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The Sculpture of George Segal:

Skirball Museum Lecture – May, 1997

by Harold M. Schulweis


Every civilization has its myths, stories, narratives and legends. They search for meaning and significance. What is real, not ephemeral but enduring?

In modernity, myths are recognized sources of truth. This explains the popularity of James Campbell, and of the renewed interest in the anthropology of Malinowski, Levi Strauss, Carl Yung, Martin Buber and Sigmund Freud.

Freud put is succinctly:  "Myths are the dreams of a people and dreams are the myths of the individual." In myths are revealed the visions and the nightmares of the collective conscience,  and in dreams the personal fears, ambitions, betrayals, abandonment and death.

In Segal's exhibition we confront the myths of Genesis, the narratives which resurrect the triangular struggles between men, women, their families and their God:  "And Cain rose and killed his brother Abel.” Note the parsimony, the simplicity, the spare writing. The bare outline encourages imagination. What did Can say to Abel? What motivated the murder?

The Bible is minimum text and maximum interpretation. The myth deals with fratricide and the Midrash deals with speculative interpretation.

1. Jealousy -- God accepted Abel's gift and not Cain's. This enrages Cain, introduces sibling rivalry that runs throughout the Bible from Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, who is loved by Papa and who is chosen by Papa.

2. Sexuality -- Cain and Abel both sought the love of the only female – the mother Eve. This should warm the cockles of Freud.


3. Religion -- Cain and Abel each insisted that the temple be built on his land.

4. Greed -- How is the land to be divided? Who is to own real estate and who is to own the garments, clothes, and produce?

Segal's art is a Midrash carved in stone, and we will concentrate on one of his sculptures. Is there a universal myth more pervasive than that of the altar of Isaac? It has its residence in the Christian story of resurrection, and it is heatedly debated among the philosophers Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Buber.

The story is simple and told in fourteen verses. God tests Abraham and command him to kill his son. Did Abraham pass the test? What does God really want of us? Is this a tale about the individual of faith? Is faith obedience?


George Segal's sculpture reflects some of the ambiguity of this frightening episode in Genesis. Yet of itself it engenders controversy in moral theology. If piety is expressed by obedience to God's word, can such obedience lead to murder?

The writer C.P. Snow noted that, "Far more and far more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have every been committed in the name of rebellion." True, there are dangers in anarchy, but also dangers in submission to the voices heard from heaven.

The sculptor notes that he had prepared this sculpture of Abraham and Isaac by reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In the journals of Soren Kierkegaard, we find this sentence: "The paradox in Christian truth is invariably due to the fact that it is truth as it exists for God. The standard of measure and the end is superhuman; and there is only one relationship possible: faith."

Abraham is Kierkegaard's “Knight of Faith.”  It is by virtue of the absurd that Abraham remains committed to the finite world. By a leap of faith, plunges into infinite resignation. "With infinite resignation he has drained the cup of life's profound sadness." Abraham knows the ethical universal categorical imperative applies to everyone. He knows that what he is asked for by God is an act of infanticide, the murder of innocence; but at the same time he knows the particularity of revelation. "For faith is this paradox that the particular is higher than the universal." "The individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute." If he listens only to the universal, ethical imperatives of society. does he not cut himself off from the unique and special relationship to God who speaks to him personally, existentially? The Knight of Faith knows the logic of human ethical standards. But here God is testing him. To whom does he owe his ultimate fidelity? to the laws and logic of human morality or to the imperatives which come from God?

The Knight of Faith cannot consult with anyone. For everyone will echo the universal. The decision he makes is personal and unique. It must be acted on, for if not, religion becomes like the man making motions of swimming: letting himself be hung by a swimming belt from the ceiling and going through the motions, but never leaping into the depths of faith.

The Knight of Faith is tempted. and "the temptation is itself the ethical." Ironically, ethics keeps him from doing God's will:  Loyalty to God has quite deliberately transgressed the ethical. Faith possesses "a higher telos outside of it in relation to which he suspended the ethical." This teleological suspension of the ethical means that nothing can stand in the way of God's imperative.

For Kierkegaard, "The story of Abraham contains therefore a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the individual he becomes higher than the universal." For the Knight of Faith, faith is a miracle of passion. And faith is passion.

