In the Torah portion Vayeira (Genesis 18:1–22:24), God and Abraham have two conversations.
In the first, God announces God’s plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because the people in them are evil. Abraham appeals to God’s sense of justice, arguing that the cities should be saved if there are 50 innocent inhabitants. When God agrees, Abraham continues to press forward, asking if God will save the cities if there are 40, 30, 20 and then 10 innocents in them. In the end, God agrees to save the cities if there are at least 10 innocent inhabitants.
The second conversation between God and Abraham in Vayera is one of the most famous in the Torah. It precedes the Akeidah, in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Unlike their first exchange about Sodom and Gomorrah, this time, Abraham is silent.
To explain the difference in Abraham’s behavior in these two very different conversations, I’d like you to take a leap with me, and consider the idea that Abraham might be autistic.
Many people have a negative association with the word “autism.” I think that’s because autism is commonly misunderstood. In the autism community, there’s a saying: “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” Meaning, not only are autistic people different from neurotypical people, they are also different from each other.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, one in 68 children in the U.S. was autistic. This represented a 30 percent rise from 2008, and a doubling from one in 150 in 2000.
The rise in autism is likely not due to biology, but rather a result of increased awareness and a broader definition of the autism spectrum.
It is likely that you have a classmate, a coworker or a family member who is autistic, even if you are not aware of it. Many autistic people don’t discover their autism until adulthood, and some autistic people never do.
As you read on, I encourage you to join me in thinking of autism as a difference rather than disability.
Why did I first consider that Abraham might be autistic?
I was listening to an interview with 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has gained international attention for her work to push world leaders to act to save our planet. Greta is often asked what gives her the ability to be so bold in speaking to powerful people.
Greta explains that she has autism, which makes her think differently.
She is less concerned with social graces than many neurotypical people, which allows her to speak truth to power. Greta is asking adults to be their best selves; to treat the climate crisis like the emergency that it is, and to be willing to get uncomfortable in order to save the planet.
Perhaps, like Greta, Abraham was capable of speaking boldly and unflinchingly to God because he is different.
If autism explains why Greta can speak easily to world powers, maybe it similarly explains why Abraham is capable of speaking to God so bluntly. Abraham sees that lives are at stake, and he wants God to be God’s best self, to rise to the occasion and do the right thing.
Like Greta — and maybe Abraham — I am autistic. I tend to think in black and white. I am capable of seeing grey, especially in philosophical conversations, but I more naturally think in absolute terms. This has disadvantages when subtlety is called for, but it has advantages when direct and fearless communication is needed.
Greta and Abraham excel due to their straightforward speech. World leaders are lucky that someone like Greta is calling them to be their best selves, and similarly, God benefits from Abraham’s directness and fearlessness.
The late scholar Elie Wiesel said about this conversation, “God invited Abraham to play this role. It is as if God turns to us, the readers of the future, and says, ‘I’m going to tell Abraham what I intend to do to Sodom so that he will argue with Me. I want to lose this argument.’” According to Wiesel, God wants Abraham to make God do the right thing, just as much as Abraham wants the same.
Wiesel is suggesting that God wants all of us to pursue righteousness, even when it means speaking truth to power.
There are many examples of neurotypical people who do this work. I am simply suggesting that being autistic might be advantageous when it comes to the pursuit of justice. Neurotypical people can look to autistic people for guidance when it’s necessary to be brave, to defend the vulnerable and to demand that our leaders be their best selves.
Perhaps Abraham was capable of speaking boldly and unflinchingly to God because he is different.
But what about the Akeidah? Why didn’t Abraham speak up for his son like he did for the people of Sodom? Abraham is obviously capable of questioning God, so why not argue when God asks him to kill his own son?
This is a question that has befuddled many people.
Just as Wiesel suggests about their last exchange, perhaps God is asking Abraham to argue, to be an example for all of us when we are told to do something that we know is morally wrong. Maybe the test of the Akeidah is not whether Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son, but whether he is capable of making sense of this complicated challenge.
So why doesn’t Abraham argue?
Let’s return to the idea that Abraham is autistic. Perhaps when God asks him to sacrifice Isaac, he’s so overwhelmed by the request, that he freezes. This is not the first time Abraham has faced the question of putting one of his children’s lives in danger.
Earlier in this chapter, Abraham sends Hagar and his first son, Ishmael, out into the wilderness. When Abraham worries that Hagar and Ishmael might die, God reassures Abraham that they will live.
Now God is asking Abraham to take his second son, Isaac, out into the wilderness and kill him. Why is God asking him to follow a similar path again, only this time instead of reassurance that his son will live, God tells him to sacrifice Isaac? I think Abraham knows what is right, but God’s request is too confusing and subtle for Abraham to grasp rapidly, and he freezes.
In Greta Thunberg’s interviews, she says that she has selective mutism. When an autistic person is confused by a social interaction and unsure of what to do and how to proceed, they might go silent. It is not that they experience lack of moral clarity. Rather, they are momentarily stymied by the complexity of the social dynamics.
I can relate. When I’m unable to cope with a complicated social situation, I lock up and keep talking until I crash. Frequently, neurotypical people misunderstand what’s happening when an autistic person freezes or crashes during a conversation.
Maybe that is why this story is considered one of the most difficult in the Torah to understand. If you think about the Akeidah as if Abraham is neuro-atypical, it makes more sense that he speaks boldly in his first exchange with God, and remains silent in the second.
After I crash, sometimes I realize what happened. Then I feel bad because some damage has been done. I might go to a neurotypical person for help in deciphering the situation. Once I figure it out, I wish I could press rewind and take things back to the beginning of the conversation so I could start over and respond differently.
I wonder if Abraham may have felt the same way.
After God tells Abraham to kill Isaac, they walk for three days in the wilderness before Abraham binds Isaac and prepares to kill him. During that journey, maybe Abraham would have benefited from having a neurotypical person walk beside him, helping to translate God’s request, process it and respond appropriately.
You don’t have to be autistic to freeze in a social situation or to need help to understand complicated conversations. I know this happens to neurotypical people as well. It’s just that it can happen with more severity for autistic people, and it can make us more misunderstood.
Of course, in the end, Abraham does not kill Isaac. Just as he is poised with the knife at his son’s neck, an angel calls to him. Abraham looks up, and he sees a ram in the thicket. He sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac. God looks out for Abraham and Isaac by allowing Abraham to see the ram.
I find it comforting to think of the outcome of this story and know that it’s possible to freeze, lose your way and still have a second chance to get it right.
I hope it’s comforting for neurotypical people, too, since everyone needs second chances, sometimes.
In the end, it doesn’t actually matter if Abraham is autistic. But seeing him through a neuro-atypical lens gives us an anchor point for exploring the way he speaks and acts, in order to understand what it means for us.
If you look at the world from a different angle, the world becomes different.
When I was writing this, it was scary to think about being so open about my autism. I was afraid that it would lead to being stigmatized or create false ideas about who I am. I decided to take the risk. I welcome any questions you may have about what it’s like to be autistic, and I will answer them to the best of my ability.