The binding of Isaac passage has posed a perennial problem for those affirming universal moral norms. Struggling with the dilemma of a God who commands Abraham to sacrifice his ‘chosen’ son has yielded a steady flow of creative interpretations. Herein my latest suggestion.
One way of presenting the Akedah challenge is to define the quandary that confronts Abraham as the choice between fulfilling the command to “Love the Lord your God” and the obligation to ‘Love Your Fellow as Yourself.” Which one has priority, the commitment to principle and law or the devotion to interpersonal love and relationship? Is the essential religious message that one must be prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Divine or that we must do everything in our power to sustain our human relationships? Is obedience and submission always the appropriate religious stance or is resistance and disobediences sometimes the more holy/moral response?
Here again, as in the Sodom episode, Abraham emerges as our radical mentor. At the moment that he refrains from sacrificing Isaac he demonstrates that the perceived contradiction between the two Love commandments is only imagined and that, at the deepest level, the fulfillment of the Love of God is achieved through one’s acting to Love one’s fellow human being. Indeed, Abraham concluded that the God with whom he is covenanted would never desire that he sacrifice his beloved son nor demand the violation of any other universal moral precept.
And so, once again Abraham the iconoclast shatters the idol of religious absolutism in favor of the moderating virtues of compassion, mercy and love.This is the gift of a religion that proclaims loud and clear: “and you shall live by means of the commandments”(Leviticus 18:5), to which the rabbis append, “and not die because of them”(Yoma 85b).
To life, and to a year filled with health, love and peace.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is Director Emeritus,UCLA Hillel