FATHER AND SON- On the Binding of Isaac and the Theology of Extremism
Over a century ago, the English writer, Charles Dickens, looked at the end of the century that preceded him, the century that culminated in the French Revolution. He described it in the words: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
We look back upon the previous century, the 20th century, which in sheer numbers of dead, was probably the bloodiest in history. It is also the century, in which the largest mass of humanity has risen above the level of mere survival to living well. We have seen, in the ending decades of the century, the relatively peaceful fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of a militant religious radicalism, the end of the imminent threat of nuclear immolation and the beginning of the threats of biological and chemical terror, the conquest of horrendous plagues, and the creation of new ills. We have unprecedented wealth, yet there are still regions with people living in abject poverty. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Now, we look at the secular 21st century, and at the beginning of the Jewish year 5775 and we are stunned. We are just 100 years from the start of the Great war, the war to end all Wars, the War to Save Democracy, World War I. We thought, scholars told us, that we were at the end of history and we find ourselves, instead, retreading centuries old conflicts, the old Great Game of the West versus Russia and a flourishing of murderous radical movements.
Will this too, be .like the last century, " the best of times, the worst of times." Can we find advice in our teachings to guide us into the next year, the rest of the century, the rest of the 58th century, that is.
It is ironic, that at the start of this secular millennium, after two centuries of the rise of the modern, secular world, that the great divide of humanity is the same great divide of the beginning of the last millennium, the divide between the Christian world and the Moslem world, aggravated by another dividing line of Moslem world versus Moslem world, while the Jewish world, tiny as it be, is sitting on the dividing line between them.
Can we bring the three together? Is there a common ground?
Our Torah reading of this season speaks of a theme that our great civilizations share. Three world religions, more than half of all humanity revere the story which we read today and tomorrow from the Torah. The two readings actually form one, as they center around the birth of Isaac today and then around his near-death experience tomorrow.
For us, as Jews, the Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, is chosen for the reading for the Rosh Hashanah service. The traditional interpretation of our ancestors has been that God should remember and spare us, just as he spared Isaac at the altar, and, further, that for the sake of Abraham who was willing to offer his only chosen son, we be granted mercy from God.
For the Christian, this tale is a precursor to the Crucifixion of Jesus -Abraham takes his beloved son up the mountain top to be offered like a lamb as a sacrifice, just as, in Christian thought, Jesus is to be brought up to the top of Calvary to be sacrificed like a lamb as the beloved son of God.
For Islam, this story forms an integral part of the Koran. There is, however, a fundamental change --In the Koran , Ishmael, not Isaac, is bound to the altar, thereby giving the followers of Mohammed the claim to being Abraham's chosen descendents, and not the Jews.
How can one story provide inspiration for three different religions? The answer is to be found in the nature. of the biblical tale which is surprisingly simplistic in outward style, yet as complex and unfathomable as the most difficult maze.
Unlike stories told by a storyteller, the Torah gives us very few details.
What did Abraham look like? How old was Isaac? Who went with them? This is kept a secret. Abraham and Isaac walk for three days and we have no hint of what was said, done, or thought, as they approach the most painful crisis in their lives. We are left guessing.
This is not the kind of story we can just soak in as we lie back in our easy chair. It demands involvement, investigation; it challenges us with the words "Dirshuni" - Comprehend me.
Therein lies the story's power. The understanding of the story in fact revolves around one sentence.
Al tishlakh yadcha al ha naar...
" Do not lay your hand on the boy, nor do him any harm, for now I know that you
fear God, that you withheld not even your only son from me."
One of the great modern philosophers and theologians, Soren Kierkegaard, saw in this account the basis for his perspective. Reason is futile and flawed as the basis for human existence. One is overwhelmed with fear and trembling at the perplexities and vanities of human existence. The only solution could be found in a leap of faith that bridged the gap from man to the true reality, God.
It was in our Abraham of the Akedah, that this philosopher found the Knight of Faith. Here was the true man of faith, in the fullest sense of the word, who, at God's command, did not even hesitate to offer his own son. It represents the realization that morality and. ethics are secondary to God, and that God can suspend the rules of reason and morality. "For now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from me."
