Monthly Archives: July 2020

Interview -Rabbi Everett Gendler’s translation of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares

The early decades of the twentieth century were a time of great upheaval in the life of Eastern European Jewry. The overthrowing of the Tzar, the Russian revolution, WWI, pogroms, poverty, and plagues left a Jewry bereft of the old but without a replacement to a new modern form of life. In this time period, we find fierce debates in the Yiddish (as well as Russian and Hebrew) journals. The Orthodox rabbinical world was alive in discussing socialism, civil rights, anarchism, Zionism, spiritualism, nationalism, and militarism. Much of this Rabbinic debate is not well known. One of the important figures in these debates was Rabbi  Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869-1931), a near contemporary of the better known Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Rabbi Tameres studied in Volozhin Yeshiva four years after Rav Kook and was one of the greats who studied at the Kovno Kollel. He was asked by Rabbi Hayim Tchernowitz to head the Religious Zionist Yeshiva in Odessa which he declined.

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Rabbi Tameres attended the fourth Zionist congress in 1900 and started his slide away from political nationalist Zionism seeing it as just another form of materialist political machinations and self-justifying violence. He became a life-long pacifist preaching that the way of Torah is ethics, peace, humanism, and spiritual growth. According to Tameres, “for us, the Jewish people, our entire distinctiveness is the Torah and Judaism; the kingdom of the spirit is our state territory. Tameres called himself “the sensitive person” who feels the pain of the world.

Tameres was the emblematic image of the rabbi who would seek the leniency for the poor widow who cannot afford another chicken or who allowed an elderly Torah reader to not be corrected to save his honor. He called many of his contemporary Orthodox colleagues as “Jesuitical” in that their goal to use frumkeit as a weapon for the public persecution of others.

Rabbi Tameres wrote a Yiddish autobiography but most of his writings are in the style of a Litvak pulpit rabbi, similar to Rav Kook, interpreting Aggadic statements to make his point. Nevertheless, despite the similarity of form, Rabbi Tameres thinks war is always bad while Rav Kook in his essay on war in Orot wrote that war prunes away the weak and allow others to show their virtue.

We approved the naturalistic outlook… that it throws the primary blame for war upon the class that holds power. For however much the ugly clay of war may be imbedded in the hearts of the mass of people, yet those who busy themselves with this nice material, moistening and shaping it for their goal and bringing it to completion—these are surely “the ruling classes.”

Rav Kook thought secular nationalism will be redeemed in a religious dialectic, for Rabbi Tameres, nationalism can never be redeemed.

From that point on the children of Israel became “political,” and the Torah became merely a kind of constitution, similar to those constitutions from “cultured nations” that we today know all too well: on paper, drafted and signed, but in practice, the complete opposite. Corruption begets corruption. The corruption of the ethical sense, which followed in the wake of the invasion from without by the spirit of “political nationalism,” soon brought them to request that a king be set over them also, “like all the nations surrounding them.

Rabbi Tameres published his essays in the same journals in which Rav Kook published his essays, but the latter is widely known while the passivist approach of Rabbi Tameres has been eclipsed.

Ehud Luz in his Wrestling with an Angel: Power, Morality, and Jewish Identity translate some portions of Tameres’s writings. We also had a variety of pieces translated starting in the 1960’s by American pacifist rabbi Rabbi Everett Gendler which were widely copied and posted. Rabbi Gendler, who is turning 92 this week, recently finished a project of translating the writings of Rabbi Tameres as A Passionate Pacifist: Essential Writings of Aaron Samuel Tamares, Edited, translated and with an introduction by Everett Gendler (Ben Yehudah Press, 2020)  (Amazon)The book is an essential work to understand 20th century Eastern European Orthodoxy and should be read by all those who study and teach Rav Kook. But for those who seek a Torah of compassion and pacifism, a Judaism not tied to 19th century political nationalism, and a vision of Jewish spirituality outside of political thinking this book will be essential. For those sensitive souls, this book will be a source of sermons and classes and inspiration. To those whom I taught some of this work this past week, they found the work offered a chance to personally work through issues on war, politics, and nationalism in Torah since Rabbi Tameres was there at the start of Religious Zionism and his writings articulate issues still alive a hundred years later. The book contains Rabbi Tameres’s autobiography, his early essays and sermons of 1904- 1906 continuing up to his developed thought of the 1920’s.

This blog introduction to the book has two divergent responsibilities, almost as two separate introductions, because the translator Rabbi Everett Gendler’s world is not part of the Volozhin rabbinic elite. Rather, he was the leading voice of American Jewish pacifism, progressivism, enviromentlaism, and civil rights, for more that half a century.

Rabbi Gendler was the voice of Jewish pacifism since the Korean war. During my childhood, Gendler was on the radio and in the newspapers as the Jewish voice of non-violence.  (his articles) He was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement since the mid-1950’s, During the 1960s, he played a pivotal role in involving American Jews in the movement, leading groups of American Rabbis to participate in prayer vigils and protests in Albany, Georgia (1962), Birmingham, Alabama (1963) and Selma, Alabama (1965), and persuading Abraham Joshua Heschel to participate in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery (1965) Gendler was among the founders of the egalitarian Havurah movement and he is the “father of Jewish environmentalism”.

Gendler was involved to change our society with his colleagues -Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Thomas Merton. Gendler was instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s important address to the national rabbinical convention on March 25, 1968, 10 days before King’s death, conducting what was to be the final interview with MLK. There is much archival material about Gendler online. Even in a quick search, I found that he wanted to create a Parliament of World Religions together with Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the early 1960’s. There is a 60 page archival interview with him as one of the founders of the Jewish counterculture. Much of his environmentalist essay are available online. His 400 pages of collected essays Judaism for Universalists came out five years ago but is already out of print.

Rabbi Everett Gendler earned a B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1948 and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rabbi Gendler served as rabbi to a number of congregations throughout Latin America – including in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, Cuba. In 1962, he became rabbi at the Jewish Center in Princeton, NJ, where he remained until 1968.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Gendlers were involved in several alternative residential communities, including Centro Intercultural de Documentación in Cuernavaca, Mexico (1968-69), and the inter-racial, inter-religious living center Packerd Manse in Stoughton, MA (1969-71). In 1971, Rabbi Gendler became rabbi at Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in Lowell, MA, and in 1977, he was appointed as the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy, Andover as part of a Catholic-Protestant-Jewish “tri-ministry.” He remained in both of these positions until his retirement in 1995.

Following “retirement”  he was involved with the Tibetan exile community which had followed the Dalai Lama to India.  At our suggestion, and with his blessing and supervision, we spent good parts of the next 22 years helping the Tibetans learn more about strategic nonviolent struggle.  This involved many trips to India, where we conducted seminars and workshops for Tibetans all over India.

Unfortunately, the disparity of worlds of translator and author shows in the work. Gendler’s comments and discussions in the book all concern Gandhi’s thought and his own American life of pacifism and progressivism. These comments are definitely interesting and worthwhile but far from the Yiddish debates of Volozhin graduates after the Tzar is overthrown. However, a scholarly annotated Hebrew edition of Rabbi Tameres is coming out later this year by the experts in this time period Hayyim Rothman and Tsachi Slater. The former has a forthcoming book by Manchester University Press on anarchist Orthodox Rabbis who were reading Tolstoy including Tameres but also dealing with Abraham Yehudah Khein & Yaakov Meir Zalkind. The latter has written has a PhD on Rabbi Shmuel Alexandrov, who most only know through his Buddhist Schopenhauer inflected letter to Rav Kook. The world of Rabbi Kook and Tameres was awash in Yiddish translations of contemporary philosophic works – including Tagore and Tolstoy, and this erudition added to clashing views of each other’s essays.

