God, Man and Morality in the Akedah

Jewish morality in its simplistic form is based upon adherence to commandments from God. Murder is wrong because God commanded it. If He did not, we might have come to the same conclusion, but we also may well have not, thus the divine command is necessary to ensure an understanding of what is right and wrong. A fundamental criticism of this approach comes from Kant. Kant asserts that morality takes the form of adherence to the "categorical imperative", a sense of duty in doing the right thing. He sees this imperative as existing in a metaphysical sense (from a modern perspective, we might call it a psychological constant). Only in adherence to this innate morality for its own sake can man be truly moral. To act in a moral way for fear of punishment or reproach is not to be genuinely moral; whatever its benefits for society, it is inferior to the pure morality he outlines.

I do not know whether such a categorical imperative exists. However, it is essentially proveable that only in this form can morality exist at all. The reason is simple. If there is no innate human morality, right and wrong can only be instinctive and animalistic, i.e. not moral in any real sense. But what about a commandment from God? There are three reasons why one might do what God says. One is for fear of the punishment that might otherwise ensue. This is animalistic; a desire to avoid pain. Second is due to desire of the pleasure which, if God is good, must arise through adhering to his law. This too is animalistic; a desire for pleasure. Third is because we genuinely wish to adhere to God's words since He is God, and therefore the source of good. Surely this is non-animalistic, and yet non-Kantian? Alas, no - the decision by man to adhere to God's commandment because it is "good" already contains some judgement of value, in this case that what is "good" should be adhered to. Thus we must still rely on some internal sense of ethics. (Interestingly, Amalek represents a people who saw God's power, and yet continued to fight against it - such evil irrationalism may represent an absence of any humanity whatsoever.)

Kant's criticism comes to the fore in the case of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-19). Here, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. If innate morality exists within Abraham, he should have adhered to it, and in asking himself whether the divine command was to be followed or not, concluded that it was not since morality must override any divine command. If it does not exist, and morality stems from divine command as the story might seem to suggest, then as we have demonstrated above, Abraham is not genuinely moral. Furthermore, for today's adherents to Abrahamic religion, no morality exists at all since we have no verifiable indication that there is or ever was such a divine command.

Nonetheless, one could construct a contrary argument. Perhaps Abraham's internal moral voice tells him to do the will of God (not an entirely non-Kantian proposition). Ordinarily, the will of God will concur with normative morality, however any divine command is capable of overriding this, and it is in obeying that Abraham adheres to his version of the imperative. But this is still unsatisfactory - how did Abraham know the voice was real? How can one distinguish between the voices of God and Satan, being that each could imitate the other? Surely the only basis on which to do so is some innate sense, so we are back where we started.

So it seems that either morality does not exist, or God is irrelevant, since we do not need Him to teach us morality. God may exist, perhaps in the form of the imperative itself (Kant), but is not needed as the Bible would suggest to actually teach morality to man. In answer to this, we can firstly take comfort in one traditional Jewish view that adherence to morality does indeed take precedence over adherence to God, by God's own pronouncement ("Would that they would abandon Me and keep My teaching). However, this being the case, what purpose does the God of the Akedah, and indeed most of Genesis actually serve? Is He condemned to being a fiction, or might be rescue a role for Him?

The answer should already be apparent. Whilst we hope man is able to recognise morality in the form of the categorical imperative, this does not mean that man is able to intuit it. As memetics will testify, ideas which seem comprehensively obvious in one generation will have hidden obscured from previous ones. And not only in the realm of science, but also in ethics, philosophy, metaphysics, and many other arenas which require no technology as such to uncover them.

God's role in Genesis is to put man in touch with his inner moral sense. God is the matchmaker between man and morality. He does not teach morality to man; He draws it out of him, dances with man, fights with him. How might this process take place? We need only examine a few early stories in Genesis to gain some sense. (Whilst I make no claim that these stories took place as written, or even at all, they represent some of the most inspirational territory of our Biblical heritage - there is intellectual legitimacy in examining the grand moral questions in their light).

In the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15-3:24), God places the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the centre, specifically instructing man not to take of it. Firstly, it is clear that this tree's name is entirely synonymous with the categorical imperative. Man is told that, as soon as he eats from it, He will die (2:17). And yet man does eat, and does not die. Why does God lie to man? Is this simply divine mercy? Perhaps, but one thing is clear. Man eats, on the snake's instruction, and any Jewish God knew that would happen. God must have wanted this to happen, and the snake represents what occurs when man lives without an inner sense of right and wrong. Without it, man is simply confused. Despite an imminent divine command, man has no reason to obey, no reason to even fear the consequence of death with which he is threatened. The snakes confuses, man responds, the fruit is eaten, man gets his first taste of the categorical imperative, and is sent out to apply it in the real world.

No sooner, man fails. Cain slays Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). What was wrong about what Cain did? There had not yet been a commandment not to murder; this in itself is enough call the traditional viewpoint into question. God, cogniscent of what is about to happen, coaches Cain saying that the mere act of doing what is right can uplift (4:7). He warns of the consequence of not doing so, yet reminds Cain that he has access to innate morality, and can prevail. How does God respond when Cain fails? His criticism is not outright; he first causes Cain to see the weakness of his position. Cain is forced to bring into question the entire basis of morality; in posing the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9), he contends utter non-responsilibity for one's fellow human. Only then does God come forth in full power; "Your brother's blood cries out to me!" (4:10) - surely it cries out to you too? God does not kill Cain; he teaches him a lesson, causing Cain to fear for his own life (4:14). If Cain can kill his brother, surely anyone can kill him?

Abraham's learning process is the most dramatic. Abraham did not err in the Akedah; his morality is simply not yet sufficiently developed, and he does not yet see that it can even counter the word of God Himself. (Note : he definitely seems willing to apply it when there is not a direct command from God, in the case of Sodom. Genesis 18:20-33) But does Abraham not simply obey at each point in the Akedah? What evidence is there for a learning of the imperative? The answer is simple. God commands the sacrifice Himself, Abraham obeys (22:2). Yet it is only an angel that stops him (22:11). Why did Abraham not suspect that angel to be Satan, and push ahead with the sacrifice as before? Or at least why did he not demand that God himself appear to clarify the issue? (assuming he can tell the difference between God and an angel). He does no such thing - once the angel cries out, Abraham learns. Perhaps the angel is his own creation. The imperative is brought into sharper focus, and there is no going back now he sees it. "On the mountain of the Lord, there is vision." (22:14)

Subsequent verses present some challenge to this notion - no creative interpretation can alter the fact that Abraham is praised for not withholding his son from the Lord (22:16). But one can view it as follows : Abraham portrayed merit in obeying the divine command, and he portrayed merit in coming to his eventual realisation that God demands non-adherence. A lesser man would have refused God the sacrifice, and learnt nothing. Because Abraham obeyed, his descendants shall be numerous and strong (22:17). But there is a second half to God's blessing; that his descendants will be a blessing for all (22:18); on what merit does Abraham's role move from a particularist to a universalist one? Because Abraham obeyed, not only the original divine command, but innate morality which can supercede it.

Thus the power of recounting these ancient stories; they are the history (either real or imagined) of how man learned the difference between right and wrong, and a paradigm for us to do likewise. And yet, modern history demonstrates that this understanding is by no means secured. Why does God not return to teach us again? Several alternatives are possible, however each has the same implication : God will not teach us morality nowadays, and we must perceive it for ourselves. Early Genesis is a prototype for God's dance with man, and in today's uncertainty, we continue to learn.


© Mayim, 2005.