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Obedience and Conscience

Rosh Hashanah 1999

by Harold M. Schulweis

The rabbis selected the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac for study on Rosh Hashanah.

Here is one of the most influential stories in world literature, central to an understanding of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is a story that has puzzled not just religious commentators, but secular philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Soren Kierkegaard, and in contemporary Jewish theologians who still struggle with the text, J.B. Soloveitchik, Martin Buber, and David Hartman. The index of Christian Art at Princeton lists 1,450 entries for these nineteen verses.

Here before us are nineteen compact, concise sententious verses. Why are they so important? How are they relevant to us in our day? What does the story mean to teach us?

The opening verse describes the situation. The commandment is clear enough. Abraham, who is to be the father of a great people and a blessing to the nations, is ordered to murder his beloved child. What is going on here? God is testing, proving, tempting Abraham. But what kind of God is this? What kind of God needs to test Abraham? Does God not know the secrets of the heart? And if He does, what is the meaning of this cat and mouse game, this torturous test? What kind of God is this and what kind of father is willing to kill his son? Is this model behavior to be emulated?

I am, myself, an only son, and this story frightened me as a child. It was a nightmare. Abraham is commanded and willing to sacrifice his only son and he thereby passes the test. "Because you have done this, because thou has not withheld thy son, this only son from Me I will bless you." What do you take as the meaning of the story? It is so enigmatic. What really happens to Isaac?

We consult contemporary scholars such as J. B. Soloveitchik, the preeminent Orthodox contemporary thinker.  The story tells us what it means to be a religious person. Abraham is "homo religiosus,” the religious model to be emulated. To be a religious person is to obey God absolutely. To obey God above all else, "There is nothing as binding as the binding of Isaac.” For the religious person, there is nothing more important than to obey the will of God if the choice is parental love or the love of God. To place the love of a child above the love of God is idolatry. That is the mandate of prayer: "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 who suddenly appears from absolute seclusion. This is the approach of prayer. Man surrenders himself to expresses itself in the sacrifice and Akedah of oneself.

The entire purpose of the binding of Isaac is to affirm that Judaism means the total unquestioning obedience to God. A contemporary scholar, Isaiah Leibowitz, maintains that this differentiates the crucifixion story of Christianity. In the crucifixion story, God sacrifices His son for the sake of saving humanity. But in the binding of Isaac, the son is to be sacrificed for the sake of doing God's will.

That is the root of Kiddush Hashem martyrdom – to be witness to God. Everything for God's sake. Abraham passed God's test because he was willing to sacrifice his beloved son.

This interpretation by one of the most celebrated influential existentialist thinkers of the nineteen the century, Soren Kierkegaard, who in his celebrated article "Fear and Trembling" praises Abraham as "the single one,” the authentic "knight of faith.”

Abraham has heard the voice of God ,and he will consult with no one; not with Sarah or with Isaac or even his two servants. He is the single, solitary religious man prepared to sacrifice his dreams and his son. Here, Kierkegaard introduces an idea that in the history of religion which he calls "the teleological suspension of the ethical," which means quite simply that if God commands, you follow the order of the commander. And in doing so, you nullify, cancel, ignore and suspend any ethical criteria. This conforms to the original meaning of mitzvah which literally means, "that which is ordered.” "Knight of faith" is superior to ethical man.

As far as the conventional interpretations, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son is commended as the act of faith. And throughout the High Holiday Machzor, God is asked to favor us because of what Abraham the patriarch was willing to do for his ben hanekad – the son who is bound on the altar:   "Remember Isaac who was bound on the altar. And for his sake grant his offspring mercy.”

I understand the need for "commandedness.” I understand the desire of many people in an age of relativism, skepticism, and uncertainty to simply follow the Commander, to be soldiers of God, to do His will without any reason of self-interest or human interest. To do it because God said so. This is the power of faith –  unchanging, unconditional surrender. I know what power there must be to feel that one is listening and obeying an absolute and unequivocal order to be good in God's eyes. It is Kiddush Hashem. It offers certainty and structure to bow the knee, to bow the head to follow God, to listen to His voice. In times of uncertainty and chaos religions grow impatient with reason and ethical doubt. "Credo quia absurdum" – I believe because it is absurd.   Tertillian insight, I obey the voice which commands.

Martin Buber challenged Kierkegaard and, by implication, J.B. Soloveitchik. He wrote, "Whose voice do you hear? Do you not know that Moloch imitates the voice of God? You say you ‘believe’ in God. So does Satan! Not belief in God's existence ,but in His voice.  Do you not know that Satan is a ventriloquist, that he is able to throw his voice and disguise it so that it sounds like God's voice?" Many people cry out, "Thus spake the Lord.”

