Penn State: A Modern-Day Akeda

Did Society Pass or Fail Moral Test on Joe Paterno Scandal?

Worshipping a Fallen Hero: We occasionally face modern-day versions of Biblical tests. Did many Penn State students allow their reverence for coach Joe Paterno to blind them to his culpability in a child sex scandal?
Worshipping a Fallen Hero: We occasionally face modern-day versions of Biblical tests. Did many Penn State students allow their reverence for coach Joe Paterno to blind them to his culpability in a child sex scandal?

By Samuel G. Freedman

Published November 18, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
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This essay is closely adapted from a *d’var Torah that the author delivered on the Sabbath of November 12 at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan.*

The text of parsha Vayera is as familiar as any in the Torah. It includes the Akeda, the passage we read not only in the annual cycle, but also during the High Holy Days. And the story it tells has become, more broadly, part of Western culture, invoked by everyone from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan.

We already know the outlines of the Akeda. Abraham and Sarah, now elderly, have been unable to conceive a child. In recognition of their goodness, God grants them a son, Isaac. Yet as the boy gets older, God commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. Only at the last minute does an angel instruct Abraham to stay his hand, and only then does the Almighty provide a ram to be slain instead.

The Rambam teaches us to consider the Akeda as a metaphor for faith, and declares that Abraham passed the test. If we want to understand the Akeda in a historical context, then we can consider it Judaism’s answer to the pagan Canaanite religion that sacrificed children to the god Moloch.

Like the Akeda, Moloch is part of a wider intellectual heritage. Milton wrote of Moloch in “Paradise Lost,” and Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” Muslims, like Jews, associate the Valley of Hinnom, where the child sacrifices were made, with hell, because no act seemed more unconscionable.

Yet we have to admit today that these explanations fall short. Child sacrifice isn’t something consigned to barbaric days millennia ago. I want to approach the parsha in light of the recent revelations from Pennsylvania State University by asking the question, “What kind of person kills a child?”

We know Abraham is not a bad person, and we know this even before he is hallowed in our tradition as Avraham Avinu. In this parsha, we see Abraham go to great effort to feed three strangers. We see him plead with God to spare the people of Sodom. Though he accedes to Sarah’s order to expel Ishmael and Hagar, Abraham gives them bread and water to help them survive in the desert.

Yet this same Abraham is ready to kill his own child, even though God’s command contradicts His promise that Abraham will become the father of a great nation. Abraham, who was willing to intercede for the sinners of Sodom, says nothing to God on behalf of his son. The text specifies that Abraham waited until the next morning to go to Moriah, and yet there is no indication that Abraham had a second thought. Rashi tells us that even after the angel spoke, and the ram appeared, and Isaac was saved, Abraham asked God if he shouldn’t at least wound Isaac, draw blood.

What kind of deviance is this?


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