remain in their wickedness, then he would be like ashes, that have no power of growth.
This paragraph has a companion in a more accessible comment in the second volume of Mei Ha-shiloah:
    The essence of the trial of the binding of Isaac lies in the fact that the prohibition of killing was clear to him, even more so slaughtering his own son. For clearly it was easy for Abraham to follow the command of the Lord with all his soul, even to sacrifice himself. Only in this case, as the Zohar states, this word came to him through a dim glass. That is, an explicit word did not reach him, and he was perplexed in his heart, and so could have decided the doubt either way. Now, had he even a small measure of self-interest towards Isaac, as a father to a son, he would have decided the matter for himself not to offer him as a sacrifice. For he had many thoughts and ideas and was confused by them, as the Midrash writes, "I had available a response: Yesterday you told me that Isaac would be my seed, and now you tell me "take thy son!" But I did not respond in this way. Instead I conquered my mercy in order to do thy will." And this was the essence of the trial (MH, 2:12). The sense of these two paragraphs is that Abraham at the binding of Isaac did not know what it was God was commanding. There was ambiguity and doubt at the heart of God's command, and as a result Abraham was perplexed about what he was to do.
That the command to Abraham was ambiguous has a precedent in the following Midrash, describing a dialogue between Abraham and God after the akedah was over:

    Rabbi Acha said: Abraham began to wonder, "This matter is incomprehensible. Yesterday you said "For in Isaac shall be the continuation of your seed." Then you turned around and you said, "Take your son etc," and now you tell me, "Don't send out your hand to the lad." I don't understand." The Holy One Blessed Be He answered "...When I told you to take your son, I didn't say to slaughter him, only to raise him up on the altar. You have placed him on the altar. Now take him down."
Thus does the Midrash have Abraham raise the question of the contradiction between God's earlier promises to provide Abraham descendants through Isaac, and the present command to kill the as yet childless Isaac. God replies that He hadn't commanded Abraham to kill Isaac at all, but only to "raise him up" on the altar on the mountain. Indeed, the Bible does not record an explicit command to kill Isaac, but only a command to "offer him up" or "raise him up," which can mean either a mere "raising up," or a "burnt offering."

Mordecai Joseph too depicts Abraham as not knowing the significance of the ambiguous words of God's command. But whereas the Midrash took Abraham to have misunderstood God, thinking "raise him up" to have meant sacrifice him rather than merely to raise up symbolically, in the Izbicer's mind Abraham simply doesn't know whether he is being asked to kill Isaac or only being asked to perform, perhaps, a symbolic act of placing him on the altar. He does not understand the ambiguous command.

The command is unclear because it reaches Abraham not from the attribute of God as YHVH, but from God as "Elohim", which according to tradition is the name of God that implies the attribute of "power," or "judgement," ("Din") rather than the attribute of mercy of YHVH. The point here is not that Abraham is being asked to do a cruel act, and for that reason finds himself addressed by "Elohim," but that the prophetic message is as from a distance, is unclear and indefinite in its import. It is through a "dim glass. In the kabbalah, the Divine aspect of Elohim corresponds to the dim light of the moon, hence to an unclear prophecy, whereas the aspect of YHVH corresponds to the strong light of the sun, hence to a clear prophecy. Had Scriptures described the prophetic message as coming in the name of YHVH it would have indicated a clear and unambiguous message.

What was the nature of Abraham's trial, then, if the Divine command was ambiguous between commanding the killing of his son and the mere placing of his son on the altar? It was, for the Izbicer, to test how Abraham would act in this state of uncertainty. It was a test of Abraham's authenticity before God.

On account of the ambiguity in the Divine word, Abraham was in danger of falling into self-deception: Abraham could easily have convinced himself that God could not possibly have meant for him to kill Isaac. If in becoming convinced of this, however, Abraham had been influenced by his feelings toward Isaac, and was not deciding purely from a sincere attempt to discern the Divine intention, he would have been deceiving himself into thinking that he had done all he could to obey God's command. He would have been guilty of an inauthenticity in ascribing to God the command to merely place Isaac upon the altar as a symbolic ritual, had this ascription been based on Abraham's own desires, and not on an assessment of God's will. This would have been to fail the test, in a succumbing to self-deception.

