Bound to the Akedah: Some Teachings for Our Time

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September 16, 2011
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Since its beginnings, human life has moved between the poles of being determined and choosing. Gradually, human beings have chipped out a margin of relative freedom beyond sheer survival. With the first cave paintings, sacred dances, and oral traditions, art and religion stepped into that free arena; and these twinned ways of knowing-the religious and the artistic-are still the primary ones whereby we gain some independence from, and perspective on, the necessities of ongoing, daily life.

And yet, neither art nor religion can fulfill its function through freedom alone. For art, there are the requirements of different media and the weight of artistic tradition. For religion, there are sacred times, places, and texts. In Judaism, especially, the fixedness of text has been and remains central. Commentary and interpretation encircle virtually every text, and sometimes the pressures to replace the traditional text are immense. But on the whole, we do better-I and many others believe-to go on wrestling with and reinterpreting the same given texts, even when they trouble us. For me, a special, profound quality of Judaism resides in its combination of giveness and freedom, its tribal particularity, and its open universality.

And so it is that we come each year, during the second half of what is traditionally seen as the one long day o fRosh Hashanah, to read Bereshit kaf-bet, Genesis 22, the Akedah or “Binding of Isaac.” How do we feel about this encounter? Often we wish it could be avoided; we listen to the reading without hearing or confronting. That is not so bad, for simply being in shul amidst the community, as the Torah chant rises and falls, is worthwhile. But surely engaging oneself with the text’s meaning and implications is better, both for the individual and for the Jewish People.

And yet, we can hardly blame others and ourselves for seeking to avoid a demanding, painful experience. In this, our situation parallels that of the poet John Keats in “Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again.” In this sonnet, Keats banishes lyrical romantic poetry because “once again, the fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay/Must I burn through.” He speaks of Shakespeare as the “begetter of our deep eternal theme!” For Keats, confronting Shakespeare was as inevitable, important, and traditional as reading the Akedah is for Jews; it simply could not be avoided if he was to fulfill his promise to ”be among the English poets after [his] death.”l And if this was true regarding Shakespeare’s work as a whole, then it was especially true of the most austere and relentlessly human of the bard’s works, King Lear. There, more than anywhere, the impassioned clay of humanity confronts the damnation- and sanctification-charged universe. If Keats and later readers can wring a life-affirming blessing out of King Lear-like Jacob wrestling with the angel-then it will be a blessing worth having, a blessing that can provide sustenance on the long, hard haul. And so with the Akedah.

Jews have many books and texts and stories. But towering above all the rest is Tanakh-our equivalent to Shakespeare-and within it, three biblical accounts loom as foundational and fundamental. They seem to be our core myths-myths not because they are untrue,but because they are larger than themselves and their literal truth is not the primary issue. That the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai stand as two of the three is without dispute and it seems clear to me that the Akedah completes the triangle. Of course, the Genesis Creation account is also foundational and mythic, but it speaks of and to all humankind, rather than to the Jewish people specifically. Interestingly enough, in Reform and other settings where Torah readings sometimes shift, the opening of Bereshit often substitutes for Chapters 21 and/or 22 on Rosh Hashanah. And appropriately so, for one of the aspects assumed by the Jewish New Year is the day on which God created humanity. After all then, isn’t Bereshit barah Adonai et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz the narrative we should be recounting on this ”birthday of the world”?

It may be that, at one time in our history, we did read that story, but something happened leading to the Akedall’s being substituted; 2 however, this essay will not pursue historical and liturgical arguments. Rather, it simply pauses to notice that on Rosh Hashanah Jews could have been focusing on the creation of life through God’s word, but instead we confront what appears to be God’s call for death. What has our People gotten out of that substitution, with its seemingly negative rather than positive focus? What docuntemporary Jews get out of returning to the Akedah during the High Holy Days, and taking it seriously?

