Aaron Koller’s Sacrifice of Judaism

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by R. Rafi Eis

Aaron Koller’s Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (University of Nebraska Press/JPS, 2020) is a timely analysis of some of the dangers of contemporary forms of religious fanaticism, but his conclusions promote another set of perilous contemporary attitudes. The book has two purposes. Koller first explores the morality of the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. He firmly rejects the interpretation of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, that the biblical message is that divine command can override ethical imperatives, as incompatible with Jewish theology. Second, Koller uses this rejection to highlight the danger of Kierkegaardian thinking in contemporary times. Koller cogently demonstrates the first objective, but his analysis and contemporary applications are deeply flawed on multiple levels.

First, Koller does not adequately define his ethical framework. This ends up promoting a progressive agenda that undermines the vision of Judaism’s mission and the rabbinic understanding of the divine commandments.  Second, Koller’s view of religion is fundamentally different than that of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav). Koller’s religion focuses on the self instead of elevating humanity. Third, based on his view of ethics and religion, Koller sees a divide between the two. The Rav, however, asserts a harmony between ethics and Divine command. Such an approach prevents Koller’s dilemma from getting off the ground and addresses Koller’s concerns about human life. Fourth, Koller frequently cites and attempts to reject the Rav together with Kierkegaard. Koller, however, misreads the Rav who has different definitions of religion, ethics, and the relationship between the two. The Rav did not and could not adopt Kierkegaard’s approach to the Akeda. Fifth, we offer the Rav’s understanding of the Akeda that focuses on trust in God. It is the relational, not the ethical, that is being tested.

Kierkegaard and Judaism

Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling posits that the Akedah represents the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” that Abraham could violate the moral law to perform his more important religious duties. Divine override of ethics, however, contradicts the Torah’s declaration that God’s “deeds are perfect, for all His ways are just” (Deuteronomy 32:4). 

Theologians celebrate Abraham’s challenge of God’s impending punishment of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-25). More significantly, however, is the more important theological principle of the story: that by justifying Sodom’s destruction and explaining its complete evil, God confirms that His actions are based on justice. Abraham backs down; he was wrong about Sodom, not about God. The story’s conclusion is that the judge of the Earth does, in fact, perform justice (based on Genesis 18:25)!

Ethical imperatives can never be suspended because God’s actions are always moral. Koller marshals many more sources to this effect and thoroughly demonstrates that Kierkegaard “runs counter to some of the core values of biblical thought” (xxviii). 

Progressive Ethics

Integrated in Koller’s analysis of Kierkegaard and Jewish thought, however, is a deeper message about “the dangerous implications of faith unchecked by ethics, especially when such faith is taken as license to harm others” (xxix). The book’s introduction and conclusion focus on this “dangerous implication,” and the theme of faith providing license to harm others appears throughout the book. At the same time, Koller spends little time developing an ethical framework for this “no-harm” standard that needs to be protected from religion, nor does he subject it to rigorous analysis.

For example, Koller asserts that religious exemptions for vaccinations are Kierkegaardian suspension of ethics, but never explains why painful and irreversible Brit Milah, male circumcision, should still be allowed. The reader is left wondering.

At the end of the book, Koller settles on the ethical framework of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who defines “ethics as consciousness of responsibility toward others…, far from losing you in generality, singularizes you, poses you as a unique individual, as I” (104). He similarly cites Levinas that “to see a face is already to hear ‘You shall not kill,’” which Koller interprets as “the need to appreciate that every other human being has the same autonomy and rights as I do” (150).

This framework, however, is more radical than it might seem, at least in Koller’s application.[1]This understanding of Levinas runs counter to his contention that: “the conception of the right of man as the right to free will – a content suggested by the form of this right, by its a … Continue reading Koller calls out the US courts that have “exempted religious organizations from providing their employees with health plans that even so much as authorize a third party to provide contraceptives” (xxxii-xxxiii) as using “an understanding of the freedom of religion [that] derives from Kierkegaard’s notion that for a religious person alone on the mountaintop, even ethics must be put aside for faith” (xxxiii). He cites this example in his introduction and reiterates it in his conclusion (149).

