Friday, October 26, 2007

sacrificing the intellect or questioning the world?: lessons from Avraham

There are two pieces in the Mei haShiloach of the Ishbitzer that I think need to be read side by side. The first piece concerns the Midrash which compares Avraham’s discovery of G-d to someone who observed a burning building and wondered where its owner was, whereupon the owner revealed himself. Similarly, Avraham’s observations of the world raised questions in his mind, whereupon G-d revealed himself. The Ishbitzer notes that G-d’s revelation was not predicated on Avraham developing a new philosophy, culture, or ethic – it was predicated on his sense of wonder and his asking questions. And indeed, this is the root of all religious experience.

The second piece concerns the parsha of the akeida, the command given to Avraham to sacrifice his son. The Ishbitzer explains (this shiur by my rebbe, R’ Blachman of KBY, discusses) that there was a certain ambiguity to the command given to Avraham, starting with G-d’s use of the term “ha’aleihu”, to bring Yitzchak up, but not the word “slaughter”. Had Avraham opened his mind to questions, he would certainly have wondered how a loving G-d of kindness could command him to sacrifice his son; he would certainly have seized upon the possibility of reading G-d’s command to mean something less than actual slaughter; his rational mind would have rejected the possibility of performing an unethical act in G-d’s name and reinterpreted the command. Yet, Avraham closed his mind and unquestioningly accepted the irrational with complete faith.

Two pieces of the Ishbitzer, two seemingly opposite messages. Is religion advanced through questioning and wonder, or through close minded and blind adherence to the discipline of faith? The answer, of course, is both. Our society has lost its sense of balance between these two messages: segments of the Jewish world have seized on “rational” questions as an excuse to reinterpret (or reject) the most basic truths of mesorah, while other segments remain so enveloped in their cocoon of faith that they have lost sight of the value and need to question and probe. There is a need for an “akeidah” of intellectual inquiry in the face of truths too great to be explored or explained by rational thought alone; there is also a need to think deeply, to inquire and explore, if one is to encounter the “ba’al habirah”. Avraham’s journey reminds us of both.


  1. Very fundamental point and very well said.

  2. Anonymous3:58 PM

    The amazing thing about this Parsha is Avraham Davens cant save one city lot goes there and Tzoar is saved?!!

  3. didn't know that you're also a Blachmanidean

  4. Anonymous - I have often wondered the exact same thing! Why didn't Avraham just move to the city? Perhaps this just reinforces the evil - Avraham held that to go there would endanger his spiritual well being and be a sakanah; for Lot, the choice had already been made.

  5. I think theres a much easier way to answer the question at hand. One clearly advances in religion through questioning and the intellect. that is how philosophy works. One must understand.
    Now why didn't Avraham question the Akeida and intellectually analyze it? because that was a tzeevah from hashem. Halacha is not to be questioned(at least not at the time your commanded to do it). God says "do" we do! Hashkapha on the other hand is advanced through intellect and intellect alone.

  6. I do not like that approach. Hashkafa is as much a command of Hasham as a tzivuy - what is the distinction? Implicit in every work of hashkafa is that it is an interpretation of the ratzon Hashem, not stam philosophizing about the meaning of life.

  7. chaim B

    "Implicit in every work of hashkafa is that it is an interpretation of the ratzon Hashem, not stam philosophizing about the meaning of life."
    not sure what this means but it seems like another discussion. let me direct you to two posts. one is on Matts Blog and is called "No psak in philosophy" the other is on where i just want to show you one paragraph.
    matts blog

    and mesora link

    the part from the mesora article i think pertains to this is as follows

    "There is no psak (ruling) in Hashkafa - philosophy. As a Rabbi once said, no one, not even a Rishon, can tell you what to believe. Either you believe something or not. Acceptance of a truth cannot be legislated. It is a phenomenon wherein you alone decide. This must be clear. For example, no one can tell me that I believe in ghosts. Either I do, or I don't. In contrast to Jewish law, which governs actions, not belief, Jewish law IS legislated. Our actions can be performed, even though we not believe the idea behind the action. So belief is totally up to each one of us, whereas Jewish Law - our actions - are decided by the Rabbi's explanation of the Torah, Prophets, Writings and Talmud. In philosophy, we have no obligation to "agree" with a Rishonic philosophy, especially if your mind disagrees with it. The Rishonim themselves argued on each other's philosophical points. This arguing displays their position is that you must think for yourself, just as they demonstrated. Here, rank plays no role. But I would add, one as great as Rambam should be studied with care."

    The Kuzari also has much to say about this but i dont have it on me and I dont want to misquote.

  8. I'm sorry, but what you write contradicts basic pesukim. Anochi Hashem Elokecha - we are commanded to believe, it's not a matter of choice. You can choose not to believe in ghosts (to use your example); you cannot choose not to believe in G-d or mitzvos without violating Torah law.

    There is no pska on hashkafa? You mean I can believe in Jesus and call myself be a religious Jew? What if I don't believe in techiyas hameisim - isn't it mefurash in the Mishna that someone like that gets no olam haba? Aren't these legislated beliefs?

    Since whoever wrote on mesora did not comment here I won't address their post, but I don't see how what you write fits with pesukim and halachos.

  9. >>> Our actions can be performed, even though we not believe the idea behind the action.

    Please see the Ramban on the pasuk "arur asher lo yakim es divrei haTorah hazos" which contradicts this statement. You find in numerous achronim that even mitzvos sichliyos must be performed simply becuase G-d commanded, not for the rational reason (e.g. see the Netziv on kabeid es avicha, the Aruch haShulchan's hakdamah to those halachos, and other places, vakm"l).

    >>>we have no obligation to "agree" with a Rishonic philosophy, especially if your mind disagrees with it.

    This reduces philosophy to a matter of what pleases the palate of the individual. The philosophical works of the Rishonim are replete with references to Chazal, pesukim, derashos - they did not simply sit back and contemplate, but felt pressed to show how the system they devised is consistant with a Torah outlook.

    Again, I'm sorry this sounds harsh, but the views you cite give a false picture of Torah thought.

  10. chaim Im sorry i havent responded back to you. i will try to do so soon.