of God and the Face of the Other:
Kierkegaard, and Abraham
him [God], but I love even more his Torah...
Yossel, cited by Levinas in Difficult Freedom
still be Jewish without Kierkegaard?
Levinas, in Difficult Freedom
Akedah begins with a command from God to Abraham.
God demands that Abraham willingly sacrifice his [Abrahams] child to
God in order to prove his faith.
The test, as Abraham understands it, is to take Isaac, his beloved son,
the son through whom God has promised the fulfillment of the covenant, up
to Mt. Moriah where he is to be offered as a sacrifice. It is in the absurdity
of the situation that Abrahams faith is tested, for God has promised
that Canaan will be delivered through Isaac, but now God is asking that Isaac
be sacrificed. Abraham, because of Gods initial promise, must believe
Isaac will be returned to him, though this seems impossible. It is in light
of this absurdity that Abraham proceeds with Isaac up the mountain.
If we take seriously
Kierkegaards reading of the story in Fear and Trembling,
then we must imagine that it took all of Abrahams strength to get him
to the point of raising his lethal knife. Kierkegaard gives us an excellent
psychological portrayal of Abraham. In particular, Kierkegaard reminds us
of the time it took to for Abraham to make the decision: that he had to lie
to Sarah, travel up the mountain, cut the wood, and then bind Isaac. To read
Fear and Trembling is, to be sure, not to take lightly what Abraham
is asked and commits himself to do. In light of the captivating power of this
psychological profile, we are led to ask: what must have happened that Abraham
so easily puts down the knife without so much as a question to the angel?
If nothing else, inertia alone might have prompted him to execute Gods
original command. Thus,
we might ask if Kierkegaard has glossed over the real concern: the father
of Israel has just been asked by God to kill his own son, for no reason other
than to pass a mysterious test.
In light of this
portrayal, I want to examine what it means that Abraham "heard" the second
voice, and that Abraham put down the knife. Something is missing from Kierkegaards
reading of the story, a story he began but did not finish. Just as Kierkegaards
Fear and Trembling teaches us not to read The Akedah too quickly,
I think we should apply that same vigilance to Kierkegaard himself.
We should read the story of the Akedah slowly and carefully, but we should
also read it to its end! I think that we can read Kierkegaard back upon himself
and discover another message in the text, a message Levinas himself notes,
and one that I want to underscore. 
This paper will re-visit
the Akedah using, as its point of departure, Marc Bregmans commentary
on the visual in the text: what does Abraham see and how does vision mediate
what he hears? My aim here is to examine the relationship between the voice
of God and the face of Isaac in order to see the role each plays in the test
to which Abraham has been put. My claim is that the test Abraham had to pass
was an ethical test, not a test of obedience to God. The test Abraham passed
was to see the face of Isaac and abort the sacrifice. Moreover, I also claim
that Abraham had to have seen the face of Isaac before the angel commanded
him to stop.
* * *
In his essay "A propos
Kierkegaard Vivant," Levinas writes, "that Abraham obeyed the first voice
is astonishing: that he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience
to hear the second voicethat is essential."
Levinass focus on Abrahams attunement to the second voice should
not be minimized. Like Silentio, Levinas does not want us to gloss over the
fact that the sacrifice did not happen. This distance from obedience, this
receptivity to the other that Abraham displayed, is at least as extraordinary
as his initial faith.
On Levinass view the dramatic moment of the story occurs when Abraham
heeds the Angel of the Lord, who tells him "do not lay a hand on the lad."
This moment in the story
marks the turning point from a focus on Abraham to a focus on Isaac. The story
is no longer about Abraham as a man of faith or about Abrahams perceived
duty to God. Rather, this moment in the story could be read as the need for
our attention to be focused on the victims, those who suffer the violence,
not the administrators of that violence, even if, or maybe especially if,
that violence is administered in the name of God.
And yet by focusing on this last point, it is still possible to see Abraham
as a man of faith, but not in the sense that Kierkegaard, Silentio, or Christianity
wants to ascribe to him. The faith Abraham has must be a condition for him
to see the ethical, not necessarily a faith merely to obey the command of
God. Thus, as Bregman suggests, Abraham must be a man of faith in order to
see what needs to be seen. He needs to be able to see Mt. Moriah as a holy
site, as a place where this kind of sacrifice is out of order. He needs to
be able to see Isaacs face, and he needs to be able to see his responsibility
to God precisely as a responsibility to Isaac. As Bregman points out,
these "seeings" are not thing the others see. The servants, for example, do
not "see" what Abraham sees. Thus, Abraham is a man of faith, but not the
man of faith Kierkegaard and the rest of Christianity desires.
For Levinas, among others,
a suspension of the ethical, which allows for the sacrifice/murder of another,
cannot be tolerated. Levinass criticism of Kierkegaard thus focuses
on Kierkegaards understanding of the ethical, which is defined in terms
of the "universal." The religious is the sphere in which one reclaims the
particular. At the level of the religious, the particular is reclaimed but
in a higher form than the particular at the level of the aesthetic. In Kierkegaards
understanding of the ethical, the singularity of the self, and the other,
is lost in a rule that is valid for everyone. Levinass criticism rests
on his claim that "the ethical is not where [Kierkegaard] sees it [emphasis
added]." As in much
of the history of philosophy, the ethical is characterized in terms of the
universal, as that which applies to everyone.