Just to be clear, the issue is not whether one agrees with the Catholic prohibition on contraception. Judaism has a more flexible view. Rather, Koller’s extremist and subversive agenda is revealed when he calls providing contraceptive coverage an ethical obligation.

This determination requires making two assumptions: 

  1. Ethics stems from each person’s present determination of good and bad. Procreation is key to humanity’s survival and the number of instances where pregnancy is objectively medically harmful is rare. This means that contraception usage is based on the individual’s choice to have children. This is dependent on each person, based on their perceived needs and wants. Therefore, to describe contraception coverage as an ethical imperative means that Koller bases ethics on the subjective assessment of each person.
  2. Religious principles have nothing of value to add to ethics. The Bible is not neutral on procreation and states its view with the creation of humanity. Yet Koller evidently relegates the Biblical imperative to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) to religious obedience.

It is important to see the consequences of Koller’s moral framework. A framework where each person determines their own right and wrong will lead, for example, to full acceptance of intermarriage. Multiple foundations over multiple denominations (unsuccessfully) pour millions of dollars into strengthening Jewish identity and combatting intermarriage. Some denominations have accommodated intermarried couples with easy conversion standards and redefining Jewish lineage. For Koller, those solutions still engage in Kierkegaardian thinking by believing that in-marriage is better than the couple’s subjective evaluation of right and wrong.

The list can go on. All one needs to do is explain how one of the Torah’s obligations causes severe inconvenience or feelings of shame and, in Koller’s view, the right thing to do is to ignore Torah. Koller’s banishment of contemporary Kierkegaardian thought becomes a cover to sacrifice Torah on the altar of progressive, pluralistic ethics.

Religion and Humanity

Beyond Koller’s relativist and fluid ethics, he dramatically limits the role of religion to “the personal and individual faith that animates a person’s life” (xxxiii). This “individuals’ sense of religious devotion” (xxxiii, 154) is “a private experience of revelation not subject to verification or even to conversation” (xxix). This view focuses on the self.

In contrast, the Rav asserts that religion elevates humanity. In The Halakhic Mind criticizes the religious philosophers who have “abolished all rules of objectivity” (77) and made the religious experience completely subjective. Philosophy of religion needs to “reckon with objective cognitive standards” (77), since subjective religion “frees every dark passion and every animal impulse in man” (55) and “when intercourse with God is divorced from its social and communal aspects and concrete normative action, religion may develop into a barbaric, deleterious force. The unguided, inward life leads to the renunciation of ethical authority and moral awareness” (80). In a subjective and personal religion, any act can be self-described as religious and the Rav will have none of it.

Kierkegaard’s suspension of the ethical, however, turns this flaw into a feature and refuses to describe the evil in these brutal acts. In contrast, the Rav and Koller agree on the possibility of evil within subjective religion. Here, Koller and the Rav diverge. Koller maintains a subjective religious outlook but prevents it from going awry by keeping it within the boundaries of ethics (similar to philosopher Immanuel Kant, whom he cites).[2]The difference between Kant and Koller is that Kant rejects any God and religion that could command the unethical, whereas Koller only rejects specific unethical commands. The Rav, however, insists on an objective religious experience where “objectification reaches its highest expression in the Halakhah” (85). Religious practice is determined by the Halakhah and not by the individual. Kierkegaard and Koller’s religious act exists atop “the mountain to be alone with God” (p. 154), whereas for the Rav the religious experience is in the performance of the acts prescribed by the Halakhah.

At its core, Koller sees “the incommunicability of religious devotion” (xxxiii), whereas the Rav asserts that “the existence of an objective order in the religious sphere is a conditio sine qua non if religion is to play any role in the progress of human society” (80). Koller’s religion never aspires to influence anyone, whereas for the Rav, that is a primary purpose. Religious values must provide redemptive messages for humanity. 

