The Akedah

The Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

We have a frame. What we lack is knowledge of how the frame informs the content of the Akedah narrative. I will review the narrative and then attempt to tie the frame to explicating the meaning of the story.

The tale is almost too familiar so that when we read or hear it, our understanding is coloured by many assumptions. The bare story, however, is fairly simple and straightforward. Further, it is only 24 verses long (Genesis 22:1-24), and the last four verses are concerned with genealogy rather than the substance of the narrative.

Many questions are raised. What is the test? Who is being tested? What is the purpose and significance of the test? What is the meaning and role of faith? What is Abraham thinking and feeling during the events that unfold? What about Isaac? What are his feelings and thoughts?

Previously, I had referred to the words that came before and argued that these narratives provide the frame to explicate the tale, the text states that “God put Abraham to the test.” God addresses Abraham. Abraham responds in a phrase repeated earlier in Genesis, “Here I am.” (verse 1) In the dominant conventional interpretation, God then issues a command. Just as he ordered Abraham to leave his family in Ur in Mesopotamia, he now instructs Abraham to take his son, explicitly described as his favourite son whom he loves, to the land of Moriah. Further, he is told from the very beginning of the trip that when he arrives at his destination, he is to “offer him as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I (God) will designate.” Heights are not just geographical. The intention is to raise the covenantal relationship to a new height.

From the overlay of centuries of interpretation, the most familiar sense of the text is one of obedience. Will Abraham follow God’s orders? Will he take his favourite son, the one whom he deeply loves, and offer him to God as a burnt offering on a distant mountain top? Questions immediately arise. Did God issue a command or a request. In the Plaut text, the words are translated as, “Take your son…” Rashi translates the same words as: “Please take your son…” (Rashi Commentary, 230) God is making a request, not issuing a command. For Rashi, the inclusion of the particle na’ (naw) suggests an entreaty. God is, in effect, saying that, “I pray that you take your beloved son Isaac…” Or, as I would word it, God is saying, “Abraham, I want you to do something for me please.” Abraham obliges.

There is a clear difference between an entreaty and the expectation that a subject obey unconditionally and without question to what on the surface appears to be an extraordinary – indeed, a most unethical – demand, to sacrifice his most beloved son. One says: “Do this.” The other says: “Please do this for me.” What difference does it make if it is a command or a request if what is commended or requested seems crazy?

There is a difference. If it is a command, then Abraham has no escape. Abraham has agreed to carry out the order to the final degree. However, if it is a request, Abraham can say in his own mind that I will go along with the gig and see what happens. I can always opt out. I trust that God keeps his promises and does not really intend to have me burn my own son. In the command mode, David Hartman writes: “This is the story of the Akedah: the demand (my italics) of God that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the only son of his wife, Sarah.” Such a demand is indeed in apparent breech of God’s promise to make a great nation through his son, Isaac. As Hartman adds, “Nevertheless, Abraham obediently set off for the land of Moriah as instructed.” (A Living Covenant, p. 43)

Obedience does demand a leap of faith if the commandment is to undertake a travesty, not simply to justice in killing the boy, but a travesty to God’s own promise.  But if it is a polite request to perform a seemingly extreme act, then the issue is not about submission and the terror, or fear and trembling, that would accompany fulfilling such a mission, but an act of obliging another who Abraham has no reason not to trust and whom he always believed would never intend to see Isaac harmed. The test then is not of Abraham’s faith, for Abraham would have to have faith in abundance to go along with the gig. The test is whether Abraham believes that God is a trustworthy partner. For God does not instruct that Abraham slaughter his son, but only that he make an offering of his son. As the commentator Yosef Halle wrote, the text includes the word sham, there. Without that inclusion, the request would indeed mean a request to slaughter his son. With the inclusion of “there,” it means to bring Isaac up and offer him, but does not entail slaughtering him.

Look at the differences.

The Obedience Model                The Request Model

God                       commands or orders                  requests or entreats

God’s intent         to test Abraham’s blind faith    confirm Abraham’s trust

Abraham              obeys                                             agrees

A’s thought           faith against reason                    reasonable trust

Relationship         master and slave                        covenantal partnership

In the first model, God’s command is unintelligible and extremely mysterious. In the second model, God’s intent and plan of action is yet to be revealed; it is just unknown at the time the command is issued. When the time comes, what is now unintelligible will become clear. In the first model, we as readers are dumbfounded that the same Abraham who stood up to God at Sodom and Gomorrah for principles of proportional justice would now accede to a request that had absolutely no iota of justice, but blatantly challenged on a very personal level Abraham’s trust that his God was a just God. For those who believe in homiletics, who believe that faith precedes all else, the first reading is a test of that faith. For those who believe that the text is a tale of ethics relative to the period, it will be a story about establishing a higher morality and rejecting child sacrifice. However, even if the latter solves the puzzle about God’s sense of justice, it does so only by diminishing Abraham’s.

Note that in the tale, when the pair and the accompanying servants reach the foot of the mountain, Abraham says to his servants, “You can stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you.” There seems to be no doubt in Abraham’s mind that the boy will return with him and not be sacrificed. There seems no intention to mislead the servants. There is no indication that Abraham believes that when he offers his son that God will accept the offer.

How then does one interpret the conversation between father and son when Isaac asks where the sheep is for the offering? Abraham replies, seemingly in full confidence, that Isaac can count on God providing the sheep. Abraham trusts God to provide. Isaac trusts that his father is reliable. Thus, they complemented one another in their trust.

Then we arrive at the dramatic climax. The two prepare the altar. Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. Abraham even raises the knife in the air. Does Abraham ever believe he might be asked to thrust that knife into his son’s flesh? Does Isaac ever believe that his father might? If Isaac suspected such, he could have easily overpowered his frail and aged father for Isaac was not a child but a mature young man. So the climax is the binding of Isaac and raising the knife.

It is then that God calls off the performance. God addresses Abraham as he did at the beginning of the story. Only this time God repeats Abraham’s name twice. Rabbinic commentators have generally interpreted the doubling of names as an expression of endearment, as when a parent says, “John, my dear boy John, …” Abraham replies, as he did at the very beginning of the narrative, “Hinaini,” “Here I am.”

Later in the Torah when Moses asks God for his name (Exodus 3:14), God replies in the most common translation, “I am that I am.” אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh asher ehyeh. However, since ancient Hebrew lacked a future tense, an alternative translation is that God answers, “I shall be who I shall be.” The reference is not to Being but to Becoming. God is the one who reveals Himself over time. That is the God in whom one should trust. Abraham, when he answers, “hinaini,” “Here I am.” Why hinaini and not ehyeh poh? The suggestion is that in Abraham’s answer, he is saying, “I am here for you.” I can be trusted. I am a good partner. And I trust that as you reveal yourself to me, trust on my part will be a condition of that partnership, but will be reinforced with every revelation about Yourself.

God now commands and does not request. “Do not raise your hand against the boy.” (22:12) Not, “Do not kill him.” God is remonstrating Abraham for going too far in the partnership. In binding Isaac, Abraham had proven he trusted God would not see Isaac harmed. But in raising his hand with a knife, Abraham has gone too far, for raising the knife is a threat and Isaac then would necessarily be frightened. The climax should simply have been the binding of Isaac, not holding a knife over his bound body. It was sufficient proof of our partnership that you bound Isaac and trusted that I would see that no harm came to the boy, appears to be God’s thought. God remonstrates Abraham.

If God was to continue the partnership in the next generation, Abraham had to enjoin Isaac in the covenant. The first stage began with the circumcision. The completion stage took place when Abraham bound Isaac and Isaac, testing both his dad and God, acceded to being bound. There was no need to raise the knife. Then God repeats his promise that Abraham via Isaac will give birth to a great nation.

Does the frame I already described reinforce or undermine this interpretation?

To be continued.

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Abraham, Abimelech and Sarah

Abraham, Abimelech and Sarah

by

Howard Adelman

I began this series as an attempt to interpret the meaning of the binding of Isaac. I took seriously the first introductory words of that section: “After the words that appeared before.” I suggested that those words referred to a frame provided by the previous four stories. One side of the frame was the story of Sarah’s inward laughter when she learns of God’s promise that she would bear a child in her old age. The second side was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The third side is now before us – a seemingly unrelated tale of Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech. The fourth side of the frame will be analyzed in the next blog, which covers the tale of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, sent into exile in the wilderness with the probable outcome that they would both die.

