A mosaic of the Akeida in Bet Alfa National Park in Israel. (photo from hartman.org.il)
For many of us, the approach of the Jewish New Year offers an opportunity to take a moment from our harried lives to reflect on life’s “big” questions. It is a time for many of us – across the religious spectrum – to think about our relationships with ourselves and our families, with our tradition and with God. For those of us who choose to spend Rosh Hashanah in synagogue, the holiday offers the opportunity to participate in a communal reading of some of our most sacred and paradigmatic collective narratives, which in turn have the potential to illuminate some of our most pressing personal dilemmas.
Two of the most important biblical stories we revisit every Rosh Hashanah are the binding of Isaac (known in the Hebrew parlance as the Akeida) and Abraham’s argument with God regarding the fate of the inhabitants of Sedom. These two accounts represent two different religious anthropologies: one of sacrificial self-surrender and one of assertive moral challenge. As I have previously written, the personal moral empowerment displayed by Abraham in the story of Sedom – his insistence on his own ethical intuition and God’s acceptance, in turn, of those claims – is, for me, the foundation of the covenantal relationship.
The account of the Akeida, on the other hand, presents a distinct moral dilemma: How do we begin to understand a God who would ask His most loyal follower to sacrifice his beloved son? There are many ways to approach the theological puzzle that is the Akeida. This Rosh Hashanah, as we pause to examine not only our relationship to the divine, but our personal family relationships as well, I propose rereading the story of the Akeida by looking at God’s character through an anthropomorphic lens.
Before I begin describing God in human terms, however, it is important to remember that we have a long and deep tradition of doing so. The Bible is replete with images of God experiencing “human” emotions. Throughout the biblical narrative, we are presented with a God who is alternately angry, jealous or ego-driven.
During the Jewish people’s sojourn in the desert, for example, Moses, like Abraham before him, finds himself in the position of having to plead with God not to destroy a people – in this case, the Jews of the desert generation. The Bible describes God in nakedly human terms, as Moses finds that he has to, in some way, appeal to God’s ego. The Midrash describes Moses grabbing hold of God and saying to Him, “I’m not going to let you do what you want to do to the Jews.” Moses even appeals to God’s public relations considerations: he reminds God that He not so recently delivered this desert people from bondage in Egypt; if He kills them now, the other nations will say that He took them out of slavery only to slaughter them in the wilderness. Moses tells God in no uncertain terms that he will not help facilitate a people’s destruction.
Moses has to convince God not to allow His “emotions” to overpower Him, not to let His anger consume Him. This is but one example of many throughout the Bible and the Midrash of profound anthropomorphism, of portraying God as a character full of human weaknesses, with the potential to be both vulnerable and volatile.
In examining the story of the Akeida, we are compelled to ask, How could the God of the covenant – the God who promised Abraham that a great and multitudinous nation would emerge from his son Isaac – command that Isaac be killed? How are we able to understand the covenant in light of this seemingly unfathomable dictum? In attempting to understand the God of the Akeida, and what the Akeida might mean for us today, I have found it helpful to look at God as a parent.
God made the covenant with Abraham. But, after He did so, He got nervous, He suddenly felt scared. He had given over enormous power to human beings and He felt His ego being threatened. Thus, when God commands Abraham to “Take your son,” Abraham senses intuitively that it is not a moment in which to approach God with his moral claims. When God says, “Take your son,” Abraham understands that the God who is speaking – the God of the Akeida – is a God who experiences His own authority as under siege.
Abraham knows that the moment of the Akeida is not a moment for encounter or dialogue, but a moment that requires silence. It is a moment when Abraham knows that his only choice is to be quiet and submit. Abraham, a lover of God, senses the divine mood. When Abraham stood in front of God at Sedom, it was, in part, because he felt that it was a time when he could approach God; he sensed that God was in a willing position, that there was a possibility that He would be receptive to Abraham making covenantal demands.
Abraham’s response to God is analogous to a child’s response to a parent who the child knows is feeling challenged or threatened. There are times in a family’s life when a child knows intuitively – as Abraham knew intuitively – that there’s an opportunity for discussion, a moment when he can be critical of his parents, and his parents will be receptive to what he has to say. But there are other moments when a child understands that his parent is feeling insecure; moments when the mother or father is terrified of losing his or her authority. A child knows that is not the moment to try to encounter the parent in critical relationship; it’s not the moment to remind the parent that, in the past, he or she has encouraged critical reflection. That is a reality of family life: parents can become terrified of losing their position of power; they can become frightened that their children misjudge their encouragement of critical reflection as a negation of their parental authority. So, in some way, I attribute to God the same weakness or the same dilemma. He feels threatened. He feels that He must assert His power and test His child.
Before the Akeida, Abraham is referred to as ohavai elokim, a lover of God. Subsequent to the Akeida, he is referred to as yerei elokim, a fearer of God. The question we are faced with is why must God demand Abraham’s submission and fear? Why was his love not enough? To understand the God of the Akeida, we have to understand that God has conflicting forces within Him. The Midrash on the Akeida paints a very strange portrait of a God who says to the Jewish people, “Please pray for me. Please pray that my attribute of compassion will overcome my attribute of justice.”
Who is this God that must pray to human beings for help in overcoming His impulses? Who is the God that needs to ask human beings to remind Him of compassion? The Midrash illuminates for us the reality of a God who is struggling to reconcile the opposing forces within Him. It is my view that the Akeida is a moment of God’s struggle within Himself. God tests Abraham because of God’s own internal difficulty balancing justice with compassion, fear with love.
How can we talk about God experiencing an internal struggle? The great contemporary biblical scholar Yohanan Muffs argues that it is only in human terms that we can most authentically grasp the nature of the divine. I share Muffs’ view that God’s humanity, so to speak, is essential to a true understanding of Him. Yet it is not only 20th-century thinkers such as Muffs, Abraham Joshua Heschel and I who have portrayed God in starkly mortal terms. Drawing on the tradition of the Bible and the Midrash, the rabbis of the rabbinic period routinely discussed God as having an interior emotional life. While this approach did not fit in with medieval philosophy, which maintains that God cannot take on any human form, that any change or emotion in God is a sign of imperfection, the great figures of the rabbinic period were not frightened to speak of God in the language of human psychology.
It is this tradition that empowers me to think of God in terms of psychodynamic maturation: to cite His shift from being a figure of complete and total authority to a figure who works in concert with human beings. It is the deep rabbinical tradition of ascribing human qualities to God that enables me to see a God who decides to become accountable to human beings.
And it is this precedent of anthropomorphism in the rabbinic canon that informs my view of the God of the Akeida as a parent struggling with his identity, grappling with the competing values within Him. He loves Abraham and He has planned great things for him, but God is beset by his own internal dilemmas, by his own conflicting emotions. This is the God of the Midrash, the God who says to Moses, “Hold me back, Moses, I’m losing myself.”
If this is a bold way of discussing the divine, it is no bolder than the way the Bible itself discusses God. Rather than diminish God in our eyes, looking at God in human terms enables us to understand Him on a deeper level. The God who experiences emotion, who experiences internal struggle, is a God who can enter into a relationship of mutual accountability with human beings. The God who experiences His own psychodynamic reality is the God of covenantal spirituality.
This Rosh Hashanah, as we examine our relationships with our parents and our children, with ourselves and with our tradition, we are all faced in some form or another with the challenge of balancing compassion with justice, authority with love. As the Jewish New Year draws closer, let us allow ourselves to draw on the wisdom of our shared narratives as we struggle to reconcile the competing values within us.
Rabbi Prof. David Hartman (1931-2013) was founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Articles by Hartman, z”l, and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.