Friday, November 18, 2005

Yitzhak, I Vass only following ordersss!

I believe this week's (or maybe it was last week's, I've been on the road) parhsa contains the story of the Akedah, one of the most disturbing stories in the whole Tanakh, and one, in my opinion, without any redeeming value. Why was it included? Waht were the authors of the Bible trying to say by writing such a tale?

My attention was caught during Rish Hashanna, when I had occasion to read the commentary on the subject contained in the High Holiday Prayer Book translated and edited by Morris Silverman. This is the original "Conservative Mahkzor" that so many of us grew up with. For years, I had read this commentary, but this year, it suddenly leaped out of the page and punched me in the face:

The sounding of the shofar .. is a reminder of that implicit obedience to God which was revealed by Abraham and Isaac. The theme of the Akedah ... was intended to arouse God's compassion for Isaac's descendants and to inspire us to deeds of sacrifice. Religion consists of those aspirations for which we are ready to sacrifice comfort, position, and even safety. We do not truly live our ideals unless we are ready, if necessary to die for them.

And what noble aspirations was Abraham willing to sacrifice for? What ideas should we die for? Rabbi Silverman also does not elucidate. He goes on with a whole paragraph about how this story shows that Judaism abhors human sacrifice, and then concludes with a praise of the concept of martyrdom:

There is not a single noble cause, movement, or acheivment that does not call for great sacrifice and martyrdon. [!] Liberty, science, truth, -- all have exacted their toll of heroes. The people of Israel have been the very symbol of martyrdom on behalf of freedom, justice, and truth.

If that's the case, this whole exercise was really a test of Isaac, not Abraham.

As for Abraham, the only "noble" ideal here being tested is that of obedience, not "liberty," "freedom," "science," or even "truth." Now obedience is sometimes a useful quality and may be needed on oaccasion in order for people to accomplish things, but I believe that it always need to be offered conditionally. All authority to demand obedience is contigent, even, as far as I'm concerned, that of God. Even an organizaton like the U.S. Army requires soldiers to disobey their superiors if issued an illegal order.

Abraham was tested and shown that he was willing to commit an act that God, presumably finds abhorrent. And then God blesses him for it!

It shows that not only did Abraham fail the test, but so did God.

And Rabbi Silverman was clueless about its meaning. This is especially true becuase Silverman wrote his notes in 1939, a period when the folly of considering obedience a virtue was manifestly evident:

"Ve vere only following ordersss, after all..."


Blogger Shira Salamone said...

This one was all over the Jewish blogosphere just around the time of the Yamim Noraim. I should know, because I’m the one who started it. You might want to check out this post
Included in the comments are URLs leading to posts picking up on the discussion on other blogs.
You might also want to check out Dilbert’s later continuation of the discussion, his Tuesday, November 01, 2005 post,"Torah based ethics/morality as a force in Halacha," at
In addition, there’s Steg’s, Thursday, November 17, 2005 post, “The ‘Aqeida: I Still Don't Get It,” at I confess to having copied most of this comment from the comment that I posted there.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous uncle moishy said...

I think that Paul at wrote something around RH-time that also suggested that Abraham failed the test.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

I think that Paul at wrote something around RH-time that also suggested that Abraham failed the test.

Yes, the evidence being that God never talks to Abraham again after that. But that might be a PC edit/wishful thinking on out part, becuase the actual text says that the angel told Abe that God was really, really impressed that he followed orders, and Abe is belssed by God. That doesn't sound like telling someone that they failed a test.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a drash (albeit still in progress)- after the akeida, God tells abraham that He knows that Abraham fears him. Abrahams actions are those of fear. Whatever backbone he showed standing up for Sodom and Gomorrah, he's lost it now. Abraham makes the choice of someone who fears God, rather than loves Him.
I was looking for a counterpoint to this- someone who does love God. The only example I could think of was Moshe, who never stops arguing with God on behalf on bnei yisrael. I'm not sure he is explicitly identified as "loving God" but i'd argue that his relationship with God is one of love- longing to see His face, longing for closeness with Him. When you love someone, you sometimes you know they're better than the way that they're acting. When you fear someone, standing up to them is much more difficult, Abraham tried it only once and gave up.
yes- its a drash, but I like to think it applies to those who regularly argue with laws in the torah, and think that God can do better than (take your pick: homophobia/ mysogyny/ xenophobia)

12:05 AM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

yes- its a drash, but I like to think it applies to those who regularly argue with laws in the torah, and think that God can do better than (take your pick: homophobia/ mysogyny/ xenophobia)

Yes, but then why are those attitudes written into what is supposed to be God's holy book?

If we have to keep modifying the plain words of the Torah with drash, why bother with the Torah in the first place?

11:54 PM  
Blogger kathyt said...

if you are going to pick on the wording of the bible, thus indicating that the bible is exact and accurate, shouldn't you then automaticaly entertain the notion that all the words of the bible are equal?
why do you asign more truth to some sentences than to others?

as a conservative jew you're either being acciddentaly wishy washy or a total faker

of course thats only the I see it

5:57 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

why do you asign more truth to some sentences than to others?

I'm not picking over deatils in wording, my problem is with the whole story itself. In its plain meaning, it teaches a lesson that what God wants is blind obedience, even to orders that are not only very distasteful, but are contradictory to what God has promised Abraham. ("Your descendanats will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens," etc. -- you can't have numerous descendants if you start by killing off the only one you currently have.)

The only other alternative explanation is that God tested Abraham's faith that God wouldn't actually give such a horrible order. But what kind of faith is that? It implies that God is teasing us, playing with our emotions, getting His jollies seeing us getting all worked up emotionally. I would never want to follow a God like that. He sounds like some abusive older sibling.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If we have to keep modifying the plain words of the Torah with drash, why bother with the Torah in the first place?"

Dude, you totally need to be a reconstructionist! But seriously, I'm wanting to say that the Torah to me is a living document, it's alive, and it's alive because people are interfacing with it day in and day out, and it's where we start from and where we end, and we are working out Torah at all times - not creating it, but working it out - like we are pulling on threads and making something, but where do the threads come from? Who knows! I believe from G-d because I believe everything comes from G-d, but whatever. That's not even the point. The point is that this activity is sacred, not that the dead words on the page are. It's like when the scribe makes a mezuzah - it isn't kosher if he doesn't say every word as he writes it - and mean it!

I am also totally sympathetic to your point, though, because I for a long time felt as you do in this comment. But since I wanted to have a religious life, and since my ideas about G-d came ultimately from a Jewish tradition, I was forced to grapple with that tradition, one way or the other. I don't always feel so happy about that, but it's the way things are.

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and p.s. I meant the comment above as a good thing - I am a reconstructionist!

(, if you want to write)

3:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We were only following orders" isn't what Abraham says according to Rabbi Silverman. Try reading it again, but instead of making it up, actually read it.

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