Rabbis and scholars over the generations have asked, some more nicely than others: how could G-d command Avraham to kill Yitzhak, and how could Avraham listen? Even worse, how could the Jews accept such a G-d that would command such a thing? The answer is actually already imbedded in the question. Who or what gives value to human life? Who decides what is right or wrong? The clear message from the Akeida (Binding of Isaac) is just that: G-d is the one who gives value to human life and is the arbiter of morality.
This is the fundamental mistake that R’ Dov Linzer makes in his parshah sheet this week. Actually he’s made the mistake more than once. Morality, even something as basic as not murdering, is not something intrinsic that you just wake up and know without qualification. This is a point best articulated by the late existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre:
“The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like
to abolish God with the least possible expense…(They are) going to try a little device
which will make it possible to show that values exist all the same, inscribed in a heaven
of ideas, though God does not exist.
The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist,
because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him;
there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect
consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be
honest, that we must not lie; because we are on a plane where there are only men.
Dostoyevsky said, “If God did not exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very
starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist,
and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find
anything to cling to*.
In short, there is no morality without G-d and no value to human life without G-d. This is a point later articulated by the Torah when it says that a murderer should be put to death (Ex. 21:12-14). The ancient Mesopotamians believed that a person was a servant of the gods and had a monetary worth, which is why they accepted money for killing someone. Sharia law still permits this. The Torah is saying “No! There is no value you can put on human life is another life**”.
My point is evident in secular society, where human life does not hold the same sanctity as in Judaism. The concept of quality-of-life over sanctity-of-life is the driving principle behind the Euthanasia Movement. Utilitarianism is the philosophic underpinning of Eugenics. 3rd Wave Feminist Naomi Wolf argues that a woman’s right to choose is a trump card to the value of the life of the aborted fetus***.
This is where R’ Linzer goes so terribly wrong in criticizing those Jews who killed their children to keep the Crusaders from baptizing them. If he wanted to argue based on Jewish sources that this was inappropriate that would be one thing, and there is certainly what to discuss. But to argue on a pure basis of the morality of conscience is wrong, because of the examples I cited above (and oodles more) where right and wrong can be very subjective. In fact, if you remove G-d from the picture, there can be far lesser things you can kill your children for, such as recreation and gaining more free time. This was Sartre’s point, and Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky before him. This also makes Rashi commentary fit even better with the narrative when he says “I made the covenant with you, and therefore I would not have told you to kill your son.” Meaning, only because G-d Himself promised that Avraham would be a great nation did He say He wouldn’t command Avraham not to kill Yitzhak. Had that not been true, G-d could have since as the Creator and Master over life and death it is His prerogative only that determines who will live and who will die. So these parents during the Crusades were simply trying to preserve the eternal souls of their precious children and defend the Will of their Creator.
*From ‘Ethics Contemporary Readings’ edited by Harry J. Gensler, Earl W. Spurgin, and James C. Swindal, 2004. Page 129.
**An idea I heard over from Dr. Moshe Sokolow of Yeshiva University.
***Wolf, Naomi (Oct 16, 1995). “Our Bodies, Our Souls”.The New Republic 213 (16): 26–35