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Thoughts on the Akedah

A Rosh Hashanah Dvar Torah
9/30/2011, Tishrei, 5772
Muriel Gillick

Probably more commentary has been written about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, than any other biblical story. Philo wrote about it. Maimonides wrote about it. Even Kant and Kierkegaard wrote about it. In our day, Levinas and Soloveitchik wrote about it.

The traditional commentaries – those by secularists and Christians as well as those by Jews – almost universally see the story as a test of Abraham's faith: as it says in the opening line of the text, "God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, Abraham… take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…" (Genesis 22). Although the interpretation varies, most traditional commentators see the story as demonstrating the depth of Abraham's faith, a faith so unquestioning that he agrees to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his own son. Kierkegaard, for example, says that Abraham was a "knight of faith" who went in "fear and trembling." The determinant of right behavior is trust in God's wisdom, he argues, not any man-made ethical standard. This view is apparently not substantially different from that of Maimonides and Soloveitchik, though other Jewish commentators emphasize that, by providing a last minute substitution for the docile Isaac, God was demonstrating that he rejected "immoral tributes."

I have to confess that I have always been one of a minority to whom it seemed transparent that if God was testing Abraham, then Abraham failed the test. Abraham did not for a moment question the authenticity of the command. He did not wonder whether he heard correctly. He did not ask God to explain himself, to justify his demand. He did not ask what would be gained by complying with the outrageous order. Most disconcerting, Abraham did not argue with God. Gone is the Abraham who bargained with God over the fate of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. Gone is the Abraham who, when God appeared to him in a vision, promising to give him the land of Canaan, responded skeptically, demanding proof, asking "how can I know that I will possess it?"

The Abraham depicted in the text we read today failed to take the only morally defensible path – that of refusing to commit an immoral act, no matter what authority seems to demand it. That he failed the test is suggested by the consequences of his actions: metaphorically shaking his head, God thinks to himself "you weren't actually supposed to listen to me," and hastily arranges for a ram to appear to serve as the sacrifice in lieu of Isaac. The next episode in the story is the death of Sarah – apparently when Abraham descended from the mountain and returned to Beer-Sheva, he found Sarah had died, presumably having suffered a heart attack on realizing her husband had just gone off to murder their son. And if you are not convinced that the ensuing disasters demonstrate that Abraham failed the test, consider that his behavior evidently caused a permanent rupture with his son, Isaac. Isaac's next appearance in the Torah is at his father's funeral: he shows up with his brother Ishmael, who likewise severed all communication with his father.

Not only does it seem clear to me that Abraham failed the test, but I see this story as demonstrating that morality is not grounded in faith, as is often argued by those who insist that belief in a supernatural God is essential for virtue, but on the contrary, the story shows that morality is separate from faith. For here we have an example of a man whose faith dictated that he behave in diametric opposition to his own internal moral compass.

So it is not faith that I want to discuss this morning, since it seems to me that the Akedah shows all too clearly the perils of faith unrestrained by reason or ethics. What I'd like to focus on instead is a dimension of the story that has received far less attention than the test. My starting point is the perspective of modern biblical scholarship, which tells us that the story of the Akedah was first introduced to teach the Israelites that child sacrifice was wrong. The custom of sacrificing one's child to one's god or gods was apparently endemic in the Ancient Near East, particularly among Israel's neighbors but even among the Israelites themselves. The purpose of the story is to dramatize the assertion that apparently appears 16 times in the Torah (according to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who evidently counted such things), the statement that child sacrifice is "an abomination before God." The centrality of the view that child sacrifice is unequivocally wrong places Judaism in stark contrast to Christianity, whose central myth deals with the sacrifice by God the Father of his son. But if sacrifice is the wrong way to treat your child, what is the right way?

