Can Halakha Go It Alone, Without Kierkegaard?

October 26, 2021

By Ysoscher Katz (Chair, Talmud Department), for The Times of Israel

Reflections Inspired by Dr. Aaron Koller’s Book Unbinding Isaac

Dr. Aaron Koller’s new book, Unbinding Isaac, nearly pulls the rug out from underneath my theological edifice, but I nevertheless strongly recommend the book.

As someone with a foot firmly planted in each of the seemingly contradictory worlds of modernity and observance, I depend on the validity of Kierkergaardian theology for those rare instances when my values conflict with my religious commitments.

While halakha has, over the years, developed tools that allow the religious believer to shrink those conflicts and keep them at a minimum, a perfect resolution is impossible. There inevitably comes a moment when the observant person cannot reconcile their moral convictions with their religious beliefs and has to choose one and negate the other. They either compromise their instinctive values or subvert their religious convictions. On those rare occasions when I am forced to choose, I pick the latter option, and my inspiration is the Danish philosopher. According to Kierkegaard, that is the inevitable lot of the observant person. There will be times when they will have to behave in ways that are incongruent with their moral intuition.

In fact, Kierkegaard famously argued that this was the message of the Akeidah story. The way he sees it, God canonized the Akeidah narrative in order to teach us that the religious journey sometimes necessitates “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” Avraham’s choice to submit to the divine command to sacrifice his son was morally abhorrent but religiously admirable.

Dr. Koller takes issue with this exegesis. He believes that the message of the Akeidah narrative is the exact opposite. Ultimately, by sending an angel to thwart his murderous ambitions, God stopped Avraham from compromising his morals for the sake of his beliefs.

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