The Bible tells the story of Sodom, in which God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because their inhabitants have sinned. Abraham then challenges God, asking whether It will destroy the righteous along with the sinners, asking It not to smite the city if he can find 50 righteous people (he can’t), then 40 (he can’t), then 30 (he can’t), and so on, until he requests that if he can find just ten righteous people in Sodom, God won’t destroy it. Alas, there aren’t many righteous people, and God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.
Later in the Bible, we encounter Abraham in a different context. In the story of the Binding of Isaac (which I will refer to as the “Akeida,” the Hebrew word for “binding”), God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. Abraham obeys this command, demonstrating ultimate faith and trust in God despite this unethical request. In the end, God stops Abraham before the sacrifice. But the point of the story is that Abraham was willing to submit to God’s will without a challenge. This unquestioning faith stands in sharp contrast to the questioning faith we see in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the Sodom narrative, Abraham questions God’s intentions because they conflict with his own ethics. Rabbi David Hartman calls this “covenantal morality”— a morality that is reciprocal, not unilateral. Conversely, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik says that Abraham’s submission to God’s seemingly unethical will during the Akeida is the ultimate expression of religiosity, and that therefore we (the Jews) should try to emulate that relationship.
So which represents his religious pinnacle? Which should we try to model in our own relationship with God?
My gut instinct when I learned about these two paradigms was that the Sodom model was correct, or at least the kind of divine relationship I would want to have. Why would I want to believe (if I do believe at all) in a God who requires blind faith and has destructive ethics, for whom we must be violent in order to show devotion? I much preferred Hartman’s theory of covenantal morality—that we must have a moral dialogue with God, trusting that our ethics align, or at least trying to understand God’s ethics. But when examining the paradigms in the context of Abraham’s religious pinnacle, it’s hard to deny that the Akeida is the ultimate expression of religiosity.
With that in mind, my philosophy is this: while it is true that the Akeida is the pinnacle of Abraham’s religiousness (complete faith and submission to God)[note] Of course, this theory is predicated on the assumption that blind faith and submission constitute the highest level of religiosity, and this, as a goal for a divine relationship, irks me. But for the purposes of analyzing these two paradigms as a model for how Jews in general should relate to God, we have to accept it.[/note]. , Sodom is the pinnacle of his compassion, humanity, and morality—his moral pinnacle. Before pursuing the highest level of religiosity, which in this case is following God’s morals without question, we must understand our own morals and trust that they are in line with God’s.
The key proof of this is the chronology of the two instances: Sodom happens first, when Abraham is younger and still exploring his relationship with God. In the context of the Sodom narrative, Abraham questions God’s intentions because they conflict with his own ethics. The Akeida occurs toward the end of his life, once his relationship with God is established and he can fulfill his religious potential completely.
Nachmanides, a renowned rabbi and biblical scholar, points out that God knows what is going to happen in the Akeida, and that Abraham has the free will to perform the deeds or not. He says God tests Abraham for his own sake, so that he can actualize his potential and God can reward him accordingly. The important thing to realize is that this test wouldn’t have happened if Sodom hadn’t happened first, because that’s when Abraham proved his potential to question. And now that his soul has proved moral, he can show faith.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explains the Akeida by saying that “[Abraham] overstepped the ethical all together, and had a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended it.” This higher telos is faith, and Kierkgaard asserts that the only justification for his behavior is that he suspended his ethics because faith was involved. Yes, this was Abraham’s spiritual pinnacle—but it would not have been possible if not for his exhibition of compassion and ethics in Sodom. After the Sodom incident, Abraham has every reason to trust that God is not capricious and that our morals matter to It. When God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Abraham can suspend his ethics because he has already witnessed God’s moral culpability[note] A little dramatic if you ask me, but logical too.[/note]..
Rabbi Soloveitchik, as I mentioned earlier, believes that the Akeida was Abraham’s religious peak—primarily because he imitated God’s “tzimtzum” (a Hebrew word for “contraction” or “constriction”). He says that we need to retract and recoil when it is hardest for ourselves, and that is the highest demonstration of faith and strength. He also says that the Torah has its own logic and we must surrender our morals and ethics to it. This philosophy does not appeal to me at all, but shows why one may view the Akeida as Abraham’s spiritual pinnacle.
In junior year, my Modern Orthodox high school tasked me with answering which paradigm we, as the Jews, should emulate. My conclusion, for the purpose of the assignment, was that we should go for both. If we just live according to Hartman’s theory of moral culpability, without keeping Soloveitchik’s perspective in mind, we would live selfishly and could maybe even lose all religious feeling. But, if we solely live according to Soloveitchik’s philosophy, we would be deprived of happiness and satisfaction, and faith would be in vain.
We need to learn how to trust our own moral convictions before we can trust God’s—which is why we first emulate the Abraham of Sodom, and once we perfect that, we can retract ourselves and follow God’s commandments knowing that It is an ethical and moral entity.