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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II

There are two exigencies in Judaism and they are tied to faith and ethics. Both arise in the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.

The by-now conventional way to understand the meeting and meaning of these two exigencies comes from Kierkegaard’s profound meditation on the meaning of Abraham’s ordeal, in Fear and Trembling. It was a book a generation of us read in existentialism courses in the 1960s, and it presents us with Kierkegaard’s three knights imbued with three passions: those of aesthetics, ethics, and faith.

For the first, art and beauty provide purpose and meaning in life. If we add the beauty of intellectual thought to this, then we have much of the world in which modern Jews, from Einstein to Bloch, from Menuhin to Horowitz, from Kafka to Bellows to Woody Allen, have established their dominion. And the list goes on when the world of the mind is included, Freud, Marx, Buber, the greatest thinkers and creators of our times, all endowed with a passion of the spirit moved by the beauty of the spirit and of the intellect.

For Kierkegaard, however, there is a higher exigency than art. When confronted with the choice between saving a life and taking a striking photo of a person who is dying and whose death you might have prevented by acting instead of photographing it, that higher exigency enters in. More importantly, ethics as a passion means giving your life meaning through tzadakah instead of through a brilliant performance or script or theorem. Of course one can use art for ethical purposes, but then the telos or goal of the art as beauty is subordinated to its ethical goal, and we know of such art—protest or committed art, agit-prop theater, street theater, as we had in East Lansing during the Vietnam war. And we listen to Einstein or Derrida or Salk or Marx, or to the voices of our rabbis, for their views on our being in the world with others, for their opinions on nuclear weapons or genetic engineering or social justice or intellectual integrity and questions of truth and its meaning, its bearing on our lives and our actions, because being Jewish means and has always meant coming to terms with righteousness—a term so laden with potential pretentiousness that it is better to retreat from directness and echo the simple, sweet dicta of Micah in his haftarah on Balak: “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good. And what the Lord doth require of thee... Only do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (4:8).

As a prescription of how to live, and of what to devote one’s life to, this is a perfect statement of the ethical passion. That it is a passion is clear from Moses’s impassioned call for justice that he makes towards the end of his life, towards the end of the long years in the Wilderness. “Justice, justice,” he cries, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live and inherit the land which the lord thy God giveth thee” (Deut. 16:20). And God’s repeated injunction, “Remember to keep my commandments, and be a holy people.”

I’ve always thought of Abraham as being the model of the ethical person. His moment of greatest challenge with God did not involve asking for children or land or power, even though he had no child by Sarah, no kingdom, and no multitudes of people over whom to rule. He was a good man in all the respects that Micah said. He did justly, loved mercy , and walked humbly with God. What better picture of this do we have than that at the terebinths of Mamre, where this good and old patriarch falls on his face to welcome God’s emissaries, and then pleads with God not to kill the good people of Sodom and Gomorrah along with the evil.

It is with this passion in mind that Alan Falk spoke last year in his drash on the sacrifice of Isaac, taking the position that there was no higher passion, no suspension of the exigency of moral goodness, that could justify the offering of Isaac, much less the actual sacrifice of him—that Abraham’s acquiescence was a mistake, a horrible, mistake.

Yet Kierkegaard does speak of a higher exigency than the ethical—one that is less obvious, in a sense, perhaps less a part of our sense of ourselves as Jews, perhaps one that fits more comfortably in the mouths of Christian thinkers like Kierkegaard himself, and that is the exigency of faith. it is important to understand that for Kierkegaard, faith is a passion that is, it’s something to which one can devote oneself completely and thus come to complete fulfillment. And it is important to understand that faith is completely different from understanding in that an act of understanding requires only an intellectual grasp whereas faith involves necessarily a suspension of the understanding, and even more, a yielding of the self to that which cannot be understood.

Like God’s name—“I am that I am.” Faith, for Kierkegaard, exists only by a surrender to that which is in logical or intellectual contradiction, to that which doesn’t make sense. Reason is suspended by walking across a Red Sea, by marching into battle or into the wilderness as a people in exile, surrendering to the guidance of Moses. Faith is what Kierkegaard saw in Abraham’s yielding to God’s command that he sacrifice his son, all the while holding to his belief in God’s promise to give him this very son, and not another, and indeed a vast progeny by this son. Faith involves a suspension of all that you hold on to in order to be yourself in the world, and of all those things nothing counts for more than to act in accordance with ethical principles. That is why the knight of faith accepts the teleological suspension of the ethical—that is, a suspension based on a higher goal—because even, and especially, the ethical can be a bar to that act of surrender to God.

This is the language of Judaism, beginning with the statement of all beginnings, “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods beside me.” It is the language of the entire Torah, and indeed the language of Christianity and of Islam as well—the demand for the surrender of the self to God’s will. And at the heart of this concept, one which we do not invoke a great deal in our world of Jewish thought these days, is the notion of sacrifice.

Nothing is more foreign to us than all those weird sacrifices in the Bible—sacrifices of animals, of grains and flour, described in great and intricate detail. We always retreat before these injunctions, and regard them as interesting historical phenomena, that is, things gone by having nothing to do with us. We don’t observe them, we don’t know them, we don’t like them. We don’t live in a world which accepts or reflects on sacrifice. Indeed, we instinctively feel repulsion at the notion. Yet despite our rejection of this notion of sacrifice, there is some fundamental tie between sacrifice and faith.