Review the previous tale when God destroys Sodom. Abraham was portrayed in the first side of the frame (Sarah’s Laughter) as an individual who was extremely hospitable. In the destruction of Sodom, he is pictured in the second side as a self-righteous defender of high ethical standards with his insistence on proportionality between the number of innocents killed and the effort to uproot evil through violence. If there are at least ten just men who would be sacrificed, the destruction should not take place. The members of a rich city, the mob of Sodomites, are on the opposite end of the spectrum. If Abraham was the epitome of hospitality, the Sodomites were the reverse. They appear to be driven by an enormous inchoate rage and ridden with xenophobia. They blame whatever anxiety and stress they are under on others, in this case, on two strangers. As God rattles his saber, as God expresses his extreme discontent and grievances at what this segment of humans have done – at least it is no longer all of humanity as in the story of the flood – Abraham appeals to evidence-based action and diplomacy while insisting that action be governed by ethical principles.

The story of Abraham’s diplomacy with humans as distinct from God begins with a new tale of how he deals with Abimelech, King of Gerar, as Abraham crosses the latter’s turf with his entourage. Sarah reappears in the extended narrative that forms the frame. Presumably when Abimelech’s minions confronted Abraham as he crossed the territory of Gerar, Sarah did not stay hidden in the tent eavesdropping on the conversation between Abraham and the men who confronted him as she had in the tale of the divine messengers. She was brought forth from the tent and introduced as Abraham’s sister.

Abraham did not say that she was his half-sister. Further his hospitality went a step further than it did with the three messengers. Presumably, either because of her stunning beauty, as had been described much earlier, or simply because Abimelech did not know she was infertile like his own wives, or for both reasons, she is taken by the soldiers back to their king. Abraham acquiesces.

Before the king could take advantage of the newly arrived concubine, God revealed himself in a dream and warned, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is married.” Abimelech responds by declaring his innocence – innocent of any act and innocent based on his ignorance that Sarah was married. As Abimelech pleads for his life, a reader cannot help but hark back to Abraham’s pleas on behalf of the people of Sodom, not because of their innocence, but because of the possible presence of a minyan (ten men) who are just living among the xenophobic mob. Abimelech confronts God, not based on an abstract ethical principle of proportionality, but on facts. He had not slept with her. “Oh Lord, will You slay people even though innocent?” Not only did Abraham lie to him, but Sarah evidently backed up the half-lie by insisting that Abraham was her brother. When Abimelech took Sarah to be included in his harem, his heart, he claimed, was blameless and his hands clean.

God never relented when Abraham pleaded with Him to spare Sodom if ten just men could be found to be living in the city. This time, God not only relents, but surprisingly takes the credit for Abimelech not sleeping with Sarah right away. God never let Abimelech touch Sarah. Abimelech’s heart was blameless and his hands clean. As a consequence, Abimelech would not die. Nor would his whole tribe have to be killed. Abimelech would only have to restore Sarah to Abraham, clearly a necessary condition if Sarah were to be able to eventually bear a child by Abraham.

God had clearly not absorbed and taken up the ethical principle of proportionality and the importance of weighing the consequences of death on the innocent in comparison to the number of evil men killed. In fact, merely because one man had allegedly sinned, the whole tribe would have to die. But God knew of his innocence. So why did God vex and try Abimelech in this way?

What did Abimelech do? He told his citizens the whole tale, presumably lest they lose their faith in him. Further, he called Abraham before him and accused him not only of abusing the hospitality of his hosts, but bringing such a great risk on the people of Gerar because of his offer of his wife and the half-lie that she was his sister. How does Abraham justify his action? This is not Sodom. The people had no need of fearing God, or so Abraham declared. But Abraham was afraid that, like the Sodomites, the people of Gerar would kill him to have their way with his wife.

If that were true, the people of Gerar, and, by extension, Abimelech, would have been no different than the people of Sodom. Further, it was God who told him to become a sojourner and when he did, he got Sarah, his half-sister, to promise that she would not disclose that she was his wife but would tell a half-lie and say she was his sister, even though she was only his half-sister. (They shared the same father but not the same mother.) Sarah promised not to tell any strangers that they encountered that she was married to Abraham.

Observe the progression of the characters. Observe the development of the themes. Abraham began as an obedient servant of God who followed God’s command to leave his homeland for the land of Canaan. However, although obedient, he remained an ordinary questioner when suggestions were made that occupied a realm beyond plausibility – namely that he and Sarah would have a child in their old age. The sceptic became a man of self-righteous principle and defender of sinners on the basis that innocents might be harmed. From an obedient servant to a self-righteous moralist, in the Abimelech story, he revealed himself to be a cynical coward, someone who would surrender his wife and half-sister to another simply out of the belief that strangers might murder him to have their way with her.

In another dimension of his character, he began as a generous host, progressed to become an intermediary between two forms of inhospitality, that of God who was intolerant of sinners and that of the Sodomites who were intolerant of strangers. Then Abraham himself became a stranger in the land of Abimelech. From one, who was the epitome of hospitality to strangers, he became a pleader before God, in effect, on behalf of xenophobes and then became himself a stranger. One who had once challenged and stood up to God’s judgement, had become a supplicant to a mortal king.

Sarah changed as well. She began hiding from strangers and treated a divine but implausible promise as it were a big joke. In the Sodom and Gomorrah tale, she was hidden altogether and made no appearance on stage. In the story of Abimelech, she came into the open and revealed herself to be a fellow liar alongside Abraham lest they risk Abraham’s life. If in the story of Sarah dealing with an implausible promise, her inner and outer being eventually joined hands to overcome her own self-image, in the story of the destruction of Sodom, she had no image at all. She did not appear. In the Abimelech tale, she revealed herself to be obsequious before her brother but wary of all others. From a hidden eavesdropper, she changed. But unlike Lot’s wife who looked back and became frozen in space in the form of a sculpture of salt, Sarah developed into an agent of change even if she was still subservient to her half-brother and husband.

However, in one interpretation, they are also both cursed for their joint lie. Abimelech may reward them with silver, slaves and animals and permit them to sojourn on the land, but he also curses them. In the Plaut translation, Abimelech addresses Sarah in Genesis 20:16. The text reads, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver that will serve as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” However, in a footnote, Plaut explains that “as vindication” literally means “a covering of the eyes.” The covering of whose eyes – those of the public who will no longer judge her for a believed transgression?  Or does the “blindness” literally refer to the curse that will also accompany the payoff because, it is prophesied, Isaac will become blind in his old age? Or is the reference very ironic. Since I naively fell for your lie, Abimelech asserts, your offspring (Isaac) will be cursed with naiveté for his entire life.

Of course, there is a double irony. In the earlier verse from Genesis (12:3) in a chapter which tells the tale of another wife-sister narrative, then with the Pharaoh, God promised that, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you.” But Abimelech in the interpretation above both blessed AND cursed Abraham and Sarah. If so, Abimelech must also be both blessed and cursed, blessed because his wives become fertile and cursed because his kingship will be riven with strife and, more importantly, envy. (See the third wife-sister narrative, then with Isaac and Rebekah, in chapter 26.) Abimelech realized this for in verse 20:9 he confronted Abraham and asked, “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done you that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to have been done.”

Through these three stories put before us in the run-up to the Akedah tale, natural needs and desires vie with abstract ethical principles with very different outcomes. Impossibility vies with plausibility. Faith in or skepticism of the other competes with faith in oneself. The significance of this side of the frame will await the analysis of the story of the binding of Isaac.

 

To be continued

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah

by

Howard Adelman

The first side of the frame for understanding the story of the binding of Isaac is the narrative about how Sarah received the message that in her old age she would have a child, a segment I titled “Sarah Laughs” (SL). The second of the four-sided frame is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G). It is revealing if we compare two themes in the two otherwise very very different narratives.