Sounds strange? Yet this line of thought represents a serious strain in the religious realm for if God is above all, he is also above his own laws. There is no ethics beyond that which God determines. God commands and we do.
When we come to Jewish interpretations of the Akedah, we find, indeed, many who emphasize the willingness of Abraham to carry out God's command unhesitatingly, as proof of his faithfulness.
These interpretations depict Abraham as defying even the command to let Isaac live.
Legends depict the angel snatching the knife from zealous Abraham, who then attempts to strangle Isaac. Other legends describe the knife actually cutting Isaacs throat, which, by miracle, turns into iron and is safe from the blade of the knife; even others suggest that Abraham actually killed Isaac. These emphasize the sentence: "Now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from me."
All of this is to prove the greatness of Abraham's faith, of the ability to transcend doubt and confusion and emotions and human laws for the sake of God. Is it such a strange interpretation?
When we look back on Jewish history, how many Abrahams have there been to sacrifice their Isaacs for the sake of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of the name. Up and down the Rhine land, during the Crusades, so many Jewish fathers cut the throats of their own wives and children, and themselves, rather than convert and give in to the demands of the raging mob. The prayers of that period are filled with declarations that descendents of Abraham were indeed capable of greater faith than Abraham himself, for while Abraham had God's promise that Isaac would be his heir, these latter day Abrahams knew that, in the face of the raging mobs outside, no angel would enter to spare them their anguish.
But, I said, the story of the binding of Isaac is not an open and shut case.
The above interpretations rest on the ending of the sentence: "For I know now that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from me. But it is possible to look at that sentence, and look at the beginning of that sentence to find the opposite interpretations - "Don't raise your hand against the boy, and don't do him any harm:"
. The interpretation may rest on the words, "Don't raise your hand."
Medieval Jewish commentators are quick to point out, that from the very opening of the story, it is clear that God never could have intended a sacrifice. The first words are "God tested Abraham"-- to let us know that the real object of our story is Abraham, and not Isaac, to let us know that it is only an experiment.
Modern commentators, like Rabbi Hertz, whose, bible we use during the year, are quick to take the story in an entirely opposite meaning. It is a denunciation of human sacrifice; God tries to see if Abraham has yet understood completely the idea of ethics and a just God. Abraham, overly zealous, is ready to sacrifice his child, and therefore God stops him.
This approach is in line with the declaration of the Bible that human sacrifice is abhorrent.
Something can be said for this outlook. Human sacrifice had long since been replaced with animal offerings in most of the world of Abraham's wanderings, yet, in the land of Israel, among the Canaanites, it was still an accepted practice in times of troubles. An enemy King offers his child to his god before he enters war with the children of Israel; a renegade Judean king offers his own son to Moloch; even a Jewish leader, Jephtah , can think of offering his daughter to God.
It was against this that the prophet Micah spoke:
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? It hath been told thee, 0 man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of thee: To do justly, and love mercy, and to walk humbly before God."
Which approach is correct? We have before us two entirely opposite understandings of this same story.
One understanding tells us that God's word is so vital that we must follow it even though it seems against all reason and morality, because God is above all and God is the basis of all existence. The other understanding tells us that God demands of us to follow his law at all times but to recall that the Divine law is itself rooted in justice and mercy; we must know where is the border between obedience and madness.
Which is correct?
You know that in Jewish thinking, there is no such thing. Both are the word of God. But the final decision. must be made by us--According to which interpretation shall we live.
I ask you-- by which interpretation can we live? There lies the rub.
History has taught us that we must follow the second interpretation. We must look at that part of the story that says "Don't touch the boy!" The other interpretation rubs us the wrong way - it rings a bell in our minds that says--here is something dangerous.
Let's think in terms of the world today; let's think of what we call "great men." Abraham of 4000 years ago was undoubtedly a great man. He let his son live.
