Hasidism and the Akedah

September 1, 2011
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Shaul Magid

Largely focusing on Hebrew scripture as its foundation for presenting its views, Hasidic literature views the Akedah as a template for worship. While most modern readers critically view this story from a Kantian perspective — how a benevolent God who forbids murder could command human sacrifice and how Abraham could be a model for humankind if he is willing to kill his son, even for God — many Hasidic masters seem uninterested in these questions. They generally do not focus on what we might call the “ethical” implications of the story. In some way, the story is itself superfluous; like other biblical episodes, it is merely an occasion to illustrate a dimension of Hasidic piety (avodas HaShem). Unlike classical biblical exegesis, Hasidic literature is not primarily focused on solving problems in scripture. Rather it uses scripture to promote its agenda. Below, I offer three brief approaches to the Akedah from three different Hasidic masters, who argue that their interests are not in the problematics of the story but in using the story for different ends.

In his Or ha-Meir, R. Zev Wolf of Zhitomir (d.1797) has only one comment on the Akedah. He focuses on the cutting of the wood for the sacrifice (vayibaka eizei olah, Genesis 22:3). This act, he suggests, tells the whole story. The story presents us with the template for all future worship. Abraham’s cutting the wood is really about preparing the wood in the future Temple. And since all actions by a tzaddik in this world point to identical acts in the supernal realm, Abraham’s real intent was not to cut wood to sacrifice his son but to perform a preparatory act (cutting wood for the future Temple) that would initiate the sanctification of the Temple in heaven. A few verses later we read “[Abraham] took the wood.” After preparing the wood for the Temple in heaven, he took that wood “down” into the physical realm. Wolf suggests this represents the disclosure of the spiritual into the physical. The story for Wolf was not about human sacrifice at all. It was about the process of preparing to disclose the spiritual in the physical by first cutting and then taking the wood of the Temple in heaven and drawing it down into the yet-unredeemed world.

In his Zera Kodesh, R. Naftali Zvi of Rupshitz (1760-1827) focuses on the same word — cutting (vayibaka) — as the centerpiece of the story. He notes, however that the word is
comprised of the same letters as “Yaakov.” From this he derives that Abraham saw that Yaakov would emerge and would continue Abraham’s work of revealing God in the world. Abraham’s sole concern was focused on the emergence of Yaakov. How could he then justify the commandment to sacrifice Isaac (Yaakov’s father)? The “Yaakov” that Naftali Zvi had in mind was a spiritual Yaakov and not necessarily the person we know by that name. For Abraham, Yaakov was a concept. Naftali Zvi even makes the somewhat startling suggestion that, “Abraham’s only thought was to produce a spiritual heir to continue his work. If this could be accomplished by Ishmael, so be it, as we read, ‘And Abraham said to God, Oh that Ishmael will live before you.’ (Genesis 17:18) This means that Ishmael will be a tzaddik, for Abraham’s only desire was that he should have an heir who was a tzaddik …The real intention of Abraham when he cut (vayibaka=Yaakov) the wood was that there be a ‘Yaakov’ in the world and not necessarily in the bodily form of [the biblical] Yaakov.”1 In this reading, if it was God’s will that Isaac needed to be sacrificed to produce a “Yaakov” from elsewhere, Abraham did not mind. In fact, he would have supported it.

In his Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) suggests that the entire story is about a superior way of acting toward God that is void of any rationale. The test was whether Abraham could so act. He writes, “Before the angel stayed Abraham’s hand, it could have been construed that this was not such a test, since one could say Abraham knew the reason why God requested this and thus he agreed to it. If so, this would be an inferior form of worship. But after the angel stayed his hand, it was revealed that there was no reason all along and hence Abraham’s willingness to do so was a superior form of worship. If there was rationale for the sacrifice, why did the angel stay his hand?”2 There exists a kind of Tertullian understanding — “It is true because it is absurd” — in Levi Yitzchak’s rendering: “If the commandment has no reason it is the highest form of worship.”3 The fact that the angel stayed his hand showed, in retrospect, the commandment to sacrifice Isaac had no reason and thus was the highest form of worship.

In all three cases, the classical dilemmas of how God could ask such a thing of Abraham and how Abraham could agree are not at play. The episode is not taken literally, or as real, but as a spiritual metaphor for teaching the reader how to serve God. Were these Hasidic masters disturbed by the “ethical” implications of the story? We do not know. But we know that they read this story as they read all other biblical stories — as a guide toward serving God, avodas HaShem. The details and dilemmas of the biblical narrative are left to non-Hasidic exegetes and their readers. For better or worse, Hasidic masters mostly had other things on their minds.

1 Zera Kodesh, p. 16b

2 Kedushat Levi, p. 13c

3 Kedushat Levi, p. 13d

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Shaul Magid, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Committee, is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Modern Judaism at Indiana University/Bloomington. His book, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in Postethnic America, will be published next year by Indiana University Press.

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