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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If you have children, as I do, then you remember those moments when you bathed them, or when you zipped them into those fleecy pajamas with feet, or when they fell asleep on the couch after Sabbath dinner and you carried them into their beds. When you think of their helpless innocence, like Isaac’s, how can you conceive of lifting your arm, knife in hand, against your child?

Not so with Abraham. When Isaac asks his father where is the sheep for the burnt offering, Abraham lies. He says, “God will see to the sheep.” The truth is, “Isaac, you are the sacrifice.”

What kind of deviance is this?

We might think of the entire book of Genesis as the narrative of humans learning to be human and God learning to be God. The God of the Akeda is, then, if not a false God, an insecure and immature God. He is competing with Satan, trying to prove just how obedient Abraham can be. And maybe God is thinking that if a charlatan like Moloch can get people to sacrifice their children to him, then shouldn’t I, the one true God, be able to demand just as much?

There’s a midrash we need about the Akeda. It’s about who was watching all this happen. Who saw Abraham heading up the mountain with Isaac? Who saw Abraham tying up his own son? Who saw him preparing the fire? Who saw him lifting his knife? And why did no one say or do anything? That’s the midrash I want to hear.

We flatter ourselves in assuming that nothing like the Akeda could happen in our civilized time. We are, of course, totally wrong.

Some of us are old enough to remember the Kitty Genovese case from the mid-1960s. Genovese was a young woman attacked as she returned home one night to her apartment in the Forest Hills section of Queens. And the scandal of her murder was that, as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times memorably wrote, 38 witnesses watched the attack unfold and essentially did nothing. Nobody called the police until it was too late.

Then we learned recently about another Akeda, this one at Penn State University: a football coach who allegedly abused young children under the guise of his charitable foundation, to the point of a boy of 9 or 10 being raped by that coach in a locker room shower. We learned again of decent people worshipping a false god, or misunderstanding what the real God requires of us. The head football coach, the athletic director, the university president — none of them appears to have acted as quickly and boldly as necessary to halt the abuse. Hundreds of students rioted in the street in defense of the very people who failed a moral test.

The reputations of the legendary coach, Joe Paterno, and of Penn State mattered more than the safety of all those little boys. We’ve seen this scenario before, with the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts and in parts of the Jewish communal and rabbinic worlds where sexual predators have been tolerated or protected.

I know some of you may wonder why a d’var Torah is devoted to current events. Shouldn’t it be about etymology or historicity or gematria? About theology? But what’s important in Judaism isn’t just what we have to say about the Torah, it’s what the Torah has to say about us.

If we comfort ourselves with the interpretation that Abraham, in preparing to kill Isaac, was simply fulfilling his faithful duty, passing the true believer’s test, then the text leaves us with some reasons not to be so sure. Sarah goes away from Abraham, never to rejoin him before her death. And as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has pointed out in a commentary on the Akeda, God never again speaks to his chosen one.

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of such books as “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2001).


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