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 We cannot project them onto others as if to say we have superseded these drives.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.


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.

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