Reasonable Doubts Blog


Rav Soloveitchik on Akedat Yitchak

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 18th, 2010

In many ways, of all the stories in the Tanach the Akedah stands out as one of the most perplexing.  Particularly in light of Sefer Devorim which we are currently reading, where the Jews are implored over and over again not to follow in the ways of pagan worship, how could God  request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  And what could Abraham have been thinking when he unquestioningly saddled his donkey and led his party to the unknown mountain?

The Midrash sheds light on some of the inner workings of the mind of Abraham as he made his way to the dreaded mountain.  Chazal records a conversation he had with the angel Samuel in which he had to defend his actions against difficult assaults.  The opening of Kierkegard’s Fear and Trembling is dedicated to the various possible scenarios that were going through the mind of Abraham during this impossible time.  All seem to agree: he must have been brutally conflicted.

But in a footnote on pages 156-157 of  The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rav Soloveitchik disagrees with this account of the state of Abraham’s mind during the Akedah, and his description sheds some fascinating light on the nature of faith.  Rav Soloveitchik describes Abraham, whom he considers an example of the Charismatic Personality, as someone who discovered morality on his own and met God later and joined up with Him.  God helped Abraham develop morally but did not impose Himself.  Rather their relationship was a friendship, a bilateral covenant.  Rav Soloveitchik stresses the point that in this covenantal relationship, which also characterizes the Jewish people’s relationship with God, God is a freely elected king as opposed to a self inflicted monarch.  And yet the Akedah seems to be a break in this theme.  Here, God appeared to Abraham  not as a friend but as a terrifying master demanding an ultimate price.  It was contradictory to every previous interaction and yet how did Abraham react?  According to Rav Soloveitchik (and this reading is in consonance with the pesukin) he didn’t even flinch.  In the words of Rav Soloveitchik: “He was not cognizant that by requesting Isaac, God actually annulled everything, including the fellowship between him and Abraham. Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive the demand as somehow compatible with the whole.  He carried it out as if it were another means leading to the realization of the eternal covenant. … By acting the way he did, Abraham unconsciously relieved the tension and reconciled himself with God.”

Somehow Abraham managed to do the impossible.  Without even having to convince himself, he simply believed the absurd. And in doing this his covenant with God took on a new form.  Before it was simply like any other treaty between two parties, now it became a covenant of an “existential community” where “man sacrificed himself to God” and “God dedicated Himself to man”.  But the Akedah  became more than that.  It became the act that would serve as the future model for a life of faith. According to Rav Soloveitchik “faith represents this peculiar attitude of leading a life fraught with realities which contradict the very ideal for which the faithful suffer.”

I don’t think I ever appreciated the full  significance of the Akedah before I read this footnote.  I always knew that for various reasons  it represented a high point in Jewish history but I never realized that it signified nothing less than the sum of what it means to live a life of faith.  The Akedah is an acknowledgement of the ironies, the tragedies, the intellectual, emotional and physical challenges of a life of faith.  The journey of the faithful was never meant to be paved in rose petals.  People of faith were meant to be forced to stand up to impossible challenges and inner contradictions.  The Akedah was God’s way of  pointing this out and at the same time assuring Abraham and future generations that while the life of the faithful promises to be a difficult one it would ultimately be  rewarding.  It would be the only one that incorporates a singular relationship with God.

Let’s face it.  When most of us are faced with challenges to our faith,  intellectual, emotional or otherwise, we don’t respond like Abraham – we do flinch.  But we need to keep in mind that for whatever reason these challenges are part in parcel of the faith package as God has packaged it.  And if we flinch, it’s all part of achieving a unique relationship with God.  That is the message of the Akedah.

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