Shalom Spiegel’s electrifying The Last Trial has taught us that in some rabbinic versions of the Akedah, no angel or heavenly voice intervenes and the dead Isaac gets spirited to heaven to be healed and resurrected.3 It may have been that, in the early centuries of the first millennia, the Akedah was utilized to counter the growing popularity of Christianity by showing that Jews too had a central figure whose death atoned for our sins and whose resurrection testified to God’s power. More widely acknowledged and more powerful is the use to which the Akedah was put during the nightmare period of the Crusades. In places like Mainz and Worms, when the crusaders threatened Jews, parents killed their children and themselves rather than convert to Christianity. Surviving accounts make clear that the binding of Isaac offered a paradigm for their dreadful, noble action.4

The Crusades and other situations of Jewish persecution have called upon the Akedah in order to transform slaughter into martyrdom. Instead of being mown down by meaningless violence and evil people, sometimes our ancestors were able to hear the voice of God calling to them as it did to Abraham. There would seem to be a difference, however. For in Worms and Mainz, it was a third party that arose between the Jewish community and Adonai, insisting on a different and exclusive path to holiness. In the Akedah, there is no outside enemy, no alien force threatening Jewish integrity and loyalty to Adonai. Rather, it is God’s own self that appears to be demanding death.

I say “appears” because, of course, normative reading of the biblical text stays Abraham’s knife-holding hand. Theramreplaces Isaac, who goes on to marry Rebecca and continue Judaism’s founding line. Itwas all a nes-a test or trial, a miracle, as well as a banner on which to display the patriarch’s loyalty and Adonai’s sovereignty. I do not know about those reading this essay, but I have learned to not submit others or myself to tests-unless absolutely necessary. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson suggests that God learns this very lesson through the Akedah experience.s Artson writes:

At the outset, God sees the devotion of Abraham as compromised
by a new competitor for love-by Isaac. How else to test whether
Abraham really loves God than to demand exclusive devotion?
Construing love as a test, God insists on proof of Abraham’s
loyalty. The command, “Sacrifice your son,” emerges from an
insecurity that seeks reassurance by requiring a test. For God, as
for people, deliberately creating a test for love can only result in
distress, and generally also in failure…. Even in winning, God
loses. So God retreats from the original demand, calling out: “do
not raise your hand against the boy.”

In construing the Akedah as, among other things, a learning experience for God, Rabbi Artson joins generations of commentators and thoughtful readers who push against this elliptical and difficult text, striving to elicit usable meanings for themselves and their times. The longest standing of such meanings posits Abraham’s superhuman behavior in controlling his parental emotions as a model for divine response to Israel’s being in adversity or striving for tshuvah. Potential criticism of Abraham for not having argued withGod is muted throughinterpreting the patriarch’s deeds as, in effect, teaching the Creatorhowto behave. This traditional reading ofthe Akedah also serves to ground the pervasive,and Ithink meaningful, idea of patriarchal merit: the willingness of the founding father to sacrifice his son creates an inexhaustible source of spiritual credit upon which future generations may draw.

It is meaningful to see the patriarchs and matriarchs as well as other biblical and rabbinic figures as ethical and spiritual models and links in the chain connecting our People and us, personally, to God. But the idea that Abraham’s willingness to kill his own son tips God’s hand perpetually in our favor, as it were, has become increasingly problematic to many Jews. So, too, has the Akedah’s connection to Jewish martyrdom. As S. Y. Agnon’s Days ofAwe puts the traditional reading, lithe sacred root of the thought of every Israelite that impelshim to give his life for the Torah, and the service and for the sanctification of the Name of God is derived from Abraham our father, who bequeathed it to his children after him.116Incontrast to Agnon, themodemIsrapli poetHayimGouri’s much anthologized and beautifully intertextual poem Yerushah (“Heritage”) concludes as follows:

Isaac, as the story goes, was not sacrificed.
He lived for many years,
saw what pleasure had to offer, until his eyesight
dimmed.
But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring.
They are born
with a knife in their hearts.

