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.

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