Texts: The Akedah’s Message

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In his article on LGBT and Halachah, Prof. Aaron Koller says that he doubts Akedas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22), is about sacrificing one’s family (literally or figuratively) for God’s plan. After all, he points out, in the end Avraham did not sacrifice Yitzchak. Prof Koller direct readers to his forthcoming book on the subject, which I have not read. (My response to his argument was on a practical level, not a theological or commentariat level.)

I have seen some people point out that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik invoked the subjugation interpretation of Akedas Yitzchak. That is true – and I quoted him in my response to Prof. Koller — but he was only following traditional commentators. Primary among them is Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim 3:24.

However, the strongest response regarding normative theology comes from the Rosh Hashanah Machzor itself. Here is the relevant text from the Koren Sacks Rosh Hashanah Machzor (pp. 538-539), in which Avraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son “when he suppressed his compassion,” is invoked as a positive reaction to the command.

While this should not be necessary, I will add a few assorted Medieval texts that learn from the Akedah that we should be prepared likewise to sacrifice that which is important to us. I found the following brief but relevant discussion in Responsa Mahari Weil (Rav Ya’akov Weil, 15th century Germany; no. 191):

“We find that sometimes fear of God must be greater than love. Like a person who knows that his friend is greater than he and considers himself nothing compared to that friend. Similarly, a man should consider himself and everything he has — his wife and his children — all are for worshipping God with them. For this reason, it says regarding the Akedah, ‘Now I know that you fear God.’”

We see that Mahari Weil learns from the Akedah the idea that everything we have, even our loved ones, are not just secondarily but solely for the purpose of divine worship. While we don’t kill people, we might have to sacrifice our marriages or otherwise hurt our loved ones in order to maintain our religious standards. I must emphasize that we have to tread carefully and seek advice because, unlike Avraham, we do not have a direct connection to God.

Rav Menachem Meiri (14th cen, France; Chibur Ha-Teshuvah 1:2:2) writes that we read the story of Akedas Yitzchak (Gen. 22) on the second day of Rosh Hashanah because it arouses the height of love and fear of God when we see how Avraham was prepared to kill his son even though it was difficult for him. Not that God wants us to kill our children, as we see that He stopped Avraham. But Avraham was prepared to sacrifice the child he had wanted so desperately and the heir he needed.

Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi (13th cen., Spain; Sha’arei Ha-Avodah, par. 14) says that God recognized that even if he had commanded Avraham to sacrifice himself, he would have done so obediently.

Similarly, Rav Yitzchak Arama (15th cen, Spain; Akedas Yitzchak, no. 21) says that the message of the story is that we should follow God’s commands. He points to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) that when we blow a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, it is as if we bound ourselves to an altar.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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