Religion is a deadly serious affair.   This story is not just a theological game, an ancient myth, a fanciful legend. How you interpret it touches this core of belief. Belief has consequences. Belief has teeth. And they are sharp and can cut into the blood and flesh of history.

We Jews have memories. Throughout history,  men have heard the voices of God. Throughout history, religious men and women have heard the voice of God and burned synagogues and churches and burned mosques and slaughtered children.

Consider the religious wars in history between Protestants and Catholics, Hindus, Moslems and Jews. I need not make reference to distant events: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the religious wars, the pogroms …  all in the name of listening to God's voice.   Let me turn your attention to closer memories of our time. Remember David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, and the voices he heard at Waco? Remember the Rev. Jim Jones and the voices that led to the mass suicide at Jonestown?  Have we forgotten the Ayatollah of Iran, who now holds thirteen innocent Jews in hostage, and who so frightened the world that we are advised to hold our tongues? Have we forgotten the voices of Islam that cry Jihad and engage in acts of holy terrorism?

And lest we grow conceited, have we forgotten Baruch Goldstein, a graduate of the Yeshivah – my Yeshivah, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan seminary – and who mowed down twenty-nine Palestinian Muslims who were in the midst of their prayers? He was convinced that he was doing the will of God. And in his memory, there is a memorial in Hebron, Israel. Have we forgotten Yitzchak Amir, a student at a Yeshivah in Israel, who, as an act of consecrating the name of God, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin? How did they teach? All acted out of obedience to God's voice.

Is Judaism a religion of blind obedience? That notion was first made popular by Baruch Spinoza, and then picked up by Kant and Hegel and Fichte. It is still a popular conviction that Judaism simply says "obey.” That notion, which I think is a perversion of Judaism,  led to a great deal of hostility toward Judaism itself. It turned a few off Judaism when I attended college. Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century philosopher of the Enlightenment, commented on the immorality of the akedah and imagined that this is the way he would talk to God were he Abraham:  "Look, 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 convinced even if Your voice resounded from heaven." That same reading of religion as obedience led to this protesting outburst from the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill:  "Whatever power such a being God may have over me, there is one thing that He shall not do. He shall not compel me to worship Him...and as such a Being can sentence me to hell I will go."

So it is a serious reading that confronts us. We have to take this earnestly and seriously. Religion is powerful. How do we keep it sane? How do you read this story? From my point of view, this story marks the great Jewish revolutionary break of Judaism with a pagan culture widely practiced in the time of the Bible, and practiced way beyond the time of Abraham and Isaac. To bring your child as sacrifice into the fiery jaws of Moloch was practiced in the days of King Solomon and in the days of the kings of Judea, and was made reference to in the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. The Abraham-Isaac story involves a conflict of voices. Which voice should Abraham listen to? Which voice should we listen to? What kind of faith do you espouse?

Notice that in first ten verses God is referred to as Elohim. This is the God of the natural religion of the time. This is the God who demands loyalty by the sacrifice of the first born. But in the eleventh verse an angel is introduced and that angel is associated with Adonai, the Lord. Who is the angel? An angel, Maimonides believed, is the voice of moral intelligence, i.e. conscience. This is the voice that Abraham heard earlier in the Bible when God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God: "I am going to destroy the people of Sodom." Abraham at that time did not bite his tongue, did not bow his head, did not obey, but questioned and challenged the voice. Abraham did not cower before the triumphant thunderous voice of God resolute in his determination to destroy the citizens. Abraham remained by himself, all alone and examined the content of that commandment:  "Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justly? That be far from Thee to slay the righteous with the wicked. Shall the Judge of all the world not do justly?" That is the voice of Adonai that Abraham finally chose. It is the voice that appears through the sound of the angel. And the voice says, "Hold on." God does not command infanticide. God does not command the murder of innocence. It's not enough as a religious person to salute the commander. You have to examine the morality of the commandment. The religious man does not simply follow orders. The religious man questions the ethics of the order.

The real victory of Abraham, Abraham passing the test, is that he knew that there are times when to obey a voice is blasphemy and when dissent is the sanctification of the name of God. Notice that the angel is a lesser being than God. Who is greater, God or the angel? Nevertheless, it is the voice of the angel that Abraham obeys. Controvert the command.


For Abraham, God is not the bully Commander. God's voice is recognized through moral criteria, which is taught throughout the Bible, the Talmud and the commentaries. The story is about the ethical suspension of the commandment.

Surely the Law is precious to us. Anarchy we distrust and discourage. But to believe in God is not to give up your moral autonomy. To believe in God is not to pluck out the eyes of reason.