Hiding

  1. In SL, Abraham hid from Sarah the news that God had promised that she would become pregnant and Sarah hides within the tent and eavesdrops on the discussion between Abraham and God’s messengers.
  2. In S&G, God asks (Genesis 18:17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”

Note:

  1. a) One can almost hear God chuckling to Himself fully aware of the irony when He asks the question (and He asks, in contrast to Abraham and Sarah who act) as if He were considering whether He should behave in the same way that Abraham and Sarah did.
  2. b) What considerations go into God offering an answer? Two factors. First Abraham is to become the forefather of a great and populous nation and a blessing for all other nations. Second, Abraham has been chosen to defend what is just and right as a condition of the first – becoming a father of a great nation.
  3. c) We do not get an answer. The question appears to be rhetorical since, when Abraham pleads with God to save the city if a minimum of ten just men can be found within its walls, Abraham has to know God’s intentions just to plead with him. The contrast stands out. While God is totally transparent, Abraham and Sarah hide.

Pleading

  1. In SL, Abraham pleads with the three strangers to be their host.
  2. In S&G, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city if only 10 just men can be found who live there.
  3. a) Note the similarities between the two types of plea. In neither case does Abraham’s plea constitute begging. Abraham, in offering his hospitality to the three strangers in SL, does bow down and call himself a servant, but it is as a generous host. Secondly, both pleas are interpersonal; neither involves a formal, let alone written, petition.
  4. b) However, note the radical differences. In SL, the plea is an appeal both to the needs of the strangers and the demands of the norms of hospitality. Abraham entreats the three divine messengers in a most earnest and humble way. “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) In S&G, there is no bowing and scraping on Abraham’s part. Instead, Abraham does not even simply stand before the Lord; he approaches Him. Abraham walks towards God. He was being forward. There was no humility, no begging. Abraham’s intercession, his proposal, was an offer, a plea bargain.
  5. c) In SL, Abraham is successful – he gets the divine messengers to stop, stay and accept his hospitality. In S&G, Abraham is successful, not in stopping God, but in setting the conditions for a reprieve. Abraham does not achieve a stay of execution. Abraham does not even get God to send his angels to investigate. God announces: “I will go down to see whether they have acted in accordance with the complaints against the citizens.” (18:21) Abraham sets the conditions for a possible reprieve – if there are at least 10 just men in the town.
  6. d) Finally, in S&G, Abraham succeeds because of a rational argument rooted in the principle of proportionality. Even if only a few innocents are affected, no punishment should befall the city. But one need not be a purist. Nine innocents may be killed, Abraham establishes, but not ten. The principle of proportionality is determined by absolute numbers, not by a ratio. In SL, Abraham made an emotional appeal that implicitly evoked the principle of hospitality.

What is most noteworthy is that it is Abraham in both cases who establishes the rules of behaviour, not God.

What is the connection between humans hiding and God being transparent while, at the same time, humans are setting the standards for action rather than God? There seems to be no connection. For in one case, Abraham and Sarah (humans) hide and God does not. The second is not a contrast between human and divine behaviour, but between two different types of human behaviour apparently with the same designation.

However, on another level, there appears to be a connection. From God’s side, from the side of full transparency, we are dealing with either impossibilities (Sarah being attractive enough for Abraham to want to have sex with her and Sarah being able to bear children in her old age) or with normally unacceptable behaviour – destroying everyone in a city, infants and children as well, for the sins of their parents. However grave the sin, the destruction seems totally disproportionate.

In contrast, those who hide are fully understandable as actors, whether on the rational or the emotional plain. Their disbelief in the first case seems totally justifiable. Abraham’s offer of a plea bargain also seems to appeal to a higher sense of justification. But the evidence in the first case will be an event that seems impossible. The evidence in the second case – apparently no evidence is found to support Abraham’s conditions, that is, there are at least ten just men in the city – seems very likely, but proves to be impossible to find. These two expressions of the mixture of impossibility and implausibility, so characteristic of some of the best fiction, are what give each of the stories their power.

In the case of SL, the attitudes of Abraham and Sarah on first hearing the promise of a child is totally consistent, not only with their experience, but with ours as readers. In the case of S&L, Abraham’s plea seems most reasonable. It is God’s actions which come across as either totally impossible (SL) or totally unacceptable even if less than 10 non-sinning adults could not be found. If one thinks about it, God’s action seems totally unacceptable.

But why are supernatural events accepted in the first case but remain dubious in the second? The first operates in the realm of scientific possibility and, to go along with the narrative, one has to adopt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rule of thumb for the narrative to have any power – “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The second takes place in a realm in which evidence is required, not to support a fact and justify a belief, but to support an act and justify it.

Feasibility is operative in the first case. Desirability operates in the second. In the first, God’s actions disobey natural scientific law; what happens is biologically unfeasible. In the second, God’s action seems legally and ethically unnatural, not only with respect to the likelihood of finding ten innocents within the confines of a city, but with respect to natural ethical norms. In the two cases, the non-natural wins over the natural. But the non-natural in explicitly operating juxtaposed to natural scientific laws and natural ethical and legal norms.

In the SL tale, there are two human actors, Abraham and Sarah. In the S&G narrative, the tale of Abraham bargaining with God over standards for mass killing is succeeded by the story of Lot. Note the differences between the story of the strangers passing Abraham’s tent and the angels and their meeting with Lot.

SL                                     S&G

Number of strangers                 3                                           2

Location                        in front of a tent                  at the gate of the city

Appeal to self-interest   feel refreshed                   so the angels can get

away early

Method                            bow                                     bow, face to the ground

Behaviour                      eat outside                           enter the tent

Staying overnight          acceptance                           rejection

What follows is different in the two cases. In the first, Sarah equivocates.  In the second, an intolerant mob comes on the scene and demands that Lot surrender the strangers. Lot pleads with the mob rather than for divine intervention. But divine intervention comes with a literally blinding light. In SL, there is a promise. In S&G, Lot and his family are offered an escape. In SL, Sarah greets the promise as if it is a joke. When Lot pleads with his sons-in-law to leave, they treat his insistence as a jest. In SL, there is no use of force. In S&G, the angels seize the hands of Lot, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. They are urged to flee to the hills. Lot agrees to go there, but only when the strangers promise that the town be made a sanctuary. Then the annihilation of the population, the city and the vegetation follow.

There are two other differences. Sarah looks back in time and regrets her initial response to the promise. Lot’s wife looks back in space and I s reified as a pillar of salt. Second, Sarah gives birth as a result of sleeping with her husband. Lot’s two daughters each give birth as a result of incest with their father and give birth to nations, not rooted in laughter (Yitzhac or Isaac) with both its negative and positive associations. However, the Moabites and the Ammonites by their very names cannot forget that they were nations born in sin rather than a divine promise, for mo-av means “from my father” and ben-ammi means son of my paternal kin.

When I come back to the story of the Akeda, I will try to use these differences to show how an understanding of the words that came before the Akeda throw light on the meaning of the binding of Isaac story. By then I will have depicted the other two sides of the frame.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

Sarah Laughs

Towards an Interpretation: The Akedah (Binding of Isaac Genesis 22)

Sarah Laughs

by

Howard Adelman

Of the four classes of interpretation discussed in the last blog, this analysis offers notes for a discussion of which interpretation is best supported by the text. Except for the mystical one. That esoteric re-imaging of the text in terms of, for example, an analysis of the Hebrew alphabet, is omitted as a contender for two very non-objective reasons. First, I neither possess the tools nor the time to master the intricate tools of such an exercise. Second, I have no sympathy for, nor any temptation to, reinterpret Torah to fit an eastern cosmological religious view as offering a path of understanding towards the cosmic union of man and God through the forces of nature. That is not how I read the text nor see any reason to even make the effort. I also have no personal sympathy for esoteric mystical approaches in general.

As for the pietist existentialist interpretation of Sören Kierkegaard and his Jewish very learned cousins, such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they require attention. But, as I adumbrated in my last blog, I begin with very little sympathy for a pietist perspective, whether Christian of Jewish. Nevertheless, this type of interpretation is far too important to ignore. It will be relegated to the wings rather than occupying stage front. However, it will emerge to dominate the final scene, but in the opposite way to the one on offer. To begin, I will focus on two main contenders – the dominant traditional version of the text and the ethical evolutionary perspective prevalent in Reform circles and among a significant minority of Orthodox commentators.

Genesis 22:1

א  וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’

Instead of the, “It came to pass after these things”, the Plaut text and commentary begins in English with the simple introductory phrase, “Sometime afterward.” Both versions suggest a transition from the previous chapter that simply says “next.” This underplays the significance of the phrase, “אחר הדברים האלה”.

