The Faiths of Yitzchak and Yishmael
This week’s shiurim are dedicated in loving memory
of Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky z”l whose yahrzeit is 17 Cheshvan
Adapted by Yitzchak Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
And it came to pass after these things that God tested Avraham, and He said to him, “Avraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” (Bereishit 22:1)
What was the point of the Akeda? The great commentators all debated this question. One common view is that the Akeda represents the man of faith’s blind obedience to God. This is an important foundation of service of God, but the Rambam offers a different perspective. He asserts that this was not the purpose of the Akeda, which actually had two other aims. One purpose was to demonstrate the level that monotheistic faith can attain:
The account of Avraham at the Akeda comes to teach two great ideas that are principles of our faith. First, it shows us the extent of the love and fear of God…in order to show mankind how far one should go for the sake of love of God and fear of Him, inspired neither by hope for reward nor by fear of punishment. (Guide of the Perplexed III:24)
In undergoing the test of the Akeda, Avraham sent a new message to the world: that he serves God not out of fear of punishment or fervent ecstasy, but out of pure love of God. Indeed, following the Akeda, the whole world knew that a person should be willing to sacrifice his life – or even the life of his only son – in the name of faith. According to the Rambam, this was Avraham’s own intention: to demonstrate to the world “how far one should go for the sake of love of God and fear of Him.”
We learn that religious experience and ecstasy are not the essence of serving God, but rather fulfill one’s obligation through deliberation. Even when we repent, we should be motivated by thoughtfulness and deliberation, not a passing feeling.
All his life, Avraham tried to publicize the faith of God in the world. The Rambam describes this activity:
He began to stand and call out with a great voice to all of the people and inform them that there is one God in the world and He is to be served, and he would go from city to city and kingdom to kingdom and call and assemble people. (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:4)
Yet, the Rambam’s explanation of the Akeda seems to contradict his own statement (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:2) that gentiles are not commanded in the mitzva of sanctifying God’s name and are not required to give up their lives for their faith. Why, then, did Avraham have to publicize throughout the world the concept of one’s readiness to die for his faith? Rav Kook addresses this and explains:
When the divine illumination had to appear in its purity, it revealed itself via the powerful religious enthusiasm made manifest in the trial of the Akeda, which clearly demonstrated that passion and devotion to the divine reality need not be based on a knowledge of God clothed in the degrading garments of paganism in which the spark of divine goodness completely lost its way, but can be based on a pure apprehension of God.… This came to be through the decision of the Akeda, which remains a natural law for all generations: that even the delicate connection to that idea that transcends all aspects of the senses somehow penetrates the depths of the heart. (Iggerot HaReiya 379)
In light of this, we need to clarify the substantive difference between Avraham’s faith and the faith of the pagans. The God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov is an abstract and unattainable God who has no image or bodily form and who cannot be conceived by human thought. The gods of Canaan, in contrast, were physical idols fashioned by human hands. The message of the Akeda lies not only in the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s faith, as the other nations also were prepared for such sacrifice. Rather, Avraham’s innovation was his readiness to sacrifice his son for a God who was not accessible through the senses. Naturally, the pagans believed that Avraham’s faith lacked certainty. While they were able to touch their gods, bow down before them, and tend to them, Avraham had never seen his God.
Throughout this endeavor, Avraham was plagued by a nagging doubt: would the belief in an abstract God, who could not be grasped by the imagination of the masses, have the power to overcome the darker human inclinations towards injustice, violence, and destruction? In order to prove to the entire world that faith in a single God was capable of overcoming human nature, Avraham had to sacrifice his son at the command of that same abstract God. Only in this way could he make the ethical faith of God known among the nations, and demonstrate that this faith was genuine and strong, able to overcome natural feelings.
When the angel of God reveals himself a second time, it becomes clear that God does not desire human sacrifice, but the idea of self-sacrifice remained.
The second purpose of the Akeda, according to the Rambam, is the truth of prophecy and the certainty in the word of God that addresses man. The pagan world never knew what prophecy was, and the Akeda teaches the power of prophecy. Even though Avraham was promised, “Your seed shall be called after Yitzchak” (Bereishit 21:12), when he was commanded to sacrifice his son on an altar, he moved quickly and calmly to fulfill the order. Had Avraham harbored any doubts about the authenticity of prophecy, he obviously would not have bound his son. Thus, Avraham proved that faith in the one God is absolute and free of doubt:
The second purpose is to show how the prophets believed in the truth of that which came to them from God by way of prophecy. We shall not think that what the prophets heard or saw in allegorical figures may at times have included incorrect or doubtful elements, since the divine communication was made to them, as we have shown, in a dream or a vision and through the imaginative faculty…. If the prophets had any doubt or suspicion as regards the truth of what they saw in a prophetic dream or perceived in a prophetic vision, they would not have consented to do that which is unnatural, and Avraham would not have found in himself sufficient strength to perform that act, if he had any doubt. (Guide of the Perplexed III:24)
If Avraham or any other prophet had a doubt about the prophetic vision, “they would not have consented to do that which is unnatural, and Avraham would not have found in himself sufficient strength to perform that act, if he had any doubt.” The willingness to sacrifice one’s life is based on the absolute truth of the command and the certainty of the prophecy.
