Years ago when I took Entry to Philosophy, I was assigned to read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. I am embarrassed to say that till this day I never actually read the book. We discussed it in class, yet I was a lazy student my Freshman year of college, and with ideas bouncing off the wall I rarely turned to the original source. However, it occurred to me that I should read Kierkegaard’s book when I wrote Abraham, Then and Now, a three-session class at my synagogue. I have to admit that already–having only read the Introduction and Kierkegaard’s own Preface, I am wondering something I wondered a long time ago when I took the class.
The thesis is that Abraham–the “knight of faith”–believed when he sacrificed his son Isaac to God he ultimately would receive him back. God would not really force him to sacrifice his son. I must admit what puzzled me: why is a gift a gift if you expect to get it back? I was still Christian at the time and I always believed that to truly give–giving more than can be demanded of an average person–was to ask for nothing in return. I do not want to brag–giving is blasphemed against if a person brags about her generosity–but I have experienced, both on the giving and receiving end, true altruism. And this, to me, is the root of faith.
And that is the secret of the Akedah. Abraham had given all that God could have expected of him, and yet when God demanded it, he gave all his chances of his dreams coming true, to God. It is true that “society” did not benefit greatly from this gift except by way of example. It is also true that part of the meaning of the story was that God would not allow the gift of a child from his greatest saint. Yet Abraham gave to God till it hurt, and is therefore an example to us all. He is an example in the sense that Jesus or Rabbi Akiba are (Akiba, like Jesus was executed by the Romans).
I would point to Kierkegaard the martyrdom of Polycarp, a Catholic. The Roman government told the old man that if he did not renounce Christianity, he would be fed to wild beasts. He was told, “Say, ‘down with the atheists.'” And he pointed to the crowd and shouted, “Down with the atheists!” Because of this he was fed to hungry lions. Yet The Martyrdom of Polycarp (the book which records his death) says that he was filled with joy till the end.
I don’t know that I could be happy to die–even for Judaism. Yet I can read these stories like “The Ten Martyrs” and admire the faith that inspired a chosen people and not just their daughter faith. Akiba supposedly said on dying that he had all his life wondered what it meant to “love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might.” Finally he knew that he had given his life’s work (heart) and belongings (might) to God; now he abnegated his life (and hence gave his “soul”) to God.
The point is that true giving, large or small, is a necessary part of faith. I remember hearing a minister preach a sermon about a famous baseball player who even has a child tithed ten percent of his allowance to the church, and that as an adult he gave ten percent of his income to God. Though the amount of money he got as an adult was substantially more than what he gave as a boy, it was rooted in his childhood that he gave.
Though Abraham gave Isaac because it was demanded, in a sense it was a freewill offering: he gave to God because he was in love with God. As one Hassidic story says, at the final moment there were tears in his eyes and joy in his heart–and then God said, “Enough,” because he did not truly wish to see Isaac die. No, God only wanted to see that the most pious Jew would give him the ultimate gift: a father’s beloved son.