For Kierkegaard, Abraham becomes a knight of faith, proves himself to be worthy in a sense that goes beyond that of Micah’s good man, when he accepts God’s command, and when he responds to Isaac’s question, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for a burnt-offering?” by responding, “God will provide himself the sheep for a burnt-offering, my son.” I reject all interpretations that hold that Abraham was speaking ironically, or that he didn’t believe that he was going to have to go through with it, or that he was speaking out of despair. These fly against the sense of the text and of the character of the man established throughout the text. I suggest that Abraham is the straight man who is needed to complete the two-fold nature of sacrifice—that of the one who makes the sacrifice and of the one who is sacrificed, Abraham and Isaac.

Sacrifice is not a gift nor an act of propitiation. It is a means of reaching across the gulf that lies between humankind and God, which may be why our rabbis would have it that it is now our words in prayer that constitute sacrifice. It is the means of arriving at a measure of self-transformation, self-transcendence. We have such notions in Judaism, and they are assumed to be basic to our portrait of ourselves as Jews. On the one hand, there is this old and original patriarch and his son, but on the other there is the one who presents us with that portrait through that original, originating act of the Jewish faith; and that is Moses’ act of giving us Torah. I don’t mean the historical Moses; I mean the Moses to whom we have just referred when singing, “V’zot ha-torah asher sahm mosheh lifnei b’nei yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad moshe”—“This is the Torah given to the people Israel through Moses by the word of God”—the Moses to whom we impute the authorship of the Torah. And Moses’ role is also linked to sacrifice. In fact, both Moses and the people of Israel, the b’nai Israel, undergo one integral experience in establishing themselves as the people of God, and that is the experience of the forty years in the wilderness, the experience of sacrifice.

I interpret sacrifice as the means of communicating with God, of establishing the meeting with God and humankind. If Abraham meets God through the vehicle provided by Isaac, or the ram, Moses meets God through his own sacrifice. He is at one and the same time the one who carries out the sacrifice and the sacrificed one himself, and his leadership of the b’nai Israel across the wilderness is so as to enable the children of Israel to become, themselves, the same vehicles for the meeting with God. For those for, whom faith is the highest dimension of the human relationship with God, sacrifice is the highest act—not as an incomprehensible killing, but as an expression of surrender and self-overcoming; not as a deception or as a selfish substitution, but as a release from enslaving ties and weaknesses, as an overcoming, a self-overcoming, and especially as a transcending of the self and its fragile weaknesses. This is what I understand Rosh Hashanah to be about.

Kierkegaard’s knight of faith represents the highest figure of which he can conceive as faith represents the highest passion. My question is not whether this notion of faith is compatible with Jewish thought. I’d argue that without it we have not only Alan Falk’s dismissal of the sacrifice of Isaac as a terrible mistake, but the dismissal of Moses and the experience of the wilderness, and of all notions of transcendence or the meeting with God, the communicating with God. I cannot imagine such a Judaism as anything other than an ethical practice, a mere ethical practice no different in substance from that of Bahai’ism, the Ethical Culture Society, Unitarianism, or Confucianism. For many, ethics is the highest passion, and the only one.

It is indeed a noble one, but I’d prefer to take a different approach in suggesting another exigency for us besides that of ethics when confronting the exigency of faith and sacrifice, because I’d rather not pay quite so high a price. I’d rather not let go of the wandering in the wilderness and Moses, while I share Alan Falk’s hesitations before the image of sacrificing one’s own son. If the exodus provides the basis for traditional Judaism, there is another experience that provides our understanding of ourselves as Jews today, and that is the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt has written movingly about the sacrifice of those who died in the Holocaust and she has argued that in the world of the concentration camp, in the world of genocide, in the world of the gas ovens, death loses its capacity to move either executioner or victim onto any higher level; it is a world devoid not only of beauty, but of any appeal to the ethical. It is a world in which the most severe testing of faith has taken place—a world of genocide among others that went before and other that have gone on since—a world forgotten by God, a world where death has meant loss and no gain, because the price for any putative gain would have been too high. It is a final line for our thought to travel, where we can say we will not go any further, not seek any compensating, redeeming qualities to the experience, no teleological suspensions, where we can say only one thing, “Never again.”

This is our exigency of today, the exigency of the Holocaust. It is not grounded in beauty, morality, or faith in any way that I can accept. It is an exigency that arises from our total being, from a place beyond which we cannot go or search further. It is our cry of “No’ which speaks for us, and so make us who we are.

This is the second exigency I would want to place alongside the exigency of faith and sacrifice which lies in the story of Abraham and Isaac. And if asked how to reconcile those two exigencies, I wouldn’t know how to respond. How can we regard the sacrifice of Isaac in the face of the Holocaust? How can we be Jews without having lived the Exodus as well as having died in Auschwitz? Whatever we bring to Rosh Hashanah is contained in both of these exigencies that refuse to let got of us, and that cannot tell us the same thing when considering the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. And however, irreconcilable those two exigencies may be, we cannot let go of them—they define us as Jews in the world today.

—Ken Harrow
September 17, 1993

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