The modern philosophers Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard wrote opposing analyses of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), which is included in last week’s Torah reading of Vayera. While both approaches have had considerable influence on subsequent Jewish and Christian theologians’ treatment of this passage, David Fried argues that neither reflects the authentic Jewish view:
For Kant, Abraham essentially failed the test [put to him by the divine command to kill his son]. God, the Supreme Ethical Being, could not possibly ask [a person] to do the unethical, [since, Kant believed], the moral law must be universal and allow no exceptions. If killing one’s son is wrong, it is wrong under all circumstances. Abraham therefore should have recognized that since the command to sacrifice his son was unethical, it could not possibly represent the will of God. . . . [The obvious] problem with this explanation is that there is nothing in the text indicating that Abraham failed the test. On the contrary, the text effuses with praise for Abraham’s conduct (Genesis 22:12-18). . . .
By contrast, Kierkegaard believed the opposite to be true. God wanted Abraham to comprehend the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” i.e., that the end of serving God justifies the usually unethical means of child sacrifice. Fried finds this reading equally unappealing, especially when compared with the very different rabbinic approach:
Perhaps we could accept that occasionally some greater cause could justify killing an innocent person. The challenge is that every religious zealot believes his cause to be the one that warrants “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” . . .
[U]nlike Kierkegaard and Kant, and contrary to what has become conventional wisdom, most traditional Jewish commentaries did not understand Abraham’s test . . . as centering on the tension between human moral sensibilities and divine command. Rather, Abraham was being tested in his ability to set aside the natural feelings of mercy he felt for his son. Put differently, Abraham was not being asked to do the unethical but to do the ethical despite his powerful inclination to the contrary.
[The Provençal philosopher and exegete] Levi Gersonides (1288-1344) makes this implication explicit, adding his own twist by arguing that Abraham must have assumed that Isaac had done something to deserve the deed Abraham was being asked to carry out. While one might criticize Gersonides by saying that the text’s usage of sacrificial language does not make it sound as if Abraham is being asked to carry out a punishment, this approach does fit very nicely with [the 13th-cenutry Spanish rabbi] Moses Naḥmanides’ understanding of sacrifices. Naḥmanides writes that when a person offers an animal as a sacrifice, he is meant to see himself as deserving of death; the animal takes his place only by the grace of God.
Fried goes on to defend his position by reading the binding of Isaac in the context of the biblical chapters that precede it.