In this disagreement, the Torah is firmly on the Rav’s side. God’s initial promise to Abraham stresses that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through him” (Genesis 12:3). God repeats this to Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and Jacob (Genesis 28:14). At Mount Sinai, God tells Israel that their purpose is to be God’s “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) and this is the meaning of Isaiah’s famous “light of nations” (42:6, 49:6). The messianic visions of Isaiah (2:1-4), Micah (4:1-5), and Zechariah (14:16) all aspire toward Israel’s positive impact on all of humanity.

Koller’s religious experience does not stem from traditional Jewish sources, nor is it clear what he sees as the mission of the Jewish people.

Ethics and Divine Command

At the heart of this debate is the relationship between ethics and divine command. Koller sees a divide between the two, while the Rav sees harmony. Such an approach prevents Koller’s dilemma from getting off the ground and addresses Koller’s concerns about human life.

 In Halakhic Man, the Rav provides the foundation for his religious worldview:

That dualism, so prevalent in other religions, which distinguishes between the man who stands before the Lord in an atmosphere suffused with heavenly solemnity and the man driving a hard bargain with his fellow in the marketplace, is totally foreign to the Halakhah. We have already emphasized that Judaism does not direct its glance upward but downward. The Halakhah does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence, nor does it seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality. It fixes its gaze upon concrete, empirical reality and does not allow its attention to be diverted from it… Even when halakhic man enters the synagogue or study house he does not leave his this-worldly life behind. His prayer is replete with requests regarding bodily needs: healing, prosperity, political freedom, a good and peaceful life, and such. (92)

It is precisely Halakhah’s focus on earthly human experiences that enables it to promote “the progress of human society.” There is a consonance between the conditions of human existence and divine revelation. 

While Judaism never demands or even hopes for universal conversion, the ethos of its commands is relevant to all of humanity since it communicates an ethical system. The Rav takes this harmony of ethics and revelation to an extreme by opening the possibility of a naturalistic type of prophecy where the prophet “apprehended Him in the welter of the manswarm” (emphasis mine) (Halakhic Mind, 79).[3]The Rav elaborates on this assertion in his The Emergence of Ethical Man, 154.

While rejecting Kierkegaard, Koller nonetheless maintains the divide of ethics and religion. Ethics guides actions in this world while subjective religion is ethereal and detached from reality. They occupy separate domains. This reason-revelation divide is promoted by many Enlightenment thinkers. Kierkegaard chooses revelation over reason, promoting obedience. Similar to Kant, Koller promotes reason.[4]At times, Koller agrees that reason and revelation should not be divided when he writes that “the ethical cannot be purposefully suspended by God because God aspires to be ethical” (111) and … Continue reading The Rav, however, believes in the harmony of reason and revelation. Together they promote human flourishing.

This coherence is necessary because morality is complex. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind details six moral axes: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. These all are virtues in the Torah and the question becomes how to balance them when they invariably conflict.

In contrast, Koller has a simplistic definition of morality that revolves solely around care/harm of the Other. Due to this singular focus, Koller sees any deemphasis on care/harm as Kierkegaardian. 

Beyond that, human reason cannot always come to the right ethical conclusions when faced with a complicated reality. Numerous factors are not initially considered, and unintended consequences impair attaining the desired results.

Jewish law, therefore, serves as the boundary lines and guideposts for shaping a proper ethic. This is the reason for the important teaching to “do His will as though it were your will” (Avot 2:4). For Kierkegaard, the first part “do His will” suffices. For the Rav, the second part is critical since that trains us in how to properly balance the sometimes-conflicting moral axes and to correctly apply them. If a conflict between ethics and halakha appears, then the lacking generally lies on the human side, and ethics needs to be adjusted to align with halakha.[5]Of course, there are times that halakha changes due to ethical concerns. These ethical concerns, like in the elimination of polygamy and slavery, are not outside ethics influencing Halacha, but … Continue reading

Consider the current situation of homeless people through a Torah perspective. Numerous times, the Torah mandates care and concern for the unfortunate members of society. The inhospitality of Sodom (Genesis 19:4-9) and Abraham’s generosity to strangers (Genesis 18:2-8) are founding stories of this mandate. Looking out for the poor, convert, widow and orphan are repeated numerous times in the Bible. Failure to do so arouses God’s anger (Exodus 22: 20-23) and requires special atonement if the neglect results in death (Deut. 21:1-9).

