Sculpture of George Segal:
Skirball Museum Lecture – May, 1997
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
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?
THE SACRIFICE OF
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.
"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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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