Look back at the last century. It was a century of “great men” who had visions of a new society to be attained at all costs.
Adolf Hitler was considered to be a great man - yet we know what he was. One third of all our family was brutally murdered by this man .Millions from all nations killed, millions uprooted - we know what he was. For the sake of his ideals, a world was destroyed. For the sake of his great cause, millions died. The same could be said of Lenin and Stalin and Mao, all great visionaries who led millions to their destruction.
That is the danger of the interpretations of the first kind. Ad maioram gloriam Dei - For the greater glory of God or of the party, the state, the people - all of these great causes are taken as the license to commit every sin imaginable.
In this century, we are witnessing what horror results when such an ideology is taken to it as full extent. I recently saw a book, published in Pakistan and sold openly here, in English, in the United States. It is entitled" Is Dajjall's coming Immanent? Dajjall, meaning Satan. It is the Moslem equivalent of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic visions. In this, America, and Israel, under the thumb of the World Jewish Congress, created the first and second World Wars to control the Moslem world, Israel would soon destroy the Al Aksa mosque and then conquer all Arab and Moslem lands, which would in turn bring on the onset of the end of days. It then outlines the plan of action in which Islam would then overcome the West .It is this mind-set that is tearing up Syria and Iraq and fueled the rocket and tunnel attacks on Israel . This is the mind -set which prepares otherwise intelligent people to create acts of mass horror. These are issues for the Moslem world to resolve, but we, as Jews, sit on the receiving end of their debate!
That is why we have to teach the verse - al tishlakh Yadchah el Hanaar - don't touch the boy.
Now, we look back to our reading of the Torah portion. Today, for our own sanity, we have to insist on those interpretations that say "Al tishlakh yadchah - Don't touch the lad. "Don't forget humanity and decency in the name of God or any other cause.
Our ancestors were very cautious people. Being a minority requires an extra measure of sanity in order to survive. Therefore, we were very wary of anyone who claimed to speak for God. Our sages went so far as to declare "Prophecy is now in the hands of fools and toddlers "Let us have no more of divine calls or great causes, they were saying, let us live properly, and not listen to fools and little children. All authority, they announced, is now given over to the sage, the cautious wise man, who will examine tradition and reason before acting.
The story of the binding of Isaac by Abraham can be used as the source of inspiration for every would be "great man” or leader for the great cause - for the greater glory of mankind, or for the sake of heaven, or for the sake of science - or whatever cause you will.
But in the long run, we have to remember that part of the story that says - Lay not your hand on the lad. We have to remember that we can, at no point sanction the abandonment of reason in the name faith, nor abandon morality in the name of God , the proletariat, or the nation. Ours is not a blind faith, but a faith grounded upon reason, for our faith has taught us, V chay bahem, You shall Live by Them.
We have to remember that, in the long run of Jewish tradition, we no longer listen to prophets, but only to wise old men, very cautious and timid, careful not to cause hurt.
My teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, retells the following story, with which I shall conclude:
A child of seven was reading the story of Abraham and Isaac aloud in class.
As he read of Isaac being tied to the altar, his heart beat faster, with pity for Isaac.
As he read of Abraham raising the knife, his heart froze with fright; and when the voice of the angel called out to Abraham, "Lay not your hand on the lad" - he burst out into tears. The Rabbi teaching the class was surprised, "Why are you crying? You know that Isaac was not killed?" The little boy turned to him and weeping, said, "But Rabbi, suppose the angel had come too late?"
The Rabbi comforted him by assuring him that angels can never come too late. Heschel pointed:
An angel can never come too late, but man, of flesh and blood can.
An Abraham can act with the faith an angel would save him. We cannot do as we wish for the greater glory of Heaven or mankind or society - because we know that on Tuesday of last week, no angel came to stop our hand in the last minute.
All people on the face of the earth must remember those few words - "Don't lay a hand on the lad, and don't harm him in anyway. In that way, we shall all of us, succeed in the intent of the Toarh--Ve Chay Bahem-- You shall live through the Divine Teachings. May we always choose life. Amen.
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