In Hebrew the final line is: Hem noldim oolt’maachelet b’libam.7 From Gouri’s implicit critique of Jewish martyrology and his probing into Jewish psychology, it is a smallish step to pervasive use of the Akedah motif in modem Israeli poetry and prose. Typically the Jewish Abrahams are the bereaved-but also proud and even militaristic-parents; the Jewish Isaacs are the fallen-and also innocently manipulated-sons. It has been suggested that the theme of the binding of Isaac has captivated Israeli artists, writers, and playwrights to so extraordinary a degree because it encapsulates the tense relationship between the founding Zionist fathers and the new generations of Israeli statehood.8 The savage irony lying below the surface of Natan Alterrnann’s Ma-agash Ha-kesef (liThe Silver Platter”), which is typically read on Yom Ha-Zikaron in Israel, was expressed more directly in the WW I British poet Wilfred Owen’s “Parable of the Old Men and the Young.II Owen’s powerful poem concludes as follows:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his sonAnd
half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I venture to say that fewer such pieces have appeared since the second Intifada began, in particular, fewer pieces that cast Hagar and Yishmael into positive roles.9 Poised at the border between sympathy and fear is a poem entitled “Isaac” by A. G. Jacobs, in which the deeply tom speaker concludes his discourse as follows:

What shall I do against God and my father?
I too believe in the destiny of my children.
I too have suffered, perhaps more than he:
I have had a sacrificial knife laid at my throat.
These lands are a small exchange for that terrifying
moment.
I would like to help my brother, but he is still proud.
There will be no discussion of peace between us;
And our father, the old God-fearing man, has been dead
many years.

In addition to its dealing with the Middle East conflict, a poem like this one points toward the way in which modern Jewish literature, in classic midrashic fashion, has been giving voice to characterswhohave minor, silent, and seeminglytangential roles inthe Akedalt drama. A good example is Yehudah Amichai’s witty lithe Real Hero,” a poemthat begins lithe real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,/ who did not know about the conspiracy between the others.IIlO In the meantime, numbers of poems have been written fromSarah’s perspective, giving voice to her biblicalsilence during a crucial period in the life ofher family and building upon the way in which her unexplained death immediately follows the Akedah.lI One writer of prose argues that Sarah’s “is a voice that asserts that the ties ofparent to son or daughter are the ties that demand a hearing… the binding ofparentto childmaybeanexpressionofthe ultimate, and need give way to no other allegiance. Metaphors of warfare, of the battle, need not shape our reflection on the relation between parental love and faith.”12

Some literary and critical works focusing on Sarah and other characters in the biblical drama cross an interpretive line that rabbinic school taught me to respect: they preach against the text. The scholar Jon Levenson has strong words for approaches that interpret Abraham’s last trial as “an act of unspeakable cruelty, a paradigm not of love, faith and submission to God… but of hatred, mental illness and even idolatry.”13 To my mind, both critical and Jewish principles argue against turning any text on its head without clear warrant and open acknowledgment.

Andyet, IunderstandwhypeopIe cross the line to accuse, rather than reverentially accept, this sacred text. I understand the temptation. Yet I ask, do we really want to use this and other such difficult texts primarily as a plank from which to dive into open water?

To use a more gripping metaphor, do we really want to bore a hole in the very lifeboat within which we are riding above the waves? Debunkingis a tricky business, and one hadbetter identifyan alternative sovereign before announcing that the emperor has no clothes. And so I now ask, are there not alternatives that confront the Akedalt earnestly and honestly while also revering it as holy? Even with its problematic qualities, can we not learn from this text to which we return year after year-this foundational text, this third-core myth of the Jewish People? Can we not take a cue from the conclusion of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,” which proclaims: “these fragments I have shored against my ruin” by including the Akedah among our saving fragments?

Let me offer several lessons for our time derived from the Akedah-several interpretations, if you will, that speak to me in a meaningful way. They help me make sense not just ofthis text that I care about, butalso ofmylife. Theyoffer guidanceandhope withoutriding roughshod over the text or minimizing the complexities and perils of the time and place in which we find ourselves. I am hoping that others will try them on for size, embracingthemifthey fit and pressing themselves to shape their own alternatives if they donot. Atthis point inmylifeand reading ofthe Akedah, I offer five.

