A beautiful religious message is found in our shabbat prayer books in the preliminary service. The rabbis (Sifrei Deuternonomy Ekev) quote the verse (Deut. 11:22) that commands us to walk in God’s ways. “Just as God is gracious and compassionate” the rabbis say, “you too must be gracious and compassionate. Just as God is faithful in all God’s ways and and loving in all God’s deeds so too you must be faithful and loving.”
This brief statement encapsulates a rabbinic perspective on why we should be ethical and moral people. We are supposed to learn 2 important principles from this rabbinic lesson. The first is that we are supposed to be good people. The second is that we are supposed to be good because God is good. Ethical behavior according to the rabbis is commanded from God.
But is that the case? Are ethics totally dependent on God or are there ethical principles that are independent of God? Are we good and do we strive to do good because God commanded us to do so are are we good because we are instinctively good?
Everybody knows that a human being raised in an ethical or religious society is supposed to be a good person. Being good exemplifies the laws and norms of the society and being good ensures that all members of society are taken care of. But the question still stands - why are we supposed to be good? Are we good because God tells us to be good - in other words do we feel that God has commanded us to be good people? Or are we good because there is something innate in our human nature to cause us to be good?
I ask these questions because we are supposed to reflect upon our actions during the High Holiday season. We look to the machzor to inspire and motivate us. The words in the liturgy are meant to guide us as we think about how to be good and why to be good. The words also help us understand our relationship to God and how we are to understand being motivated by God to do good deeds. The prayers and even more so the Torah readings are chosen to help us in this self reflective process we undergo today.
It is therefore surprising that the rabbis chose chapter 22 of the book of Genesis as the Torah reading today. A story of a man who thinks he has heard God tell him to sacrifice his son only to be stopped at the very last second by an angel doesn’t seem to be an appropriate motivational story for change. The story is fraught with fear of God, with an awkward father-son relationship and with blind faith. How can these topics prompt us to change our behavior and be good people?
There are so many other events in the Torah the rabbis could have chosen that would have been a better fit for the religious theme of the holiday. Certainly chapters 19 and 20 of Exodus which describes the giving of the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai would have been a great choice. In that section we see the awesome events that happened as the people came together as a community and experienced God’s revelation. Together they heard the shofar blast and as one they heard God’s voice. As a result they committed themselves to live by the covenant as expressed in the Torah. That sounds like the perfect story for today.
And if the rabbis wanted to be more creative and have us think about the effect our choices have on our lives and the ripple effect on others then Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden would be an appropriate tale. In chapter 3 of the book of Genesis they confront God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree and the serpent’s enticement. Adam and Eve blame each other for eating the fruit and hide from God and in the end they realize that not only can’t they hide from their misdeeds, they have to face the consequences.
The 10 commandments and the garden of Eden are two of many powerful lessons in the Torah. Why then did the rabbis choose the “akeidah” or the binding of Isaac? What did they find so compelling in this psychologically and religiously disturbing chapter? What could possibly be gained by retelling this fearful and disturbing event? Yes the rabbis themselves and commentators over the centuries have provided some explanations. They claim the story focuses on Abraham’s blind faith in an active and present God that will save us from despair. As the commentary on page 103 in the mahzor explains there are many other ways to understand the story by what Abraham did or didn’t do. However, we are still left with the question - why did the rabbis pick this story?
Though I have talked about the “akeidah” before and have derived my own understanding of its religious significance, it wasn’t until last May that I understood the story in a brand new way. In the middle of May I attended the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Dallas. There Rabbi Donniel Hartman - the president of the Hartman Institute and my teacher when I attended my 3 year program in Jerusalem - explained the “akeidah” in what I thought was a revolutionary and radical way. The “akeidah” according to Hartman is a commentary on the role of God in determining our actions and how we understand the source of what is Good. His understanding sheds new light not only on the purpose of the story but on how we understand morality and ethics in a religious context.
A traditional Jewish premise for understanding the origin of the Torah is that it is written by God. Because it is written by God, everything in the Torah must be as perfect as God. Just as we need to believe in God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might, so too we need to follow every word of the Torah in the same way.
There are of course at least two major challenges to this notion. If the words of the Torah - and the ethical guidelines it contains - are perfect, then how do we understand sections that we think aren’t perfect? For example how do we make sense of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as a form of punishment? In other words are we supposed to follow the words of the Torah literally if the words seem wrong or even barbaric?
And another challenge is whether people have the right to act in what they say is in the name of the Torah? Is fundamentalism - especially fundamentalism that demeans women for example or that calls for the eradication of non-believers - an acceptable way to follow the Torah?
Though we may want to believe that God wrote the Torah, that belief is fraught with philosophical and religious challenges. When we examine the principle of Divine authorship and carry that to its logical conclusion then we see major ethical and moral dilemmas.
The rabbis themselves recognized that and said that God gave us the Torah and it is up to them - the rabbis - to interpret it appropriately. So if a section is ethically challenging - like “an eye for an eye” - then the rabbis have the right to reinterpret it and change it. In their day the rabbis were called heretics for this radical idea by the fundamentalists in the community but in the end the rabbis’ interpretation won out. For centuries, traditionally, we are left with the idea that the Torah is Divine in origin and only the rabbis have the right to reinterpret it for legal purposes. It leaves the question open as to what is to be done today. Do modern rabbis have the same right to reinterpret? Are there limitations to the reinterpretation? And who has the right to determine what is right and wrong?
