Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas and the Akedah: An Alternative to Kierkegaard

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas and the Akedah: An Alternative to Kierkegaard

Article excerpt

"Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further."1 This was Soren Kierkegaard's complaint.

"Today nobody will stop with ethics; they all go further." This is Emmanuel Levinas's complaint, and it is his complaint with Kierkegaard, as well.2

The following is a brief, Levinasian reading of the Akedah, or "binding" of Yitzhak, offered as an alternative to Kierkegaard's influential interpretation in Fear and Trembling. I call it a Levinasian reading for a number of reasons. First, there is no going beyond ethics for Levinas as there is for Kierkegaard; this reading follows Levinas in this respect. Second, though there is no going beyond ethics, Levinas places tremendous importance on going-out from moral certainty toward ethically immediate relations; ethics requires leaving behind "morality" in this sense and wandering toward the unforeseen. This reading, as well, makes much of this going-out from codified, moral relations toward immediate, ethical encounters. Third, the present reading owes its most significant and controversial claims to Levinas's analysis of the "face," the trace of absolute alterity in the human visage. For Levinas, the face speaks. This essay will consider how speech functions in this narrative, and most importantly, it will consider what the face says, for it says something definite: "Do not kill." My ultimate suggestion is that YHWH's messenger, the voice that stops Avraham just before he kills Yitzhak, is no one other than Yitzhak qua face of the Other.

Besides referring to Levinas and several midrashic interpreters, I will support this Levinasian reading with an analysis of certain textual patterns and transformations that emerge in the Genesis account. The most important of these patterns, for my purposes, are its rhythm of interruption-response and its repeating dialogue structure. Once these patterns are allowed to emerge, I believe we will see a different story than the one Kierkegaard describes. Though there is an immediacy lying beyond moral certainty, as Kierkegaard suggests, we might ask those looking to go beyond immediate, face-to-face ethical relations-including Kierkegaard-where they are going.


22:1 Now after these events it was that God tested Avraham and said to him:


He said:

Here I am.

2 He said:

Pray take your son,

your only-one,

whom you love,

Yitzhak, and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya /


and offer him up there as an offering-up3

upon one of the mountains

that I will tell you of.4

Kierkegaard is right to hold, I believe, that Avraham is commanded to leave all morality behind for an immediate relation to God. The task is not simply to substitute one morality for another; this was the task of Avram's' first going-out:

12:1 YHWH said to Avram:


from your land,

from your kindred,

from your father's house,

to the land that I will let you see.

Avram has already left a previous moral homeland for a new one. The Akedah poses a further challenge in a repeating yet transformative journey. As Everett Fox notes: The chapter [22] serves an important structural function in the Avraham cycle, framing it in conjunction with Chap. 12. The triplet in v.2 ("Pray take your son,/ your only-one, whom you love") recalls "from your land/ from you kindred/ from your father's house" in 12:1; "go-you-forth" and "the land that I will tell you of (v.2: the latter, three times in the story) similarly point back to Avraham's call (12:1, "Go-you-forth ... to the land that I will let you see"). There he had been asked to give up the past (his father); here, the future (his son).'

Before the Akedah, God commands Avram to journey away from his father's house toward a new homeland. Most rabbinic commentators agree that this going-out, which involves a physical change of place, is more importantly a spiritual or ethical movement. …

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