Friday, November 11, 2022

Should We Love God More Than Man?




Arent De Gelder, Abraham Entertaining the Three Angels (Genesis 18:8-9), 1680’s



Should We Love God More Than Man?


By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz



Does Abraham love God more than he loves his fellow human beings? He immediately jumps to follow God’s command to offer his son as a sacrifice; he does not question and does not bargain. God comes first; Abraham faithfully accepts God’s call, despite the great cost to himself and his family. This passage in the Bible, called the Akeidah, (the binding of Isaac), has a deep and abiding influence on Jewish thought.

Abraham's response at the Akeidah is the polar opposite of how he responds to the punishment of Sodom. God tells Abraham he plans on destroying Sodom due to their great sins; Abraham objects, instantly and instinctively. He debates and negotiates, at one point rebuking God by saying: “Will the judge of the entire earth not do justice?” In this passage, Abraham clearly puts man before God.

The disparity between Abraham's response at Sodom and at the Akeidah is puzzling. There are technical ways of resolving this question by noting distinctions, such as differentiating between when God approaches for a dialogue or with a command, or between making a personal sacrifice and pleading for the lives of others. But I find those resolutions unsatisfying. At its core, this contradiction forces us to choose one passage as paradigmatic, as the ultimate lesson of Abraham’s faith; and which one is chosen will depend a great deal on how one understands the lesson of the Akeidah.

Successive generations of commentaries have offered their own interpretations of the Akeidah. Already in the Book of the Maccabees, the Akeidah is seen as the inspiration to martyrdom (and rebellion); and this perspective of the Akeidah becomes very influential. Rabbi Meir in the Sifrei explains that the commandment to love God with one’s entire soul, which is found in the first paragraph of the Shema, means that a Jew is obligated to love God as much as “Isaac, who tied himself down on the altar (as a sacrifice to God).” 

Indeed, martyrdom becomes so much a part of Jewish life, that several texts note how the martyrdom of later generations exceeds the Akeidah. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) tells the story of Hannah, a women whose seven sons were martyred by the Romans; before her seventh son is executed for his faith, Hannah tells him “go and say to your father Abraham, you bound up one [son to the] altar, but my mother has bound seven sons to altars.” In a 13th century poem, Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn writes:

Recall to our credit the many Akeidahs,

The saints, men and women, slain for Thy sake.

In medieval Europe, many Jews saw the Akeidah as a reflection of their own unwavering faith. It was a heroic act, one that inspired the spiritual heroism of Abraham’s descendants.

Some authors are deeply attracted to this perspective as well, seeing it as more authentic than the sensible, dull, and tepid religiosity of contemporary times. Isaiah Leibowitz argues that Judaism is uninterested in the ethical, and only recognizes mitzvot, divine commands. This he sees as a uniquely Jewish perspective, of the singular desire to fulfill the will of God. He notes that “Christianity's highest symbol is the crucifixion and the sacrifice which God brings for man, whereas the highest symbol of faith in Judaism is the Akeidah, where all man’s values are canceled and cast aside for the love and reverence for God….” The lesson of the Akeidah, he argues, is about putting God before man.

For this point of view, the Akeidah stands as a corrective to the earlier passage about Sodom; in the Akeidah, Abraham changes direction, and instead of questioning God, learns to obediently follow His command.

Most modern commentaries offer a very different perspective. They are troubled by the Akeidah, and wonder how God could have issued an unethical command. Samuel David Luzzatto explains that the Akeidah is essentially a publicity stunt, a way of demonstrating the fullness of Abraham’s religious fervor. Unlike the surrounding pagan religions, Abraham’s ethical commitments prevent him from performing child sacrifice. An observer might mistake Abraham’s ethical refinement for a lack of faith; for this reason God stages the Akeidah, to publicly demonstrate Abraham’s faith, and to demonstrate that an ethical religion can still have profound religious passion. The purpose of the Akeidah is to undermine child sacrifice, and show that one can be passionately attached to God and meticulously ethical at the same time.

This approach can be taken a step further, in a manner suggested by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and others. God commands Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” because the very point of the Akeidah is to show that faith should never supersede ethics. The Akeidah is actually an example of what should not be done, the Torah's way of making clear that God rejects the unethical. 

Seen this way, the Akeidah confirms Abraham’s actions at Sodom; in the end, the ethical takes religious priority at the Akeidah as well.