Rashi, however, takes the transition as significant and interprets “devarim” to mean “words” rather than the more generic “things”. He suggests that two references are involved. In his midrash on the text, he speculates that the reference is to the words of God, who, in an argument with Satan along Job lines, makes a verbal bet that if He asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Abraham would do it. A second reference is to words that Isaac had with Ishmael. Where the latter boasts of his willingness to sacrifice his foreskin at the age of thirteen when the operation is very painful and much slower to heal, Isaac insists that if his father asked him, he would go far beyond a willingness to sacrifice a mere fleshy part of one organ, but would willingly sacrifice his life if his father made such a request.

I take the text as significant. But my reference is not nearly so esoteric. The reference is to the words of the previous stories that preceded this chapter. They offer clues and adumbrate the meaning of the binding of Isaac. The events preceding this narrative set the stage for what is about to happen.

What are those events immediately prior in the words of the text? There are four narratives that serve to frame the story of the binding of Isaac. The first is the tale of the three strangers who pass by and are invited by Abraham to be his guests. The second is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The third is the tale of Abraham’s interaction with Abimelech. The fourth, the necessary prerequisite to the binding of Isaac, is the miraculous birth of Isaac borne by Sarah when she was very old.

Let’s start with the first story of the three strangers. The portion of the Torah, designated as Vayera, begins with Abraham idling in front of his tent on a hot afternoon when he looks up to see three men standing there. At once upon sighting them, he ran forward to greet them. Bowing before them, he invited them to partake of his hospitality by encouraging them to wash, refresh themselves with a drink and break bread with him. When they agree, Abraham instructs Sarah to bake fresh cakes and even sacrificed a calf to feed the three strangers veal cooked in milk. (Abraham was not kosher.)

After the strangers ate, they asked after his wife by name. How would they know her name? Without a pause, Abraham responds to the question rather than raising the subject of their knowledge of his wife. He replied, “In the tent.” One of the three strangers said, “Your barren wife will have a son” and I will return when the birth is due. Sarah, who had long before had become post-menopausal, laughed (inwardly as we shall see), not so much at the promise that she, at her age, could bear a child, but at the idea that Abraham would have any interest in having sex with herself as an old withered woman.

The stranger who spoke, now explicitly referred to as the Lord, asks Abraham why Sarah was so scornful for no deed is impossible for God to perform. Further, and significantly, God seems to interpret the laughter as focused, not on the ridiculousness of Abraham wanting to lay with her, but on her inability to bear children. God now repeats the promise that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah, in fear and trembling, and frightened for her life at the thought of who was speaking, then lies. She denies she laughed. God insists that she did and tells her, leaving us with the puzzle of how He could address her face-to-face when she hid herself in the folds of the tent.

What are we to make of this story?  What will it have to do with the binding of Isaac? In Genesis 21:6, after giving birth, Sarah says, “And God brought me laughter.” She was overjoyed at the birth of her son at her stage of life. Her laughter was also one of incredulity. She names her son, “laughter,” that is, Isaac. And Isaac will grow into a man bemused by his very existence at the same time as he enjoyed a rich life with two wives and two radically different twins, one, pondering, serious, very physical and very loyal, and the other, a mother’s boy and a schemer.

Abraham, in contrast, in this portion never laughs. But at the end of the previous portion which offers another version of the same tale, it reads that

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed (vayitzchak) at the suggestion that he and Sarah would have a child, not because he had lost interest in Sarah as a sexual being, but because both were so old. He did not laugh inwardly but was outward and at full volume. His laughter is interpreted traditionally as an expression of wonder and joy in contrast to Sarah’s incredulity and scorn at the idea. But the plain reading of the text provides no indication that Abraham and Sarah’s laughter were expressions of different responses and, if one is not reading into the text, one comes away with the impression that in both cases, both future parents expressed disbelief.

The difference is that in the second account, Sarah denies she laughed. Further, it may be Abraham who insists that she did laugh in spite of her denial. However, unlike Abraham who fell over himself in raucous laughter, Sarah laughed inwardly (bekirbah) and to herself and at her innards, at the thought that her womb could have a placenta, at the thought that she once again in old age could be attractive enough for a man to want to enter into her, and inwardly because she could not laugh freely and out loud. Therefore, she was telling the truth when she denied laughing, meaning she denied laughing in any noticeable way. The absence of open laughter was a sign of a locked womb, a womb not open to the seemingly impossible. The silent laughter recognized by the holy messenger was the opening needed to allow Sarah to become pregnant.

Therefore, when God or the angel insists that Sarah did laugh, he may have been remonstrating Abraham for not telling her so that, like Abraham, she would not have to be surprised when the three angels appeared. Was this a setup to let us know that Abraham had doubted God so much that he never even told Sarah the news such was the extent of his disbelief? If that were the case, then Abraham endorsed the denial. But God knew. God knew that Sarah laughed even though she, unlike Abraham, only laughed to herself.

Why did Sarah deny she laughed and then later embrace that laughter? What was she afraid of? In an orthodox and unimaginative interpretation, Sarah’s denial simply meant humans are not to mock God. But there is no indication she mocked God. Disbelief is not the same as mockery.

When Sarah laughs the second time when Isaac is born and she names him, it is both in celebration and recognition of the absurdity of the whole event as well as the possibility that she herself may become a laughing stock for bearing a child at such an advanced age. The root letters of Yitzhak are tzadi-het-kuf [tz-h-k] – as well as Gen. 18:12-15, see Gen 17:17; 21:6 and 21:9 – unequivocally referring to the sheer joy at the miraculousness of the event. But the celebration is peppered with the previous disbelief and scepticism. Further, the delivery of the child comes at a time in life when she can only expect to enjoy the beginning of her son’s life but not delight in his maturity and in her grandchildren. It is a bitter-sweet moment.

In what way does that laughter and the denial prefigure the Akedah story? Is it possible that Isaac accompanied his father up the mountain in a bemused state? Then Isaac’s behaviour would not so much be an expression of faith in both God and his father, but as a distant amused detachment. More significantly, have we been alerted to reading the Akedah story with the same mixture of disbelief and amazement? If so, why?

My daughter, Rachel, wrote a commentary called “Wise Women: On Laughing and Remembering” published in Project Muse. (https://www.academia.edu/5800266/On_Laughter_and_Re-membering?auto=download) (pp. 230-244) She noted that not only did Sarah laugh to herself, but there is no depiction of any face-to-face encounter with the three supposed angels. So how could they know she laughed? If the three were mere mortals, they would laugh for it would be quite natural and an expected response which would be foolish to deny. Who would not laugh at the idea of a ninety-year-old woman bearing a child? And if they were all-seeing and all knowing, why would they ask about Sarah’s whereabouts?

They could ask precisely because they knew. Sarah, on the other hand, hides herself at the doorway of the tent. Like Eve, she hides when confronted. It is not God who is hidden, but humans who hide from themselves. Even on a relatively very minor response, such as bemusement, one is accountable and transparency is demanded. But rarely given. While Plato focused on the need for people to come into the open and in the sunlight to really know the truth, Biblical tales focus on the hiding, on living in the shadows. There is more truth discovered in exploring those shadows. As Rachel wrote, what we have is not a Kierkegaardian suspension of the ethical, but a coming face-to-face with reality. To believe she would have a child, Sarah would have to embrace a “teleological suspension of the credible.”

But that is precisely what the story is about. Sarah’s laughter adumbrates and sets the stage for that which is incredulous – that Abraham would willingly and without complaint sacrifice his son upon God’s orders, that Isaac, who was far stronger than his old father, would quietly comply with being tied up and lying on an altar to be sacrificed. We are in the arena of the incredulous. And, after all, that is what laughter is about – recognizing the incredulous. And, as my daughter wrote, in order for Sarah to give birth to a child, she had to not only learn to laugh, but to laugh openly and in joy, not in mockery and scorn, but in an expansive, inclusive and joyful way. “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The inner and the outer had to join hands, not in a metaphysical union with a cosmic consciousness, but in a concrete and embodied union of the inner and the outer, not so much the projection thrown by a background light of one’s own image on the wall of a cave produced by others, but in order that one can transcend one’s own self-image.

