Finally, after 3,000 years, the public is invited to the trial of the century: Forefather Abraham will be tried for endangerment of a minor and attempted murder in connection with the near sacrifice of his son Isaac at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center on November 16th. The indomitable Alan Dershowitz is arguing the defense, while the ever-confident Eliot Spitzer is prosecuting. What will we take away from this combination of tainted celebrity and shrewd legal minds overlaid on a biblical shocker of almost murder that is central to the spiritual consciousness of Jews (and Christians and Muslims, as well)?
If nothing else, the trial is an ingenious publicity stunt. The Sacrifice of Isaac is a perennial. The centerpiece of last week’s Torah portion and read several weeks ago on Rosh Hashanah, it is one of the most discussed story of our tradition. Yet, there are many other stories—arguably as thought-provoking, certainly every bit as appalling—that tend to lie a little fallow. What about the lore of child sacrifice that involves a daughter and ends in tragedy rather than featuring a son and invoking eleventh-hour salvation?
I am thinking of the fate of the nameless daughter of Jephthah who is murdered by her father in The Book of Judges, Chapter 11. When the General Jephthah needs a win in his campaign against the terrifying Ammonites, he makes a thoughtless vow: If God grants him a military victory, he will, in turn, sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon his triumphant return. As it happens, Jephthah’s daughter comes skipping towards him in a victory dance. There is no reconsideration of options, no shrinking from vows, nor is there an angel to stay the wretched father’s hand.
We can only speculate: If Jephthah had sacrificed a son would the story have remained relatively obscure? Would the fallout have been more severe? (There are midrashic versions that insist Isaac too really was slain, but they are so unpalatable as to be censured out of the mainstream.)
Feminists decry Jephthah’s rigid allegiance to a vow, pointing out that like his Greek counterpart Agamemnon who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to obtain favorable winds, a general’s victory lust trumps his innocent, and even adoring, daughter’s right to life. Karla Bohmbach, an associate professor of Religion and coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, argues: “This tale of a nameless young woman with scarcely a voice of her own, with her violent fate…is surely one of the most horrifying tales in the whole Bible.” And Carol P. Christ, a prominent theologian, writes on feminismandreligion.com, “In patriarchal societies women and girls are considered expendable and are sacrificed every day on the altar of male power,” inferring that no mother would have such skewed priorities. The ambitious father-pubescent daughter dynamic is indeed complex. While, in contemporary society, some prominent men are the guiding forces behind their daughters’ own achievements, others sacrifice their daughters’ well-being, possibly even their right to autonomous life, to secure victory or to honor some doctrine, vow or tribal allegiance.
When I posted a few thoughts about Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter on Facebook, an Orthodox rabbi takes me to task. Why must I see this through a gender lens? Moreover, how can I compare an esteemed patriarch like Abraham to an arrogant fool like Jephthah? After all, Abraham is working out a critical relationship with God while Jephthah is rash and self-serving.
Clearly, Jephthah’s quid pro quo with God is low-level transactional, while Abraham grapples less boorishly with the terms of the Divine Covenant. I daresay that Abraham and Jephthah each occupy a place on the continuum of willingness to sacrifice in exchange for desired goals. Both have questionable ethical standards. These prominent men need to remain in good stead with the Almighty in a world of marauding foes, brimstone and the fire next time. They are both negotiating with a Higher Power for positive outcomes while working out their ends of the deal. It’s duplicitous to exonerate one dad while damning the other.
We are horrified by fathers who use their children as human shields in battle. This was not Jephthah’s intention at the outset, but he nonetheless sacrificed a child rather than jeopardize his good standing and future military campaigns. Other child-endangering fathers whom we malign as fanatic today are also sons of Abraham; they arguably emulate his role model in their willingness to sacrifice flesh and blood for a Higher Cause.
Carol Christ suggests the following coda to the Jephthah story: “Every mother or father who condones war is signifying his or her willingness to sacrifice not one, but many daughters, not one, but many sons.”
At the upcoming trial of the century, will Spitzer insist that we condemn Abraham and consequently, will we indict any father willing to endanger a child for the sake of ideology or creed? Will Dershowitz argue that a guilty verdict would criminalize not only Abraham, but any parent who has put a child in harm’s way in the fight for a cherished cause?
By juxtaposing a major and a minor story, we weigh the relative value of a son or a daughter offered for sacrifice. We also reconsider the ethical standards of any parent, from the vainglorious to the inspired, who would envision paying that high a price.