Abraham in Sodom vs. Abraham at the Akeidah is not just the central riddle of the Parsha, it is also the central theological issue in Judaism. Does God come before man, or does man come before God?

At first glance, the perspective that puts God before man seems more credible. After all, religion is about God; compared to Him, man seems inconsequential. John Henry Newman, an influential 19th century Catholic theologian wrote: "The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse." This may sound extreme; but if God is all that matters, then everything must be done to fulfill His will. Our interest in man is unimportant.

The challenge is to find religious arguments for putting man before God. Does humanism, which Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein defines concisely as “a worldview which values humans highly,” have any place in Judaism?

The answer is yes, for the very reason that God created man. From a mystical perspective, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains, the purpose of creation was for God to extend his love and kindness towards man. If so, God cares deeply about man; we should as well. Man, who is created in the image of God, deserves our love and esteem.

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik offers another idea that is critical to religious humanism. He explains that a foundation of Jewish ethics is that man is obligated to imitate God; and just as God is a creator, we too are meant to be creators. God left the world imperfect and incomplete, to allow man to complete creation, and be His partner in improving the world. Putting man before God is actually God’s desire; to care for humanity is to continue God’s work.

This idea is best illustrated by a passage at the beginning of the Torah reading. Abraham is speaking with God, but then abruptly turns away to welcome guests. The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) explains that this teaches us that “welcoming guests is more important than receiving the Divine Presence.”

Yet this idea is strange; even if there are guests arriving, why would Abraham disrespect God? Why can’t the guests wait a minute? The answer lies in recognizing the purpose of man’s partnership with God. Abraham is fulfilling God’s will by turning his attention to the guests; much like two partners, God is happy to be left aside, so that Abraham can take care of their newest “customers.” Man can come before God, because God Himself placed man at the center of His creation.

Many contemporary authors advocate religious humanism as a counterweight to religious fanaticism; they hope to end religious violence by reminding us of how ethics and kindness are the foundations of religion. But actually, religious humanism is critical for spiritual passion; at a time when it is difficult to perceive the divine presence, religious humanism becomes all the more important. Even in a profoundly secular world, we can truly experience the transcendent at special moments of human connection. 

There is a Chassidic story, which was made famous by Y.L. Peretz, about a sainted Chassidic Rebbe. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks retells the story this way:

Every Friday morning before dawn, the Rebbe of Nemirov would disappear. He could be found in none of the town’s synagogues or houses of study….

Once a Lithuanian scholar came to Nemirov. Puzzled by the Rebbe’s disappearance he asked his followers, ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ they replied. ‘Where else but in heaven? The people of the town need peace, sustenance, health. The Rebbe is a holy man and therefore he is surely in heaven, pleading our cause.’

The Lithuanian, amused by their credulity, determined to find out for himself. One Thursday night he hid himself in the Rebbe’s house. The next morning before dawn he heard the Rebbe weep and sigh. Then he saw him go to the cupboard, take out a parcel of clothes and begin to put them on. They were the clothes, not of a holy man, but of a peasant. The Rebbe then reached into a drawer, pulled out an ax, and went out into the still dark night. Stealthily, the Lithuanian followed him as he walked through the town and beyond, into the forest. There he began chopping down a tree, hewing it into logs, and splitting it into firewood. These he gathered into a bundle and walked back into the town.

 In one of the back streets, he stopped outside a run-down cottage and knocked on the door. An old woman, poor and ill, opened the door. ‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘I am Vassily,' the Rebbe replied. ‘I have wood to sell, very cheap, next to nothing.’ ‘I have no money’, replied the woman. ‘I will give it to you on credit,' he said. ‘How will I be able to pay you?’ she said. ‘I trust you – and do you not trust God? He will find a way of seeing that I am repaid.’ ‘But who will light the fire? I am too ill.’ ‘I will light the fire’, the Rebbe replied, and he did so, reciting under his breath the morning prayers. Then he returned home.

 The Lithuanian scholar, seeing this, stayed on in the town and became one of the Rebbe’s disciples. After that day, when he heard the people of the town tell visitors that the Rebbe ascended to heaven, he no longer laughed, but instead added: ‘And maybe even higher.’

 We must be inspired by Abraham's profound faith at the Akeidah; it reaches directly into heaven. However, even more inspiring is Abraham’s love for his fellow man. His enduring example teaches us how to ascend spiritually, and go even higher.




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