Halloween has just passed, a night in which children hide themselves behind masks and costumes as they seek out the sweet pleasures of the world. I suggest that the Akeda may be more about family politics and psychology than about the “suspension of the ethical,” that is about the dialectic of the physical and the metaphysical, not to escape this world into a unity with a cosmic consciousness, but to dance with joy in the dialectic of the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac (Akedah Genesis 22:1-24)

by

Howard Adelman

It is not enough that the parsha of the past week (Vayera Genesis 18-22) is an amalgam of so many short stories – the strangers who visit Abraham and ask after his wife; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; the miraculous birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Sarah and Ishmael as well as the concluding binding of Isaac – but the key and final one has so many different inconsistent interpretations at the same time as it is generally regarded as the central and most important narrative of Judaism. Let me begin with a simplistic classification of various interpretations, simplistic because it emphasizes differences more than overlaps, and simplistic because it ignores the many variations within each type. Keep in mind that hermeneutics cannot be separated from the interpretations and lessons for life implied in the different interpretations.

I Ethical Superiority

One of the strongest traditions of interpretation is to regard the story as a tale of the superiority of Israelites compared to the surrounding tribes and the superiority of the Jewish God to competitors such as Baal. Non-Israelites sacrificed children to their god; the Hebrews did not. This story is the instantiation of that ethic. Abraham’s action is one of obedience, but not of blind obedience. The tension exists between two imperatives at work in Abraham – the imperative of faith and the imperative of love for his son. Man’s inner conscience is reconciled with God’s will where a balance is struck between the divine and the human.

However, the emphasis is on God’s original intention rather than on an evolving ethos in which humans play a major role. Obedience is favoured because ritual observance is at risk if the priority is not given to obedience. themselves embody the tension rather than overcoming them. Though that law is fallible, it is still rooted in divine authority that demands respect even as one debates the meaning and implications.

II Evolutionary Ethics

The above position is criticized for stressing the binding of Isaac as akin to the binding of all Jews to follow traditional Halakhah. This evolutionary ethical school tends to emphasize reason over obedience and takes ritualist observance off its lofty pedestal for a number of reasons. In the contemporary world, for most Jews observance and adherence to Jewish values are weakened rather than strengthened by emphasizing strict obedience. Further, norms have different roles and interpretations in different historical and cultural contexts. They are justified by a multiplicity of values and adherence requires an act of balancing rather than repression. Further, as historical relics, they do not in the end represent original law but an accumulation of which much may be detritus.

The ancient Israelites engaged in child sacrifice. Many of the biblically mandated laws reflect the social values of the time. The issue is not Israelite superiority at the time, but the revelation of a divine direction over time as we morally intuit or use reason in interpreting Torah to discover our moral compass and comprehend the divine will. In that context, the story reflects an internal tension among the Hebrews between values that condoned child sacrifice and values that viewed child sacrifice as immoral. The lesson is not one of obedience through which one can discover God’s will, but the question and inquiry about that will as discovered through the interpretation of the narrative. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, what does God want of Abraham?

Thus, the tension in the story is between the antiquarian notion of absolute obedience, even in following an authoritative command that is clearly intuited as wrong, and the emerging ethos of mercy, charity and justice. The Akedah does not endorse blind obedience but insisted that obedience had to be balanced with mercy and a sense of justice. In the first version above of the tension, that of ethical superiority, obedience emerges on top. In the second version, the vote is cast in favour of human choice and sense of ethical responsibility. Thus, in both I and II, there is a partnership of man and God. In the second, the Torah is dynamic and allows for understanding and comprehending how rationality and faith can be reconciled, but in favour of reason. In the first, there is also not an either/or but a both/and wherein obedience has the upper hand.

III Evolutionary Mysticism

Evolutionary mysticism offers a radical contrast of the above two positions which view Abraham as an agent who can run on two tracks – express absolute service to God’s commands and act to balance a call for absolute obedience with an ethic of mercy and justice. Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the story offer a totally contrasting cosmology rooted in Neoplatonism and the fundamental structure of most eastern religions. A mainstream of this Jewish mysticism can be found in Hasidism and those followers of Kaballah who see the Hebrew alphabet as the key to unlocking the mysteries of Torah.

An enlightenment modern orthodox interpretation, as in the example of I above, holds that God, and the norms God bequeaths to the Israelites through the law, through Halakha, are expressions of God’s power. God demands absolute obedience even at the risk of violence and bloodshed. God is all powerful and wholly other. In that view, Abraham, in complying with God’s commands, gave testimony to such a faith even in the most excruciating case possible, a willingness to kill his one son delivered to him by a miracle in Sarah’s old age. Normal human sympathies stand at odds to obedience. Abraham demonstrates his faith through obedience and the divine reveals Himself to be a God of mercy and justice, staying Abraham’s hand.

In contrast, version II suggests that Halakha (and Torah) is sometimes immoral and that it is the responsibility of humans through their actions and interpretations of God’s will to put in place a higher morality that is part of God’s intention, if not of his apparent convictions at one point in history. The emphasis is on God’s self-revelation over time. Halakha can be immoral when it complies with a predominant morality and ethos of the time. It is the duty of humans to look into the pattern of revelation and intuit or discern God’s intention. The position, in lacking a transcendent moral compass, risks interpreting what ought to be by what is.

Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the Akeda story takes no such risk, not by expressing the absolute transcendence of God to the natural world, as in modern orthodoxy, or interpreting history as the dialectical realization of the tension between the two in favour of the emergence of a higher morality, but through a religion that unites the natural and the transcendent by making the latter fully immanent in this world in a religion of interiority as Peter Singer characterizes all mystical religious expressions. Religion is not about confrontation. Religion is not about reconciliation. Religion is about the process of harmonizing the human and the divine which are never really at odds, for the goal is facilitating the dissolution of the self in the oneness of God.

Thus, Judaism is not a story of the war between God and Baal, nor the story of how a tribe which, on the popular level, shared in the practices of Baal overcame those practices to achieve a higher ethical order, but a tale of the unity of the natural and the divine, a unity in difference, a world which in all its expressions are projections of one divine being that allows the isolated self to be absorbed in a greater unity.

In the writings of Milt Markewitz or Ken Hoffman (http://natureslanguage.com/stories/7-the-binding-of-isaac), Abraham travelled from Kadish to Shir as primarily a time of interior reflection and transformation more that a physical movement towards the mountain on which he would bind Isaac and offer his son as a sacrifice to God. The Hebrew language, and Hebrew letters more particularly, express the revelation of the one divine cosmic force that allows for rebirth in a transformed self that now enjoys a oneness with God. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the confrontational character of Abraham’s relationship with God is finally overcome. “abc

Without getting into the details and the structure of the mode of Kabbalistic interpretation, and without tasking the reader with any effort to make the interpretation clear, but to get the flavour of the interpretation, a few quotes convey the cosmological order and this hermeneutical method shown by “the Dallet in the word Kadish, and …the Vav in the word Shir,” the latter an expression of the cosmic force that facilitates a new birth, the coming into being of a new person. Instead of the divine and the human existing in tension, the story is a tale of their combination, of their merger. “This famous Biblical story is generally understood to be about G*d asking Abraham, Isaac’s father, to sacrifice Isaac. The name of this Torah portion is Aiqidat and when we look at the Hebrew spelling, there is both the recurring pattern and insight into the essence of the story…The two Cosmological forces Tav—birth, and Qof–the lifedeath-life cycle, combine to create Archetypal birth–Dallet, from which Existential possibility–Ayn, and life-death-life—Yod, emerge. Clearly, we have a story about birth, driven by cosmological forces, and full of life and possibilities.” In this interpretation, Abraham is in constant communion with God through nature.

“Revelation was facilitated by our Hebrew language, in which each character is a sacred geometry of sound and shape—a symbiotic energy with every other character. The language kept us deeply connected to place both locally and globally, as well as to time—past, present and future—from which emerged the ethics of how we must live each day. It was this language that informed us of our cosmology, and our responsibility to maintain the balance and harmony with which we are blessed.” “Hebrew is no longer a shamanic language–the characters exist as letters but their energy and meaning has been lost. Also, our oral tradition has been largely replaced with the written word. Without the language and the conversations, we’ve lost the capacity for deep understanding. You read the Torah as if you know it is Truth, but the Truth has been obscured by written words that lack energy, and, paradoxically, an ambiguity that is necessary if our stories are to retain their essence.”

A story which appears to be about a father commanded by God to kill his son is really a story about revelation, a successful test of adversity overcome to ensure perpetuation.