Who said blind obedience is the mark of Jewish faith? What evidence do I have to the contrary? Our greatest religious heroes were not "yes men.” When Moses hears God command "I visit the sins of the fathers upon the children,” did Moses salute, comply, obey? He cried out to God, "Not fair.” He did not obey. He argued against the statement: Terah was a pagan, his son was Abraham. Hezekiah, a righteous king; his father Ahaz, a wicked king. Josiah, a righteous king; Amon, his son, a wicked king. It is not fair to punish the righteous for the sins of their fathers! God responds to this voice of conscience "You have taught Me, Moses. I shall cancel My words and confirm yours.” As it is written, "The fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers" (Deuteronomy 24:16). That is found in the religious literature of Judaism. That is the voice of conscience that prevails, and that examines the commandment.

Again, when God in the Bible commands Moses, "Make war on Sichon even if Sichon does not interfere with you.” The rabbis note that Moses did not obey. Instead of attacking, Moses sends peace negotiations. Does God call Moses' disobedience insubordination or treason? No! God says, "By your life. You are right. I will cancel My commandment and affirm in its place yours. As it says, ‘When you draw near to a city to fight against it, proclaim peace unto it.’" God did not say, "How dare you question the orders from above! That audacity is treasonable to the commander. God rejoices in the criticism. For the criticism is rooted in the understanding and love of God who does not want Eichmann-like obedience. This is Judaism that honors Holy dissent, the Holiness of the questioning spirit.

The sickness of our age is the failure of conscience. Too many listen to the voices of polls. Too many follow the voices of dictators, fuehrers, gurus, mesmerism, charismaticism, others who would make slavish followers of us so that we become like lemmings walking in lock-step into the sea and drowning. Jews should never contemplate the suspension of the ethical. If the commandment is not ethical, then it cannot come from God. If the commandment is not ethical, it cannot be validated by Halachah. If it is not ethical, we must have heard wrong. And we must test our hearing. If the commandment is not ethical then the source is not the commander we are to follow.

It is no act of piety to raise our children to be followers without question. To do so would be to bind our own children on the altar to kill their critical minds – "sacraficium intellectus.” I think everything depends on how you read it or interpret refuted.

How do you explain the text? What do you think Abraham's test really is? And what is his successful response to the text? What is your response to the text? What does it teach? For me, it teaches us to beware of voices from above or below, from the living and dead. You may be hard of hearing. God has given you mind and heart to study, to understand, to test, to evaluate, to cultivate conscience. Ours is a heroic faith, in which throughout our history and against the coercive powers of totalitarianism, religious or secular we have learned to stand alone, to stand on our own two feet and learn to say at times "no.” Abraham's "no" reveals his identity. Your "no" reveals your "yes.”

The great prophet Micah (6:7) was confronted with a society in which sacrifices, animal and human, were widespread. He told us what we are to follow and what we are to reject. "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil, shall I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? The Lord has shown thee, O man, what is good and what is required of you – but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

This is Rosh Hashanah, the day of self-judgment. At the heart of the Days of Awe, the searching of your conscience, there is one insistent question put before us in our prayers and study: Where is your conscience? It is the still, small voice within you that makes you responsible. Conscience is the internal check against fanaticism that paralyses the moral sensibility. Conscience is the internal whistle blower against irrational conformity. It keeps spirituality sane.

From where is conscience found? Why do we pray? Why do we study Torah? Why do we debate? Why do we seek models, patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets? Is it not to develop and refine conscience, the inner culture of the human spirit? To clean away the debris of conformity, smother moral sensibilities. Conscience lives in the world of "ought,” what should be. It alone has the power to live against the grain of conformity. Conscience is not blind willfulness, blind conformity. Conscience does not oppose law and commandment. To the contrary, it results in a higher, nobler law and turns it from an act of fear into an act of compassion. Conscience is con-scire -- with knowledge, with wisdom.

Conscience is our beloved child, the Isaac we have born. You have a "conscience.” Don't bury it. It is your most authentic self. Don't suppress it. It lies at the root of your moral, political and personal choices.

It is more powerful than you think. If you deny it, it will not let you sleep. Do you have conscience?

It is the voice that speaks out even against your material self-interest. It may earn you criticism. You may not be popular. You may not get the promotion. You may not make the deal. You may not be elected. You may not win. If you silence your conscience in the day time, at night you will hear the inner voice of the prophet Jeremiah (20:9): "When I said I would not make mention of God or speak any more in His name, the word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones--and I could not hold it in …. I must cry out, must shout 'lawlessness and violence.’"

You have a conscience, and no one but you can prove its existence. You have conscience. Honor your conscience and thereby honor God.

This episode of the Akedah is resolved by repudiating the false split: It is not the duty of speaking to God nor the duty of father Abraham and his son.

It is not God versus the angel of God.

It is not commandment versus conscience.

It is not obedience versus dissent.

It is not suspending the ethical to honor the divine.

It is the Judaic revolution that unites morality and theology, the still small voice with the voice of God that recognizes morality, justice and love as the criteria of the authentic voice.

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

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784