Educating Father Abraham: The Meaning of Fatherhood

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In this essay, the second of a two-part series on Abraham, Leon Kass reads the stories of God’s promise to Abraham, the birth and banishment of Ishmael, Sodom and Gomorrah, Isaac’s circumcision, and the sacrifice of Isaac in a wisdom-seeking spirit. Kass explores how Abraham learns the arts of fatherhood and founding, elevating the household above its natural vices and securing the transmission of God’s rightful way in each new generation.

Father Abraham, I submit, is the model father, both of his family and of his people–yes, even in his willingness to sacrifice his son–because he reveres God, the source of life and blessing, more than he loves his own. Truth be told, all fathers devote (that is “sacrifice”) their sons to some “god” or other-to Mammon or Molech, to honor or money, pleasure or power, or, worse, to no god at all. True, they do so less visibly and less concentratedly, but they do so willy-nilly, through the things they teach and respect in their own homes; they intend that the entire life of the sons be spent in service to their own ideals or idols, and in this sense they do indeed spend the life of the children. But a true father will devote his son to–and will self-consciously and knowingly initiate him into–only the righteous and godly ways. He will understand that, like Abraham, only a father who feels awe before the true source can deserve the filial awe-and-reverence of his sons (cf. Noah and his sons). By showing his willingness to sacrifice what is his for what is right and good, he also puts his son on the proper road for his own adulthood–the true test of the good father. He will not finally love his son solely because he is his own , but will love only that in his son which is good and which is open to the good, including his son’s own capacity for awe before the divine. In this sense at least, he is ever willing to part with his son as his son, recognizing him-as was Isaac, and as are indeed all children-as a gift and a blessing for God.

Just as Abraham as true father learns the limits on the love of one’s own, so Abraham as the true founder learns the limits of politics and of the founder’s pride. All founders, like all nations, look up to something (cf. Sodom, Babel); a true founder will know from the start that there is something higher than founding and higher than politics, in the light of which one should found. Accordingly, he will strive to devote the nation or the polity to what is truly highest. Righteous politics requires not only a desire for greatness, but a willingness to subordinate that desire to the source of righteousness, in which subordination is true greatness to be found.* Finally, the true founder knows and accepts the fact that his innocent sons will suffer for the sake of the righteous community and that their “sacrifice” is no proof that they are not properly loved as sons. On the contrary, the true founder, like the true father, shows his love for his followers when he teaches them, often by example, that one’s life is not worth living if there is nothing worth dying for.

Read the whole essay in First Things.

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