The possibility of Abraham's creating a self-deceptive strategy for himself was rendered attractive by two available considerations. The first was the consideration of rationality. God, after all, had told Abraham that his seed would be continued through Isaac. Were Abraham to interpret the present command as directing him to slay Isaac, he would be making it a contradiction to the earlier promise. To entertain the truth of the contradiction would have required an ascent "above human reason." It would therefore have been quite convenient for Abraham to convince himself "as a rational being" that God could not possibly have been asking an actual sacrifice of him. According to the Izbicer, to pass the test Abraham had to overcome the temptation to use rationality as an excuse for succumbing to his own feelings of love for his son and for that reason refuse to perform the sacrifice. Abraham was being asked to ignore the contradiction when deciding how to act. His decision was not to issue from considerations of objective truth, or logic, but from elsewhere.

The second consideration supportive of self-deception was that God Himself had commanded Noah and his children (that is, all of humakind) not to kill. The killing of one's own child would surel have been a particularly grave transgression of the Divine command. So Abraham is in temptation, the temptation being to refrain from killing Isaac through representing to himself that the reason he chooses not to kill Isaac is that he, Abraham, is so very pious and obedient. He (Abraham thinks to himself self-deceptively) wishes only to heed the Divine commands, and so, when faced with the ambiguity of the present command, in light of the unambiguous duty not to kill his son, has no choice but to refrain from killing Isaac. Abraham would have failed the test had he engaged in t his elaborate reasoning as a way of concealing his real motivation: the wish to save his beloved son, Isaac.

Abraham, therefore, in order to pass the test, must rid himself of his personal attachment to his son and not be swayed by his love for him. Abraham was being tested, to see whether he could bring himself to a state wherein he could act only for the sake of God, wanting to do only what God wants, and not what he, Abraham, would want.

Success in passing the trial, then, does not depend solely upon what Abraham does. For even if Abraham were to decide not to sacrifice Isaac, which was in fact God's will all along (as Rabbi Leiner takes care to note), he could nonetheless have failed the test. Had he refrained from sacrificing Isaac, but for the wrong reasons, had he acted, that is, in self-deception, Abraham would have been a failure.

~The Fear, The Trembling, and The Fire pages 24-27


The Ishbitzer's answers are fascinating. One of them, the existential explanation, focuses upon the fact that Abraham truly had to make his decision within a vacuum, that is, blankly decide what the correct action was and proceed with it (God will intervene if necessary.) The important thing about this situation is that Abraham had to be clear that he did not absolutely know that what he was doing was the right thing, that it had the potential to either be "dust or ashes" (something from which something could grow and blossom, or something entiredly dead, with no potential for growth.) The other, theological explanation, which I prefer, works in terms of the Ishbitzer's theology, explaining that it was upon Abraham to attempt to suppress his feelings for Isaac; if he succeeded in doing so, he was meant to slaughter his son- if he did not succeed, he was not meant to do so. Since he did not succeed- the "angel," that is, his own love for Isaac, prevented him from killing Isaac. Equating the angel with his emotion is predicated upon the Ishbitzer's understanding of the angel that drove Judah to lust after the harlot (i.e. Tamar) and his interpretation of what happens by Zimri and Pinchas (which is also fascinating.)

Definitely check out the book!


Aaron from YU said...

Useful info>
Will look into it when done with finals. Thanks.

Colorseer said...

I'm glad you got so much out of this, and reached the end conclusions you did. I'm also pleased you looked into the character of Yehuda. Much like each of the Sfirot we count during the omer can only be understood through reflecting it through another (ex: chesed sh'b'gevurah), so too, the prototypical personality types of the Ishbitzer can only be understood through the lenses of the others. I wonder if we've now managed to end upon the same understanding after all.

dbs said...


Since you love a challenge, if someone new to this reads this, should their conclusion be:

"The true test of faith is to subvert both reason and uncertainty to commit murder."

Unknown said...

Mamash - thank you - this writing you shared gave me a conceptual framework for my constant experience - contradictory guidance - something that really messed with my head - until now!