In the meantime, buy this edition  (amazon) and read it for its vision of Torah. As he wrote in his Passover sermon of 1906.

We can see difference between the methods of “taking one’s freedom” of the European political parties, and our way of achieving freedom. They took freedom, for example, during the French Revolution, by “barricades” and by throwing bombs upon some despot or another. And we try to achieve freedom by making a seder, eating matzah, singing hallel…that is to say, by means of repeating on our lips the memory of the freedom of the Exodus, the Godly flame will be fanned within our souls and we will remember His kindness and His actions.

Gendler

1) What do you like most about Tameres?
Two of Tamares’ winning qualities for me are his independence of spirit and his love of nature.

First, Tamares remarkable independence of spirit. In the late 19th century, when most of his Orthodox colleagues opposed the political Zionism of Theodore Herzl, Tamares supported what he thought was a movement for the liberation of the Jewish people and improvement of its living conditions.

Later, at age 31, Tamares attended the fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900 as a delegate. He was appalled to find what he saw not so much as a movement to liberate people but a movement to liberate territory. After a year of silently absorbing this discovery, he found the courage to denounce Zionism publicly because he saw that its goal was to be another European Nationalist Movement, rather than follow the Jewish mission of Torah and ethics. This independence of spirit and his fresh outlook you find throughout his writings.

Second, His love of nature. In 1912 he was urged to apply to head as the lead rabbi the major yeshivah headed by Rabbi Hayim Tchernowitz in Odessa. Prominent cultural figures such as Hayim Nahman Bialik were his supporters. Less than half way through the interviews, Tamares withdrew his candidacy and headed back to Mielyczyce to return to his beloved friends, the trees of the forest. Tamares lived literally across the road from the southern reaches of the Bielewieza Forest, the last remaining primeval forest in continental Europe. Thoreau spent one year at Walden Pond; Tamares was a forest dweller for nearly forty years.

2) Are there any quotes of Tameres that keeps you company?
Tamares would not do well in a sound bite civilization. He specializes in overarching phrases, lengthy paragraphs, and embellished prose. Here and there are some of my favorite brief quotable lines. For example

“The Jews remember always that their God is the God of Truth and Justice who shattered the yokes of their oppressors. They must plant deep in their hearts absolute faith in the power of Truth and Justice to triumph finally…this idea, when firmly rooted in their hearts, will itself serve to defend them from all violent and lying persecutors.”

One other telling quote

“Every single human being on the face of this earth was created and endowed by the Lord with the capacity to look after his own life….and to worry about death and perishing; each was created for his own sake. The breath which the Lord breathed into the nostrils of Rueben is for the sake of Rueben. It is for him to live and exist and not be a bloody sacrifice for the sake of someone else.”

Finally,

“The culture of creation in the Book of Genesis: Life, tangible life, the life of the blood and the spirit, this is the need which must first be sought. The life and secure existence of the individual: these are the basis of life on this earth; from them all comes, and in them all is included!”

3) Why does he call himself “the sensitive rabbi” and “one of the passionately concerned rabbis”?

Already by the young age of six, Tamares noticed that he reacted with greater feeling than his classmates to stories of pain and misfortune. He was also captivated by the natural sight of trees and meadows and could not tear himself away from them. He also became aware that he naturally prayed with greater fervor than his classmates. Throughout his life, he also reacted passionately to perceived injustice. When Tamares felt the need for the protection of anonymity in writing some of his denunciation of movements and participants, he chose the pseudonym of the Sensitive Rabbi or the Passionately Concerned Rabbi (the Hebrew term margish has both meanings). He had seen too many examples of other critics in the community who suffered loss of reputation and livelihood because of their unpopular stance.

4) How is Tameres a pacifist?

I prefer to call Tamares a Genesis Realist. That is, he proclaims the value of each created human being while at the same recognizing that evil actions occur and imperil our continuing existence. For Tamares, this requires watchfulness and action; the action must respect the human being perpetrating evil even as action is taken. Pacifism is waging war by nonlethal means.

When Tamares talks about absolute faith in the power of truth and justice, I hear anticipation of Gandhi’s truth force (Satyagraha) and Martin Luther King’s unarmed struggle for justice. Tamares was unwavering both in insisting on action (protest, economic boycott and hundreds of others) and insisting that it not be the ultimate indignity of organized warfare. Tamares, similar to Tolstoy, points us toward the remarkable revelations this past century of the power of non violent action.see the work of the Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center for Non Violent Conflict, and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s Why Civil Resistance Works.
Tamares sees war as the ultimate human indignity. In war, the precious product of creation, the individual human being of flesh, blood, breath and spirit is conscripted without consent and trained to murder a fellow human being. Additionally, valuable resources such as food, scientific inventions, railroads that could improve living conditions for all, are squandered in the mass destruction that is war.

5) What does he think is the task and mission of the Jew?
Tamares understands that the task of the Jew is to strive for a justice that will embrace the entire world.

This is the implication of “I am the Eternal” that concludes the mandate, “You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Look toward the Eternal, toward the Source of all existence, the First Cause, and you become aware that you and your neighbor are equal in God’s eyes; that insight validates the commandment. The power of Torah to incline human beings toward the good derives from its putting us directly in touch with the Creator of all, the Source of goodness and generosity, thus rekindling the spark of our Divine awareness.

The prophets, whom he quotes so often, repeatedly emphasize justice, speaking often of economic justice: fair wages, no excessive concentrations of wealth, basic necessities for all human beings. Tamares sees the realization of this vision as the primary task of Jewish existence. Thus the intimate local community must live by these values so that its example inspires others to adopt and live by them.

Tamares sees the global mission of Judaism as creating conditions for full development of the individual human being. This means the purification of life within the Jewish community. Domination of people by others (unjust distribution of wealth, etc,) must be guarded against.

Even a cursory examination of the singular purpose our nation is destined to fill, namely, the purpose of spreading Torah, can cause the hypnotic power of nationalism to dissipate, and we can gaze without fear into the eyes of the nations who are so proud of their territories and monarchies.” Since National Territories have been the cause of mass slaughter, a crucial mission of Jews in the world is to prove, by example that a people can survive and thrive without a National Territory. There is an alternative to survival by the sword.

6) How is Tameres against nationalism?
Tamares is not against peaceful nationalism; he respects the rights of local groups of people to organize for their common welfare. He supports their trying to improve their living conditions and he recognizes human limitations. People in a defined country have the right to focus their efforts. However, it is that rivalrous nationalism that Tamares condemns, the Bismarck Nationalism as opposed to Liberal Nationalism. Tamares contrasts Bismarck and Junker Nationalism with Liberal Nationalism at the time, and affirms the liberal proclamations of individual human dignity and rights as reflecting the true meaning Genesis.

7) Why was he against Zionism?
Zionism at the time had many meanings; one of them was establishing a European model Nation State in Palestine as a National home for the Jewish people.

