by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 21, 2010
In his attempt to prove that “truth is subjectivity,” the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard argues that the least evolved of all human beings is the aesthetic man whose sole goal is self-indulgence and pleasure and the avoidance of pain and boredom. In contrast, the ethical man chooses to dwell within the sphere of duty. However, Kierkegaard argues, when the ethical man realizes that there are no grounds by which ethical rules may be justified, that person takes the “leap of faith” and becomes a “knight of faith.”
The prototype of Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” is none other than Abraham. In Bereshit 22:2, Abraham receives a commandment from G-d to make a sacrifice of his son, Isaac. G-d commands Abraham, “Take your son, your only child whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice.” According to ethical norms, one is forbidden to kill. Yet, Abraham obeys G-d’s command to kill his own son.
According to Kierkegaard, then, Abraham abandoned all rational and ethical norms, and simply made a subjective criterionless choice.
But was Abraham’s decision actually a senseless subjective act or was Abraham really acting according to reason and ethics?
To answer this problem, we must first understand that ethical norms are not always absolute. This is evidenced by the Babylonian Talmud‘s description, in Sotah 21b, of a chasid shota (a pious man who is foolish): “A woman is drowning in a river but he says, ‘I will not save her for it is not proper to look at a woman.'” Consequently, we see that ethical and rational practice – what is right or wrong – has to be decided, at times, at the particular instance that one does the act, rather than simply following certain norms that one takes to be absolute.
In this light, Abraham chose to abandon the ethical norm of “thou shalt not kill” in favor of what he recognized as a higher ethical and rational norm – one ought to act according to the will of G-d.
In our day to day life, we, unlike Abraham, often abandon the will of G-d in favor of personal gain, riches or convenience. Like us, Abraham could also have been tempted to ignore G-d’s command. First of all, he is ostensibly commanded to commit murder, which appears to be completely antithetical to Abraham’s character as witnessed in Bereshit 18:1: “He [Abraham] sat in the tent door in the heat of the day,” which our Sages explain in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 86b: It was the third day after Abraham underwent what was for him an exhausting experience – circumcision. Nevertheless, “He [Abraham] raised his eyes and he saw three people [total strangers] were standing beside him, and [despite being exhausted] he raced to meet them…and he declared…’Please take some water and wash your legs and rest under the tree and I will bring bread and satisfy your hearts’…” (Bereshit 18:2-5). Later, G-d exclaims, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grievous” (Bereshit 18:20). In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, we are told that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah would curse the divine name, and engaged in murder and thievery as well as various forms of cruelty. Yet, Abraham’s moral sense and concern for his fellow man prompts him to be insistent on attempting to save this vile society because, “Perhaps there are 50 righteous people in the city…perhaps there are 40…perhaps there are 10” (Bereshit 18:24-32). This moral man, Abraham, a man who shows so much concern for his fellow man, is now asked to kill his fellow man. And he is not asked to kill just anyone, but his very own son. All the more perplexing is that so miraculously, against all natural indications, G-d gave Abraham this son; yet, now G-d wishes that son to be killed.
Abraham, however, did not question G-d. In the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 32a, our Sages point out that Abraham already recognized G-d at a very early age. In his Moreh Nevukhim 3:29, as well as in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Avoda Zara, chapter 1, Maimonides points out that Abraham was rationally convinced of the “way of G-d.” In addition to his recognition of G-d’s perfect wisdom and benevolence, Abraham experienced this benevolence: In Bereshit 19, we see G-d saves Abraham’s nephew Lot from destruction in Sodom and Gomorrah; in Bereshit 20, G-d saves Abraham’s wife, Sarah, from being defiled by Avimelech; and in Bereshit 21, G-d gives to Abraham and Sarah, both advanced in age, a son. Consequently, after recognizing G-d’s essence and experiencing His benevolence, Abraham did not hesitate to obey G-d’s command no matter how strange it may have seemed to him. “And he [Abraham] took the knife to slay his son” (Beresit 22:10). Abraham, at this moment in time, did not concern himself with what everyone sees to be ethical norms, for Abraham recognized a higher principle – a higher rational and ethical norm – namely “one ought to do the will of G-d” because He has perfect wisdom and is omni-benevolent, while we human beings make mistakes and do not always think everything through properly.
One principle that we should all strive to think through is that of G-d’s superiority, wisdom and benevolence, and then we, like Abraham, will not hesitate to do the will of G-d.