At the same time, generosity to the unfortunate has its limits. Our compassion for their desperate situation cannot lead to judicial favor (Exodus 23:3, Leviticus 19:15). 

Even applying compassion requires forethought. The Torah, when mandating the assistance of loading and unloading another’s donkey, lists a limiting principle of “with him” (Exodus 23:5, Deut. 22:4). This kindness is only obligated in cases where a capable person is willing to help himself. Similarly, the main forms of Biblical charity are agricultural field access. The poor person must still arise early to harvest. He must then grind, kneed, and bake the bread himself, as Ruth does. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “an act which enables him not to need charity is higher than any charity.”[6]Jonathan Sacks, Tradition in an Untraditional Age, p. 186. Independence and self-dignity are more important qualities.

Applying these principles to the rising homeless problem would be of great societal benefit. Unconditional support, including the distribution of clean needles for drug use, enables a cycle of self-destructive behavior. By offering endless care for the Other without accountability, well-meaning policies enable human degradation. 

Both Koller’s religion and ethics focus on the individual’s inner life and both emphasize the present. There is no growth, just satisfaction. This leads to decadence and decay. In contrast, the Rav’s moral and religious harmony enables religion to guide human progress toward achieving its moral potential. It creates civilizational flourishing.

Ethics and the Akedah

This brings us to the central question of Koller’s book: If God always acts morally, how can He command the Akedah? 

Here we will expand on the approach of the Rav, which is not cited by Koller. At the most basic level, the Rav rejects Kierkegaard’s religious outlook and lists him among the “consecrated priests who worshipped God in the temples of inwardness and mental craving” (77). It is quite astonishing that Koller labels the Rav as a follower of Kierkegaard, given this firm rejection. In fact, the Rav never advocates for the “suspension of the ethical” because he cannot. He and Kierkegaard have fundamentally different notions of ethics and religion.[7]Koller cites the Rav’s critique of Kierkegaard and his proposal for objective religious experience but rejects them because “in the modern world it is a matter of subjective faith whether to … Continue reading

Instead, the Rav explains that Abraham “accepted God’s command, suspended his logical as well as his moral judgement” (Abraham’s Journey, 190). Instead of God “suspending the ethical,” the Rav emphasizes that “faith in God requires of the faithful suspension of judgement or suspension of the logos, surrender not only of the body but also of the mind… This is what was required of Abraham” (189).

In other words, “faith means complete trust, that the person in whom I have faith will never betray me” (189). The Akedah was not about obedience or the ethical, but the relational and psychological. It tested Abraham’s trust in God. True trust is only demonstrated when one acts despite not comprehending. Otherwise, one is working on reason, not trust. Whereas the rational mind needs to understand before acting, trust means acting before understanding. Trust requires complete reliance on another, and it is based on reliability. One of the most basic team-building exercises is the Trust Fall where a person falls backwards on the assumption that her colleague will catch her. 

From the Sodom story, Abraham knows that God is morally perfect. The Akedah, therefore, tests whether Abraham could trust God and act when he is morally bewildered. In fact, God had no intention of killing Isaac since God finds child sacrifice to be “abhorrent” and “detestable” (Deut. 12:31).[8]I am unaware of any other Biblical sin that is described in such harsh terms. It seems to be the worst sin that one can commit. Koller devotes chapters 6-8 to child sacrifice and argues that in the … Continue reading

Subjecting man to such tests seems cruel, as if God is playing with people’s lives. That, however, misunderstands the purpose and need for such tests. At moments in Israel’s future, they will be subject to similarly unjust conditions. These tests prepare them for these eventualities. Israel’s bondage in Egypt was just as undeserved as Isaac’s Akedah trauma. Here we should imagine that Israel strengthened their resolve by reminding themselves of the Akedah as they suffered under the Egyptian taskmaster. As Koller notes, the Jews of the Rhineland similarly used the Akedah when faced with cruelty of the Crusades.

Trust in God asks someone to believe in a future reality significantly different than the one before them. Faith does not ask that people believe in the absurd. Instead, it focuses on the potential for goodness and justice in the world when everything seems bleak.