The Balfour Declaration specified that the rights of persons living there would be fully respected. How was this to be achieved? Tamares feared that the European inspired Zionism of Herzl would betray the world mission of the Jewish people, to demonstrate a non territorial Nationalist model. He was also concerned about the rights of those already living in the land.

Tamares Zionist vision was of a territory inhabited by Jews and Palestinians with no dominating group. He recognized and identified with the historical Jewish connections to the Holy Land. This was to be fulfilled by Jews immigrating to Israel and forming communities that lived harmoniously with others living there. Such a non dominant Zionism is nicely explored in Noam Pianko ‘s Zionism: The Roads Not Taken.

8) What of the traditional attachment to the Land of Israel?
Tamares retains attachment to the historic land of Israel but rejects the imposition of a European Nationalist interpretation on this historic connection. He criticized those at the Zionist conference of 1900 who wanted the Jewish people to be like all the other nations, for him, it was a departure from Judaism’s emphasis on justice. He retains affection for the historic land of Israel, but he rejects the historical imposition of modern European Nationalist idea in shaping this attachment.

The Jew will always seek to return to Israel and live there; Israel is vital and extant in his memory and in his very veins, it is this Israel which he has preserved in his memory at all times, it is this Israel that he yearns to see with his eyes…. Between this ancient Zionist yearning and the new Zionist yearning lies a chasm of difference, both in theory and in practice, both in the reason for this yearning and in its goals.
The political Zionists yearn for a land upon which our nation shall be “a nation like all other nations”—whereas our people yearn for a land upon which our distinctiveness from all other nations shall be further emphasized…The new Zionism hopes to revive in Zion what ostensibly died in exile: Namely, they wish to create in this Jewish homeland and in the heart of Jews, this coarse feeling of sovereignty, of which they had been divested in exile.

Tameres encouraged Jews who felt personally moved to go and live in the historic land of Israel. He insisted, however, that Jews had a world mission beyond reentering their historic land. Jewish fulfillment of this mission did not depend on establishing dominance in historic Israel.

Tameres understood Exile to be not punishment but purification. In addition, the Jewish mission is unlike the mission of the nations “We must reveal to them that between our world and their world lies a deep and terrible chasm…The means to achieve their success is the sword, whereas as ours is the book—ours is the study of Torah. The nations who don’t have the Torah cannot cast their swords aside.”

He argues that the experience of dominating sovereignty in both the first and second ancient Jewish Commonwealths showed the necessary corruptions of commonly understood National Sovereignty. Therefore, connecting attachment to the historic land of Israel with modern European Nationalism was a modern invention not dictated by tradition.

9) What was his view of the messianic age?

Tameres understands the Messiah as “a term for the redemption or liberation of the spirit of humankind for the expansion of ethical awareness and the knowledge of God in the world.”
He further associates this with Isaiah’s vision that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” and “the whole earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.” Tamares messianic vision is a world in which no human being exploits or dominates another human being, where human beings cooperate that all may share equitably the fruits the earth, and where the organized mass murder and destruction of war has been ended.

10) Have you had any second thoughts about any of his many ideas?
How would Tamares have reacted to the unimaginable nihilistic destructiveness of Nazism? Would he have supported a Nation State especially as a haven for persecuted Jews? It is a haunting, unanswerable question.
Despite this, is he still relevant? More so than ever I would argue. Tamares’ cautionary words, uttered more than a century ago, about the problems of settling new arrivals amidst people already living in the land, were constantly relevant and constantly ignored. His warning that place of refuge might become place of domination over others is the very specter we confront today.

11) What is you advice for younger progressive rabbis who work among colleagues in the mainstream who generally are not progressive?

In the late 1950’s, I felt somewhat isolated as a conscientious objector to US participation in the Korean War. In the 1960’s, for several years I experienced warm camaraderie in the civil rights struggle. By the end of the 60’s isolation returned when my relief at the survival of Israel during the Six-Day war was accompanied by alarm at the consequent conquest and spirit of domination. I’ve come to recognize, accept, and appreciate my marginality, and on reflection find that my childhood experience of being one of only three Jewish families in small Iowa farm town of 5,000 was excellent preparation. Over time, I became increasingly involved with the Reform Movement, but again I feel both mainstream and marginal. But that is probably true for anyone of us.

My advice for younger Rabbis is to try to clarify your vision, then live it. What lies ahead is a marathon, not a hundred yard dash, and none of us has perfect vision or adequate answers. Pray for the right combination of humility and courage, and plunge ahead in this great, marvelous adventure we call human life on this God given planet.

12) What do you see as your greatest achievement as a progressive pacifist rabbi?
Its too early to say. I might hope that I contributed something to enhance environmental awareness and engagement within the Jewish community, including in the life of prayer. I might also hope that the practical political potential of active non violent struggle is a little more widely known because of my involvement with Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. and with the Dali Lama, but it’s too early to know. I’ll not be here for a more definitive assessment, so I’ll resist the temptation to calculate and instead try to keep on living.

Now, still blessed with the precious gift of life and some remnant of wit, albeit with diminished energy, I was able to focus once again on the seminal writings of Rabbi Tamares, a cherished companion for over half a century.   Truly ashreni, ma tov helkeini, how fortunate am I, how goodly my portion.

The Things We Do For Love: A Response to Aaron Koller- by Rabbi Zach Truboff

Here is the first response to the Interview with Prof Koller.As of now, I do not know if I will receive more responses and if I do, how many. I have many people who want to have private conversations with me about the interview. But when it comes to writing, they all say “I would write a response if they had more time.”

Rabbi Truboff’s response wants to hold onto the drives and passions that make us religious while also being vigilant to remain moral. We should be unwilling to deny our ethical responsibility to the other, but at the same time we should be unwilling to deny the love that  makes us truly human. We have to take responsibility for our very human drives and passions, and own them. We cannot project them onto others as if to say we have superseded these drives. Torah is supposed to be a way to deal with these drives, rather than deflect them through historicism.

Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the coordinator of the International Beit Din Institute, which seeks to educate rabbis about halakhic solutions to the agunah problem. His writings on contemporary Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in many venues. His forthcoming book, Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, will be published in the fall. Before making aliyah, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio.  He received semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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The Things we Do For Love

The Akedah is a hard story for modern Jews. We tend not to look too kindly on people who claim God demands the lives of innocent children. For good reason, we call them fanatics, zealots, and extremists. According to Kant, Avraham’s response to God should have been obvious:

That I should not kill my good son is absolutely certain to me. But that you who appear to me as God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens. (Conflict of the Faculties, 115)

For many, the Avraham of the Akedah is an aberration to be rejected, while the Avraham who argues with God on behalf of the innocent of Sodom is to be emulated. I often find myself deeply sympathetic to these points and I therefore found myself nodding repeatedly while reading the interview with Professor Koller.

It was particularly thrilling to see him reference an interpretation of Maimonides I had never heard before. Perhaps Avraham had received a prophecy from God that he must sacrifice his son, but this prophecy ultimately lacked the philosophical clarity that he would later ascertain when the angel told him not to do so. The implication is clear: Perhaps the Torah we received from God contains mitzvoth or halakhot that appear immoral to us now, but as we reach greater levels of insight, we will recognize that God’s will must be understood differently and in a more ethical fashion. Who better than Maimonides, the paragon of Torah u’Madda, to offer an interpretation of the Akedah that is so consonant with the ethical-rational worldview many of us in Modern Orthodoxy hold so dear.