The first will be controversial, but deserves a hearing. It is that family cannot be the final, highest value. The love of life-partners and spouses for one another and for their children, like the loving loyalty of children to their parents, is important and enriching. Moreover, the family does provide a basic building block of society. However, each ofus lives within concentric circles of relationship of which our nuclear, and then extended, family represents only the first ringbeyond our sole selves. Beingdevoted to our children is natural and good, but it is not everything and probably not the main thing. And it is hardly disinterested. Ifit takes a villageor a synagogue-to raise a child, then adults who care about their children need to devote themselves not just directly to those children but also to building the village, synagogue community, neighborhood, country,and world within which their and other people’s children can thrive. These days, we hear a lot about “family values,” but people who really value the family cannot place it at the pinnacle of their moral hierarchy. If God represents our ultimate concern, then Abraham’s being called upon to serve God more thanhe serves his family canbe taken to meanthatin the great scheme of things we cannot put our families first.

The second of my Akedah lessons validates a traditional approach after putting it under great pressure. There is a place, an important place, for yirat-shamayim-the fear or awe of God. Rambamsees theAkedah as preciselyshowing “the extentandlimit of the fear of God.,,14 ForJonLevenson too, “whatis tested in Genesis 22’is notAbraham’s faith buthis fear ofGod-thatis, his responsiveness to the divine imperative.illS For some reason, I’ve thought a lot aboutyirah, thebestEnglish translation ofwhichmayreallybe “piety.” At its core is not ritual or ethical observance, though such observancewillprobablyfollow. Essentially, yirah is anattitude, an approach toGod and even to life as a whole thatpushes againstour natural human egotismby displacing us from the center. It recognizes that all weare and allwehave, even our lives and those dearest to us, derive from and belong somewhere else; that we are not self-created, self-sustaining, or totally self-validating. Even for those whosesense ofGodis less clear, personal,and binding-even if there is not a God who in some sense speaks to people and issues commands-still yirah acknowledges that we live in a universe making claims on us thatmay well go against our most immediate interests and loyalties. Sometimes the right thing to do is painful, conflicted, and fraught with peril.

For Rabbah bar Rav Huna, “everymanwho possesses learning without the fear of Heaven [without yirah] is like a treasurer who is entrusted with the inner keys but not with the outer: how is he to enter?”16 For Abraham, the inner keys are God’s promise of covenant continued through Isaac, whereas the outer keys are the broadest possible context in which that covenant will be enacted. To return to my metaphor of our living within concentric circles, looking and reaching toward the most extended of these circles is yirat-shamayim.

Mythird Akedah lesson is thatwe are here asJews because ofour forebears’ steadfastness. The endurance of the Jewish People flows from something beyond nature; it is in some way super-natural. Our way of emphasizing the chain of generations, what today we call “Jewish continuity,” may blind us to the fact that each transition represents an act of will that rises above the merely natural. Even if the covenant is a two-way street and it is God who finally ensures Jewish survival, still it is one Jew after another who keeps the chainintact. As withmy earlier lessons, this one cannot explain every element of the Akedah. As commentators before and after Rashi have noted,17 there seems to be a contradiction between God’s promises to Abraham that his seed will be as the stars of heaven and that his line will continue through Isaac on the one hand, withGod’s seemingdemand that Isaac be putto death onthe other. In the end, there is no Judaism or Jewish People without Jews. Nonetheless, Abraham’s holding fast to a complex vision of his emerging People’s future represents commitment and risktaking that can inspire us. Sometimes actual endurance requires a willingness to risk mere existence.