This is not merely a concept for Biblical life. Israel survived a 2000-year exile of persecution, expulsion, and genocide because it trusted that the prophetic visions of redemption would come true. We now witness the fulfillment of “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing” (Zecharia 8:4-5) and can proudly proclaim that “God is the trustworthy God who keeps His covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). He is reliable even when we are not.

Endnotes

Endnotes
1This understanding of Levinas runs counter to his contention that: “the conception of the right of man as the right to free will – a content suggested by the form of this right, by its a priori – would it not be immediately put back in question by the coexistence and the very multiplicity of the ‘holders of rights,’ who, all ‘unique and free,’ would violate each other’s rights or freedoms in limiting them? The war of each against all, based on the Rights of Man! Unless we attribute to the essence of free will a propensity for the rational, and, thus, a respect for the universal” (Alterity and Transcendence, 147).
2The difference between Kant and Koller is that Kant rejects any God and religion that could command the unethical, whereas Koller only rejects specific unethical commands.
3The Rav elaborates on this assertion in his The Emergence of Ethical Man, 154.
4At times, Koller agrees that reason and revelation should not be divided when he writes that “the ethical cannot be purposefully suspended by God because God aspires to be ethical” (111) and Abraham therefore cannot “be forced to choose between faith and ethics” (111). Yet, his appeal to the subjective Other and his examples say the opposite. At no point in the book does Koller say that contemporary ethics are wrong and that the Torah’s mandates are more ethical.
5Of course, there are times that halakha changes due to ethical concerns. These ethical concerns, like in the elimination of polygamy and slavery, are not outside ethics influencing Halacha, but living Biblical virtues more fully. This, of course, requires separate treatment.
6Jonathan Sacks, Tradition in an Untraditional Age, p. 186.
7Koller cites the Rav’s critique of Kierkegaard and his proposal for objective religious experience but rejects them because “in the modern world it is a matter of subjective faith whether to believe that God exists at all” (p. 93). Ultimately, Koller keeps pushing the subjective nature of religion, but it is demonstrably not sufficient characterization. First, it is not a modern notion that people can choose their level of religious belief. A quick review of the Hebrew Bible demonstrates Israel’s continuous choosing of other options. Similarly, while we know the science of healthy eating and living, people make different choices all the time. People’s free choice does not negate objective truth. Second, a decision to join a system may be subject to free choice but that does not make the entire system subjective. For example, to love another person is entirely up to the individual, and so is the decision to have children. At the same time, psychologists and other social scientists endeavor to articulate the rules of love, romance and communication. The same with child rearing. Hundreds of books take up numerous shelves in bookstores and libraries. Even if there is some disagreement about the precise rules, there is wide agreement that rules exist. The initial commitment to a system can be subjective, but then the system itself is governed by objective criteria.
8I am unaware of any other Biblical sin that is described in such harsh terms. It seems to be the worst sin that one can commit. Koller devotes chapters 6-8 to child sacrifice and argues that in the Bible “the sacrificing of children was thought to be generally positive” (p.115) and that it is not evil (p. 123). Koller briefly mentions this verse from Deuteronomy which undercuts his argument. Instead, he supports his idea by taking verses out of context or confusing what people did versus what they ought to do.

About Rafi Eis

Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and has been a teacher for 16 years.

One comment

  1. Thank you, Rabbi Eis, for the lengthy consideration of my book. There are many places in your discussion where I do not recognize the arguments being criticized, so I hope readers will have a look at the original book to compare. Most importantly, I want to stress that the book does not offer – and does not pretend to offer – a comprehensive theory of the interplay of Torah and ethics. It only discusses the Akedah, and the interpretation some have offered that the Akedah teaches submission even to the point of the unethical. There is a lot to unpack there, but many of the criticisms relate to a project I didn’t undertake. Alex Ozar’s review in Tradition may be helpful in unpacking some of this: https://traditiononline.org/book-review-aaron-koller-unbinding-isaac-the-significance-of-the-akedah-for-modern-jewish-thought/.

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