This interpretation of the story informs us what it means to have total trust and faith in God. Faith does not criticize or question the Divine command, for "God's thoughts are not man's thoughts. And God's ways are not human ways." The religious option before us is either/or. Either follow God's order, or follow man's conscience.

This is not unique to Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard. The celebrated Orthodox rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, in an article "The Covenantal Community" (in his lectures November 12, 1973), wrote as follows: "Abraham did not ask for any explanation...he suspended his logic, his own humanity and was willing to sacrifice Isaac...Today, too, we should not try to rationalize all commandments. This lack of willingness to suspend judgment has been the seed to the radical changes being proposed by the Conservative Movement. Abraham, who had mature ripe judgment was able to transform himself into a child when necessary."

Here oddly enough is an echo of the church father Tertullian's statement "Credo quia absurdum est" – “I believe because it is absurd.”  Here there is an embrace of absurdity, and piety in not asking for any explanation. That is one way to understand the story – faith means obedience, blind, unswerving, unquestioning. In J.B. Soloveitchik's speaking of the worshipper's total dependence on God and of prayer and self-sacrifice: "Build an altar, arrange the pieces of wood. Kindle the fire. Take the knife to slaughter your existence for My sake. Thus commands the awesome God. This approach is the basis of prayer. Man surrenders himself to God. He approaches the awesome God and the approach expresses itself in the sacrifice and Akedah of oneself."

Yeshriah Leibowitz in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State (Harvard University Press, 1991) Abraham "suspended all human values for the sake of the service of God."

"Faith requires one to subdue his inclinations. The highest symbol of Jewish faith is the stance of Abraham on Mount Moriah where all human values were annulled and overridden by fear and love of God. The Akedah is man's absolute mastery over his own nature. This nature includes all the benevolent sentiments as well as man's conscience; all the actors in man's make up which an atheistic humanism regards as 'good.’ It was Abraham who first burst the bounds of the universal human bondage -- the bondage of man to the forces of his own nature." (pg. 14)

Other philosophers and rabbis reject such an interpretation of the Abraham-Isaac story. The philosopher Immanuel Kant sees no heroism in Abraham's resignation, but would have had Abraham respond to the voice of God commanding infanticide with outrage, "That I ought not to kill my son is certain beyond the shadow of a doubt; that You as You appear to be our God, I am not convinced and will never be, even as Your voice resounded from heaven." Kant's outburst expresses defiance of God. But it echoes Abraham's earlier biblical stance when, upon hearing God's threat against Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham rose to challenge the morality of God's plans:  "Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" Is that dissent not the true voice of faith? Is not the true voice of religion found in Abraham's protestation based upon his belief in God's goodness and fairness? "That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that the righteous be as the wicked; that be far from Thee. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25).

In that interpretation,  the meaning of the Abraham and Isaac story is in overcoming of blind obedience, and in celebrating conscience that is represented by the character of the angel who countermands God's alleged original command to murder his son. "Lay not thy hand upon the lad neither do thou any thing unto him. For now I know that thou art a God fearing man seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from Me."

It is, coincidentally, the ten opening sentences in the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (verses  1-10) which use only and exclusively the name of Elohim-God, whereas beginning with the voice of the angel (vs. 11-18) the term used is Adonai.

I suggest that Elohim here refers to the God of society. It is the God of the pagan world in which Abraham lived, and for which the sacrifice of a son was a mark of pagan fidelity. The Psalmist (106:37) reveals the assimilation of the children of Israel to the ways of pagan idolatry. "Yea, they sacrifice their sons and their daughters tot he idols and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood." It is with the angel of God, which Maimonides identifies as moral intelligence, that the uniqueness of Judaism can be appreciated.

The rabbinic imagination as reflected in many Midrashim expresses similar bewilderment of the initial divine imperative. In Pirke d'Rebbe Eliezer, the putative author of this volume, the angels appeal to the Holy One, blessed be He. Isaac speaks to his father, Abraham: "My father bind my two hands and my two feet so that I do not curse thee. For a word may issue from my mouth because of the violence and dread of death and I shall have slighted the precept 'Honor thy father.’" And the ministering angels cried and said, "Sovereign of all the worlds, Thou art called Merciful and Compassionate, have mercy upon Isaac for he is a human being and the son of a human being and is bound before thee like an animal. O Lord, You preserve man and beast."

It appears as if reference to Isaac as a human being and the son of human beings is being made in contrast to the Christian sacrifice of Jesus, as if the rabbis are reminding us that we are dealing with human beings and not with the Son of God.

