The Binding of Isaac - A New Jew’s Perspective

September 20, 2011
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The Akeidah or Binding of Isaac is one of Torah’s most difficult pieces of text.  In the chapters that proceed Genesis 22 we learn that Abram’s family leaves their home country to live in another.  Abram and his wife are re-named by God when Abraham makes a covenant with God.  Abraham and Sarah are blessed by God with a legitimate son and heir to the people that God has promised Abraham will be as numerous as stars in the sky and grains of sand on the beach.  Life as they know it, since accepting God seems pretty good.

Chapter 22 comes around and we’re thrown for a loop. The text says, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah…”  Reading the text it seems straight forward.  God says and Abraham does.  To the average person, this becomes a story about Abraham’s faith in God.  If you look at the story in this way there seem to be no question in Abraham’s mind that he will do the unthinkable because God asks it of him. As you read further in the text God intervenes through an angel and Isaac’s life is spared.  It seems that all turns out for the best in the end, because of Abraham’s faith in God.

To the 21st Century Jew this story should be uncomfortable for various reasons.  First and foremost the idea of child sacrifice is so far removed from our mind. It seems unfathomable that God would ask Abraham to do something as “pagan” as child sacrifice. Historians and archaeologists have found evidence to support the theory that child sacrifice did occur during this period of history.  On the surface this should be an easy story.  Do what God asks, and things will turn out alright.

That is not how I read the text.  When I read the text in a Midrash class during my conversion process I had a several questions.  My first question was for Sarah.  After ninety-nine years without a child, after watching her handmaid provide her husband a child, after doubting God himself when she overhears that she will give birth in her old age she is blessed with a child.  I find it hard to believe that Sarah would not ask questions where Abraham and Isaac were going.  Torah tells us they were gone for three days, which leads me to believe that there were some kinds of preparations made.  We read that he takes an ass, two servants and his son-and Sarah just watched them go without any questions?

In terms of Abraham, I wonder how he could so complacently agree to kill his child.  He does have another son, Ishmael but Isaac was born of his wife.  A few chapters before he pleads with God in regard to the people of Sodom. He intervenes on behalf of those people but is willing to give up his son?

The Midrash looks at the text that reads, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac whom you love …” and interprets it as a conversation between God and Abraham.  God says, “Take your son” and the rabbis taught Abraham answered, “I have two sons.”  God said, “Your favored one.” and Abraham responds that he loves them both.  God says, “Isaac whom you love” and Abraham knows which son he must sacrifice.

When I went to the mikveh on August 17th, 2011 I made a promise before God, my rabbis and friends to live a Jewish life.  I was handed the Torah and asked to accept it, which I did with open arms.  One of the beautiful and the most inspirational part of being Jewish is Torah, and the duty of Jews to wrestle with Torah.  As a liberal Jew, I do not believe that Torah is an accurate account of historical events.  History backs some of Torah’s events, the Exodus is one of the most important events in Jewish history and is recorded in Egyptian history as well.  Other events, like the Great Flood and the Binding of Isaac are harder for me to swallow as historical facts.  I see these passages as stories passed from generation to generation to teach lessons.

So, if I take this story as a lesson can it just be a lesson on Faith? I think the answer can be yes, depending on your definition or idea of faith.  In my opinion, having faith isn’t blindly believing or doing something because we are told or taught to do so.  It is believing in something based on an understanding of texts.  The draw to Judaism after being brought up as a Christian was the fact that Judaism asks you to question everything around you.  We are given Torah not to read it for the words on the page, but to find the meaning of the words-the meaning of the words when they were written and the meaning of the words in relation to how they pertain to our lives as Jews today.

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Erika Davis joined the Jewish people on August 17, 2011 after years of wandering. She writes blog Black, Gay and Jewish as well as contributing to other Jewish publications. Erika is currently working on a memoir about her Black, Gay, Jewish identity and lives in Brooklyn, New York with her cat Oscar.

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