ABRAHAM! ABRAHAM! KIERKEGAARD AND THE HASIDIM ON THE BINDING OF ISAACWritten by Jerome I. Gellman Reviewed By Walter Moberly
One of the things I most seek to do with my students is to enable them to engage with the biblical text with total imaginative seriousness—so to think themselves into the world of the text and its possible implications that they learn to think through the big issues of life via the medium of the text. (Which is perhaps a way of saying that people need to take the Bible at least as seriously as they take their favourite soaps.) It usually feels like a struggle, however, for many today to try to read Scripture in this way, which is probably one of the major differences between us and our forebears.
Gellman’s fascinating book is a study of how in the nineteenth century certain Jews, Hasidim in Eastern Europe, and a noted Christian thinker, Kierkegaard, not only came to comparable understandings of ‘inwardness’ as integral to true faith, but also worked out their distinctive theologies through serious imaginative engagement with the possible implications of Genesis 22. This is not a work of biblical exegesis in any conventional sense, since there is no philological or ancient historical discussion; though to classify it simply as ‘history on interpretation’ would miss the enduring existential challenge both of those thinkers here discussed in their own right and of Gellman’s probing of their wider implications (especially, but not solely, in relation to Jewish faith and spirituality).
There are eight chapters, most, though not all, previously published as separate studies. There is reasonable coherence between the studies of the Hasidim and of Kierkegaard, though a chapter on ‘Sarah and the Akedah’ which looks at feminism and different patterns of religiosity, though interesting, feels a little less integrated. Gellman offers the best account I have come across of Kierkegaard’s famous ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ by relating it not to Kant but to Hegel’s concern for social morality. Genesis 22 is then read as an allegory of the need to realise a human individuality which is not limited by social ethical expectations. Gellman also probes the Jewish notion of ‘sin for God’s sake’, which is seen to be comparable to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension in that it involves a readiness, for God’s sake, to transgress divine norms in their traditional social embodiment.
All this, of course, leads one into difficult areas, where many may feel uncomfortable not only with the Hasidim and Kierkegaard but also with Gellman’s own contemporary account in the final chapter:
The Person of Faith is prepared to discover, one day, that what she or he has taken to be ultimate moral convictions may require revision because of the degree to which they reflect only the settled values of the prevailing social order. Consciousness of vulnerability does not afford a reason to doubt or hesitate over one’s present moral values. It does afford a reason to be ready for any future … Pragmatically speaking, to be able to change one’s moral stance or judgement, if that is what it should come to, is to heed the voice of God (114).
There is much sophisticated theology and spirituality here, though it is definitely not for beginners. The readings of Genesis 22 are fascinating and challenging—and bizarre. It is a pity that here, as so often, serious reflection and the disciplines of exegesis seem to belong to different worlds. Nonetheless Gellman offers food for thought.