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On Sacrifice
by Moshe Halbertal
Princeton, 152 pages, $24.95

Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish thought at both New York and Hebrew Universities, writes books with very large theses. His first publication treated the theme of idolatry and a subsequent book the nature of the religious canon. His present work, less technical, offers an extended essay on the complex, and often quite contentious, subject of sacrifice.

The first half of the book deals with the religious realm under the rubric of “sacrificing to” a deity, the second with its secular transformation, “sacrificing for” a this-worldly end. Basic to the argument is the provocative—but unstated—presupposition that the human person is a sacrificial being, and that once the religious purpose of sacrifice has disappeared another must fill its place.

To illustrate the religious notion of sacrifice, Halbertal picks three biblical stories as illustrative: Cain and Abel, Nadav and Avihu, and the binding of Isaac.

As early as the story of Cain and Abel, sacrifice becomes problematic: “And the Lord had paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering he paid no heed.” Traditionally, the challenge of this story has been to account for why Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted. Halbertal contends that our author intended to leave that unknown.

“The privileging of Abel and dismissal of Cain,” he explains, “seems to be as mysterious as human love and endearment.” As Karl Barth notes, the story is as good an illustration of the mystery of election as one can find in the Bible. As such, it points forward to God’s unmerited choice of Jacob over Esau as well as Joseph over his brothers, two acts of preference that would also call forth a violent reaction.

Nadav and Avihu are among those privileged individuals who witness the inauguration of altar service at Mount Sinai. At the completion of the Tabernacle, all Israel gathers to witness the lighting of the sacrificial pyre. When the fire consumes the sacrifices, the people fall on their faces in awe. Tragically, Nadav and Avihu are consumed by that very same fire as they draw near to the altar.

The biblical text is not completely clear as to what they had done to merit such an end. But the story does cast light on the Hebrew term for offering, qorban—literally, a thing “brought near [to God].” Because coming into the presence of God was dangerous, anyone who offered a sacrifice stood in danger of losing his life. The Bible spends so much time on the rules governing the altar, Halbertal argues, because by following the divine directives one both assures one’s safety and increases the chance that the sacrifice will be accepted.

Finally, there is the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Why, readers for over two millennia have asked, did God demand that Abraham do such a thing? Halbertal argues that God suffers from what we might call the “rich spouse” predicament: Given the infinite bounties that he can and does shower upon those he favors, how can he know whether his worshipers truly love him for himself? Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac dispels all such doubts. This is perhaps the clearest example of why claimed devotion must be tested by a willingness to sacrifice, and of just how anguishing an imperative it can be.

Having illustrated these types of altar sacrifice, Halbertal considers what sacrifice becomes after the Temple is destroyed. Three privileged items appear immediately: charity toward the poor, the physical suffering of the sinner, and statutory prayer. At the close of the Rabbinic era another comes forward: martyrdom.

This shift creates the conditions for an enormous revolution in sacrificial thinking. Up to this point, the crucial feature was the agent to whom the gift was offered. But martyrdom subtly shifts the emphasis to what has been given up. A divine recipient is no longer the principal point. Much later, with the waning of religious practice in the wake of the Enlightenment, came an increased interest in the sacrifices owed to the state.

This is the understanding of sacrifice Halbertal examines in the second half of his book. One would presume that Kant and other Enlightenment figures would esteem sacrifice because it allows the moral agent to transcend himself and helps him transcend self-interest.

But this presumption neglects the demonic side of sacrificial logic. To be sure, the good calls forth sacrificial actions from those who pursue it. But this logic can be, and often is, perversely inverted. Human beings ascribe goodness to ends for which a considerable sacrifice has been made.

But what happens when earthly authorities appropriate the older religious sacrificial instinct for cynical or purely political ends? This frequently happens in war, when a nation-state seeks post factum justifications for the young men it has lost in battle. The misguided search for secular political transcendence, Halbertal concludes, can be even more problematic than the question of self-interest that so bedeviled Kant.

This leads Halbertal to ask about the nature of the modern state itself and the sacrifices it demands of its citizens. Hobbes famously grounded the state in its ability to guarantee property rights but had virtually nothing to say about the problem of conflict between states.

Rousseau, on the other hand, argued that the state provides a motivation for individuals to put aside their self-centered interests for those of the commonwealth: “Whoever ventures on the enterprise of setting up a people must be ready, shall we say, to change human nature, to transform each individual, who by himself is entirely complete and solitary, into a part of a much greater whole, from which that same individual will then receive, in a sense, his life and his being.”

Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau allows a place for military conscription, since he views the state as a mechanism for achieving self-transcendence. But this comes with the cost of making the state a competitor with religion, for the state often “trespasses into the religious domain by postulating itself as the vehicle for ultimate self-transcendence, thus performing a quasi-religious function.”

The result is tragic indeed: The state, bereft of any sense of a transcendental good, has few resources with which to identify the false gods that claim our fealty. Indeed, it can become one of those idols itself. “Humans never created a greater altar to Molech than the centralized state. The modern state’s hunger for human sacrifice is insatiable.”

The theological reader will find much to appreciate in this book, including the excellent survey of sacrifice within the Jewish tradition. But more significant is the claim that sacrifice is a constitutive category of the human. The modern period does not spell the end of sacrifice, as one might have presumed, but its transformation in service to the state.

My major criticism of the book is the understated way in which this thesis is advanced. Halbertal is clearly on to something big. He is at home with religious language, but the second half of the book often proceeds with this particular tonality humming in the background. One senses a deeper theological critique of statism fighting to emerge. One has to work too hard to find it.

To be sure, there are positive aspects to the secular state, and Halbertal does not woodenly equate all modern government with the kingdom of Molech. But the danger of idolatrous ends is an ever-present temptation, not only for fascist regimes but even for Western democracies. Recovering our appreciation of biblical sacrifice might be a good place to begin crafting an antidote to these temptations.

Gary A. Anderson is Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.