My fourth lesson is really just an observation, or perhaps an acknowledgment. Filled with beauty and pleasure and sensation as it is, life is essentially serious and scary. We understand more and more scientifically, but at its core, life remains mysterious and filled with terror. Demands arise out of the blue; crises present themselves from one moment to the next. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught us the words we now sing: “All the world is just a narrowbridge.”Nachmanwenton to identify thebridge as leading to the world to come, and I think it is not primarily the demands of rhythmand melody thatomitthat identificationfrom the song. The song comes to teach us that being unafraid is the essential ingredient- ha-eqar-of living well. Crossing the bridge of life may be precarious and demanding. Nonetheless, we should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. It is death that narrows the bridge, death that puts pressure on our lives and our choicesdeath and the impOSSibility of going down both of Robert Frost’s twopaths that diverge in the yellowwood ofour lives.18Alongwith death, there are pain, sickness, and loss to circumscribe the human condition. Finally, that condition is notan easyone, and works such as the Akedah and liThe Road Not Taken” help us handle it.

Because we cannot and should not keep death and life’s terror always in our minds, art and religion crystallize their recalcitrance into enduring forms whose beauty enables us to stretch our capacities for acceptance. From increased acceptance of life’s limits and rigors, we are ideally led to a fuller appreciation of its possibilities. Milan Kundera taught us about lithe incredible lightness of being”19 that comes from its taking place in an ever-receding, never-returning present. So it is that the Abraham of the Akedah carries on, decides, and acts in the face of imperfect knowledge. He and we may not understand God’s demand of him, but Abraham does not buckle or run away or go mad-all likely possibilities. He confronts life’s rigors and, in some sense, goes forward. As we return to the Akedah each year at this time, our own capacities for existential valor are increased.

Fifth and finally, accepting the Akedah as parallel to the Exodus and Sinai enriches our understanding of the other two foundational events. As Julius Lester puts this, “Just as we are to consider ourselves at Pesach as coming out of Mitzraim, just as we are to consider that we stand at Sinai for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, so on Rosh Hashanah we are to consider that we are bound on the altar ofsacrifice in the land of Moriah.” For Lester, “if we truly consider ourselves so bound, then there comes on Rosh Hashanahan awful moment, one that rends our hearts and bowels as only the presence of death can [when] we learn what Isaac learned, namely, that to be a sacrifice is to be rendered holy. Hwe are fortunate, at some time during Yamim Noraim our hearts will break, [for as] SimeonbenZemach Duran wrote… in his commentary to Pirke Avot: ‘Sacrifices to God are a broken heart.”,20

Also, we will remember that love binds us to trusting another, even with our very lives. Isaacseems to trust his father in that way, as Abraham does God. I agree with Lester that”this level oflove is fearful, becauseit is frightening to love with such trust.”21 For Rashi and the Midrash, Abraham’s saddlinghis ownass, rather than calling upon his servants, shows that love disregards the rule and upsets the usual order of things. To leave Egypt, the proto-Jewish People had to trust God, even if midrashic commentary and the biblical text pull against that trust. To stand at Sinai amidst the thunder and lightning and categorical demands required trust, although here, too, that trust is acknowledged to be equivocal or partial, even if finally solid. But neither the Exodus nor Sinai, majestic as they are, focuses as much pressure on so small but critical a humanpOint as does the Akedah. Neither pivotal event brings love into the equation in the humanizingway that the Akedah does. Freedom and its complement, the law, do provide the foundation stones of civil society. But things are not always simple or rational. HaVing gained freedom and embracing law can still leave us rootless, floating. The Akedah comes to remind us that we are boundeven when we don’t quite understand why and to whom, even when we al’t~ impOSSibly tom between conflicting loyalties.