Did Avraham succeed in inculcating the message of the Akeda? To a large extent, the answer is yes. Christianity and Islam, the two dominant religions of the Western world, are both monotheistic, and are thus preferable to the pagan beliefs that preceded them.
But in reality the same difference that existed thousands of years ago between the faith of Avraham and the beliefs of the nations of Canaan remains today between our faith and that of the gentiles. The god of the Christians, as we know, is not abstract. Christianity believes in the “holy trinity,” which places a human messiah alongside the transcendent God. The various denominations within Christianity understand this arrangement in different ways, but none of them believes in a completely abstract God.
In this regard Islam is much closer to Judaism. The Rambam, as we know, rules in his letter to Rabbi Ovadia the Proselyte that Muslims are counted among “the congregation of monotheists,” and thus are not to be considered idolators.
On the other hand, there is an enormous difference between the Jewish concept of sanctification of God’s name, and its Muslim counterpart. Like many fundamental beliefs of Islam, the belief in a hereafter was also borrowed from Judaism. But the Muslim version is substantially different from the hereafter that we believe in. We believe that in the World to Come,
there is no body or physical existence, but rather only the souls of the righteous without any body, like the ministering angels… no eating nor drinking, nor any of all the things that human bodies need in this world. (Hilkhot Teshuva 8:2)
Muslims, on the other hand, believe in a physical paradise that awaits the righteous after their death. According to Muslim belief, the World to Come provides those who attain it with all the physical pleasures that they were unable to enjoy in this world. In contrast with the pure, spiritual, and elevated paradise in which we believe, Muslims expect that after death they will reach a place where they can realize their wildest and ugliest fantasies. In contrast to Christianity, Islam succeeded in blocking the human imagination from conceiving the abstract God as something tangible, but gave human imagination free rein in conceiving of the World to Come.
The difference between the original concept of the World to Come and the paradise that the Muslims imagine for themselves is of great significance, and has ramifications for our attitude towards their faith in general. It is true that Muslims believe in one God, but the goal of their service of Him is to reach the hereafter that they believe in. Muslim martyrs who are prepared to die in the fulfillment of their religious command do not sacrifice their lives for the sake of the unity of an abstract God, but to get to Paradise. They have turned the loftiest of commandments – sanctification of God’s name – into a vehicle for the realization of their most vulgar urges. Their self-sacrifice is not for the sake of God, but for the sake of their own physical desires.
In addition to the desecration of the concept of sanctification of God’s name, the belief in a physical paradise also causes horrifying acts that are themselves a desecration of God’s name. Muslim spiritual leaders encourage murder, claiming that such acts publicize the name of the great God. But in fact they are encouraging their followers to sacrifice their lives in the name of the fulfillment of their physical desires.
Various midrashim provide lengthy and detailed descriptions of the three days preceding the Akeda, during which Avraham and Yitzchak walked together towards Mt. Moriah. For many years I searched among these dozens of midrashim that attempt to describe the conversation between the father and his son being led to slaughter, but not a single one mentions the paradise awaiting Yitzchak. This would seem rather strange: we would expect to read that Avraham reassured his son by promising that he would reach Paradise after his death. But not a single midrash makes such a claim.
This illustrates the vast difference between the self-sacrifice of Avraham and Yitzchak at the time of the Akeda, and the self-sacrifice of the sons of Yishmael today. Avraham went to sacrifice his son solely for the sake of the unity of God. He never imagined for a moment that the Akeda might benefit Yitzchak as a means of reaching Paradise, and did not entertain any illusions concerning the pleasures awaiting his son after his slaughter. A Jew does not wish to die in order to reach the World to Come, but he is prepared to give up his life for his Creator, without any expectation of a better life in the hereafter.
Jews have sacrificed their lives throughout the generations for the sake of God’s name, following in the footsteps of Avraham and Yitzchak. In contrast, the Muslim martyrs of today sanctify the murder of others. Moreover, the Jews who sanctified God’s name did so to glorify God, not for their own benefit, unlike the Muslims, who are promised a paradise of fleshly pleasures.
Although Muslims are considered members of “the congregation of monotheists,” in the words of the Rambam, they have desecrated the concept of sanctification of God’s name. Only we, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, sacrifice our lives when required to do so for the sanctification of His great name, and not for our own benefit. On this holy day (Rosh Hashana), we alone can cry out to the Creator of the universe, “Guardian of Israel, guard over the remainder of Israel…who declare, ‘Shema Yisrael.’” Only we have the right to plead to our Creator to have mercy on us and guard us from those who rise up against us to murder us:
Guardian of the singular nation, guard over the remainder of the singular nation…who declare the oneness of Your name – “the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
(This sicha was delivered on the second day of Rosh Hashana 5762 .)