The commentator, Rashi, bases his interpretation on a verse from Genesis 27:1, "When Isaac had become old and his eyes dimmed from seeing."  Rashi says when Isaac was bound upon the altar and his father was about to slay him, at that moment the heavens opened, the ministering angels saw it and wept. Their tears flowed upon Isaac's eyes which thus became dim.

The angel in the Genesis account here has an important role in the understanding of divinity. The angel appeals to God in the name of God against God in order to confirm the goodness of God's conscience.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber questions Kierkegaard's understanding of faith. How does one know whether the voice that has spoken is not the voice of Satan? For the devil is a ventriloquist and can not only quote scriptures, but can simulate God's tone and throw his voice so that it appears to be the voice of God.

For Buber the either/or dichotomy of Kierkegaard between religion and ethics must be overcome. The voice of God must be understood as ethical, and if one's moral conscience is convinced that this voice is cruel then it must be rejected out of hand. Buber concludes, in his essay "The Eclipse of God," since Moloch imitates the voice of God, God demands of every man "nothing more than justice and love, and that he walk humbly" with Him, with God (Micah 6:8) –  in other words, not much more than a fundamental ethical. Buber here reverses the theological suspension of the ethical. In its stead he affirms in such instances of doubt the ethical suspension of the theological.

Ernst Simon, the associate and friend of Martin Buber, once wrote of his understanding of faith when it is faced with a choice of law and conscience. "Were someone to demonstrate to me that the oral law understands the commandment "Not to kill" as a prohibition against the killing of Jews by Jews alone, I would not accept the explanation of the commandment, and I would rely on autonomy."

Conscience is the hyphen in the human-divine covenant that runs both ways. The test of a believer is not whether he believes or whether he obeys, but what he believes and what he will not obey; what he obeys and what he will not obey. I would encourage the sculptor, George Segal, to put his remarkable talents to portraying the commanding voice of conscience that forces Abraham to drop the knife that slays.

Conscience challenges the putative divine imperative. In the Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 56.8, God is made to respond to Abraham who complains against the decree: Did I ask you to slay him? I asked only that you "raise him up upon the altar.” Did Abraham hear right? Listen to the voice carefully and humbly. In the wake of Waco and Jonestown, this remains an important issue. Nor are Jews exempt from this irresponsible fideism: Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein, the assassinator of Rabin and the murderer of Arab citizens, were students of a Yeshiva where they sacrifice their moral conscience to what they thought was the divine commands.

The true piety of the Jewish religious hero is not found in "sacrificium intellectus," in the sacrifice of moral intelligence that leads to blind faith and in muteness. But in those cases where imperatives clash, decide with moral intelligence. Moses, according to some rabbinic sources, countermands God's laws. He does so not by arrogance or by disbelief, but by appealing to God's conscience. And the Midrash records that when Moses acted in such a way his dissent was not considered lèse majesté, an act of treason. It was the deepest act of loyalty to the moral grandeur of God.

George Segal's sculpture, as well as the rabbinic commentaries, reflect the ambiguity of the religious response. It reflects the internal struggle within faith itself as to what it is that characterizes authentic belief. In my judgment when morality and religion are separated, murder lies in its wake. It is false and dangerous to split God into an amoral Commander and the Author of morality. God is one, and to know God is to understand His moral intent.

One cannot know God and obey God against conscience which is the deepest gift that God has given us.

Another reflection. The near sacrifice of Isaac is studied on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. But what reading did the rabbis choose for the first day? It is the reading that deals with Hagar, Abram's concubine, when Sarah sought to expel them because of her jealousy toward Hagar and her son Ishmael. Note Hagar-Ishmael. While Abraham initially rejects that expulsion, he gives in to her urgings and sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, where they both are endangered for lack of water. Here a scene reminiscent of the Abraham-Isaac episode is foreshadowed.

Once again, it is an angel of God who intercedes (Genesis 21:17). "What ails you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him fast by thy hand, for I will make of him a great nation. And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water and gave the lad to drink."

How should these two juxtaposed chapters be understood? Is it to chastise Abraham who was too cavalier in submitting to Sarah's demand? Was it to universalize the message: God cannot be served by sacrificing our sons. We cannot visit the indifferences of the fathers upon our children. God is not loved by the sacrifice of our children, only by the love of His creation.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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