But then I remembered something important about Maimonides. For Maimonides, Abraham is the quintessential example of a person who serves God out of love–he is called ‘Ohavi,’ God’s beloved. Perhaps this–love–is the lens through which we should attempt to understand Avraham’s actions during the Akedah and their implications for us today. After presenting Avraham as the example all Jews should aspire towards in loving God, Maimonides describes what this love is supposed to look like in practice:

A person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. One’s thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. The love for God should be even greater than this in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Yesodai HaTorah, Teshuvah 10:2)

Maimonides describes the intellectual pursuit of God as charged with an overflowing sense of eros, a claim made possible by his comparison to romantic love. Loving God means pursuing knowledge of God endlessly in all that we do. But if we are honest with ourselves, Maimonides words should also be cause for concern. In my a years as a synagogue rabbi, if a young man or woman had come to me and told me that their girlfriend or boyfriend was so in love with them that they obsessed over them constantly and could never leave their side, my first reaction would be that something is deeply wrong.

It is from the midst of this dilemma that Yishai Mevorach–a student of Rav Shagar, primary editor of posthumously published writings, and important thinker in his own right–offers a compelling psychoanalytic interpretation of the Akedah in his book Theologia Shel Chesed (Resling Press, 2016), [and see our interview with him] one that challenges the ethical-rational worldview put forth by Professor Koller.

Is Maimonides telling us that all love–human and divine–is a sickness; That every relationship that is “very much excessively strong” brings with it a curse, a crisis? In the language of psychoanalysis: “there is no love worthy of its name without connection to discomfort” (Theologia Shel Chesed, 119-120)

As Koller mentions in his interview, Jews have long understood the Akedah as an act of love on the part of Avraham, the Rabbis even stating in regard to Avraham’s actions that “love makes a person do crazy things” (ahava mekalkelet hashura). Whereas Koller mentions this only in passing, Mevorach’s contends that the craziness of love cannot be separated from how we understand the story. Further than that, the attempt to neutralize this dimension fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be human. Mevorach cites the approach of Buber, though not for support but rather to demonstrate the danger of reading the story selectively. Buber makes a fundamental distinction between religion and religiosity. Religion, and all its negative baggage is to be rejected while religiosity is to be embraced. Mevorach explains that for Buber:

Religion contains the harmful primitive and perverse elements that religious believers incorrectly attribute to God, whereas religiosity is the experience of divine faith purified of all the dross placed on God by human beings. Through this distinction, the divine realm is cleansed from elements such as hatred, jealousy, desire, and fixation, and what remains are elements such as dialogue, peace, harmony, morality, wisdom, and innovation. The role of the enlightened believer is to walk between the pieces, to choose religiosity and to escape from religion. (121)

The problem with this is that Buber’s distinction is falsified by “the religious experience of believers throughout millennia, who were and still are immersed up unto their neck in blood, sweat and tears.” (121) Rather, we must recognize that the Akedah “teaches us that violence, perversity, desire, and discomfort are found in God, and not only this but that these elements are the foundation of religious life” (123).

To a person who affirms the ethical-rational worldview, such words are heresy, but they get at a fundamental truth about love, one that Maimonides clearly understood. In Mevorach’s words, “Love is first and foremost a response to an extreme situation, to be at the edge of desire, to be demanded of and disturbed by the yearning of the other.” (126) One cannot have true love without also having its darker elements. Anger, jealousy, desire, and obsession are inextricable from the experience of love and cannot simply be excised from it, at least not without changing the very nature of love.

How then is the Akedah to be understood? In a fashion similar to Buber but preserving relgion, Mevorach offers his own distinction between two typologies, what he calls “the pagan” and “the Hebrew (ivri).” Avraham begins the story as a pagan but ends the story as a Hebrew (ivri). The pagan “gives up everything to the voice of God that demands and desires–word for word. Opposite him, the ivri is carried away in the rivers of death of loving God but in the last moment deviates and interprets them differently” (123).

Avraham initially accedes to God’s command that he sacrifice his son, because a wild and passionate love is built upon sacrifices, something even our contemporary culture understands. In every romantic comedy there comes a moment where the main character must take a giant risk or engage in an absurd act if they are to finally be with the one they love. Without such irrational behavior, the appeal of love would be incomprehensible to us. What Avraham demonstrates is that love requires a person to be carried away with desire–just not to the extent one inflicts brutal violence on another person. A person must not give up on love, but an appropriate alternative has to be found that allows one to sublimate one’s desire in a more suitable fashion. In Avraham’s case, he is unwilling to reject God’s call to sacrifice, but he finds a suitable replacement in the ram he offers in Yitzchak’s place.

For Mevorach, Avraham’s example serves as the classic model for how the rabbinic tradition continually find a way to allow religious passion to have its place without allowing it to devour us entirely. He points to the example of chametz on Pesach.

…the same chametz that a Jew is not supposed to see for perhaps he will come to sin…- it is as if we are speaking about Lilith or Satan himself. Behold, this is how God-fearing Jews act before Pesach. They clean their homes, scrub with bleach and cleaning solution. They even search for the demonic chametz in ‘holes and cracks,’ and yet they take one of the cabinets in their kitchen and place inside of it all the forbidden products, and they write on it in big letters ‘chametz’ and they go to the rabbi, who sells the chametz to a mysterious non-Jew… the hard spirit of the law remains but not the action; it is neutralized. (127-128)

In the end, Mevorach’s psychoanalytic approach is unwilling to deny our ethical responsibility to the other, but at the same time, it is also unwilling to deny what makes us truly human. While Kierkegaard may ask us to give up our ethical subjectivity, something we see as fundamental to our humanity, the ethical-rational approach asks us to do the same by denying that love and desire emerge from the most irrational but essential parts of who we are. It is these parts of ourselves that often constitute the deep commitments we feel towards religious life.

The connection that a person finds between themselves and their partner–whether it be divine or human–does not appear only in a heartwarming description of reality, but also and maybe most essentially around the inner squeals, pressures, and tensions… that are incomprehensible and even threatening. For example, when a person stands before their tefillin and feels that the last thing they want to do is put them on and then added to this is the uncomfortable recognition that one is unable not to put them on, it is this recognition which places the burden of wearing the tefillin upon him, and this moment is a moment of deep connection. (129-130)

I am sure there are those who recoil from the psychoanalytic approach laid out by Mevorach who see it as nothing more than a psychologizing of Kierkegaard. Perhaps it eliminates some of the moral blindness, but the place of prominence that it grants to feelings of obsession and compulsion as essential to love still leaves open the door to sacrificing one’s ethics on the altar of religious faith. There is some truth to this, but a critical moral insight emerges from this approach that must be acknowledged.

