Sunday, September 17, 2006

Abraham's Test: A Problem in Jewish Theology

Here's an interesting theological problem that occurred to me after reading part of the Pope's recent speech. The context is the issue of where religion fits between faith and reason.

Here is part of that speech.
[Emperor Manuel II Paleologus] goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death....

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
Let's repeat: Moslems believe: Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

Now where does that leave Abraham, the originator of what eventually became Judaism?

He, uniquely, in the time before the covenant, was given the hardest test of all - akedat Yitzchak - the binding and sacrifice of Yitzhak. And Aviva Zornberg, an eminent Biblical exegete, points out that we have to visualize this scenario as an actual binding - as of an animal to be sacrificed.

Abraham, of course, lived before the age of Greek reason. Before rationalism. Nevertheless. Given the fact that he is the paradigmatic man of faith in Judaism, and that, in Jewish tradition, we believe God required this test of him; and therefore, because God required it, Abraham was prepared to do even this, though it contradicted God's promise to him that his progeny would multiply like the stars in the sky.

At that point in history Judaism, in its pre-formative state, shares this similarity with Islam: Abraham was tested, beyond reason, to enact God's will, even though the test, by every measure, went against reason and, by every moral standard that we understand, was wrong, except in that God had required it of him.

Later though, in Deuteronomy 13:1, we are explicitly told: Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it. At this point, then, this extreme mode of faith, permitted in Islam, is explicitly forbidden to Jews.

Which is in itself an interesting theological reversal.

If we take this explicit reversal seriously, the conclusion appears to be that Abraham had the moral standing to be tested in a way far outside the bounds of what Jews of normal moral capacity - the benonim - could stand.

Indeed, the idea that someone could wander off on their own test of faith, reminds me of this evocation from Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, part 29:
Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right butwithout inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfoldthe dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing one like that comes to grief, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they neigher feel it nor sympathize. And he cannot go back any longer. Nor can he go back to the pity of men."
I always find this passage evocative of the fate of Elisha ben Abuya,, the notorious Jewish heretic, who some also believe was an early model for the myth of Faust.


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