Moshe Halbertal – On Sacrifice

What is the role of sacrifice in contemporary morals and politics? To answer this question Moshe Halbertal recently wrote a book on sacrifice.

The first part of the book explains that religious sacrifice is for its own sake as obedience or devotion. The second part of the part is on the role of sacrifice in our current world. Halbertal’s view of Biblical and Rabbinic notions seems rather Maimonidean, no appeasement of God, no trades with God quid pro quo, and no effect on God. He toys with the theories of violence of Girard and Bataille but politely returns them to the shelf.

The second part of the book argues that sacrifice of the self has to be valuable for a cause and not as an end in itself. The sacrifice of war has to serve just goals and is not an end in itself. In this, he implicitly differs with Talal Asad’s explanation of suicide bombers or Mussolini’s definition of a nation as one that fights together. Halbertal also claims that in our modern world, chesed is going beyond the self. The ethical demand of the book is that a self-sacrifice for another individual, value, or collective seems key to much of ethical life.

Moshe Halbertal argues that ‘self-transcendence is at the core of human capacity for moral life’. The idea of self-transcendence, or of leaving aside one’s own self-interest and adopting the point of view of the other.. Ahad Haam made altruistic ethics the Christian opposite of the Jewish ethic of consequentialism. Kaufman Kohler limited it to Buddhists and Christians. Usually mesirat nefesh is used in a non-consequential way or a devotional way. Here it seems a little more Kantian than Rawls, and a little bit of Levinas. The book shifts Jewish language from the current use of the word justice to that of sacrifice and hesed. And the prolific John Milbank, the Christian radical Orthodoxy thinker, is writing in this same idiom of self-sacrifice.

Halbertal examines the suicide bomber and the terrorist who doesn’t try to escape punishment because he wants to prove that the aim was worth risking his life. Halbertal claims that this kind of sacrificial transcendence is morally misguided. Legitimate moral demands may, in some cases, require sacrifice, but sacrifice can never legitimize action that would not otherwise be legitimate. Thomas Nagel, says Halbertal’s argument boils down to, “If violent action is right, it’s right without sacrifice. If it’s wrong, sacrifice won’t make it right” and described the paper as a “lucid and original discussion of self-transcendence and its pathologies.”

Halbertal in his own words from his preface, available as a pdf at Princeton UP.

The second part of this book, which is devoted to “sacrificing for,” involves different realms altogether— the political and moral spheres. Self-sacrifice for another individual, value, or collective seems key to much of ethical life and political organization. In Kant’s moral philosophy, as in other moral theories, the core of morality is the capacity to transcend the self along with its drives and interests, and therefore, as Kant formulated it, moral drama resides in the conflict between self-transcendence and self-love. While endorsing the value of self-transcendence, my study of the relationship between self-sacrifice and violence will try to show the way in which misguided self-transcendence has a potential to lead to far greater evils and harms than those that are motivated by excessive self-love. Unraveling the internal relationship between self-transcendence and violence will provide what I believe to be a preferable, deeper account of moral conflict.

War is a realm in which heroic self-sacrifice as well as utter violence and brutality are manifested. In my attempt to probe the relationship between self-transcendence and violence, I will try to demonstrate that the simultaneous occurrence of these two aspects of war is not accidental and that they are intrinsically connected. Focusing on “sacrificing for” will thus lead to investigating the role of sacrifice in war and the function of the state as a sacrificial bond.

Here is a solid review by the great scholar of myth Robert A. Segal, focusing on the first part of the book.

Philosopher Moshe Halbertal distinguishes two kinds of sacrifice: sacrifice to and sacrifice for. Sacrifice “to”, which is older, means a gift, as in the giving of an animal or even a human to a god. This kind of sacrifice is found above all in religion, and Halbertal takes most of his examples from the Hebrew Bible, although lamentably none from Homer and Hesiod.

Sacrifice “for” means self-sacrifice for a cause. It means “giving up…property, comfort, limb, or even life for…children, country, or in order to fulfil an obligation”. This kind of sacrifice is not distinctly religious and can be found in devotion to any cause. Halbertal insists that both types, not just sacrifice “for”, are “noninstrumental”. That is, no reciprocity is expected. After all, what can humans give God in exchange for what they want from God? When a gift becomes a means to an end, sacrifice “to” becomes a crass market exchange.

But Halbertal’s depiction of sacrifice “to” is hard to fathom. First, sacrifices are often demanded by God. Second, even if the two parties are unequal, these sacrifices are still seen as the best human means to secure some goal, such as winning battles and ending disease. In Judges xi, Jephthah vows that he will sacrifice the first living thing to greet him upon his return home if God will grant him victory over the Ammonites.

When Agamemnon is told that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order for the Greek fleet to be able to set sail for Troy, his sacrifice, which is “to” and not “for”, is hardly intended as an end in itself. Furthermore, the Semiticist William Robertson Smith, whom Halbertal discusses, rejects the view of sacrifice as originally one of gift because in his day gift was taken to be a form of expiation of sins.