Mevorach’s book, Theologia Shel Chesed, is heavily indebted to psychoanalytic work of Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (University of Chicago, 2001), a fascinating work that tackles the question of religious tolerance through the thought of Franz Rosenzweig and psychoanalysis. In it, Santner notes:

Psychoanalysis differs from other approaches to human being by attending to the constitutive ‘too muchness’ that characterizes the psyche; the human mind is, we might say, defined by the fact that it includes more reality than it can contain, is the bearer of an excess, a too much of pressure that is not merely physiological. (8)

The ‘too muchness’ of the human psyche, what Freud would call the unconscious, is the source of the urges we find so troubling, urges on full display in the story of the Akedah. Nevertheless, denying their presence within us is not an option, and any attempt to do so will only cause us to push away others who express them. This important psychoanalytic insight was first made prominent by Julia Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves. She explains that it is all too often the case that

…we externalize that which is ‘strange’ within us onto an external ‘stranger.’ The result is a denial of the fact that we are strangers to ourselves, a denial which takes the form of negating aliens. To the extent that we exclude the outsider we deceive ourselves into thinking we have exempted ourselves from estrangement. (73)

For Santner and for Mevorach, Judaism is meant to be a way of life that liberates us from these projections and allows us to take responsibility for the compulsions and obsessions that emerge from our unconscious while finding a way for their legitimate expression. According to Mevorach, the Akedah shows us that loving God and experiencing God’s love means accepting a certain amount of neurosis, but we can still learn from the example of “Avraham, as one who responds to aggression and moves towards it, he is able to discover that it is possible to reorient its meaning.” (126)

While most would say that the ethical-rational worldview strives to put morality at the center, it can lead us to exclude from our moral concern those who appear strange, irrational, or bizarre. If we cannot see ourselves within Avraham in the narrative of the Akedah, if we are forced to reinterpret the text to such a degree that his passionate love is denied, we will have no choice but to do the same for those in the real world whose faith manifests in desires and behaviors that generate a deep sense of unease within us.

On this point, Professor Brill’s comments about Koller ignoring the emotional turmoil of Avraham and Isaac in Caravaggio’s paintings are apt. If we cannot recognize that such emotions are central to who we are, we will find it nearly impossible to do so in others who exhibit them.

All said, I do want to be clear. Koller has done important work and the ethical rational worldview reflected in his interpretive approach to the Akedah is not one we can do without. As long as the Akedah is used as a cudgel to inflict pain upon others demanding their sacrifice but not our own, his book will have enduring importance. But what it fails to grasp about the Akedah is worth paying close attention to.

Interview with Aaron Koller- Unbinding Isaac

I repeatedly hear from a generation of Modern (or Centrist) Orthodox youth, who grew up at the end of the twentieth century, that they were told that Torah Judaism is about adopting a posture of submission in which one’s individuality and moral intuitions are suppressed. Representative students of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik publicly taught in the 1990’s and beyond that to accept divine authority one needed to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the tradition.  This sacrificial religiosity was in origin based on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s use of Soren Kierkegaard’s ideas from Fear and Trembling on the need for a teleological suspension of the ethical as exemplified in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a divine command despite the violation of the command not to murder. But after Rabbi Solovietchik’s death, it became globalized to the prosaic.  To affirm the divine and follow the true nature of the halakhah meant that one must be prepared to override their ethical judgement.

This ideology trope was, and is, so pervasive in some sectors of Modern Orthodoxy pulpit rabbis who never read Fear and Trembling exhort their congregants that one needs to consider the entire halakhah as above ethical concerns or moral critique. All discussion of the morality of the law is precluded. Rather than limiting the sacrifice of Isaac to an extraordinary one-time prophetic event, the suspension of the ethical in order to follow halakhah becomes incumbent upon all of us. Many who came of age in this era, felt this lack of moral self-scrutiny was one of their burning theological concerns. Enter  Prof. Aaron Koller, whose learned book Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Jewish Thought (JPS/University of Nebraska Press, 2020) explores and critiques the influence of Fear and Trembling on Orthodox Jewish thought.

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Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. He works on Semitic philology, and is the author of Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Jewish Thought (JPS/University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014) , among other books, and the editor of five more. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his partner, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.

Koller in the interview below was exceptionally clear and concise about his personal goals in this book and his direct programmatic agenda. The book opens by presenting the problematic reading of the sacrifice of Isaac as necessitating that we submit to the system even if it seems unethical. The next chapter shows the rich and varied Jewish interpretive tradition of Isaac’s binding that never included the very recent Kierkegaardian version. Covering two millennia of exegesis, Koller reveals Jewish interpretations of the sacrifice that deserve greater attention and provide more theological compelling models. The chapters that comprise the core of the book presents the Kierkegaardian approach, followed by a chapter on the modern Orthodox acceptance of the Kierkegaardian approach by Yeshayahu  Leibowitz and Rabbi Soloveitchik, and finally a critique of Kierkegaard’s approach.  The next chapter is Koller’s rational Maimonidean approach to hearing the divine will. Koller, however, considers Leibowitz’s reading of Maimonides as “tenuous” so he does not directly refute it. The book concludes with two superb chapters on the role of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East in order to situate the original message of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  The book is urbane, erudite, and a pleasure to read. It is an essential book on a Jewish reading of the sacrifice of Isaac, on the shelf with Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial and Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham. Koller’s book will generate valuable discussion about the basic themes of the story and Jewish life.

The book focuses on the Modern Orthodox tension between submission to an unchanging system of halakhah and ethics, not the broad canvas of modern Jewish thought. Hence, the book does not deal with the diverse approaches of Berkovits, Fackenheim, Heschel, Rosenzweig, Ronald Green or the sacrifice of Isaac in post Holocaust thought. In addition, the book only uses Buber, whose dialogical ethics was the prime locus of the Jewish ethical critique of Kierkegaard, when he serves the modern Orthodox question. To be sure, the central problem addressed in this book has been felt by others, we have several signature shiurim by Rabbi Ethan Tucker on the tension of obedience and moral discourse- here and here. We also have responses in Israel by Rav Shagar, Rav Yehuda , and Rav Yuval Cherlow, to this issue. And Rabbi David Hartman discussed the topic often.

The issues Kierkegaard raises for Judaism are many and would fill an entire course. My own formulation of the topic goes back to when I was in rabbinical school and an undergraduate organization asked me to give a talk on Kierkegaard’s yahrzeit. They named their organization YID (Yeshiva Intellectual Discussion group), a name deemed offensive in that decade, to make sure YU public relations would not take credit. At the time, I did not have Koller’s ethical dilemma. Rabbi Soloveitchik as a living presence would speak of ethics in shiur, in private conversations, and in his varied writings as would his students Rabbi Walter Wurzburger and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. One of my points at the time was that the Jewish approaches were like Judge Wilhelm in Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or in that they combined cognitivism and noncognitivism, ethics and inwardness, law with marriage metaphors. The Jewish positions avoided the single focused monstrous approach of Kierkegaard’s Abraham, in that they always combined multiple elements including ethics, rationality, and tradition. The binary drawn by Kierkegaard between ethics and faith was far less of a concern for Jewish thought and practice than it was for Lutheran Christianity.

Kierkegaard’s reception into European letters was wide and deep.  He was translated into German between the 1880’s until the 1930’s. Kafka used Kierkegaard for a story of an absurd antihero impious Abraham; Adorno used Kierkegaard as a rejection of Hegelianism; Jaspers used him to develop the idea of individuality; Karl Barth used him as a need for objective revelation in lieu of subjective liberal religion- Rabbi Soloveitchik’s and Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s approaches owe much to this reading of avoiding subjectivity. Eventually, in the phenomenology decade, Kierkegaard is hailed – along with Nietzsche and Dostoevsky- as the antecedent to Existentialism.