My first pass on answering this question was to look for childrearing advice in the Torah. What I found is that there is surprisingly little about how parents should treat their children and what there is deals principally with young children. It is worth noting in passing that Isaac, at the time of the Akedah, may have been an adult. When Sarah died, which as I indicated earlier seems to have coincided with Abraham ascending Mt Moriah with Isaac, she was reportedly 127; when Isaac was born, she was 90. By this calculation, Isaac was 37 at the time of the Akedah. At the very least, so the rabbis argue, since he climbed the mountain with his father, carrying the wood for building an altar, Isaac was in his teens. So I am particularly interested in what our tradition tells us about how to treat older children, especially adult children, a question that may be of interest to others who are here today in light of the prevailing demographic reality at Shir Hadash.

What we are told in the Torah is that fathers must circumcise their sons on the 8th day (Genesis 17) and that parents are responsible for educating their children (Deuteronomy 11). We learn that first-born sons must be redeemed to the priesthood (Exodus 13), which means the parents must obtain release from the obligation of the boy to serve in the Temple, an obligation that has in any case been difficult to meet since the destruction of the Temple.

Are there any stories in the Torah that offer an attractive model for how to treat your adult children? We have Isaac, who fathered Jacob and Esau when he was 60. Genesis tells us "when the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp," at which point it goes on to say "Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca favored Jacob." The paradigm here is favoritism rather than equal and unconditional love, a path that engenders competition and antagonism between the two sons. It is a pattern that Jacob repeats with his own family. We are told that "Jacob loves Joseph best of all his sons," favoritism that leads directly to the other sons conspiring to kill Joseph by abandoning him in a pit, a plan they ultimately decide not to follow through on, choosing instead to sell him into slavery. The brothers, as we all know, are only reconciled after Joseph effectively saves his siblings from starving to death.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we have the admonition in Deuteronomy that "if a man has a disloyal and defiant son who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him… the men of his town shall stone him to death." (Deut 21: 18-21). Surely our tradition offers us sager guidance on parent/child relationships. And surely there is more than the Yiddish saying, "small children, small problems; big children, big problems."

James Kugel, in his book How to Read the Bible says that to find religious significance in the text we should look to what he calls the Ancient Interpreters. These are the rabbinic commentators whose wisdom makes up the Mishnah and the Talmud and other traditional sources. As he so eloquently puts it: "Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling. Every Sabbath the Torah is, quite literally, held up above the heads of worshipers in synagogue, kissed and bowed to and touched in gestures of absolute submission… yet upon inspection, Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all powerful… Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of these words; this is its definitive, final interpretation."

How does this help? There's a great 800-page compendium of the Aggadah, The Book of Legends, which has an entire section on "children and rearing of children." From this collection, I learned that the Talmudic Tractate Kiddushin elaborates on the parental obligations enumerated in the Torah. It states: "a father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say," and here the Talmud indulges in an almost Woody Allen-ish flourish, "to teach him how to swim as well." Rabbi Judah adds that "a father is also required to teach his son civic obligations. "Rabbi Eleazar reassures us that "a father must hold himself responsible for his son until the age of 13. After that, he should say, 'Blessed be He who has freed me of liability for this boy.' "

Kugel, as an Orthodox Jew, confines his understanding of the Oral Torah to the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, and other traditional texts. But Liberal Jews go beyond Kugel. There is no reason to define Oral Torah in the limited sense of the commentaries that were in existence many hundreds of years ago; we can include all the Divrei Torah that have ever been written, including contemporary thinking. More than that, we don't have to accept the clear line that Kugel draws between scientific scholarship and religious analysis. He says clearly that "what Scripture means is not what today's ingenious scholars can discover about its original meaning, but what the ancient interpreters have always held it to mean," namely a description of how to "serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul." (Deut 10:12) From our point of view as liberal Jews, what we should be doing is to build on both the knowledge gleaned by historians and the wisdom of rabbis and philosophers – and by all of us – in order to make sense of the Torah.

How does this help with the Akedah? Doesn't it just bring us back to the centuries of commentaries about faith? And how does it help with the question of the right way parents should treat their children in general and their adult children in particular? Historians say that the text is about prohibiting child sacrifice. Traditional scholars say that the text teaches us how to live our lives today – by walking in the ways of God. Combining the two strands, we have to ask what the ban on child sacrifice teaches us today? In the contemporary world, our Mexican and Canadian neighbors do not burn their children on the altar, unlike the Israelites' neighbors in earlier millennia. We do not have to worry that American Jews will resume child sacrifice. But the fact that "burnt offerings" are not a contemporary threat does not mean that sacrifice is no longer an issue.

