Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is the Bible "Black and White": A New Look at the Sacrifice of Isaac

Most people in this world are not religious fundamentalists.  For a large majority of people, excessive stringencies and walking a very narrow path is too overwhelming.  However, many people underestimate what it has to offer.  What comes off as constraints for non-fundamentalists are, ironically enough, a form of liberation for fundamentalists.  How so?  If you look at Orthodox Judaism, for example, every facet of your life is codified in various legal texts.  There is no ambiguity whatsoever.  You do it because "that is the way it is," no questions asked.  For those who accept Orthodoxy blindly, or any religious fundamentalism, there is a sense of security and certitude that comes along with it all.  In what one can label a cruel, uncertain world, we need to feel safe and certain of what is ultimately to come.  For a religious fundamentalist, it's simple: if you indubitably go along with the program, G-d will reward you.  If you don't, G-d will punish you for your misdeeds.  There is no gray, only black and white.  The gift-wrapping of fundamentalism is alluring because it's simplistic, and it brings about reassurance.

The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether life comes with the clarity and unambiguity that fundamentalists claim.  What my fundamentalist friends forget really quickly is not only is there a gray area, but there is also an entire spectrum of colors.  Life comes with nuances and complexities.  The problem with the "all or nothing" mentality is that it is not reflective of reality. 

Abraham had to deal with this when sacrificing his son, Isaac.  I'm not even going to discuss the conflict between obeying G-d and giving up his beloved son.  We come across something much more fundamental to the argument than that.  Within this story, Abraham was commanded by G-d to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2).  Let us fast-forward to the sacrifice itself.  As Abraham has the knife in mid-air and ready to sacrifice his son, an angel comes down and tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:12). 

Abraham has encountered a major issue.  At the beginning of Genesis 22, Abraham was told to do one thing, and ten verses later, he is told to do the exact opposite of what he was told beforehand.  Abraham has two received two conflicting orders from G-d.  What is Abraham supposed to do?  If he does not sacrifice his son, he will have disobeyed a divine command.  If he goes through with it, not only has he disobeyed a divine command, but he has also violated his very own conscience.  After being given the second command, a ram comes along, Abraham grabs it, and sacrifices it instead of his son (Genesis 22:13).

G-d did not tell Abraham to sacrifice the ram in Isaac's place.  That was a judgement call that Abraham himself made when he saw the ram.  After doing so, an angel comes down and tells Abraham he made the right choice (Genesis 22:15-17).  Note how Abraham did not consult G-d to clear up the ambiguity.  And also note that G-d did not clear it up for Abraham.  Abraham set a precedence here: when you are not sure, you ultimately have to weigh your options and make the choice for yourself.  That is why G-d gave us free will.  He is not going to make the decision for you.

Let us use another example of biblical ambiguity.  The Fifth Commandment is "Honor your mother and father (Exodus 20:12)."  Sounds clear-cut, right?  But what does it mean "to honor your parents" if your father is smoking three packs a day?  Do you do nothing because you have to respect his decision, even though it is a self-destructive one?  Do you flush his cigarettes down the toilet?  Do you [or somebody with more influence and sway] get him over to Nicotine Anonymous to stop?  In this case, you have two values in the balance: respecting one's elders and saving a human life.  Although it should seem self-explanatory that saving a life precedes almost everything else in Judaism, we nevertheless have to realize that there can be certain situations in which actively helping your father cut back is not feasible because respecting one's elders might have that level of prioritization in your family. 

I feel as if I could write at book's length providing examples of how even something as essential as values and morals can be multi-faceted and need scrutiny.  This, of course, is not to belittle the notion of values, but rather to show that it is not as simple and neat as fundamentalists present it.  And what is more is that although G-d has given us the basics for morality, it is nevertheless our task to discern and determine what exactly is the morally acceptable choice within a given situation. 

This blog entry is based on the Second Day Rosh Hashana sermon given by my illustrious rabbi.

1 comment:

  1. This was interesting and really puts the human element into religion. Morality is certainly not black and white in my opinion. Moreover, every culture has a different definition for black and white. This is particularly interesting to think about this week.