My favorite class during college, “Philosophy of Religion,” methodically scoured through Western texts in order to examine issues such as the existence of god, ethics and faith. When I encountered Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” in this syllabus, which discusses “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” or Akedat Yitzchak, I thought I was golden. An easy A for sure. For countless high holiday services, I have listened to Genesis 22 and personally wrestled with issues of Abraham’s morality. I was sure that whatever Kierkegaard added to the conversation would be easy to understand.
As it turns out, Kierkegaard (or, in fact, Johannes de Silentio, as the book’s pseudonymous author calls himself) revealed to me silent secrets of Akedat Yitzchak I had never imagined hiding in the text. Previously, the debate had been simple: Is Abraham an archetype of faith- one who follows God’s command even when obeying entails sacrificing what one loves most- or is Abraham a monster, willing to murder his own child? Fear and Trembling proposes this exact dilemma, yet challenges the commonly accepted understanding of faith. For Johannes de Silentio, faith is a paradox because faith indicates giving up everything and then impossibly expecting it back in this world. In the context of how de Silentio suggests reading Genesis 22, Abraham has faith because he climbs Mount Moriah with the intention of sacrificing Isaac while still expecting God to give him back. His faith lies in the moment of absurdity, where hopelessness and trust inexplicably coexist.
As a liberal and secular yet identified Jew, I of course find the Akedat Yitzchak story problematic at best, horrifying at worst. Yet since reading Kierkegaard’s understanding of Akedat Yitzchak two years ago, I find myself returning to his interpretation as ironically comforting. Instead of positing Abraham as a figure of faith because of his trust in God, the book suggests that Abraham’s faithfulness resides in the inexplicable nature of this story. The difficulty in understanding Abraham’s actions is indicative of the difficulty of having faith.
It does not matter that I am uneasy reading this story, because faith is not comfortable or straightforward. Abraham remains the idealized faithful forefather I want him to be exactly because I don’t know the answer to his character’s duality. In fact, this uncertainty is exactly what keeps Abraham a respect-worthy religious figure, for if faith were easy to understand, wouldn’t we all be people of faith?email print