Halbertal’s analysis of the consequences of sacrifice “for” is most insightful. We innocently assume that self-sacrifice is noble. Committing violence in war for a “just cause” is accepted. But he observes that self-sacrifice can turn the perpetrators of violence into victims, thereby turning self-sacrifice into self-interest. He does not limit himself to suicide bombers and notes that Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac for (not to) God constitutes what Kierkegaard calls the “suspension of the ethical”.

Halbertal warns against the appeal to self-sacrifice in order to justify unjust undertakings. He contrasts Abraham Lincoln’s legitimately justifying the deaths of soldiers for the sake of freedom with George W. Bush’s justifying the continuation of the war in Iraq to finish the task for which so many had already died. Halbertal maintains that it is not self-interest that undermines the morality of war but the opposite: the turning of self-sacrifice into justification for immorality. This is a brilliant book.

From the scholar of the Rabbinic era – Catherine Hezser

Each individual citizen is asked to “sacrifice” part of their property by accepting higher taxes, interest rates, and prices as well as cuts to benefits and pensions. This self-sacrifice is propagated as a contribution to the common good of the respective society, economy, and political system. The terminology of “sacrifice” has a distinct political significance besides its religious connotations in world religions including Judaism and Christianity.

The notions of sacrifice and violence are closely linked. Sacrifice involves violence but is also meant to halt violence and effect purification. A proper victim is chosen to serve as a scapegoat sacrified on behalf of others to placate God or to prevent further retaliation by one’s enemies. The victim serves as a substutite for those who initiated the sacrificial ritual. Sacrificing him is believed to bring about atonement. This idea found its foremost expression in the Christian sacrifice of the son of God to secure atonement for others: “That sacrifice eclipsed all previous ones, making them redundant and void”.

The connection between sacrifice and violence is also evident in the use of the same term for a sacrifice and a crime victim in Hebrew (qorban) and a number of other languages (e.g., German: Opfer; Arabic: adcha). In both cases, the (innocent) victim experiences violence at the hands of others. Early Christianity “merges the crime victim and the sacrifice into the same persona”.

In rabbinic Judaism, which developed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., other forms of substitution emerged: charity, suffering, and prayer. Rabbis suggested that by supporting the poor on behalf of God, who is seen as ultimately responsible for their well-being, the charity giver is “lending to God” and thereby reversing the dependence relationship between them. In a different way, suffering is seen to affect atonement, since it serves as “a symbolic substitute for the punishment itself”, says Halbertal. He goes on to say that daily prayer “was perceived to achieve the same goals: atonement, and thanking and appeasing God”.

The self-sacrifice of martyrdom constitutes the bridge between the notions of sacrificing to and sacrificing for. The martyr sacrifices his life for the love of God. This understanding of “the martyr as a sacrificial offering” emerged in Judaism from the seventh century onwards only. Sacrifice now also involved “giving up” one’s life (and/or property) for the sake of one’s religious – as well as ethical and political – convictions. A similar notion appears in modern philosophical writings which stress self-transcendence and sacrifice as the basis of morality in contrast to self-preservation and gratification.

Yet in war, this relationship is reversed: soldiers who are ready to sacrifice themselves evince “a form of moral self-deception” assuming “that sacrifice makes something into a good”. Halbertal argues that in certain situations, “self-sacrifice mobilizes crimes that in their magnitude are far greater than those motivated by self-interest”. He refers to the suicide bomber as an example for the connection between self-sacrifice and violence and the reversal of roles between aggressor and victim. Self-sacrifice is therefore potentially dangerous if it is misguided. It can be used towards the common good but also justify crimes and corrupt society. In religious parlance, misguided self-sacrifice constitutes idolatry.
The book presents a good basis for further discussion of the use of sacrifice-related terminology in political and economic discourse. Anyone interested in the continued significance of ancient concepts, ideas, and rituals in modern life and thinking would benefit from reading this book.

4 responses to “Moshe Halbertal – On Sacrifice

  1. I’m genuinely confused and hope someone can clarify something. Is “sacrifice”(korban, zevachim) the same thing in Hebrew as “mesirat nefesh,” “kiddush ha’shem” or any other indigenous term for same? And if this is true in the medieval period (response to Crusader massacres), is it true of rabbinic literatures or biblical ones? I’m thinking “sacrifice for” might be a very bad concept for what MH is getting at, even if the link between one and the other makes intuitive sense in English.

  2. Thanks, alan. Do you or anyone else think this might present a problem with the conceptualization of the book? To me, it’s big difference. A sacrifice is one thing –the gift you give to God and sometimes get to eat. It’s an object-phenomenon. But in English, it’s loaded up with a lot of pious moralizing about the self. Devotion of soul (ok, a bad translation) has a different resonance to me, maybe because there is no precise equivalent in English. Please let me know if I’m not getting this right, or if this is worth pursuing.

    • He deals with Mauss in a single paragraph and turns the Christian connotations such as Jesus into scapegoat victim and Augustine into proto-Maimonidean Teshuvah. The book avoids many of the associations that come to our minds. It is strongest for the second part as a modern ethical statement, a textual application of Levinas as sacrfice.

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