The question of who defines what is right and wrong is the basic question according to Hartman. It’s the question that motivates our behavior today. Why do we do the good things we do? Do we do them simply because we know they are good? Do we do them because someone told us to? Do we do them because the deeds themselves were developed by people or by God? We help our neighbor and we give charity because it’s the right thing to do, but who said it was right? Does it matter if the “right thing” was developed by Aristotle or Thomas Jefferson or the Torah? Can we even say that the “Good” is independent of the Torah?
It’s that last question that Hartman addressed last May. The title of his talk was “Putting God Second” and his premise was that the traditional approach to the Torah and Jewish values is wrong. When we say that God wrote the Torah we are saying that God and Torah came first. We are saying that everything stems from God and originates in the Divine. The problem is that we are the ones saying it. We, human beings, who are limited in intellect and even corrupt, are the ones saying that this is what God said.
But we have seen throughout history how acting in the name of God or an ideological principle has brought corruption and evil on the world. Whether it was through the religious teachings that led to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, or the Nazi ideology preached by Hitler that led to the slaughter of 6 million Jews, or the violence perpetrated by the Islamic State in the name of Islam, we know the horrific consequences of acting in the name of God. Those traumatic events in history highlight the extreme example of putting God first.
The rabbis themselves knew about the consequences of claiming to follow the words of the Torah and saying that we are doing so in God’s name. In the Talmud (Bava Metzia 24b) we find the following trivial story. Two rabbis are walking in the market place. One asks the other what happens if a wallet is found on the ground in the market? The other answers that the wallet can be kept. The first asks a follow up, but what if someone can identify the wallet? The second rabbi then says the wallet should be returned. Either one can keep the found wallet or one returns it, what is the law? The rabbis answer that returning it is acting “lifneem meeshurat hadeen” - acting above and beyond the law. Meaning that even though Jewish law would state in that situation that the found wallet can be kept, the better ethical principle is to return it.
But how could that be? Shouldn’t the better ethical principle be the Jewish principle? Shouldn’t the rabbis have said that Jewish law requires that lost items always be returned? Or asked another way - why would the rabbis acknowledge that there are some things we do that reflect acting above or beyond, as if there were a higher principle at work?
It is that idea, as if there were an independent principle at work, that leads Hartman to his radical lesson. God can’t be seen to be the underlying force at work in the laws and principles that guide our lives. If we constantly state that we are acting in God’s name then we threaten to corrupt God and God’s name. If we act in a way that is not above and beyond the law - if we just follow the letter of the law - God’s law - then we diminish the holiness of the law.
Instead of having this religious debate it might be easier to forget the whole enterprise and just act in a moral and ethical way. God only confuses the discussion and even can cause people to act in horrible and terrifying ways in the name of God. Which leads us back to the “akeidah”. That story is the perfect example of what can go wrong when one follows God’s command. It nearly leads to murder. So why not just be good people and forget about God?
The end of the “akeidah” needs to be understood in a new way. Why does the angel stop Abraham from killing Isaac? It’s not just to save Isaac. God stops Abraham in order to save Abraham from himself. God teaches Abraham that Abraham’s idea of blind faith and following God’s every word is wrong. God tested Abraham and Abraham failed the test. Abraham should have argued with God and said that sacrificing his son is wrong. He should have said that there are higher moral principles at stake that should always override what he thought was God’s command. By God stopping Abraham God shows him that God comes second to these higher ideals.
By understanding the story this way, making God secondary, we state that God is necessary in formulating our own ethical value system. We can’t rely just on humanity to do it because human beings can be wrong. Nazism and fascism are two examples of a human only value system gone wrong. And we also can’t rely on God to tell us what to do because we see with the “akeidah” what could potentially happen. We need a combination of the two to lead an ethical and moral life. We can’t rely just on ourselves to make the right choices because we are human and we are fallible. We need the guidance of tradition to help us make the right choices in life. We need to look to Jewish texts and the rabbinic tradition to help us make the right decision. If the process of decision making involves what seems to be an unethical choice then we need to act “lifneem meeshurat hadeen” above and beyond the law to do the right thing. In the end, for example, that’s how we could say that Conservative Judaism became egalitarian - it was the right thing to do.
I also accept Hartman’s approach because I need to know that my ethical system is eternal. I gain no satisfaction from knowing that I am acting in a humanistic way. I may feel comfortable today but I won’t feel comfortable transmitting that to the next generation. One generation’s morality is another generation’s decadence. But I do feel better knowing that my value choices today are based in tradition and my children’s choices will be based in tradition too. Even if God is secondary, the process is still Divine.
Therefore the 3rd lesson we learn from the rabbinic lesson I shared earlier about following in God’s ways is that we should act graciously and compassionate because we feel that is what God would want us to do. Our acts of goodness are done not just for our definition of good but for the more eternal sense that this was what was always done and will always be done. Ethics is transformed into a religious enterprise.
As we continue to do our personal reflection during these 10 days of repentance, let us evaluate our commitment to values. Let us be strengthened by this idea of God protecting Abraham from himself. Let us search for God in our values so that our actions can be elevated and that our values may be sacred. Amen.