2. On Fear
I begin with my standard Akedah disclaimer. I know that the story we read this morning, on the face of it, is disturbing, and even obscene. When we take stock of our world today, and consider who they are who identify themselves by a willingness to perform inhuman acts, often at the expense of the innocent, in the name of their religion–actions with clear kinship to a father who will consent to kill his son when asked to do so by his god–I hope we will conclude that such people are not worthy of our respect or emulation. Yet, unlike some other passages of Torah–the genocidal ones, for example–which, I confess, I wish I had the power to cut out of our sacred book, I have no hesitation in continuing to read and comment upon this one, especially at a time of year when we are meant to penetrate to the deeper levels of our psyche, and address whatever imbalances of character we may find there.
A study of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, has much to contribute to this process, but we first need to step away from the literal layer of the story, and read it abstractly. Once we set aside the notion that it is only a tale of ritual child abuse (though, again, sometimes we must read it without setting this notion aside, or risk ignoring the horrible reality of such abuse) it has something to offer us as a spiritual parable. The text itself gives us the wiggle room we need. VahaElohim nisa et Avraham, it begins. “And God tested Abraham.” This little word, “nisa” accomplishes quite a lot. For one thing, it invites us to inhabit the story from God’s perspective, rather than Abraham’s–knowing more, from the start, about the parameters of the ordeal than has been shared with Abraham. We are, in fact, liberated from the terror of Abraham’s point of view. He must journey forward without knowing, as we and God do, that it is a test. Though we may not know the full extent of God’s intention for this test–will the slaughter actually have to take place for Abraham to pass?–we are aware that the burden of the event is not so much the act of sacrifice as the reaction of elements within Abraham’s psyche as he responds to the circumstance. The Akedah is, first and foremost, a nisayon–an arena of spiritual challenge.
We can gain insight into the nature of a nisayon by comparing this one to another. Abraham, after all, is not the only patriarch to sustain an ambiguous encounter with God. Jacob, too, goes through an ordeal of violence, his night of wrestling with the mysterious ish–a being who may have been God, or an angel, or his brother, or himself–from which he emerges wounded, undefeated, and with a new name, one that is emblematic of the meaning of the event and his success in meeting its challenge. He will no longer be known as Jacob, the heal grabbing sneak, but Yisrael, the divine wrestler–his essential trickster nature having attained to the status of spiritual virtue.
What we can learn from this example is that the successful endurance of a nisayon results in a victory that is encoded in a new name. The same holds true for the Akedah, though Abraham’s renaming is not quite as obvious. When he succeeds, when he accomplishes whatever it is that God had hoped he would accomplish, he is given a title, rather than a personal name. It is a kind of honorific of spiritual nobility that is meant to be worn as a badge of honor, signifying the capacity he has proven through his deed. “Now I know,” God announces, when all is said and done, “that you are a yirei elohim.”
The operative word here is yirah. Yirei elohim, means someone who has yirah for God, but yirah is too complicated a term to translate quickly. It is often given in English as “fear”, and is related to the word norah, meaning awesome (in the old fashioned sense), the same word we find in the term yamim nora’im, the High Holidays, or the Days of Awe. Tradition teaches it is one of the two cardinal modes of relating to God, the other being ahava, or love. Ahava and yirah. Love and fear. If God is the creator and master of all things, we might serve God out of a great sense of love, out of desire to do God’s bidding because of how good it makes us feel, and, on a mystical level, be subsumed by this love till it is magnified within our emotions into a state of great spiritual bliss. Or we might recognize God’s awesomeness as most salient–manifesting in scopes of space and time so vast relative to our own frames and spans that even a dim awareness of this magnitude fills us with an intense terror of the incomprehensible contours, or countourlessness, of what is real.
Tradition actually differentiates between two types of yirah: yirat elohim, Abraham’s honorific, also known as yirat shamayim, and yirat khet; the first term “fear of God” or “fear of heaven”, contrasted with the second, “fear of sin”. “Fear of heaven” is the type of yirah that I have already alluded to–a reverence for the grandeur of God, something along the lines of what we might feel at the ocean, or the Grand Canyon, or when viewing images from a deep space telescope, a kind of last-chapters-of-Job amazed surrender to the unfathomable. It is described as an overarching religious sensibility that transcends the performance of any one specific mitzvah, but informs the entirety of a pious person’s orientation toward the divine. Yirat khet, the fear of sin, by contrast, is a relatively limited sensibility, and is, in fact, denigrated by some traditional commentators, including Maimonides, as an immature religious outlook. Simply put, “fear of sin” is an attitude of service based in a fear of what will happen if we disobey the master–a fear of punishment.
Though these earlier commentators cast suspicion on yirat khet, they recognized its utility. It was a rule for children that could be outgrown when the spirit attained to higher understanding, and became an informed and loving servant. But these commentators had no similar qualms about yirat shamayim which they considered praiseworthy, to say the least. By contrast, I think there is particular antipathy in our time to the notion of fear, in any form, as a mode of spiritual service, especially within the world of liberal religiosity. Militant atheists, for their part, are incensed by the phantom of a tyrant God who demands our fearful, and easily manipulated, obedience (when they are not busy portraying God as an infantile narcissist demanding our servile love.) But even for many people who participate in religion, there is something unseemly in the concept of yirah, or at least unpalatable, or maybe just inscrutable. Indicative of this aversion is the tendency to translate yirah, softly, as “awareness”, or even “mindfulness.” I have been guilty of this, myself.