The risk today is that parents will sacrifice their children at the altar of their own ambition. They will seek to push their children to fulfill the parents' goals rather than the children's goals. Our children, after all, are our immortality projects, to use Ernest Becker's words. The Torah, in fact, presents an extreme example of parents explicitly using their children in this way, seeking to further not only their own goals but also the historicist mission of the Jewish people. As God said to Abraham, "This is my covenant with you. You shall be the father of a multitude of nations." As God put it when Sarah was about to give birth at age 90: "I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her." Perhaps what the binding of Isaac is teaching us is to recognize that our children are indeed the vehicles for our genes, they are our path to immortality, but they must find their own unique way to carry on.

Translating this message to our time, we as parents must nurture our children's talents without pushing them to do what we think they should do, which is often what we wish we could have done. Whether the issue is their career path or their life partner, where they live or how they raise their children or what they spend their money on, it is their choice and not ours.

Is there anything else to say about the right way to treat one's offspring, beyond the exhortation not to sacrifice them, literally or figuratively? It occurred to me that maybe there is little explicit discussion of the relationship between parents and children in traditional sources because the relationship between God and the people Israel is a metaphor for the relationship between parents and children. "Man is created in the image of God" can be taken to mean that people should aspire to the platonic ideal reified in the personage of "God." Similarly, the many disquisitions about the relationship between man and God can be taken as accounts of the ideal parent/child relationship.

I will close with just a few observations that emerge from applying the God/Israel metaphor to the relationship between mothers and fathers on the one hand and their sons and daughters on the other. The first stems from the troubling concept of chosen-ness. Reconstructionists, of course, delete all mention of chosen-ness from the Siddur, even modifying the blessing before chanting the Torah, to get rid of a term that they see as embodying a notion of Jewish exceptionalism. But in the context of the parent/child relationship, chosen-ness simply means the unconditional love a parent has for his or her child. It's a love that is not dependent on "right beliefs" or "right action;"(though I have to concede that in the Torah God periodically threatens to revoke the special status of the Jews if they don't follow his commandments); in principle it is not proportional to achievement but rather is a bond that the child can depend on absolutely.

A related observation comes form Martin Buber, who distinguished between I/It and I/Thou relationships. The perfect relationship between man and God, he argues, is an I/Thou relationship. Like chosen-ness, which implies unconditional acceptance, an I/Thou relationship comes without preconditions, with no strings attached. It entails total acceptance of the other person, putting aside selfish concerns, transcending one's own needs or wishes.

Finally, we have Abraham Joshua Heschel's view of God and man as interdependent. Writing in God in Search of Man, Heschel describes man and God as engaged in dialogue. The relationship between us and God is not one of equals, any more than the relationship between parents and their children is one of parity, but the fundamental imbalance can be modulated by reciprocity. It is that mutual respect, that symmetric neediness, which is a model for the parent/child relationship.

Now there are limits to the ways in which the ideal God/man relationship can provide guidance to parents and their adult children. Much of the liturgy during the High Holy Days exhorts us to approach God with awe and wonder, to revel in his might and his glory. This may not be the best advice for how children of any age should regard their parents. But I think that unconditional love, total acceptance, and reciprocity are inspiring motifs as we move in our journey from the Akedah to the modern version of child sacrifice to interactions between parents and children to the relationship between God and man, during the Days of Awe. L' Shana Tovah!

Bibliography:

  1. Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death. NY: Free Press, 1997.
  2. Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky, eds. The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah. NY: Schocken Books, 1992.
  3. Martin Buber. I and Thou. NY: Touchstone, 1971.
  4. Abraham Heschel. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976.
  5. James Kugel. How to Read the Bible. NY: Free Press, 2007.
  6. Louis Jacobs. The Problem of the Akedah in Jewish Thought. 1981.
  7. Shalom Spiegel. The Last Trial. On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: the Akedah. NY: Pantheon Books, 1967.