Judaism’s Central Sacrifice
Yoram Hazony’s new book bases Judaism on a naturalistic reading of the Bible, but it’s a stretch
All of which is why Hazony’s identification of Abel with Middle Eastern nomads in general is problematic, and his natural-law allegory seems impoverished next to the traditional commentator’s more nuanced human tragedy. Instead, Hazony is most convincing in his critique of the classical Greek state, the exemplar of the classical political rationalism he proposes to replace. He quotes Socrates’ reproach to Crito, who has arranged his escape from prison, that the individual is only the “offspring and servant” of the state, “both you and your forefathers.”
That the pagan state is incompatible with individuality is not a new thought. Franz Rosenzweig wrote, “The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears.” But what establishes individuality against the state? Hazony attributes this to “a completely different point of vantage than that of Greek ethics—a point of vantage associated with the life of a nomad.” That seems a strange assertion, given that individuality is rarely a feature of nomadic societies. Indeed, the tribal life of herders typically is more repressive than the worst tyranny of antiquity.
Hebrew Scripture, in Hazony’s view, makes no claim that divine guidance is needed for good behavior. “The different roads that are open to us are there to be compared. If we can look at them and discern ‘which is the good way’ almost empirically (sic), without need for God’s instructions, it is because the evidence is there to be discovered by those who look.” We know that worshipping idols is wrong because they are just blocks of wood, that we should not commit adultery “because we know from experience that a man will have his vengeance,” and so forth.
Nothing in the “almost empirical” observation of the ancient Near East dissuaded men from sacrificing their children to the gods, among other revolting practices. Before Israel, infanticide was universal in the ancient world—which brings us back to the Akedah, the event that demarcates the bloodthirsty barbarism of the ancient world from the Jewish (and later Christian) concept of sanctity of life. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote of the Akedah: God “wanted Abraham to abandon all pretense of possessiveness, all claims of unity and identity, all hopes of self-perpetuation and immortalization through Isaac and return him to Whom he belongs.”
But Hazony is convinced that Abraham ascended Mount Moriah so secure in his knowledge of natural law that God had no such thing in mind. He writes: “Abraham at every point keeps firmly in view what is to him a fact—that whatever God may have said to him, he will not require him to murder his son. God himself will provide a ram for the sacrifice … at no point does Abraham intend to murder his son.” That is the least convincing assertion in a book full of challenges to the plain sense of the text. If Abraham knew God would provide a ram, and God knew that Abraham knew all along, moreover, why stage the whole grisly pantomime in the first place?
One answer is given by the private scholar Lipmann Bodoff, who contended in a 2005 book that Abraham was testing God. But Bodoff, unlike Hazony, is attentive to the difficulties that attend his interpretation. For example, an angel calls out to Abraham as he stretches his arm over Isaac, knife in hand. If God knew that Abraham would not strike, why did the angel bother? Bodoff explains although God is omniscient, angels “are not competent to know the intentions of human beings.” To affirm this view without inflicting violence on the text requires among other things attention to subtle distinctions among supernatural beings that have little to do with Hazony’s idea of natural law.
In the traditional view, God’s inexplicable love for Abraham, and Abraham’s nearly inexplicable faithfulness with God, establishes a covenant between the human and the divine. From this covenant we derive, directly or indirectly, the foundational concepts of Western civilization: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of individual rights. Of all the tribes driving ruminants across the Near East, ancient Israel was radically unique, not through “almost empirical” evaluation of its material circumstances, but because its sense of the divine elevated its view above that of any society that hitherto existed. If we accept the traditional view of the Akedah rather than Hazony’s novel but in my view unconvincing gloss, then the whole notion of natural law in the Bible crashes and burns, just as Kierkegaard insisted.
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