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Jacques Derrida

“A secret always makes you tremble… A quiver can of course manifest fear, anguish, apprehension of death; as when one quivers in advance, in anticipation of what is to come. But it can be slight, on the surface of the skin, like a quiver that announces the arrival of pleasure…

Abraham is thus at the same time the most moral and the most immoral, the most responsible and the most irresponsible of men… because he responds absolutely to absolute duty, disinterestedly and without hoping for a reward, without knowing why yet keeping it secret; answering to God and before God. He recognizes neither debt nor duty to his fellows because he is in a relationship to God — a relationship without relation because God is absolutely transcendent, hidden, and secret, not giving any reason he can share in exchange for this doubly given death, not sharing anything in this dissymmetrical alliance. Abraham considers himself to be all square. He acts as if he were discharged of his duty towards his fellows, his son, and humankind; but he continues to love them. He must love them and also owe them everything in order to be able to sacrifice them. Without being so, then, he nevertheless feels absolved of his duty towards his family, towards the human species and the generality of the ethical, absolved by the absolute of a unique duty that binds him to God the one. Absolute duty absolves him of every debt and releases him from every duty. Absolute absolution.

Abraham says nothing, but his last words, those that respond to Isaac’s question, have been recorded: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the holocaust, my son.’ If he had said ‘There is a lamb, I have one’ or ‘don’t know, I have no idea where to find the lamb,’ he would have been lying, speaking in order to speak falsehood. By speaking without lying, he responds without responding. This is a strange responsibility that consists neither of responding nor of not responding. Is one responsible for what one says in an unintelligible language, in the language of the other? But besides that, mustn’t responsibility always be expressed in a language that is foreign to what the community can already hear or understand only too well? ‘So he does not speak an untruth, but neither does he say anything, for he is speaking in a strange tongue’.

Whereas the tragic hero is great, admired, and legendary from generation to generation, Abraham, in remaining faithful to his singular love for every other, is never considered a hero. He doesn’t make us shed tears and doesn’t inspire admiration: rather stupefied horror, a terror that is also secret. For it is a terror that brings us close to the absolute secret, a secret that we share without sharing it, a secret between someone else, Abraham as the other, and another, God as the other, as wholly other. Abraham himself is in secret, cut off both from man and from God.

Our faith is not assured, because faith can never be, it must never be a certainty. We share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us.”


Jacques Derrida, writing in the opening of part three of his study of religion and the limits of rationality, The Gift of Death.