IV Pietism: The Story as a Conundrum of Faith

In this version, God is inscrutable. Why would He order his singular acolyte to sacrifice his beloved son who is born only through the grace of God rather than any natural pattern? Abraham obeys without challenge or question. The narrative is the ultimate expression of piety. As in the mystical version, a personal transformation takes place. There is a spiritual rebirth and renewal. But it rests not in the mystical meaning of the language of the story, but in solid everyday practices of piety and devotion, an emphasis which emerges from the tradition of the Lutheran pietism of Sören Kierkegaard who was brought up in a Moravian household that resisted the imposition of “new” catechisms and hymns that were more in tune with the times and spoke to how people behaved in ordinary life. For Kierkegaard, religion was not a mechanism for being uplifted, but a means to challenge one’s complacency and become aware of the extraordinary demands God presents to humans.

First, there is a revolt against any of the various forms of intellectual understanding of the story, whether via a mystic understanding of the secrets of the Hebrew language and its letters, an ethical comprehension of an unveiling of higher norms in history or traditional rabbinic commentaries on text that reconcile the ethical and the divine which openly stand in tension. In the existential pietism of Kierkegaard, the emphasis is on faith versus reason. What God has asked Abraham to do is absolutely unreasonable. So why in Abraham’s evident willingness to kill his own son is Abraham treated as a great prophet and closer to God than anyone except Jesus?

As in the mystical interpretation of the tale, in Kierkegaard there is an emphasis on inwardness, but not an inwardness that leads to a reunion with an all-encompassing divine cosmic force, but an inwardness expressed in decisions and actions. Abraham is not engaged in a mystical exercise. He decides to do what God tells him to do. He collects the wood. He musters his servants. He travels for three days. But in the process, he experiences not a lifting of the self into a transcendent sphere, but an immersion into the angst of the human-all-too-human. Kierkegaard in his midrash reimagines the utter despair of Abraham caught between his absolute faith in God and his total devotion of and love for his son.

True and deep religion is not reconcilable with reason but rather challenges reason’s claim on absolute authority. God is not a god of reason but a god that demands a commitment of faith by those who worship at God’s feet. The issue was not adapting the church to conform to the conventional, but challenging believers to understand the profundity and the terror of what was being asked of them.

In that sense, the Abraham of Fear and Trembling is the archetypal religious figure. Abraham is a “knight of faith,” not because he challenges the predominant ethos of Baal at the time, not because he serves as a step in the emergence of a higher ethos, not because his trip is a mystical much more than a physical one in which he is transformed and allowed to become one with the divine, but one who recognizes that what God has asked him to do is totally unethical. The test of faith is whether one is willing to obey God even when one knows that the commandment goes against all common sense, all decency and is even a betrayal of the covenant God once made with Abraham. The story is one of a teleological suspension of the ethical as Abraham absolutely submits to God’s will which is not only unreasonable but insists that reason itself must be set aside if one’s faith is being tested.

What is a contemporary Jew to make of such a schism between the realm of faith and the realm of reason and ethics? More specifically, what is a Jew to do with Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Isaac as one who does not accept his father’s behaviour but is more than bewildered? Isaac cringes. Isaac begs for his life to be spared. Isaac appeals to the memories of the joys they had together. Abraham both consoled his son and admonished him. And Isaac could not understand his father’s decisions and actions.

Isaac is portrayed as the snivelling, cowardly and conniving Jew who will use anything to save his own life and can never understand his father. And Abraham acts (it is a performance) like a wild rogue and sacrifices his son’s belief in him so that Isaac can retain his faith in God. Jews are descended of this failure to take the leap of faith by Isaac that Abraham took.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz ignored this pietist depiction of Jewish failure to accept a God who would sacrifice his only son so that humans can be saved. Leibowitz ignored the barely latent antisemitism of the interpretation. In Leibowitz’s existentialist re-interpretation of Kierkegaard’s version, unlike previously, Abraham was silenced when ordered to sacrifice his own son. Abraham does not confront God for His contradictory behaviour and the apparent emptiness of his promises. Leibowitz offers a Jewish version of unconditional faith not bound by accepted moral norms.

In contrast, and in the name of one version of evolutionary ethics, David Hartman accepted this existentialist interpretation of the tale, but challenged the binding of Isaac as the archetypal core of religious life in which Jewish survival depended upon surrender and total obedience to God’s will requiring the suspension of one’s reason and one’s ethical convictions. Instead, the archetypal story is that of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham challenges God with a call of the ethical. Abraham in obeying God’s crazy command is a madman who is unable to question or challenge God; he is not an exemplar of faith and courage.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order

Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order

by

Howard Adelman

We are into anniversaries – the 50th year since the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara, was captured in Bolivia and the signing of The Outer Space Treaty bringing modern law of the open seas into space law. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but also the Bolshevik Revolution and the defeat of German troops by the British in the Battle of Broodseinde signally the eventual defeat of Germany. It is the 150th anniversary since Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of the Species, and since Canada was created as a country. Finally, this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing or gluing his 95 theses on a church door signalling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

But what did we study in our Torah study group last week – God’s covenant of the promised land with Abraham and the circumcision of Abraham and his entourage as a sign of that covenant. (Genesis 17: 1-14, the ending of the parsha, Lech-Lecha – see below) This week – Vayeira, Genesis 18-22 – begins with the controversy over who were the three individuals who appeared at the opening of Abraham’s tent and asked about the well-being of his wife, Sarah.

Strangely, all of the above events are connected. Let me begin with the most absurd claim, that the ritual of Jewish circumcision had any relationship to the above momentous historical events. In the Torah, circumcision is not recorded as an act of health to reduce the chances of venereal diseases and of AIDS and, in modern parlance, to ensure the survival of the fittest. Although Talmudists depict the act as removing a defect and the ritual an act of human intervention to advance the cause of perfection, circumcision is much more significant as a sign.

From the ancient Hellenistic-Roman world, when circumcision was regarded as a barbarous act, to the modern world when circumcision is seen to conflict with a reverence for “the natural” and inflicting pain on a child regarded as an abuse of rights, circumcision was connected with misanthropy. In response, circumcision has been defended by Jews as an improvement over a natural defect that, without correction, led to disease and sometimes even death. The link to a deficiency is reinforced when Moses referred to his stutter as “having uncircumcised lips.”

However, Ezekiel viewed circumcision, not as a minor flaw to correct an imperfection, but as a major transformation. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) He was not talking about cleaning out the coronary arteries, performing a valve replacement or even using surgery to correct a thickening of the walls of the heart in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but a transplant operation wherein one obtains a new heart. Circumcision is a sign of a covenant between God and his people that will give them a new spirit. Circumcision is not, as it was for Philo, the excision of an unwanted and even evil presence, literally a catharsis, an excision of desire and vanity, but a process of being reborn with a new name and a new mission. Possessing a foreskin is not a mark of Cain; it is not a defilement. However, its removal is an opportunity.

Christians took the revolutionary transformational rather than reform version of circumcision a step further. One did not even have to imprint the revolution in one’s flesh, for faith in Jesus alone would bring about the transformation. One merely needed to surrender oneself to Christ. As Paul said, the “true” Israelites are “not children of the flesh…but the children of the promise.” What does such a debate have to do with the Cuban revolution and with Outer Space as a realm for the whole human race and not just for the powerful? What does it have to do with the Bolshevik Revolution, the British defeat of Germany in WWI and the instantiation of Zionism into international law with the Balfour declaration? More significantly, what does it have to do with Darwin’s theory of natural selection and with Martin Luther?

The Darwinian connection, ironically, is the easiest to answer, though only in a simplified form; natural selection is the scientific inversion of the theological doctrine of divine election. Circumcision certainly has a great deal to do with election and promise. For God promises Abraham, of which circumcision is a sign, two things – that he will be the forefather of many nations and that his direct descendants, the Israelites, will be a nation that will possess the land of Canaan. Christian Zionists, who preceded Jewish Zionists, married the two tracks of the Abraham covenant by viewing their own nation in the Enlightenment world as one of many nations chosen to fulfill the covenant, but that the Jews had a unique role for they had to be restored to their land for the covenant for all nations to be fulfilled. For some Christians, this also meant that all Jews had to be converted to a belief in Christ in order to bring about the Second Coming. For other Christians, these millenarian beliefs were independent and not linked to restorationism.

