Justifying Isaac: Is There a Reasonable Condition wherein Isaac Might Surrender His Life?

Type:Non-Fiction
Posted on:Jul 12, 2012
By:Flint McGlaughlin
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NOTE: Underlying this particular essay are some important reflections on the nature on Divine Authority. While the conclusion is somewhat tentative, there are other implications which are only hinted at in this text. Also, there are some fairly intense criticisms of the Kierkegaardian position. Nevertheless, I am an admirer of Kierkegaard. He has written some remarkable books.

Introduction
The Aqedah1 (the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22), as it is referred to in the Jewish tradition, has occupied a major place in ethical debate.2 Indeed, one may currently choose to purchase from at least 10,517 related books. The primary focus of this corpus is on Abraham's conduct: 'Was the patriarch justified in attempting to sacrifice his innocent son?'3 But this almost exclusive focus is unfortunate, because while Abraham's position is of considerable interest, Isaac's may be the more fascinating (and more relevant). It is unlikely that the average individual will find himself challenged by an alleged divine command to kill an innocent child. Yet, there is a sense in which the average individual may likely be challenged by a third party attempting to impose an alleged divine command upon his4 life.

This second challenge takes many forms. It may come as an evangelical fundamentalist demanding that one must surrender his life to a particular religious ideal; it may come as a radical Islamic cleric demanding that one must surrender his life for the sake of Jihad. But the issue was especially critical for the 59 innocent Muslims who died on September 11, 2001.5 Given the choice to resist, were they morally obligated to surrender? Consider the dilemma faced by Rahma Salie, a twenty-eight-year-old devout Muslim, and a passenger on American Airlines Flight #11.6 Rahma was seven months pregnant.

If, in the interest of philosophical discovery, one grants Isaac a certain degree of autonomy, then the Aqedah offers a stimulating set of new problems. Moreover, this grant may be justified for other reasons. While many have assumed that the Isaac of the Aqedah was a young child, the biblical account does not reveal his age. The Jewish scholar Jon Levenson argues that Isaac 'must have been thirty-seven at the time of his being bound on the altar for sacrifice' (Levenson: 133). Certain rabbis propose an alternate Midrashic calculation of twenty-six.7 And there is a pre-rabbinic account that places Isaac at fifteen.8 Furthermore, the Midrash, which eloquently describes a tension between Isaac's fear and his obedience, claims definitively that he voluntarily participated in the ordeal:

    Rabbi Isaac said: At the moment that Abraham sought to bind his son Isaac, he said to him, "Father, I am a young man and I am fearful that my body will tremble out of fear of the knife and I cause you sorrow, so that the slaughter will be rendered unfit and this will not be accredited to you as a sacrifice. Therefore, bind me very tightly" (Gen. Rab. 56:8).

In the same way that philosophers have challenged Abraham to justify his attempt to sacrifice Isaac, this paper will challenge Isaac to justify his submission to Abraham's claim. The project requires us to address an autonomous 'Isaac', not unlike the 'Isaac' of the Aqedah, as defined in the Midrash.9 Accordingly, we might note two other characteristics:

(1) that he considers Abraham's claim credible enough to deserve consideration, and (2) that he embraces the model of 'God as Good' (YHWH), in keeping with the Jewish tradition and the text itself.

Of this Isaac, one must ask, 'Is there a reasonable condition wherein Isaac might surrender his life to an alleged divine command?' I will argue in the affirmative, but that such a condition is just possible, and that it involves extreme risks. The argument will examine the respective positions of two thinkers: Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard. Then, it will attempt to resolve certain difficulties with each thinker's position by arguing for an epistemological reversal of responsibility.

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