Thursday, November 17, 2005

parshat Vayera: A Moral or Ethical Struggle?

As I laid out in a previous post, the story of the Binding of Yitzchak involves a struggle by Avraham. However, it is an emotional/personal struggle, not a moral/ethical one. This is clear throughout the narrative, but is stressed at the very beginning, when God issues the command, as well as by the resolution, when God stays Avraham's hand. The command (Bereishit 22:2):

ב וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ. 2 And He said: 'Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'
Here, the repetition adds dramatic tension, and see what is emphasized: Avraham's relationship with, and love for, his son.

Similarly, when God stays Avraham's hand and tells him he has passed the test, the same emphasis is made:

טז וַיֹּאמֶר, בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם-ה: כִּי, יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ, אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידֶךָ. 16 and said: 'By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son,
It is not a moral or an ethical struggle, and to read this into the story is to misread it.

Some people feel the need to grapple with the fact that Hashem essentially commanded human sacrifice in this parsha Hashem told Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a korban. (This even though later, human sacrifice is most decidedly ruled out.) What is the ethical message here - should we ignore ethics and blindly follow God's will? Is Hashem the very definition of Good, such that anything Hashem commands is Good? Or does Hashem confine Himself to Good actions, such that there is an extra-Biblical ideal to be a good person, on top of which is the commandment to follow God's will? What then to make of the Binding of Yitzchak?

I believe such questions are misplaced, in that they focus on the wrong aspect of the story. In terms of allegory (which this is not), Rambam writes that often a Biblical allegory is offered and only some details are meant to be interpreted, and people feel compelled to give interpretations to every single detail, such that they end up with silliness and falsehood. Similarly here, I think it likely that people are focusing on the wrong aspect of the story, and drawing lessons that are not meant to be drawn.

Do not forget that Yitzchak is not, in the end, slaughtered (this opinion, roundly rejected by Ibn Ezra, aside). Just as it makes little sense to derive lessons about the propriety of splitting babies in a dispute over custody on the basis of King Solomon's actions in I Kings 3:16-28 {note that some people actually mishear the story and thing King Solomon *actually* split the baby, and so talk of his barbarity}, it makes little sense to speak of God's intent in the Binding of Yitzchak as if He intended that Yitzchak be sacrificed.

A parallel might be drawn to the story of Iyyov. What are we to make of the fact the Iyyov is tortured for no cause, other than to settle a bet between God and Satan? For perhaps other reasons, some say that all of Iyyov is allegory {mashal}. There is the rejected opinion in Bavli, from the rabbi standing before R Shmuel bar Nachmani. More interesting is the harmonized view of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in the Yerushalmi. (For a more detailed analysis, and quotations, see my post: Iyyov Lo Haya Velo Nivra/Atid Lihyot.) He agrees that the book of Iyyov is allegory, but that Iyyov lived in the time of Avraham. (Hmmm... Perhaps what is intended here is a comparison of the two figure's trials? But I digress.) That is, Iyyov was a historical figure, and a righteous person. Iyyov, the historical person, is put into the story because if such sufferings would have been imposed, he could have withstood them. However, just as we will never see the application of the law of Ben Sorer UMoreh or Ir HaNidachat, so too we will never see Hashem impose such suffering on an individual for no purpose. The setup in the beginning of Iyyov is there to set up the hypothetical case, matching human perspective that can see no just cause for the suffering, in order to support the philosophical discussions of suffering in the main body of the book. If so, to draw lessons about God's conduct, or the nature of God, and His relation to Good and Evil, is not founded, and was never intended.

What of the fact that Avraham was going to follow God's command, despite the fact that it was not moral? As I said earlier, this point is not the focus of the narrative, but if the story reflects reality, he still would have to grapple with it, no?

We can readily dismiss this point in several ways. Avraham might have thought that, while from his limited perspective, he could not see the morality of the command, God, who has a wider perspective and is Omniscient, has a better grasp of its morality. Further, in most instances, murder done by humans is wrong, but the fact that God takes life (e.g. the neshika for Moshe, as well as perhaps in every instance) does not mean God is evil. Further, who is to say that Avraham even saw an ethical dilemma here. In the surrounding culture, sacrifice of children was not uncommon (e.g. Molech). Sure, we know now that such actions are morally reprehensible, but this is after God prohibited such actions. And it was after the Binding of Yitzchak, which demonstrated the God does not desire human sacrifice. So I think this tells us nothing about the nature of God and His relationship to good and evil, and furthermore, that it tells us nothing about making choices between what God commands and what is ethical. In fact, it is entirely likely that such a choice would not come to be, because God's commands are all good and moral. As we say in Mishlei 3:

יז דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

1 comment:

Beisrunner said...

"As I laid out in a previous post, the story of the Binding of Yitzchak involves a struggle by Avraham. However, it is an emotional/personal struggle, not a moral/ethical one."

I disagree. Despite its brevity, the akeidah chapter has spawned an extraordinarily volume of philosophical discussion from every generation which has examined it, in a way that other Biblical passages have not. The moral/philosophical questions which preoccupy us as we study the akeidah would also have preoccupied Avraham as he prepared to carry it out. Thus, the akeidah is "about" these questions, whether or not the text mentions any question in particular. You admit as much yourself by including the last few paragraphs of your post, which have no textual basis but rather proceed from philosophical considerations.


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