When I was entering my teens, there was a storefront just north of Bloor Street on Markham Street in the City of Toronto that offered an outreach to Jews. I recall distinctly going into their small office and receiving a nickel (5 cents) if I promised to read the pamphlet they handed me. Much later in my life, I would host a television program for twelve years on a Christian evangelical station which, contrary to widespread belief in the Jewish community, did not expect or push Jewish conversion to Christianity, or even expect that mass Jewish conversion to happen as a precursor to the Second Coming, but instead believed in restorationism, in a resurrected Israel as the precursor to a resurrected Jesus. Further, the term Israel was also detached from its specific association with the Jewish people and linked to a self-definition of one’s own nation as one also descended spiritually from Abraham.

Between these two periods, in 1980 I undertook an investigation of the source of the promise of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1979 to move the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a promise that turned into a fiasco. My link began with a meeting in early spring of 1979 convened by the Canadian Jewish lobby group to solicit the advice of Irving Abella, Harry Crowe and myself, about whether the Canadian organization advancing the cause of Israel in Canada should act on Prime Minster Begin’s request that Canadian Jews lobby the Canadian government to make such a move. The three of us thought it was a bad idea, very unlikely to happen and likely would result in a terrible backlash.

In the 1979 Canadian election, the Tories adopted such a program and the Jewish lobby was riven with suspicion and divisions over whether the professionals in the Jewish organization had betrayed the board of directors by advancing such an effort even though the board had deliberately not adopted such a program. I knew the executive had not been responsible. But then why did the Tories adopt the platform? When I was in Israel that winter, I heard a bizarre explanation. Before the election, Joe Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, in the company of friends, a Jewish couple without a close connection to the organized Jewish community or Zionism, had visited Israel and Jordan. They were feted in Israel. While in Jordan, the king had made them wait for two hours before granting them an audience. Maureen was particularly stirred up by this insult that so contrasted with the way they had been treated in Israel; she pushed Joe to adopt the policy of Canada moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

I thought the Israeli explanation was far-fetched at the very least and ill-fitted my knowledge of the extraordinary norms of hospitality of Arabs in general and of the royal household in Jordan more particularly. In any case, how could such an intemperate fit, itself incredible, result in the Tories adopting the decision? When I returned, I determined to research the issue and publish my findings – which I did. The results of the scholarship had virtually no impact on the widespread belief in the Jewish community that the Tories had been influenced by some of the Jewish community’s professional staff, in spite of an absence of any authorization to lobby for such a move, and by the goal of winning ridings in which Jews were a significant presence.

The truth was both more mundane and far more fascinating. A 5-person Tory policy committee dominated by Christian Zionists and led by Lowell Murray, a policy advisor to Joe Clark, (Murray was named a senator after Joe Clark took power on 4 June 1979) had met prior to the election campaign and adopted as part of the Tory program the promise to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem. Thus, the Canadian Conservative policy in 1979 had a kinship with the Balfour declaration and the efforts of David Lloyd George to implement what he had learned in Sunday school.

This interpretation of the significance of Britain’s imminent defeat of Germany, creating political space for the realization of restorationism, was deeply entrenched in British history, not simply in the Christian Zionist writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury, but in the theology of John Calvin versus that of Martin Luther. Both Calvin and Luther were “literalists” opposed to the manifold treatment of the biblical texts via metaphor, allegory (as in preterism, the belief that prophecies were merely allegories for actual historical events that had already taken place) and analogy. Both believed in the necessity of a Jewish mass conversion preceding the Second Coming. However, Marin Luther became enraged by Jewish resistance and became openly and strongly anti-Semitic. Calvin never abandoned his belief in Jewish restoration.

In America, Calvinism became associated with an obsession with God’s chosen people, a national belief in American exceptionalism and the singular mission of the American nation as well as the Protestant ethic and a reverence for individualism. It was also rooted in hermeneutics. John Winthrop in his well-known “City upon a hill” speech in 1630 as the Puritan Governor of Massachusetts described the Puritans in America as persecuted refugees who had inherited a special covenant with God and a special mission in history. This Christian Zionism was also put forth by John Cotton and his disciple, Increase Mather, who became president of Harvard.

When did the Jewish return to Palestine, restorationism, get divorced from the belief in mass Jewish conversion as a prerequisite for the Second Coming, with millenarian hopes? I believe it came about by the creation of what my colleague, Sanford Levinson, depicted as the Constitutional Faith that underpins the American view of the world and their place in it. For unlike Winthrop, who resisted the expansion of civil and political rights and refused to codify the laws governing the colony, the Constitutional Faith emerged as a belief in a civic religion rooted in the rule of law that can be established without any requisite preconditions, least among them, mass conversion of the Jews. It was this civic religion that painted King George III as the anti-Christ and provided the theological foundation for the Revolutionary War even though Cromwell a century earlier had believed in restorationism and had allowed the Jews to once again reside in Britain. Bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been adopted as the American vision.

However, Christian Zionism, globalization and the rights of free passage across the seas and through space had even earlier roots in Hugo Grotius’ On the Law of War and PeaceDe Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres as long as one does not rely on Louise Loomis’ 1949 translation which leaves out most of the Jewish references. Grotius was a seventeenth century Dutch Arminian. He read Hebrew and Jewish exegetes rather than relying on the Latin text of the Bible. He was a follower of the Dutch Reformed theologian, Jacobus Arminus, who grew up immersed in Calvinist theology but, along with his Remonstrant colleagues, emphasized election and the role of grace in freeing men as well as the freedom of the individual to receive or deny that grace. They believed in biblical scriptural interpretation as the mode of determining who can be saved. Grotius as a Remonstrant opposed the Calvinism of the Gomarists.

Grotius was a nationalist who opposed Spanish domination, but a nationalist who believed that nations could live in peace and prosperity if they all abided by a universal law binding all humanity. Hence, the Just Theory of War. He, along with Thomas Goodwin and John Wycliffe, viewed the Jewish restoration to their covenantal land as a sine qua non for the full flowering of international law.

Grotius, along with John Owen and Joseph Mede, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, were restorationists rather than revolutionaries, and realists rather than millenarists. America, as its national belief system evolved, had a special mission. Under Abraham Lincoln, Americans fought a war for the universal rights of man rather that the particularist rights of slave holders. When Abraham Lincoln met the Canadian, Henry Wentworth Monk, in 1863, they discussed the unique role of each of their nations, one in gestation and the other engaged in a bitter fight between twins.

Lincoln had joked about his Jewish podiatrist who had been the source of his ability to stand without pain on his own two feet and joined with Monk in lauding a new moral order, with Monk stressing the prerequisite condition of restoring Jews to their own land in Palestine which, for Monk, was a precondition for Christ’s second advent. Lincoln, though he admired Monk, signed the Emancipation Proclamation and expressed sympathy for the ideal of restoring the Jews to Palestine, but was never allowed time to implement that dream. In light of the controversies this past week over John Kelly’s remarks on the secessionist, General Robert E. Lee, and the issue of compromise or no compromise with advocates of slavery, Monk took up both positions and impossibly urged compromise on secession, but only if the South agreed to free its slaves and abolish slavery.

Monk advocated a world government based in Jerusalem and globalization rooted in the age of railways and steamships, telegraphs and newspapers. Unlike Hugo Grotius, who died as a result of the injuries and ill heath resulting from his shipwreck, Monk was restored to health in spite of coming close to death in the wreck of his ship off the cost of Massachusetts. He survived for several decades living on his family farm in the Ottawa Valley and promoting not only restoration of the Jews to Palestine, but the creation of an international court to ensure world peace, a vision adopted by the Conservative leader, George Moffat, and eventually developed by the Dutch heirs of Hugo Grotius that led to the founding of the international court in The Hague.

Thus are great international innovations and nationalist visions a by-product of debates over circumcision.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Redemption

Redemption

by

Howard Adelman

In the days leading up to the High Holy Days in Judaism, Rabbi Splansky last evening ran a seminar to discuss the Um’taneh Tokef, the central poem in the High Holy Days liturgy that begins, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water…” By way of introduction, Yael began with a short story called, “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” taken from the 1966 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Shai Agnon, from his Days of Awe.

