GENESIS 22, THE story of
the Binding of Isaac, or the “Aqedah” in Hebrew, is one of
the most familiar but horrifying stories in the Bible. In his two GRUSS
LECTURES last fall, Professor Josef Stern of the Dept. of Philosophy at
the University of Chicago presented the great medieval Jewish rabbi and
philosopher Moses Maimonides’ two parabolic, or allegorical, interpretations
of this episode.
Unlike traditional readings of the story that focus on its beginning,
Maimonides’ radical interpretations locate its moral in its ending:
in the fact that Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac. On the first interpretation,
Abraham’s initial willingness to sacrifice Isaac reflects the conception,
deeply held by certain medieval rabbis, that the one who truly loves and
fears God is he who would rather die for God than transgress any divine
commandment-through acts of martyrdom. Abraham learns that such love is
excessive and that fear of God within the proper limits is expressed and
attained by living the life of the Mosaic Law, not by dying for it.