Unfortunately, Koller’s book misses the intellectual history of Kierkegaard. It presents the Danish thinker as a general modernist, subjectivist, and an isolated voice. Besides the fact that subjectivity had multiple meanings and many used Kierkegaard to better understand the nature of objectivity, everyone in philosophical circles in the 1930’s was reading Kierkegaard. The new Existentialist movement was seen as a way past the impasse of modernity. Instead of a contextualizing Jewish Existentialism within a broader philosophical milieu Koller tries to examine these issues by exploring the possibility of Rabbi Soloveitchik being present at the Davos debate between Ernest Cassirer and Martin Heidegger. Where did Soloveitchik learn about Kierkegaard is an interesting question but one hardly needs to run to Davos and Heidegger for the answer. These ideas were widespread in not only newspapers but even on the pulpit.  Finally, scholars of modern Jewish thought might find the chapter on the 19th century difficult to accept with the equation of Kantian inwardness, Hasidic intuitionism, Uber-Orthodox sectarianism, and Kierkegaard. He describes Mendelssohn to be a pillar of modern inwardness, a description that has no ostensive meaning. But these difficulties should not detract from the rest of the book or its message.

As noted above, the book has a vision, a drive, and an ethical-rational worldview. Koller sees an immoral monster in Kierkegaard’s teachings as presented by Modern Orthodoxy. Kierkegaard himself considered his position monstrous. “But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, “O Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he [Isaac] should lose faith in Thee.” Koller saw the monsters in modern Orthodoxy theology; among those educators willing to teach a monstrous idea so that, in their mind, students should not lose faith. His book seeks to slay those monsters and offer up a more Jewish and ethical reading of the sacrifice of Isaac. I highly recommend the book as worthwhile engagement with a learned dragon slayer fighting in the name of morality.

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Interview with Aaron Koller

  1. What motivated you to write the book?

Around 2014, several things happened that that led me to think that I should try to write this book. I had taught the interpretive history of the Akedah a few times, so had worked on many of the texts and started various projects of collecting and classifying. But the motivation to write it came from realizing that this text – perhaps more than other texts – matters to people, and matters in the contemporary discourse.

A friend wrote a political article in which he argued, “Genesis 22 depicts Abraham as what we would call a religious fanatic,” and therefore any responsible Jew would have a hard time condemning others for religious violence. He continued, “What stories like Genesis 22 can never do is exonerate us from our own responsibilities toward any victim of that violence.”

At the same time, I read an article (there are many) that included the claim that “the essence and purpose of Torah observance is submission to God,” and that this is the lesson, as Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, of the Akedah. It was not that I agreed or disagreed with the details – although I do not agree with either – as much as that I realized that sacred, canonical texts really could affect the way members of a community think about issues.

Since I had some ideas about what the text may mean, I started to think more carefully about it.

A couple of years later, I was going to Jerusalem for a sabbatical with my family, and a colleague, Prof. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University, recommended that I ask the Hartman Institute for an office and some help. He said I would need to submit a research proposal, and that they like “meaningful things” – not like the stuff I usually work on! So I thought that was a good chance to work on a proposal for this book, and I spent a lot of time that year reading and researching, although I did not finish writing the first draft of it until a couple of years after that.

2. How did Jews traditionally see themselves as living the Akedah?

Most Jews over the past couple of thousand years were not troubled by whether the Akedah is ethical in large part because, as you said, they lived the Akedah rather than philosophizes about it. This is a big point I try to hammer home in the first chapter – and it’s thanks to a suggestion of my partner Shira’s that it is the first chapter.

The sheer quantity of texts of every genre – plays, chronicles, piyyutim, midrashim, interpretations, poems, epics, narratives – and visual art that reflect on, make use of, interpret the Akedah is staggering. I’m sure I didn’t survey it all, although I did try hard over the past decade or so.

In the first chapter I lay out past uses of the Akedah. I don’t try to map it out exhaustively, and instead focus on four themes that I think are particularly poignant and keep coming up in Jewish reactions to the Akedah: (a) the merit of the Akedah for the children of Abraham; (b) Isaac as the exemplar martyr; (c) love as a driving force; and (d) cynicism and humor.

The texts discussed for (a) and (b) are quite central to Jewish thought, and I will not say more about them here. (c) Love is an interesting one. I begin that section with a well-known passage from Bereshit Rabbah about “love upsetting normal behavior,” juxtaposed with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son.” A verse well known to all sports fans (and Christians, and others). Both talk about the love of the father driving towards the sacrifice of the son. I find that fascinating, and somewhat horrifying, but it turns out there are other texts about love as well.

(d) The fourth section of the first chapter, about criticism, cynicism, and humor toward the Akedah, was probably the most fun to collect and distill. We tend to think that earlier people were pious, and then around 1865 critical attitude towards the Torah was born.  But there are classical piyyutim that explicitly criticize Abraham for not doing more to save his son, and ancient Aramaic (Jewish and Syriac) that go in similar directions. Also cynicism, it turns out, was not born in 1950, but existed in Yiddish epic poems of half a millennium ago,

3) What did Kierkegaard say about the sacrifice of Isaac?

Kierkegaard said a lot about the Akedah. His book, written under the pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling is poignant and powerful, and actually opens many avenues that it does not fully explore.

The crux of what he says in his central chapters is summarized as follows:

  1. The crux of the clash of the Akedah is “the ethical” (i.e., all universal, general considerations of proper behavior) vs. faith, which is individual, just between God and the person of faith.
  2. There are other people who are willing to kill their children for a higher cause, e.g., Brutus (of Rome), Agamemnon in Euripides’ play, Jephthah in Judges, and Mesha in 2 Kings 3. But those people could all explain why they were killing their children. They could articulate that the greater good was being accomplished in their actions, whereas Abraham could only say he was doing it “for faith.” Kierkegaard explains this position as the “teleological suspension of the ethical”: a suspension of the ethical for the purpose of faith alone.
  3. Such a person, the “knight of faith,” is perfectly balanced in their faith, and Abraham was blissfully prepared to sacrifice Isaac and also entirely happy to receive him back. He was not “resigned” to sacrifice Isaac, but somehow balanced in both sacrificing him and getting him back.
  4. This faith is entirely incommunicable, so it is impossible to find out about someone else’s faith, or to communicate about one’s own. Therefore, there is no way of knowing who is or is not a knight of faith, and faith is always by definition beyond scrutiny.
  5. In all of this, Kierkegaard does not assert that Abraham is a knight of faith – because he cannot know! He concludes that either Abraham is a knight of faith, or he is a murderer and he (and we?) is damned.

4) How did Jews readily accept this piece of Christian theology?

There is no single answer to this. For most of the nineteenth century, people did not pay much attention to Kierkegaard. However, in the early twentieth century, the rise of the subjective perspective (“existentialist”) philosophy became clearer, and necessarily, Kierkegaard’s star rose.

Some Jewish thinkers reacted harshly against it. Rabbi Milton Steinberg, for example, wrote: “Nor does anything in Judaism correspond to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical.  From the Jewish viewpoint—and this is one of its highest dignities—the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstance and not for anyone, not even for God.  Especially not for God!”

Other Jews – particularly Orthodox ones – essentially adopted Kierkegaard’s reading, and in the book I discuss Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in some detail. It is not an accident that Orthodox thinkers responded this way; they were looking for a way to articulate the interaction between the binding obligation of halakha and the norms of the modern nation-state. Kierkegaard provided them with the categories for a religious life that was not reducible to universal principles – it is the polar opposite of Kant’s attempt to describe “Religion Within the Bounds of Bare Reason.” For a minority that was increasingly out of step with the conventions of the liberal modern world order, Kierkegaard was crucial in showing how religion could (and perhaps must) stand against such universal ethical standards.

