Is Akeidas Yitzchak Brutality?
Reader I: A story occurred in the Bronx approximately 3 years back. The headlines read that a woman had stuffed her baby into an oven and let the baby burn. What was the reason? The woman said that “The devil was in the baby.” This killing took place in the name of G-d and religion (obviously Christianity). Were one to look at this story at face value, as most people do when they read a newspaper or hear about something on TV, they would find it utterly repulsive and would call the woman an insane monster. So what makes Akeidas Yitzchak any less repulsive?
Others and I have long been troubled by the notion that Hashem would ask a man to sacrifice his son to Him on an altar. Even more troubling is the fact that Abraham was eager to fulfill this command, to shed his son’s blood for G-d. But if G-d is all merciful as we say, then even if it was to test Abraham’s faith, why this? Is the story of Abraham almost killing his son because G-d told him to (when we look at it at face value), any less troubling or horrible than the story concerning the mother stuffing her baby into the oven, listed above? I realize that one answer to this question is that there is an answer and understanding of the narrative, however we are not on the madrega (intellectual level) that we should understand it. But does not the Gemarah in Maseches Megillah say, “The Torah is written in the language of man”? As a result, shouldn’t we be able to understand it? I hope you can give me an answer, for it is a very troubling issue. My thanks.
Mesora: It should first be noted that there is a great distinction between pain and murder. The Torah does not condone inflicting pain. Slaughtering in accordance with the Torah must be done with an extremely smooth and sharp blade. This is to insure that the animal feels no pain. Aside from killing, what this woman did was clearly wrong, as she suffered the child great pain.
Regarding the issue of murder, we once again make recourse to the Torah. G-d caused life. He is the Only One who may determine what is acceptable and moral behavior. Without G-d saying so, murder would not be a crime. It is only due to His plan that something is either “against” His plan, such as murder, or “in line” with His plan, and again, murder may fall into this category as being permissible, and even commanded.
If G-d determined that Abraham should slaughter his son, this then is in accordance with G-d’s plan. What this woman did was not. There is no comparison. Abraham’s zeal demonstrates how in line he was with his desire to effectuate G-d’s will. He did not view killing his son as a crime, or as something questionable, as this was a decree directly from G-d. Abraham had no doubt that G-d had communicated this to him. Had Abraham restrained himself that would have been the crime. King Saul was dethroned because of such an act.
Your statement that “we are not on the intellectual level to understand” is incorrect, and sadly, very often heard in religious circles. It is unfortunate for you that you have been exposed to such a damaging philosophy. You should abandon entertaining this idea as true. We only make such a self-assessment after we have exhausted ourselves in study. But we never commence with this sentiment.
The entire purpose of the Torah is that man involves himself in the appreciation of G-d’s wisdom. G-d did not create a Torah, which is “over our heads”. Yes, there are times when areas are daunting, and answers elusive, but they are reachable, as Moshe said, (Deuteronomy, 30:13-14) “it is not in the heavens (that one should) say ‘who will go up to the heavens and take it for us and he will make us hear and we will do it’. And it is not on the opposite side of the river, that one should say ‘who will traverse the other side of the river, and he will make us hear and we will do it”.
Here, Moshe taught us that the Torah is within our grasp, and we should not feign a humility, which cripples us from developing our minds further.
This false humility in reality is usually spoken, meaning, people don’t think it, they “say” it, viz., “we cannot reach Rashi’s level” or similar. Why is this spoken? It is quite clear that those who feign this humility are really seeking the admiration of others. Just the opposite of what you think! If they weren’t, they need not speak these words in the presence of others. In truth, Rambam stated that we can reach the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, meaning that we can all reach our potential as Moshe did. But we won’t if we make statements like these.
I urge you to keep your minds eye on seeking the truth, as you did by asking this question. Do not rest until you feel you have uncovered an answer that is 100% satisfactory to you in any area. Do not allow people’s notions to cripple your freethinking. Follow Chazal, not people of today who echo ignorant statements. We have the words of the Rabbis to learn from, use them solely as your guide.
Shlomo Hamelech said (Proverbs 2:6) “ki Hashem yitane chochma, m’piv daas u’svunah”, “G-d gives forth wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding”. This should teach you that if you have the zeal to learn, it is in G-d’s hands to make knowledge known to you. He is the Source, and He is the Transmitter. (That is what this pasuk teaches by doubling the statement - Hashem is the granter “yitane” and He is the source “piv.”)
If you desire the knowledge, G-d can grant it, as this is His plan.
Reader II: I will never be able to understand, let alone accept akeidat Yitzhak. How can you justify G-d’s demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a sign of devotion? This is a most horrific request, which befits the most primitive, even barbarian cultures! And please don’t tell me this is ‘symbolic’- it is a real demand that G-d made on Abraham. The fact that we all know that Isaac was later spared because of “ram caught in the thicket” does not make it easier to accept the brutal demand in itself.
Mesora: Isaac was not spared due to the ram. That event was subsequent to G-d’s command not to slay Isaac.
Secondly, asking to “justify” G-d’s request assumes this error: that G-d must follow man’s sense of justice. The converse is true: G-d has a higher system, wherein, He raises man to greater levels of perfection through the adherence to His word. G-d would not place someone in a trial as this, were it not for the fact that He knew that Abraham would comply. (Ramban) G-d created life, and He alone gives possesses rights over one’s life. He does not “owe” mankind anything. It is wrong to assume otherwise. We are His creatures. Is death a bad? We do not hold death as an evil. We hold it is a good. True, killing is evil, but only if perpetrated unjustly. However, if G-d commands us to do so, it is not evil, (evil meaning “against G-d’s word.”). When we battle, here too killing is not evil. It ascribes to a higher principle. There is a great difference between death, and killing.
Is it wrong for Abraham to go through such trials? We must look at all aspects of the trial. There maybe a benefit which outweighs the suffering of losing his child. The higher benefit is Abraham’s demonstration of devotion to G-d, a tremendous example, teaching all mankind how far one must go in his devotion to G-d, as stated by our Rabbis. Ramban said that G-d actualized the greatness which Abraham could achieve, thereby earning him a greater reward, otherwise unrealized, had he never experienced this trial. But the fact is that G-d did not wish Isaac dead. So we may conclude that no greater good is achieved through his slaughter via Abraham.