For Levinas, Kierkegaards
violence emerges precisely when he transcends ethics,
and ascends to the religious. Though the religious, in Kierkegaards
account, reclaims the particular, it cannot be seen as Levinass account
of the ethical. Although the religious reclaims the particular, and although
the ethical that is suspended for Kierkegaard is the ethical understood as
the universal, in Levinass view, the religious still appears to suspend
the ethical, the ethical even as Levinas understands it. A conception of the
ethical that accounts for the singularity of the I, and that poses
the I as a unique individual, that implies an infinite requirement
of a responsibility toward others, is still missing from Kierkegaards
But, and this is crucial,
the religious stage for Kierkegaard is outside language. This means that one
is "out of communication," one cannot explain what one is doing. No one would
understand what it means for Abraham to hear to this voice. And this is precisely
the kind of relationship Levinas fears when he quotes Yossel ben Yossel with
regard to loving the Torah more than God. For Levinas, to love the
Torah more than God is precisely to love ethics more than God; it is to be
willing to respond ethically to the other rather than to be willing to kill
because one "heard" this commanded by the voice of God.
Levinas insists that
responsibility pre-supposes response. Responsibility must not lose sight of
response. It is precisely this response that we see in Abraham
at the point when Abraham aborts the planned sacrifice. An angel of the Lord
says, "Abraham, Abraham."
Abraham replies to the angel, "here I am [hineni]." The Angel then
says, "do not lay a hand on the lad." It is significant that while it was
God who initiated this sequence of events, it is an Angel who brought them
to an end. It is often remarked that Abraham should have wondered if it really
was God who issued the initial command. We might also ask if Abraham should
have wondered if this presence really was an Angel of the Lord, an Agent of
the Lord, if you will? Should Abraham not have wondered if aborting the sacrifice
really was what God intended?
I do not mean to suggest
that "seeing is believing"; nor do I mean to suggest that we should always
doubt what we hear. But we should be able to ask what it means to hear a particular
voice, and what it means to hear the voice of God? Even if this is a voice
Abraham has heard before, what does it mean that he hears the voice of an
angel, and agent of God?
The "here I am" [me
voici], hineni, in Hebrew, implies a sensitivity, a total awareness,
or an openness to respond. In a sense, Abrahams words imply that the
response actually precedes the utterance of the phrase.
To utter "here I am" is already to be ready to respond.
We should remember what Abraham endured to get to the point of raising the
knife in order to respond to a command given to him by God. Then, is it not
extraordinary that Abraham is ready to "hear" the second command, the
command not to continue, a command given to him, not by God, but by an alleged
messenger of God. This point in itself is significant for Silentio, since
this means that Abraham no longer stands Absolute in a relation to the Absolute.
The relationship between Abraham and God is now mediated by Isaac, and the
immediate relationship has shifted to that between Abraham and Isaac, a relationship
Levinas terms the "face to face."
Could we not say that Abrahams receptivity to the second voice implies
that Abraham had already turned toward the ethical, has already seen
the ethical? Could we not read this moment, as Levinas also suggests, as the
essential moment in the story? Here I turn again to the midrash,
which asks after the phrase, "do not lay a hand on the lad" and suggests that
Abraham had already put down the knife. The Angels voice, then, is a
less a command from above, than it is a response to a response that is already
in motion. And though
this is the essential moment for Levinas, I wish to claim that something had
to take place in order for Abraham to be receptive to this voice: he had already
seen the face of Isaac; he had already seen the holiness of the land.
Thus, as Bregman suggests, Abraham does see what needs to be seen. He sees
Mt. Moriah as holy, and as the picture of the ram tugging at Abrahams
hem suggests, he has turned his attention from God to Isaac, from the command
of God to the command of the other. As Bregman also points out in one midrash,
"Abraham is bent over looking down at Isaac, who is lying on his back looking
up into heaven. In the next shot, we see the face of Isaac through
the eyes of Abraham. What he sees in his sons face is so horrific that
it cause [sic] him to weep to a surrealtistic extent and to let out an inhuman
cry." Though the end of this midrash has the angel staying Abrahams
hand, I claim that Abraham was changed when he looked into Isaacs face.
The staying of the hand was the continuation, or affirmation, of an action
that was already set into motion; Abraham had already begun to abort the sacrifice.
That is, I claim, he has turned from sheer obedience to the ethical.
For Levinas, the
point at which Abraham hears the second voice marks the moment at which Abraham
has heard the voice that has led him to the ethical. This moment is not only
the essential moment; it is "the highest moment in the drama."
Is it not the case that, as Levinas says, we rise to the level of the religious
precisely when we are ethical?
The ethical for Levinas takes precedence, even over the apparent commands
of God. Thus, if religion is to provide genuine freedom, God must be understood
to be free and able to deceive, or to command a murder that we are free to
choose not to commit.
We must be free to show that we are strong by being able to disobey Gods
commands. It cannot be the case that Abraham waited for or merely responded
to another command from God, even if the command was from an Angel. If it
is, then we are left with the Divine Command Theory and all its problems,
and Judaism is merely a religion that has its members wait for the word of
God for orders to tell us what to do and how to act. As Levinas reminds us,
Judaism is a difficile liberté precisely because it both commands
us to be and allows us to be adults. There is no doubt that Kierkegaard gives
us a different reading from the collection of midrashim in the Judaic
tradition; Kierkegaard, if you will, gives us his own version of a midrash
on Abrahams struggle. But Kierkegaard stops precisely where the drama
begins, namely, when Abraham hears the angel, puts down the knife, and sees
in the face of his son the true meaning of the religious. This, I claim, was
the test Abraham had to pass and did pass.