Agnon in “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” claims to have found a manuscript by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Mainz who in turn claimed to have discovered how Rabbi Amnon of Mainz composed this liturgical poem, a claim as fictional as Agnon’s tale for its core is found in the much earlier Cairo Geniza. Rabbi Amnon is introduced in superlatives — great, rich, of good family, handsome, and, to top it off, “well-formed.” Thus, the loss of his extremities will be even a greater loss. Though the story reads like a horror tale, anyone familiar with the efforts of forced conversion of Jews by Christians in the Middle Ages will find that, in its details, Shai Agnon’s story resonates with actual historical truth.

The Archbishop of Regensburg, along with the lords of the realm, demanded that Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. Under constant pressure, Rabbi Amnon finally conceded that he needed three days to reflect on the matter and take the proposal under advisement. Why did he say this? To buy time. And that was his sin, which he quickly recognized. The issue was not his fear of what might happen to him if he failed to take the demand of the Archbishop seriously. His sin, according to the story, was conceding that he had to think about it when, according to his Jewish faith, there was nothing to think about.

For Jews lived in awe of a “living God.” Christians worshipped at the feet of a god who had died and been resurrected as a sacrifice for human sins. Having asked for time to think about the choice was to admit there was possibly a real choice and that, in itself, was not a matter of making room for reason for his faith, but an act undermining his faith altogether.

He stopped eating and drinking. He became dreadfully sick. Like Job, he refused consolation. “‘I shall go down to the grave mourning, because of what I have said.’ And he wept and was sad of heart.” When the archbishop summoned him on the third day, Rabbi Amnon refused to go. The archbishop sent a force that compelled Amnon to appear before him. In answer to the question about an explanation for his non-appearance, Amnon did not begin with the discussion of his failure, but with his punishment. “Let the tongue that spoke and lied to you be cut out.”

However, the archbishop imposed his own punishment, for the sin was not in what Amnon had agreed to, but in Amnon failing to come before him. So instead of lopping off his tongue, Amnon’s feet were severed. And then each finger in turn. Before having each chopped off, Amnon was given a chance to repent. At each point that he refused, another finger was severed. Amnon’s dismembered but still living body was sent home on a shield with his severed members at his side.

As the Days of Awe approached, Rabbi Amnon asked his relatives to carry him exactly in the state that he had been returned to his family and laid beside the reader reciting the High Holy Day prayers. The climax came when the reader came to the Kedushah, the prayer sanctifying God. Amnon sanctified God’s name then and there, sanctified the Day of Awe then and there, by dying and, in dying that way, offering testimony for the truth of God’s sovereignty, for the sake of God’s unity – in contrast to the Christian theology of the Trinity – to honour God as Judge, to honour history as the ultimate arbiter.

And what rose up from the dying rabbi? Not the resurrection of the rabbi’s body, but the ascent of Rabbi’s severed feet and fingers. Why feet and hands? To justify the verdict. To demonstrate that “the seal of every man’s hand” is on the verdict of history. It is in this sense, that his fate was decreed — not foretold — on Rosh Hashanah. That is how Rabbi Amnon expressed “the powerful sanctity of the day.”

How and why does this tale express the meaning of the Um’taneh Tokef, the powerful poem at the centre of the High Holy Days liturgy?

First, it is irrelevant whether this story was historically true and whether a Rabbi Amnon had ever lived and been martyred in this way, or, alternatively, whether the story is apocryphal and a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz never existed. In the latter version, Amnon is an anagram, a rearrangement of the letters of the Hebrew, “Ne’eMaN” meaning faithful. Amnon does not ask on his deathbed why God has forsaken him, but expresses, to the fullest extent possible, his faith in a “living God,” a god that lived in him when he was alive. Why hands? Why feet? Because they had been severed from his body yet he was still alive. He still lived to give testimony to his faith. Even laying on the shield on the bima beside the reader on Rosh Hashanah, he could give testimony to his faith. That faith determined what it meant to lead a Jewish life, what it meant to express the sanctity of the day, what it meant to pass on the memory of an incident, whether historically true or apocryphal. Further, Rabbi Amnon was not alone with that responsibility, for everyone’s hands contributed to seal Rabbi Amnon’s fate. In turn, it was Rabbi Amnon who was atoning, not only for his own error, but for everyone’s, including the hands of the legal and religious authorities who had severed his limbs.

Did Rabbi Amnon live ever after in heaven after he vanished from the earth?  There is no such suggestion in the story. Rather it is the story itself that, re-told, testifies to God’s goodness. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the story. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the tongue the Archbishop decided not to sever.

The fuller meaning of the tale comes forth when it is juxtaposed with the Um’taneh Tokef part of the High Holy Day liturgy chanted when the Torah ark is open in words allegedly composed by Rabbi Amnon himself which I have appended. Note the essence of the tale. Amnon was a handsome and rich “well-formed” man. He enjoyed a tremendous reputation for his good works and his inspiring words. But, in his own light, he sinned. He said he would think about the proposal of the archbishop asking him to consider conversion. The sin was a sin of speech and not deeds. Like Job’s, the punishment seemed totally disproportionate to the presumed sin.

But the story is not about punishment. It is about redemption, that even the life of a good, of a rich, of an honourable and handsome man can culminate in error, however slight, and that error must be corrected even at the cost of one’s own life. The awe and frightening quality of the High Holy Days is not contained in the ghoulish severing of the rabbi’s extremities, but in the slip of even considering the renunciation of the living God in favour of the worship of a god who died and was resurrected. No, not even actually considering. Merely making a statement to buy time signaling that such a consideration might be possible.

How is the redemption manifest? By exalting God as the one true sovereign and, by logical implication, insisting that neither the lords of the realm nor the highest spiritual authority of Christianity in that realm could dint that divine sovereignty even by making one accede even possibly to reconsidering one’s faith in a living God. How is the kindness of God’s sovereign authority exalted? By being firmed up with “kindness,” with deeds that testify to History, of the living God of revelation, not men, as the embodiment of Truth and Goodness. Time will tell. History will judge, attest and give witness. History will set the seal about one’s fate. History will remember what has been forgotten.

In our remembrance of Rabbi Amnon’s story, in our retelling that story, even if apocryphal, we give witness to that which exemplifies Truth and Goodness. Most importantly, each person’s signature, however faint, will, in the end, sign off on the Book of Remembrance so that the thin and still voice of one who went before will still be heard. God is not heard in the mighty winds of nature of Hurricane Irma that split mountains and shattered bricks, nor in the water that both rained down and rose up in the surge that followed that wind, nor in the Mexican earthquake that shattered the lives of so many, and not even in the devastating fires raging in Alberta and British Columbia.  Rather, the angels stand in awe of the “soft thin murmuring voice” amidst all that calamity.

This interpretation turns the polarization and dichotomy between those who are righteous and those who are not into a spectrum. The righteous may be immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the very wicked relegated to the ashbin of the revelation of the living God, but we all die in the end. Everyone, no matter how unworthy, contributes his or her signature, no matter how faint, to that book.

Why then will angels be seized with fear and trembling? Not because they witness calamities, not because they witness atrocities, not because they watch extremities being cut off, but because these messengers of the unfolding of time remain in awe of humans made of flesh and blood who in their lives can and do contribute or detract from the cumulative truth and goodness that is the expression of the living God of revelation. Even such a great one as Rabbi Amnon will not be guiltless in the eyes of judgement.

That History is rewritten each and every year, not just for the year that passed, but for all of history, for the awe-inspiring profundity of creation itself comes up again before a tribunal of judgement and everyone’s fate, NOT his or her final determination in life, but the value of everyone’s contribution to revelation will be weighed and re-assessed and re-inscribed or inscribed for the first time in the Book of Chronicles. The greatest fear is that one’s name will be blotted out for all eternity, some immediately for their loathsome and foul sins will be so heinous. Though we are all born of dust and to dust we must return, we are obliged to drink from the well of goodness.

What is written on Rosh Hashanah is sealed on Yom Kippur for another year, who shall rest and who shall still wander, and who shall be redeemed through repentance, prayer and charity, through rescuing the sheep lost and scattered by calamities either natural or human on days of cloud and gloom. For all, whether the wicked or the righteous, die. That is why each human is “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” Job’s life was but wind, his days a breath.

לשׁנה טוֹבה תּכּתב (Leshana tovah tikatev); “May you be inscribed for a good year.”

Appendix

Um’taneh Tokef

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself — and each person’s signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.”

“All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep.[24]Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed — how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval [25] and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.”

“For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”