Maybe this distaste arises because we don’t take any religious doctrine seriously enough to inspire fear, or because in our selective approach to tradition we only see value in those parts of it that are warm and fuzzy. If you tend to doubt that religion is a matter of fulfilling the demands of an actual God, but suspect instead it is a hit-or-miss creation of human imagination and culture, then you might find yourself combing through the remnants of that culture for the “good bits.” These tend to be the parts that make us feel an emotional or physical positivity (Yoga and meditation, for example, or musical Friday night services), which we separate from those other aspects that we perceive as negative, whether because we consider them untrue or objectionable, or because they place obligations upon us we would just as soon not fulfill, or because they enshroud us in a worldview that feels dark and depressing.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, an early 20th century Conservative luminary, erstwhile devotee of Mordechai Kaplan, and author of the renowned philosophical novel “As a Driven Leaf”, had some choice words to say about this modern, selective tendency, in his excellent primer “Basic Judaism.” “There are in all communions some individuals who are made unhappy by any reference to the fear of God,” he wrote. “They are sentimentalists, wishful thinkers, or cowards–persons either ignorant of the nature of things, or too timid to face them.” “No one who sees reality as it is,” he went on, “bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.” (P65)
Steinberg, who was a modernist with an evident sympathy for traditionalism, argues here that anyone who takes account of the world as it is cannot help but acknowledge that fear, or “dread” as he puts it, is a natural response to a great deal of it. The sentimentalist is someone who uses religion as just another mechanism of denying the reality of the fearful. This is a form of cowardice, a kind of make believe that wears a smiley face and saves terror for the wee hours of the night, smothering it in a sphere of private consciousness, judging it to be an unacceptable emotion, something that must be concealed for the sake of social and personal hygiene. The sentimentalist, in fact, responds to the reality of life by creating an effigy of a God who is only loving, and is only related to through loving, sufficing with a candy god and foreswearing any religious language that might enable us to speak productively of the darkness. Steinberg seems to be suggesting that fear has a place in religious practice–that we should see it as something to be affirmed, rather than escaped or elided. It is a spiritual power in it’s own right, and so we might then translate yirah as sacred fear.
But what is the use of “sacred fear”? How do we take the step from feeling fear to enshrining fear as a spiritual value? Let’s look back to the Akedah, and see what Abraham, the prince of yirat shamayim, has to offer by way of answer to this question. Remember, we are reading the Akedah on an abstract level today, setting aside the notion that it is a horrible thing a father and a god inflict on a child, and seeing it as a nisayon, a spiritual testing or refining, by God, of a particularly ennobled human psyche. We do this, actually, by not counting Isaac as a character in the story–if he is as real as Abraham, then the story is indeed horrendous, because great harm is being done by one subjective human being to another. But, in the scheme of a nisayon, Isaac is not real, but rather a symbol in Abraham’s mind, just as we all, I think, turn the reality of the people in our lives into totems in our imagination–seeing them by what they mean to us rather than who they are. Let’s imagine that the Akedah is not realism, but a surrealistic trance state, such as Abraham actually did experience earlier in Genesis, when he fell into a tardemah–a kind of dark sleep–and God gave him a vision of his descendants as slaves in Egypt. Let’s imagine that Abraham has taken some peyote, or ayahuasca, or Manischewitz, and has descended into a tardemah, where the symbol of his son has appeared to him, and a voice has told him to sacrifice it. What does he come to learn in his vision? How does he emerge from it imbued with yirah–the power of sacred fear?
The voice speaks to Abraham, saying, “take the son that you love and sacrifice him”, reminding us that, perhaps more than anything else, what Isaac symbolizes to Abraham is ahava, the service of love, both on the natural level–as a father loves his son–and the supernatural, on which this son represents the reward of his loving and faithful service to God. In this vision, then, Abraham is asked to confront a terrible question, a question at the root of a great mass of fear: what will you do when you lose what you love? a question that filters down into his feverish dreamtime as a command to offer this symbol as a sacrifice. Abraham encounters a moment in which the fundamental bedrock of his life, the relationship with his child, is thrown into confusion by a new and frightening awareness of just how unfathomable and incomprehensible life really is, and how unoriented it is toward the fulfillment of his wishes. And, as he puts one foot in front of the other on the way toward his mystic mountain, he must wrestle with another question: can you bless a fate that you can neither change nor love? In the end, thank god, unlike many of us, he gets to keep the thing he loves, and, in fact, God never really wanted him to lose it in the first place. It was just a test, a proving of metal. But in the meantime, he has been forced by his nisayon to envision a spirituality in which love is not all that there is; to see that there are vast stretches of experience that are incommensurate with our hopes, and to respond, if he is to endure, with this capacity to bless with something other than ahava, to bless, in Steinberg’s terms, the incontrovertibly “bitter, violent, and frightening”; to bless his fear–to make of it a sacred fear–to become a yirei elohim.
I’m not the first, by a long shot, to read this story in abstraction. The tradition is at least as old as the Kabbalah, in which Abraham and Isaac each represent distinct sefirot, spiritual potentialities or divine qualities. Abraham is hesed, lovingkindness, a fitting association with the man who had a tent that was open on all four sides to receive visitors. Isaac is gevurah, restriction and judgment, the counterpart of hesed and a divine emanation intrinsically linked to yirah. The Akedah is understood to be the moment at which hesed met its match in gevurah, or , to shift to the terms we have been working with, the outflowing of sacred love encountered the wall of sacred fear. This reading is ultimately optimistic. Just as, in the end, Abraham and Isaac walked away from the mountain together, so we are to understand that ahava should always claim the upper hand in this match, if ever so slightly. If Isaac had not lived, fear would be the governing force. But, in the end, they are not in competition. Each of them has a place in helping us to craft a spiritual personality that will enable us to offer our blessings as we walk through this world. It is understood to be a matter of balance. If we feel too much fear, we are in need of love. But we should not strain our love by pretending it can redeem all things, and, especially on the Yamim Nora’im, , the days of yirah, we should entertain the possibility that even the darkness must be blessed.