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There are a few burning religious and communal issues the Jewish people are now dealing with. Arguments are raging over what our policy should be towards conversions, women’s role in the synagogue and the community, homosexuality, our attitude towards non-Jews, and other questions. Almost all of these arguments seem to revolve, one way or another, around the same question: To what degree should our personal, internal, human morality and ethics determine our position on these issues? Are we meant to simply stick to the traditional approach to things, or can our sense that something is wrong – has, perhaps, gone wrong, given our evolving moral/ethical sensitivities – with certain aspects of Jewish practice allow us to make the changes we feel would lead us to a more moral, fair, and just situation?
The story of the akeda – the binding of Issac – has often been brought as an example of how one’s personal sense of justice must bow to what we understand to be God’s will. After all, Avraham seems completely willing to sacrifice his beloved son, as God orders. This is, however, internally difficult, as Avraham has already shown us, when he argues with God for fairness and compassion for the people of Sodom and Amorah, that he can have, and articulate, a moral position which seems to be at odds with God’s will: השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט - “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Clearly, in that earlier story, the Torah is teaching us that one’s internal sense of what is right and wrong should be used to question, and better understand, God’s laws. Why, then, does he not do the same when commanded to do the clearly immoral act of sacrificing his son for God? Why does he simply, blindly, obey?
Over the years, a number of answers have been suggested. My favorite explanation, which has been put forward by Robert Alter, is that, in Avraham’s time, child sacrifice was a cultural norm, and would not have been seen by him as essentially immoral. This is actually not so hard for us to understand – until not that long ago, capital punishment, for a wide range of crimes, was a norm, even a form of public entertainment. Today, more and more people see it as problematic. The way we feel about moral and ethical issues changes, and, perhaps, God’s commandment to kill Isaac, which He then rescinded, is actually meant to teach Avraham that, although his commitment to God is appreciated, God, unlike the pagan deities of the time, does not actually want human sacrifice.
This is also supported by Rashi’s explanation of the ending of the akedah story, in which, in the Midrash, though not in the Torah itself, Avraham questions God’s intentions: “First you tell me to raise him up as a sacrifice, then you tell me to take him down from the altar and not harm him; what’s going on?” Rashi tells us that God’s answer to Avraham is that Avraham should have paid closer attention to the original command: “I told you to ‘raise him up’, not necessarily kill him. Now that you have raised him up, take him down!”
In other words, God is trying to show Avraham that his perverse moral code, which he has received, in part, from his culture, and in which human sacrifice is acceptable, has led him astray; he should have known immediately that God could not possibly mean he should kill Isaac, and he must just be asking for a symbolic “raising up” of his beloved son, and no more. So here, somewhat paradoxically, Avraham’s internal moral sense – negatively affected as it was by the culture he lived in, led him to ultimately disregard God’s real intention. That is why he was willing to kill his son: he was acting in accordance with popular – though incorrect – morality, which prevented him from a truly sophisticated and moral understanding of what God really meant.
If this is the case, then the real message here is this: of course one must process the laws of the Torah and the customs and beliefs of the Jewish people through the filter of our moral-ethical world view. But we must also constantly subject our moral sense to a rigorous examination: Is what I think to be just really just, or I am only following fashion? Is what I believe to be self-evidently immoral really so, or am I being influenced by positions which may be popular, but which are not necessarily fully thought through? The challenge, once we accept that the Torah actually invites us to bring our own sense of justice to bear on Jewish life, and law, is to study, examine, and critique our internal moral compass as carefully as we study, examine, and critique the words of the Torah and the Rabbis. If we don’t do that, then we really have no right to think that our own moral codes could possibly have a bearing on the way we understand the will of the Torah.
Rabbi Shimon Felix