Mount Moriah Revisited: In search of a viable contemporary Jewish ethical reading of the Akedah

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Rothschild, James
Jewish Ethics; Genesis 22; Akedah; Fackenheim; Emil; autonomy; heteronomy; moral ambiguity
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The story of the Akedah—Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, recounted in the Bible in Genesis 22—is extremely disturbing to many contemporary Jews. The notion that Abraham would be willing to sacrifice his own son seems to call all familiar ethical systems into question. This paper, in the broadest sense, seeks to find a model for contemporary Jewish ethics that will neither be destroyed by the very existence of the Akedah as part of the tradition, nor accept Abraham's actions as morally pure. As one of the best treatments of the Akedah on its ethical terms, this paper focuses on the analysis of the narrative, and accompanying meta-ethical work, by Emil Fackenheim, found in his seminal Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy. I will appropriate his theory of a three-term moral relationship between God, the self, and the Other, but I will critique his methods, using the theoretical work of S. Daniel Breslauer and Eugene Borowitz to improve on his conclusions. Following in Fackenheim's footsteps, this paper will view the Akedah as representative of the tensions between autonomous and heteronomous sources of morality in contemporary Jewish ethics. By way of a conclusion, I will assert that the Akedah demonstrates that contemporary Jews have absolute obligations both to the Other and to God. Although these obligations may come into conflict with each other, as they do in the Akedah, I will hold with Michael Morgan that to mitigate genuine moral conflict in Judaism is to ignore an essential and fundamental part of the contemporary Jewish existence, and that therefore, in the end, we can neither condemn nor praise Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son.