Autonomy Vs. Heteronomy In The Covenantal Relationship

Abraham's responses to the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and to the command to sacrifice Isaac provide two models of challenge and submission that must co-exist in our covenantal relationship with God.

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Abraham's challenge to God regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham's submission to God's command to sacrifice Isaac provide a profound insight into the nature of the covenant. In the first story, Abraham questions, argues, and convinces God to back down from an extreme position. The radical assumption underlying Abraham's protest is that God must follow a standard of justice comprehensible to Abraham. This suggests that human judgment over and against God is valid and that the human partner plays an active role in determining what is right and wrong.

Yet the same bold, challenging Abraham demonstrates absolute submission before God's terrifying command to sacrifice his son, though this surely violates his sense of justice. Only after Abraham has proven he will obey this command is a ram provided in Isaac's place. This story suggests that there is no alternative to the acceptance of God's will and that the human role in the covenant is submission.

The Torah's inclusion of both stories teaches that the Jewish way cannot be reduced to either perspective. By itself, the deeply autonomous thrust of the Sodom and Gomorrah story would lead to a Judaism in which the human conscience would eliminate anything that offended it. God, Torah, the tradition would become synonymous with whatever human beings want. Every person would decide what is right and wrong.

But reducing the Jewish way to the deeply submissive thrust of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) would lead to a fanaticism in which no act, no matter how repugnant, could be ruled out--a mindless obedience enslaving the human being and destroying his/her dignity.

The genius of the covenantal way is that these two powerful principles, autonomy and heteronomy, are yoked together and held in creative tension. Both challenging and submitting to God and the tradition are authentic covenantal responses to the dilemmas of Jewish life. The covenantal question addressed to each generation and even each person is when to act in which way.

Rabbi Irwin Kula

Rabbi Irwin Kula is the President of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center. He is also the host of Simple Wisdom.