Is it ever permissible to kill an innocent person in the name of God? Both our religious and ethical intuitions scream “no”! Halakha and Torah values consistently underscore the sanctity of human life and the injustice of allowing harm to come to innocent people, and from an ethical standpoint such an act is the very definition of murder. We only need to look at the evening news or the morning paper to see the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lives that can be destroyed when people believe that they have a divine warrant, or worse, a divine mandate to kill for a religious cause. For us Americans, the horror of this hit home 12 years ago on September 11th, and for people in certain countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East such horrors are suffered on an almost daily basis.
How then are we to approach the story of the Akeida? This story is presented as a great, if not the greatest, religious achievement on the part of Avraham: “By myself have I sworn, says the Lord, for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, that I will surely bless you… and through your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have listened to my voice.” (Breishit 22:16-18). What is this achievement if not the willingness to obey God’s command even if asked to murder an innocent child. Obedience to God trumps ethics, trumps the mandate against murder. Is that the message we are supposed to take away from this story?
To begin to answer this question, we need first to recognize our religious and moral responsibilities as readers of the Torah. There are many possible interpretations of any story in the Torah. “Shivim panim la’Torah”, there are 70 faces to every narrative, every verse, in the Torah. As readers of a challenging story such as this, we must ask ourselves not just what it could mean, but also what possible meanings is it our obligation to underscore and emphasize, and what possible meanings is it our obligation to marginalize and even reject.
The reading that absolutely must be rejected is that we must murder innocents if God commands us to do so. That reading of the akeida story, it should be noted, has been the dominant one since Soren Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling. In that book, Kierkegaard frames the test of the Akeida as whether Avraham would act as a religious person, a “knight of faith” to obey God’s command even to violate universal ethical mandates. He calls this a “teleological suspension of the ethical”. This was the test – faith or ethics? Obedience or morality?
But this is not how the test has been understood in our tradition, and particularly not in our liturgy. The refrain in our tefillot is: “Just as Avraham overcame his compassion to do Your will with a full heart, so should Your compassion overcome Your anger against us.” That is to say: Avraham’s great achievement was not obedience to God when it contravenes morality, it was obedience to God when it contravenes fatherly love. Avraham was being called upon to give up his only son from Sarah: “your one son, your only son, the one whom you love”. To do this, he had to give up what was most dear, and to do so at an unimaginable psychic and emotional toll. The message then for us is that we too, when called upon by God, should be prepared to do what is most difficult, no matter the hardship, no matter the cost.
How then to deal with the fact that killing Yitzchak was not only a great personal sacrifice, but also the taking of a human life, an act of murder? That problem seems to be ignored, or bracketed, in our tradition and liturgy. It is perhaps best explained by acknowledging that at that time such an act would not have been seen as murder, rather as a sacrifice. This idea is hard for us to grasp, but consider the analogy to abortion. Is it murder or is it a women’s right to her own body? What to one person, or in one place, or at one time in history, may seem evil and horrific may, at another time and place, seem ethically acceptable. In Avraham’s time, child sacrifice was not only a religious act, but an ethically acceptable one as well. Thus, he was not asked to perform murder, just to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Does this solve the problem? Is this the reading we should adopt? Well, no. Because if this is how we read the story, then what is our takeaway? Partly, to make sacrifices to serve God. That certainly is a message we need for our times. But also, what? That taking an innocent life is not necessarily murder? If it wasn’t murder for Avraham, why is it murder for us? Maybe all of our ethical absolutes should be seen as relative. Maybe there are times we should listen to God even to kill an innocent person. Maybe such an act can be a sacrifice and not murder. In fact, we know that in the Middle Ages, during the Crusades, some Jews slaughtered their children, and then themselves, as a way of protecting their children and their selves against forced conversion. And they invoked the akeida when they did so. In their minds, they were replicating the test of Avraham: They were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to serve God. Not only were they ready to do so, but they actually did so! And for them this was not murder, it was a sacrifice.
I would suggest a different reading of the Akeida story. This reading starts from the fact that Avraham’s act was not only about obedience, it was also about faith, faith that could persevere even in the face of its contradiction. Faith in God and God’s promise that Yitzchak would be the future of Avraham’s family and through whom all of God’s promises would be fulfilled: “For in Yitzchak will your progeny be called” (21:12). Avraham was able to have faith in God’s promise even when God had told him to act in a way that would contravene it.
Avraham had another type of faith as well. Another faith in the face of contradiction. Avraham was both prepared to listen to God regardless of what God would ask of him, even to take his son, even to commit murder, but he was at the same time unshaken in his belief that God would never ask him to commit murder. How did he demonstrate this? By listening to the angel. Consider: It was God who told him to sacrifice his son. So when the angel revoked this command, Avraham could have said: Sorry. I’ll need to hear that from God Godself. But Avraham didn’t say that. Avraham was able to hear the angel. He was able to hear the smaller voice. Not the dominant, loud voice that said: offer your son as a sacrifice, but the small, whispering voice that said: God does not want your son. God would never ask you to commit such an act.
When we tell the story of the akeida, our first religious and moral responsibility to emphasize the end of the story, not the beginning. To learn not that we must be prepared to murder in the name of God, but that God will never ask us to commit murder in God’s name. This is what the angel is teaching Avraham. This is the first lesson we must learn.
The second lesson is, if it seems that God is asking us to do such a horrific deed, then we must find a way to hear the voice of the angel. We must be prepared to hear the softer voices in our tradition, even if they are not the dominant ones. The softer voices that say: “You must have misunderstood. God will never ask this of you. Go back, listen again, you will see that that is not what God meant.” Rashi states this nicely. After the angel came, God in effect said to Avraham, “Yes, I said put him up as a sacrifice. You put him up. Now you can take him down.”
Our responsibility as readers of the story is the same as that of Avraham at the akeida. It is to know the role that we play in listening, interpreting, and retelling the word of God. It is the partnership that we as humans have with God. It is to submit ourselves to the text, but to know that we also interpret the text. It is to be prepared to do anything that God asks of us, and to know that God will never ask for us to murder in God’s name. It is the obligation to hear both the voice of God and at the same time the voice of the angel. It is nothing less than Torah she’b’al Peh.