The BEST: Fear and Trembling

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The BEST: Fear and Trembling
by Aaron Koller

On the first day of Rosh Hashana we read of the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael; on the second day we read of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. This story, the Akeda, has haunted Jews through the ages. Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a prolonged meditation on the story. The book is not signed by Kierkegaard: the author is named as Johannes de Silentio, “John the Silent.” Johannes repeatedly says that he is not a person of faith, and therefore cannot really understand the subject. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, very much was and did.

Despite Johannes’ confession that he is not a person of faith, Abraham’s faith keeps Johannes up at night. He cannot sleep out of a burning desire to see what true faith looks like, since true faith is a wonder of the world. “There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham word for word by heart, but how many did it make sleepless?” People do not dwell sufficiently Abraham and his faith. Faith means that Abraham was perfectly balanced, ready to act but not overeager. He walked up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac, and yet believed, “by virtue of the absurd,” that somehow he would return with Isaac as well.

Kierkegaard is at pains to distinguish Abraham from someone like Jephthah, who actually did sacrifice his daughter. (The book deals with other examples from classical literature as well.) What, then, is special about Abraham? This question is raised over and over in the book, and answered: “The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is obvious. The tragic hero still remains within the realm of the ethical.”

The point is that while we may not agree with Jephthah’s logic, there is a logic to judge. The decision is an ethical one, made in ethical terms. Abraham, however, has left the realm of the ethical entirely. He has no defense in worldly terms, no explanation in ethical terms for the sacrifice – or is it murder? – of his son. He has suspended the ethical.

Why then does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is altogether identical with this, for his own sake. He does it for God’s sake because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it.

This is not a helpful statement, and it is intentionally unhelpful. According to Johannes, there is no way to articulate Abraham’s motivation. If there were, we would not have left the realm of the ethical at all. In fact, the story implicitly makes this claim: Abraham speaks to no one about his actions. He does not reveal his plans to Sarah, and even his attendants are left at the bottom of the mountain. Abraham is all alone, and as Johannes understands him, this is because he cannot communicate, a point Johannes approaches a number of times in the book:

Abraham cannot be mediated, which can also be expressed by saying that he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do that, then no one can understand me.

In a sense, then, we must stop talking, too. There is simply no way to articulate Abraham, to explain his faith or its greatness.

Why is this The BEST?

Faith is a tough subject in our society, approached sometimes with bashful grins or a shrug, or dismissed with a wave of the hand. Kierkegaard urges people to take faith seriously, but personally. He sees no point in bringing it out into the open, as each person’s faith is individualistic and highly private. But he also thinks we are all spiritually and humanly impoverished if we don’t take the possibility of faith seriously.

Kierkegaard’s ideas of faith are painted in Christian colors, but his argument that faith is both terrifying and awe-inspiring is fundamental for thinking about our own positions in the modern world. It is important to note that this is, also, terrifying. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote in Halakhic Mind: “When intercourse with God is divorced from its social and communal aspects and concrete normative action, religion may develop into a barbaric, deleterious force. The unguided, inward life leads to the renunciation of ethical authority and moral awareness.” (I develop this critique in my recent book, Unbinding Isaac.)

Because Kierkegaard was immensely popular in early twentieth-century philosophical circles in Europe, this book is also foundational for understanding later Jewish thinkers such as Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rabbi Soloveitchik, who absorbed his thinking. Both Leibowitz and the Rav translated Kierkegaard into Jewish terms (mostly substituting “halakha” for “faith,” for example) and used the Akeda, as Kierkegaard understood it, as a model for navigating religion in a secular state.

In particular this year, the idea of the knight of faith alone on the mountaintop is an awe-inspiring one, and Kierkegaard’s profound meditation can guide us to climb higher. In his hands, faith is never simple and never easy, but it is a journey well worth undertaking.

Aaron Koller teaches at Yeshiva University and is the author of Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series. 

[Published on September 17, 2020]

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