First Day of Rosh Hashana:
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‘Pray take your son, your only-one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as a sacrifice…” (Genesis 22:2). This bone-chilling scene opener might seem more apt in a horrific crime novel than in our machzorim, where it appears in the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the outpouring of praise over the centuries for this father who was so willing — even eager, in some midrashic retellings — to slit his son’s throat in response to the divine voice he had heard commanding him to perform that deed.
The approbations begin right in the same chapter of Genesis, when God says, “Now I know that you are in awe of God — you have not withheld your son, your only-one, from me.” Talmudic sages, rabbinic storytellers and the authors of piyyutim (liturgical poems) praise Abraham’s unquestioning devotion to God on this occasion. Once Abraham had heard the command, they point out, he set out at the first opportunity and proceeded directly and without fuss to comply. He made no futile attempt to escape like Jonah, offered no pleas for mercy for others like Moses. He did not follow even the pattern he himself had set of questioning the justice of the divine decree, which Abraham had done before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
A mere four chapters earlier, Abraham is the model of ethics and restraint — “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Genesis 18:23) — in contrast with a God who seems to have been swept along by emotion (“The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grave!” — Genesis 18:20). That alone might lead one to be surprised, as I was, at what seemed to be the total absence in Jewish literature of any indication that Abraham’s later behavior is troubling.
On the theological point, explanations and excuses for God’s apparently unjust demand have been around for at least a millennium and a half. A midrash teaches that God was seeking to refute the claims of a doubting angel who had cast aspersions on Abraham’s devotion. Others have suggested that Abraham misinterpreted the divine command to “bring him up for a sacrifice” [le-olah] — not “as a sacrifice.”
Among modern thinkers, too, Abraham found important supporters. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whose book “Fear and Trembling” (1843) is a meditation on the Binding of Isaac, also portrays Abraham as having transcended human conscience and reached a higher plane in this encounter. This “teleological suspension of the ethical,” in Kierkegaard’s words, echoes praise in the mainstream rabbinic tradition of the father willing to commit filicide.
Theological concerns may have been addressed, but what of the father who nearly slew his own progeny? Was there no one who offered a word of criticism?
Professor Yosef Yahalom, a scholar of Hebrew language and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his 1999 book “Poetry and Society in Jewish Galilee of Late Antiquity,” draws our attention to a little-known seventh-century piyyut for Shavuot that tells this story: God was prepared to reveal the Torah through people earlier than Moses, but each was found wanting. Adam, Noah and the biblical patriarchs were each deemed unworthy because of some fault or failing. Abraham’s shortcoming addresses our question. The poet depicts God and the Torah in dialogue:
The ancient [Torah] replied further to the One who dwells in the heavens:
In this version and others — there are several variants — the poet’s attitude is unmistakable: Abraham, like his forebears and his immediate descendants, is a laudable character, but a crucial flaw prevents him from receiving the commission eventually granted to Moses. The reason: Abraham may have been pious and obedient, but he should not have squelched his sense of justice and decency. For us, too, when our standards of piety would have us move in the opposite direction from that toward which our own moral compass guides us, the poet would have our moral sense overcome our reverence.
This may be a solo voice in the Jewish tradition, but it calls to me more loudly than the chorus.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based author, translator and teacher and is the associate director of Ta Shma: Pluralistic Jewish Learning. He is grateful to professor Marc Bregman for a stimulating introduction to the literature of the Akedah (Genesis 22).