Readers will wonder if these five lessons do not really amount to the same thing, and if that thing is not impossibly vague. I see them as different ways of coming at the same paradoxical pairing of particular and universal, the fixed and the free, mentioned earlier. In the end, Ihave not domesticated the Akedah, but decided to make an uneasy peace with it. After trying various approaches over the years, I conclude that the binding of Isaac gets reenacted when we ourselves are bound to this complex, stirring text. I conclude with two short poems featuring the Akedah by the late, great Israeli poet Yehudah Arnichai from the sequence Tanakh, Tanakh; Etakh, Etakh; Ooh’Midrashim A~erim, included in the volume Open Closed Open.22 The first begins:

Two lovers lie together like Isaac on the altar and it feels
good-
Shnai ohavim shokhvim yachdav nqoodim ba-nqedah v’tov lahem-
They don’t think about the knife
or about the burnt offeringshe
thinks about the ram and he about the angel.
And finally, speaking to all ofuswho carry on our lives, day in and
day out-making hard choices, trying to be faithful and pious and
loving, trying to do better, striving for tshuvah-Arnichai writes:
Anyone who rises early in the morning is on his own.
He gets himself over to the altar-
ItO may-vee et atzmo la-aqedahhe
is Abraham,
he is Isaac, he’s the donkey, the fire,
the knife, the angel,
he’s the ram, he is God.

Notes
1. Keats’ confidence in this promise is expressed in his Letter #94, written in October 1818 to George and Georgiana Keats.

2. See Nahum Sarna’s commentary essays liThe Meaning of the Akedah” and liThe Akedah in Jewish Tradition” in his edition, Tile IPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), pp. 392-94.

3. Originally published in Hebrew, copyright 1950 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; first Berman House edition, 1979, in arrangementwith Pantheon Books, copyright 1967byShalomSpiegel.

4. For this and the subsequent paragraph, as well as much else in the essay, I am indebted to Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D., who graciously shared with me his studies of the Akedah and several sermons that grew out of them.

5. In his “Today’s Torah” cyber-eolumn from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of September 17, 2001 (ziegad@Uj.edu).

6. In Book I, p. 40 (New York: Schocken Books, 1948 & 1965).

7. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, editor and translator T. Carmi (London and New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 565.

8. I am indebted here to “Israeli Fathers and Sons Revisited” by Stanley Nash, COllservative Judaism (Summer 1986), pp. 28-37, as well as to having been privileged to study modem Hebrew literature with Professor Nash at the Hebrew Union College, New York School.

9. Such pieces include “Ishmael, My Brother” by Shin Shalom and “Little Hagar is Lost in the Desert” by Reisel Zichlinsky. Unfortunately, I am unable to provide citations for these poems, nor for A. G. Jacobs’s fine poem, quoted below in the text.

10. Published within “The Hour of Grace” (1983) in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amic1mi, edited and translated by Chana Block and Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 151.

11. Such as “Sarah and Isaac Her Son: A Midrash” by Helen Papell, H. Wenkart (ed.), Sarah’s Daughters Sing: A Sampler of Poems In) Jewish Women (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1990); “A View of Moriah” by Reva Sharon, Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review, 55; “Sarah’s Choice” by Eleanor Wilner, Sarah’s Choice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and “Sarah Talks to God” by Lillian Elkin, Judaism (vol. 44, 1995), p. 415.

12. “Where’s Sarah: Echoes of a Silent Voice in the Akedah,” by W. Lee Humphreys, in Soundings (Fall/Winter 1998), p. 505.

13. In “Abusing Abraham: Traditions, Religious Histories, & Modem Misinterpretations,” Judaism (Summer 1998), p. 262. This substantial essay is illuminating, in both its critiques and its assertions.

14. Guide for the Perplexed, Part III: chapter 24, translated by M. Friedlander (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 304.

15. Levenson, p. 270.

16. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31 a-b, Soncino edition.

17. Rashi, citing Genesis Rabbah 56, smooths this seeming contradiction in his gloss on ad koh, meaning both “yonder” and “thus.”

18. In his justly famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” published in 1915.

19. In his wonderful novel of that name, published in English by Harper & Row in 1984.

20. “The Binding of Isaac,” by Julius Lester in New Traditions (Spring 1985), p. 73.

21. Lester p. 71.

22. Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (Harcourt: New York, 2000), which appeared shortly before Amichai’s death. Both poems are on page 24.

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