5) What are your four critiques of Kierkegaard?

Despite my being enthralled by Kierkegaard’s writing, I think it falls short there are a number of ways in which. First, textually speaking, it only focuses on Part 1 of the story, the command to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard has nothing to say about the command not to kill Isaac.

It also (relatedly) ignores the less than happy ending; as numerous readers has observed, Abraham does not receive Isaac back easily, and in fact there are good grounds for thinking that Abraham and Isaac part ways after the Akedah; the Bible never depicts them in conversation, or even together, again. More poignantly, whereas Isaac is identified with three epithets at the beginning of the chapter (“your son,” “your only one,” “whom you love”), he is identified with only two of those after the binding: “your son,” “your only one.” It may well be that the “love” relationship has been irreparably ruptured by the Akedah.

Second, philosophically speaking, Kierkegaard erases Isaac from the story, and speaks as if the sacrificial victim were an inanimate object rather than a living breathing human being.

Most importantly, and as I said earlier, it seems to leave us with no good argument against someone who says, “Look, I think it’s unethical to fly airplanes into buildings, but my faith dictates that I do so anyway.” This is because its radical subjectivity, the very point that makes Kierkegaard so attractive to many modern people of faith, is incredibly dangerous. Rabbi Soloveitchik, who is so profoundly Kierkegaardian in so many ways, also writes presciently at the end of Halakhic Mind about the dangers of unfettered subjectivity, and the need for objective standards to fetter religious experience.

From a Jewish perspective, the focus on the individual’s religious experience seems to be problematic, as well. To trade in generalizations, there has long been a focus on monastic isolation in Christian life, but this has not been a Jewish ideal; Kierkegaard quotes Luke, where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” In contrast, Judaism has privileged the religious life embedded within human relationships – the family, the community. So, the picture of Abraham alone on the mountaintop as the ideal model for religious faith may be more plausible for a Christian reader than for a Jewish reader.

Finally, I argue that Jewish readers (and probably) others did not take the Akedah to bespeak a clash between ethics and Torah, because the tacit assumption was that God and the Torah were ethical. There were problems to solve – Amalek, etc. – but they were supposed to be solved precisely because of this assumption. So while the Akedah was always seen as an exceedingly difficult trial and the supreme demonstration of Abraham’s and Isaac’s faith, it was not faith as a opposed to ethics. In that sense Kierkegaard’s reading is anachronistic.

6) What is your reading of Maimonides on the Akedah?

My reading of Maimonides – which is not original, and which I was clued in to by a short, brilliant book by Omri Boehm, an Israeli philosopher who teaches at the New School – depends on two passages in the Guide. In 3.24, which is explicitly about the idea of a trial (nissayon) and about the Akedah in particular, Maimonides makes the point that the prophet experiences the prophetic experience as true. However, he seems to be very carefully avoiding saying that all prophecies “are true.”

This opens the possibility that prophecies may be experienced as true, but actually are misleading. And I argue that this is necessary for Maimonides because there are different level prophecies, which he describes elsewhere in the Guide. It is then relevant to find out that the command to sacrifice Isaac in 22:2 was a “seventh level prophecy,” whereas the command to desist was an “eleventh level prophecy” – the highest level there is short of Moses.

I think Maimonides is doing the same thing that Joseph Ibn Kaspi does later, based on the names of God. Ibn Kaspi notices (as did many others, of course) that the command to sacrifice Isaac comes from Elohim, but the command to desist comes from “the angel of the Lord” (shem Hashem). Ibn Kaspi argues that in general in biblical narratives, the name of God that is deployed indicates the type of divine understanding the character has at that moment. So when Abraham hears the command from Elohim, he has (only) an abstract, distant understanding of the divine will. But when he hears the command to desist, he has a more intimate, and accurate understanding of the will of the Lord.

Maimonides seems to be saying the same thing with his levels of prophecy. The upshot is that Abraham correctly but incompletely understood that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. This is not false, but it is also not the whole truth: God does want him to sacrifice Isaac, but he more wants him to not sacrifice Isaac.

7) Why did you not deal with the rejection of Kierkegaard by Buber, Milton Steinberg, Derrida, and others?

Well, Buber is discussed in the book, but I do not find all of his writings on the subject compelling, but he said some profound things about the Akedah, and about the flaws in Kierkegaard’s reading, which I do try to build on. When teaching, I use Steinberg, whose short chapter on Kierkegaard in Anatomy of Faith is Exhibit A for a liberal Jewish approach that rejects the idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical.

But there’s a lot that just didn’t make its way into the book. This actually may be interesting to talk about. I struggled a lot – for a few years, in fact – with how to turn some of these ideas into a book. It took a lot longer for the various texts, ideas, questions, and suggestions to come together as a book, and as it did so, many of the texts and thinkers I particularly liked found a place – but not all.

In the case of Derrida, I can’t say I was enamored of his Gift of Death, but I also couldn’t quite figure out in the end if he did or did not like Kierkegaard’s general approach, and getting into the weeds on his reading wouldn’t (I think) have helped my argument.

8) Is the rejection of child sacrifice the peshat of Genesis?

I think so, but I put it out as a hypothesis. Let me start by stating my hypothesis as briefly as possible. On my reading, the text says the following:

Part 1 of the story: God does want child sacrifice. Phoenicians practiced it, and bespeaks an admirable piety and sense of sacrifice.

Part 2 of the story: God even more does not want child sacrifice, despite the piety and sacrifice involved, because it violates the autonomy of the child as a human being.

There are some theoretical problems here. I do have textual reasons for thinking this is the peshat. It accounts for the entire story – whereas most other readings focus on only Part 1 or Part 2. It also takes history into account, thinking about the experience of child sacrifice in the region of ancient Israel, and how that has to affect the way we read Genesis 22. And it includes a consideration of the different names of God that appears in the chapter, following some medieval interpretations of that data.

The reading suggests that the philosophical teaching of the chapter is complex. Some modern biblical scholars reject complexity, seeing it as the result of textual development. My argument is that the complexity is intentional, because the biblical thinking on child sacrifice is philosophically complex.

I said “I think so” because there is explicitly another set of considerations: it is important for me that the reading proposed be an ethical reading. That is, I think Kierkegaard is not (in Fear and Trembling, at least) a careful exegete, but I also think that his interpretation opens to the door to a terrifying reality in which people of faith can justify unethical behavior on the grounds of personal, subjective faith. In other words, I’m not sure there’s any philosophical daylight between Kierkegaard’s Abraham on the one hand and terrorists beheading heretics in the desert, or gunmen mowing down worshipers in a mosque (Baruch Goldstein and Brenton Tarrant) – who might say that they know what they’re doing is unethical, but it’s mandated by faith – which you can’t (by definition!) understand.

Now, I would argue that a reading of the Akedah that licenses such an understanding of faith must be wrong. The alternative is to condemn the Torah as unethical, and I’m not willing to go there. On the contrary, I think it’s clear that, as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein put it, “the substance of natural morality [was] incorporated as a floor for a halakhic ethic.” I argue this a little bit in the book, in criticizing the view of Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

9) What do you answer to those who say the general use of Kierkegaard by Orthodox rabbis is just Rashi’s “yoke on our neck” and Rashi’s ideology of submission?

