Does Judaism preach blind loyalty to a higher authority or is there room for human autonomy and creativity? Variations of this question often arise in the classroom, and all roads in this area eventually lead to Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to bring Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him upon an altar. Although an angel of God stops Abraham before he can complete the task, the incident is still startling and disturbing. Known as the "Akedah," the binding of Isaac, this is one of the central stories of the Bible, and has provoked a great deal of later Jewish thought regarding the duty of humankind towards God.
How can God command something as patently unethical as child sacrifice, something not only abhorrent to humanistic notions of ethics, but even specifically prohibited by the Torah itself as one of the abominable practices of the ancient pagans? What is the Torah teaching us by narrating this event?
The story gives rise to the perpetual debate in society over who or what determines the criteria upon which we base our ideas of morality. Perhaps the test that Abraham is given - for indeed the Torah states that "God tested Abraham" (Genesis 22:1) - is so harsh precisely to indicate that not all of God's activities are perceivable and readily understandable by human intelligence, nor should they be. This point of view would assert that the whole essence of a deity is that His commandments may at times evade human reason, for He is on a level that occasionally transcends the human capacity to understand. One of the difficulties of this position, of course, is that it allows for a completely irrational and arbitrary God, one who could command immoral activities at will.
A different perspective would argue that Abraham erred greatly in not paying attention to the call of reason that should have persuaded him to reject the voice in his ear telling him to sacrifice his son. Such a position is put in its most strident form by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. For Kant, God is always subject to the evaluation of human reason. Hence, Abraham should have stood his ground and resisted the command of God to sacrifice Isaac. Other philosophers like Sartre focus on a different aspect of the story - its oddness in a modern context. What, for instance would occur, if someone in our day and age "heard" a similar command in his ear: would we call that an act of piety or sign of psychosis? Any cursory glance of the media shows that such an incident is not theoretical but happens with almost mundane frequency.
Trust in God, in the face of ostensible injustice and even a world that seems random and cruel, is always one of the main challenges to a religious faith. This quality of trust is embodied in the example of Abraham, who is willing to give of all he has in an effort to satisfy the divine will. The Midrash portrays Abraham not as an unthinking zombie in this affair, but as a man gripped by complex emotions - duty to God, love of his son, self-doubt about the whole enterprise. Ultimately, however, his belief in a wisdom that transcends his own is the key factor in Abraham's mind; he has profoundly internalized the idea that the Jewish idea of the moral begins and ends with God, and that this idea may even be more important than human life itself.