On Sacrifice

April 5, 2012

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. He is then obliged to sacrifice what turns out to be a most unexpected Walmart-like greeter: his daughter. 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.

Considering Cain and Abel in Genesis iv, Halbertal notes that the Bible never explains why only Abel's sacrifice is accepted. However, Halbertal is more concerned with the consequences: sacrifice as the cause of violence - here the killing of Abel. Sacrifice "to", even if it is offered without expectation of reciprocity, risks rejection, from which can come trauma.

Certainly we are not told what Cain and Abel expected from their sacrifices. And as Halbertal wisely observes, what could Abraham hope to obtain that would compensate for Isaac's loss? Still, Job, whom Halbertal also discusses, gets a replacement set of kids and, moreover, had been sacrificing "to" God in case his children had sinned.

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.

On Sacrifice

By Moshe Halbertal. Princeton University Press. 152pp, £16.95. ISBN 9780691152851. Published 22 March 2012

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