Violence and Secrecy: On Masculinity and the Akedah

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September 1, 2011
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Sarah Imhoff

Biblical scholars explain that the story of the Akedah marks a turning point from ancient Near Eastern cultural traditions that include human sacrifice to a strikingly illustrative polemic against human sacrifice. Do not sacrifice your son, God tells Abraham. But ironically, the very acts that mark this watershed cultural transition away from violence are violent in themselves. In this story of terrifying duty, the threat of violence still lingers for this father and son. And as much as both of them would surely like to forget the harrowing episode, it was a defining part of the process that made each one into a man of God. Even at its most perplexing moments, the narrative also resonates with contemporary questions about what it means to be a man. Gendered issues are contextual, not timeless, but Abraham, Isaac, and the incident on Mount Moriah raise two crucial themes about modern masculinity: violence and secrecy.

Violence and sacrifice are not identical, and the ancient Israelites who told the story may well have seen it primarily through the lens of sacrifice and merciful escape. The modern reader, however, does not live in a world where her neighbors may participate in human sacrifice. For us, the specter of violence in the Akedah is inescapable. Instead of relief that this God does not ultimately demand child sacrifice, we are horrified and confused that God’s request for murder and Abraham’s complicity were ever real possibilities. Although Abraham never completes the act of stabbing Isaac, the act of tying Isaac down and raising the knife are nevertheless violent.

Wrestling with violence continues to be an inescapable part of modern masculinity. Few of us would endorse it as a valuable social norm, and yet taking a stance on interpersonal violence is an oft-repeated ritual of defining manhood. Just ask any boy who has been bullied or has watched another student be bullied. To engage modern masculinity, encountering and taking a stand on violence, aggression, or physical prowess are unavoidable. The body builder, the hipster, the intellectual, the self-identified computer geek — all must identify themselves vis-à-vis violence and the body. And in many situations, a “right” answer is complicated.

Compounding the issue of violence is Abraham’s secrecy and silence. Isaac was grown; rabbinic tradition holds he was 37, and in any case he was certainly old enough for a long journey. Why didn’t Abraham tell Isaac what he knew? Perhaps it was to spare him the anxiety, or perhaps he worried that Isaac would be less than enthusiastic about the plan. Although Abraham’s love for his son is apparent to God, who calls Isaac “your favored one” and “the one whom you love,” and is likewise apparent to the reader who hears God’s instructions to Abraham, he never tells Isaac that he loves him. After God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham took Isaac on a wordless journey. Abraham faced an impossible choice, and instead of sharing the burden and duty of worshiping God with his son, he guards the divine communication as secret. Rather than imagining Isaac as a participant in the sacrifice, Abraham treats him as the object. Envisioning himself as the main agent in a world of passive objects, Abraham enacts his masculinity through his assumption of the mastery of the world around him. Abraham expresses his love for Isaac by enacting violence (tying down), but stopping before the ultimate violence (murder).

It seems that Isaac internalizes his father’s penchant for silence. After the near murder, the boy who had asked his father, “Where is the ram?” no longer asks questions. On the way up Mount Moriah, the two of them twice “walked together,” but after Abraham raised the knife to his son, they don’t appear to speak to each other and Abraham returns alone to his servants.

Abraham fashions himself the strong, silent type. For a man who was willing to negotiate with God about saving Sodom, he is remarkably quiet when it comes to saving his own son. Moreover, Abraham has a spotty record when it comes to secrecy and self-fashioned solo missions in general: Lying about his relationship to Sarah has already landed Abraham in sticky situations with both Pharaoh and Avimelekh. Even after God instructs Abraham about the sacrifice, God does not demand silence, though Abraham seems to assume that he should bear the secret alone. (Kierkegaard had a similar interpretation.) Both Abraham and Isaac respond to the trauma and near-death experience with separation and silence, respectively. No discussion, no mutual support, no crying out at God.

Today, as women are statistically more likely to seek out therapy, offer verbal support to others, and “talk about their feelings,” masculinity is sometimes fashioned as the inverse — handling problems alone. Whether modern men embrace affective dialogue or attempt to uphold quiet autonomy, the issue of communication constitutes another significant pillar of masculine self-fashioning.

The secrecy and the violence of the Akedah are part of what gives the narrative its long hold on the religious imagination, but there is no clear moral when we read the story as one about masculinity and identity. It only suggests what we knew all along: The construction of masculinity is never simple, and the way requires difficult choices.

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Sarah Imhoff is a visiting assistant professor in the Borns Jewish Studies Program and Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her teaching and research interests focus on gender and Jewish history.

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