There is undoubtedly an ethos of submission in pre-modern Jewish thought. I hope it did not sound from my writing or previous answers that no one until 1843 had thought that people may have to sacrifice their own desires, quash their wills, overcome their temptations, in the service of God. However, two crucial aspects of the modern view are new.

First, Kierkegaard innovates the idea that the clash is not between a lesser good (my consuming a cheeseburger) and a greater good (obedience to God), but between all of ethics (don’t kill, take care of children, etc.) and faith. That is not a formulation, as far as I know, that we find earlier in Jewish literature (although in the book I argue that the Hatam Sofer and the Malbim are there at roughly the same time as Kierkegaard).

Second, the twentieth-century thinkers, Rabbi Soloveitchik and Professor Leibowitz, then take Kierkegaard’s idea and turn it from a once-in-a-lifetime world-altering event to just the regular life of a halakhic Jew. And this really is radically new. Avi Sagi writes in an article, “In the whole history of Jewish thought, until Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, there is no evidence of any attempt to make the Akedah a life-shaping ideal.” I do not have the beki’ut necessary to make such a bold claim, but it sounds right.

10) How does your thesis connect to your letter in support of the LGBTQ  community at YU?

This is a tough question. I do not think there is a simple answer (i.e., “writing this book made it clear to me that we should not discriminate against the LGBTQ community.”). Nevertheless, here are a couple of ways in which the two are connected:

  1. Working on the book made me attuned to some of the dynamics in the rhetoric around LGBTQ within the Orthodox community, and elsewhere, that I don’t think I would have noticed otherwise. Ronit Irshai, a lecturer at Bar Ilan and a fellow at the Hartman Institute, has actually drawn attention to what she calls “Akedah theology” – as a general Orthodox phenomenon and in particular in the Orthodox discourse around LGBTQ issues. Her point is that Orthodox rabbis (and only Orthodox rabbis) have tended to say, “We know it violates basic ethical norms, but we have no choice but to submit to the inscrutable will of God as expressed in Leviticus 18.” And this, Irshai argues, is the legacy of the Akedah as understood by Kierkegaard and transmitted to twenty-first century rabbis by Soloveitchik and Leibowitz.
  2. It helped me to see the clash between “faith” and “ethics” as a live one. What to do with that clash – well, that’s the tough part.

However, my own views on inclusiveness do not come from studying the Akedah, but from listening to actual people over the years.

11) What do you tell a student who thinks following Kierkegaard’s concept of submission is essential for Modern Orthodox thinking?

For Modern Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth century, Kierkegaard provided a crucial argument for isolating religion from universal moral standards. The value of that is clear, but so is the potential for abuse. It worries me a lot that Kierkegaard has become the standard view of religion in Modern Orthodoxy. This is relevant for current events in at least two ways.

First, the place of religious values in a nation-state striving to be ethical is a question that is on the front burner these days. Religious exemptions for vaccinations, denial of contraceptive coverage in health plans, the banning of sheḥitah, religious camps asking to be allowed to open even during a pandemic – all of these are cases where religious groups have turned to the government and said, “Look, in general we try to be ethical, and we appreciate that you do, too. But here is a case where ethics and faith collide, and we would like you to recognize that when faith and ethics collide, Kierkegaard taught us to be knights of faith.”

This is of course a move that Kierkegaard himself would not recognize. He never argued that the state should exempt knights of faith from ethics, and on the contrary, if the state recognizes it, it is no longer such an act of faith. But the ethos stems from the clash that Kierkegaard diagnosed in modern society.

Second, Modern Orthodox rhetoric often starts with the notion that we do not expect to understand the will of God, so if it appears unethical to us, we should submit and not worry too much about it. Again, there are lots of precedents for such an attitude in earlier Jewish thought, but it’s become central in modern times in particular. (Earlier thinkers wondered about mitzvot that seemed senseless, but not mitzvot that were unethical.) And this has led to an attitude among many religious people that they do not even expect religion to be ethical anymore. That is a far cry from traditional Jewish thought, and it’s also very disturbing. It means that the idea of wrestling and grappling, with difficult and challenging obligations has been replaced by simplistic surrender with little critical thought whatsoever. The great thinkers of the Jewish past, on the other hand, struggled mightily to resolve the ethical challenges of mitzvot that seemed in violation of basic moral principles. The answers are not the point, but the struggle is.

There used to be a profound assumption that religion and ethics were partners in making the world a better place. And that has been lost in many Orthodox circles, where “ethics” is now looked at suspiciously or religion is looked at as something other than ethical.

12) Why is there no chapter on the role of Isaac in the Jewish reading?

That’s a great question. In a sense, many of the chapters are about Isaac. Chapter 1 actually does have a section about Isaac as the ur-martyr. And one of the primary arguments in the book is that any reading that erases Isaac from the story is unethical and also wrong. However, outside of the first chapter I really did try to keep the argument as streamlined as possible, so as I said before, there is a lot that just did not find a place in the book.

13) What do you gain by concluding with Levinas?

I don’t think I gain any credibility from that. I just found his idea – and in particular, one reformulation of a couple of his ideas – to be a rhetorically powerful place to end. The core teaching for which he is most famous is that ethics begins by seeing an other, because by recognizing that the face of the other person reflects an independent, autonomous human being just like me, I am forced to grapple with the fact that I deserve no more (and no less!) than that other person. This is such a simple idea, but actually so remarkably profound, that every great religious tradition has been trying to teach this for a few thousand years. And I say “trying” because while it’s so simple, it’s also incredibly difficult to really absorb this, and even more difficult to live it, so it’s an ongoing effort.

One interpretation inspired by Levinas suggests that the “angel” (the word in both Greek and Hebrew really means “messenger”) of the Lord that tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac is nothing other than the face of Isaac himself. In other words, when Abraham perceives the face of Isaac, he realizes that it cannot be that God wants him to sacrifice his son: how could his own religious obligation involve the murder of another human being?

I don’t think this is peshat in the story, but I think it beautifully captures the ethical teaching of the story.

14) You used two Caravaggio pictures. Most know the Caravaggio picture- that you label as about Isaac- as John the Baptist and Christ. Where is you counter narrative about that painting from/about? So too in the other picture Binding of Isaac- the innovation was the inner turmoil and emotions on the faces of Abraham and Isaac. Why did you ignore the basic emotional innovation of the painting? So too, the important element was beam of light on the angel and Lamb as the salvation from Christ.

There are serious scholars of Caravaggio who have argued that the painting is actually Isaac, depicted right after he is released from the Akedah (the binding). To me this seems tempting, somewhat far-fetched, but powerful and tantalizing, so I used it on that reading (including all the uncertainties), to illustrate what Unbinding Isaac actually looks like artistically. Hence, the second Caravaggio in the book, the one usually identified as John the Baptist, is used midrashically at the end of the book as well.

The first Caravaggio, one of the two famous ones, is used not midrashically, but selectively. It’s truly magnificent, and there’s a lot to unpack in his use of color, imagery, background, perspective, etc. However, I was only interested for the purposes of that chapter in one point: the eye of Isaac. So nothing else was discussed. Maybe I should have included more about the painting, for context, at least.