The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

Today is American Thanksgiving. When President Abraham Lincoln was immersed in writing what would become his famous Gettysburg Address after the American Civil War had dragged on through one of the worst periods in the history of that conflict “of unequaled magnitude and severity,” he issued the proclamation on 3 October 1863 that made the last Thursday in November (contrary to the widely held notion that the holiday is on the third Thursday) a national holiday, a nation-wide day to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty Americans had received and to establish, in the words of the editor Sarah Josepha Hale, “a great Union (my italics) Festival of America.” Americans were asked to remember that extraordinary bounty, a remembrance which “cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Lincoln wanted to remind all his fellow Americans that outside the horrific theatre of the civil war, that conflict had been confined to America and did not turn into an international conflict, that throughout the war, the rule of law had been maintained, the productivity of the country had increased as had the range of human freedom. He attributed that beneficence to the mercy of God. He asked God to extend that mercy, “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Six months before that proclamation, in Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Salon des Refusés (the display of art rejected by the Royal Academy but nevertheless held under the sponsorship of Napoleon III) his first famous, indeed, at that time, infamous, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” alongside the even more, perhaps most famous (and scandalous at the time) work by Édouard Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” The Luncheon on the Grass. Please view on the internet copies of both paintings, but particularly Whistler’s.

Just as Thanksgiving should be viewed in the context of opposition, opposition between horror and beneficence, contrast between violent conflict and peaceful harmony, so too should both the Whistler and Manet paintings be examined for their tranquil harmony even though Whistler’s red-haired mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, poses on top of a white bear rug with the menacing head of the bear facing us with jaws agape. In the Manet painting as well, one views vibrant oppositions: nude or partially clad women, one in the foreground and one in the back, sitting on the grass or dressing in the background with two fully-dressed men. The great spots of light contrast with both the filtered light in the background and the dark leaves and trees of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

In both paintings, what stands out most is their stark simplicity. Neither painting has a message. Neither painting is primarily about the subject matter. Though each carefully, indeed brilliantly, simply represents precisely what you see, both have instigated enormous debates about their “meaning.” Though each painting has symbols aplenty, it is the atmosphere, the composition, that is most compelling in each even as the woman in white in Whistler’s painting boldly gazes out directly at the viewer as if confronting the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That is the way I invite readers to examine the story of the binding of Isaac. Don’t read into it. Read it. Absorb the atmosphere and bracket the powerful, almost overwhelming, interpositions into the text.

As I have written before, the tale begins by referring to the words or narratives that precede it and provide the frame for the story. Those stories were about different sets of emotions. What stands out in the Akedah tale is the seeming absence of emotion. It is a painting of white on white.

Initially, there is a puzzle: “God put Abraham to the test.”  What is that test? In the dominant interpretation, God was either betting, or was behaving as if he were betting, with Satan to demonstrate to everyone, especially his arch enemy, that even if God asked Abraham to make the most extreme sacrifice possible, Abraham would not refrain from doing so. Abraham was God’s loving servant.

But God does not command Abraham to do anything. He requests. He says, “Please.” It is not a test of obedience because no obedience was requested or demanded. Abraham had already said to God when he was called, “Hinaini.” Here I am. I am ready and willing. In what follows, no histrionics take place, never mind extremes of emotion such as fear and trembling. We are shaken up, we shudder as Isaac would soon do, when we suddenly come to a realization that wakes us up to a new reality and a new sense of who we are. There is no shuddering in the entire story. Instead, as God lays out the mission he has set before Abraham, the overwhelming sense we have is of tranquility. An atmosphere of serenity pervades the story and stands in stark contrast to the content.

Do not be distracted by the chatter. What we see before us is simply an apple. It is a fact. God asks Abraham to take his only son whom he loves to Mount Moriah as an offering. The response: no tearing of hair; no guffawing at the sheer absurdity of the request; no challenge to God for seemingly betraying all His promises. You would think that Abraham was simply taking his son on a camping trip. Supplies are organized. Camels are saddled. There is no sense that Abraham is depressed at the request or even saddened by it.

Is what is happening a test of Abraham’s faith in God? Is God’s relationship to Abraham on a parallel with Abimelech, based on a conditional trust and expectations each had of the other? There is no sense that this is a tale about trust and distrust for Abraham. For there are no contingencies introduced which question that trust. For God and Abraham are bound by a covenant. Covenants are not conditional. They are categorical. God’s request is not a categorical order. It is the relationship that is categorical. There is not an iota of distrust suggested in the story even as God’s trust in Abraham is being tested.

Gunther Plaut in his Commentary wrote that the story is about “adherence without faltering, obedience with complete trust.” That is a contradiction. For if Abraham is simply doing what he does to demonstrate absolute obedience, where is there any indication of possible slippage? If Sören Kierkegaard is correct in asserting that Abraham did what he did, “for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith,” one cannot help noting that if proof was required, where is there any sense of doubt?

We are not reading about a trial. We are not reading about temptation any more than we do when we look at Whistler’s or Manet’s paintings referred to above. For what is apparent in each of those pieces of art is the absolute absence of any eroticism in a situation which on the surface might be read as erotic. What is apparent in the Akedah story is that there is no sign of any slippage in Abraham’s adherence to the covenant. So how can it be a test of trust versus distrust. Just as the scene is totally serene, it also absolutely lacks any display that Abraham is troubled by God’s request.

There is no crying and no raucous laughter. The scene is tranquil. There is no fear and trembling on display nor any anger. There is no sign of distrust or any indication that Abraham’s faith is being tested. Abraham tells his servants to wait for them and “we will go up there and worship and we will return.” This is not a Job story. When Isaac asked, “where is the sheep?” it is just a query about a fact, a necessary fact without which the sacrifice could not be performed.

Nor is there any apprehension. When the ram appears in the thicket, there is no surprise. Suddenly there is action. The two build an altar. Abraham binds his son and the old frail man lays him on the altar, not a child but a grown man. We become incredulous. And then the shock. Abraham raises his knife. There is no real build up to this dramatic moment. God through his angel stops the proceeding. Now there is a command. Do not raise your hand against the boy. God was being tested. Now God knew he did not have to fear that Abraham would withhold his son. The son in that instant became part of the covenant. The ceremony of passing the baton has been completed. There was no need to repeat the circumcision ceremony and even draw a drop of blood.

Thus, there would be progeny. Thus, there would be freedom from fear. There never was an iota of distrust in Abraham. And suddenly, just as the story lacked any real build-up, the narrative shifts. Children are born. Nations are created. And the foundation of it all is now not justice but mercy. Civil wars are fought over different senses of justice. Thanksgiving is held to celebrate God’s mercy and the bounty He provides. What we just read was a simple story of white on white about the absence of raw and basic emotions. People may read it as a story about obedience and demonstrating one’s faith. People may read it as a story about deep and profound emotional turmoil. People may also widely believe that American Thanksgiving is held on the third Thursday of November. But it is on the fourth.

What matters is not what people widely believe, but the story itself and its context. It is a painting of white on white and a celebration of God’s mercy rather than His judgement.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Aside – Embodiment

An Aside – Embodiment

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

I will return to the analysis of the frame for the Akedah story. But I must insert a side blog. This need is occasioned by two events. First, my daughter dropped in for an evening this past week on the way back from Israel to Boston. She was returning there to give a paper called “Wings of Desire: Theophany between the Cherubim and Mercy Seat” at the panel on Divine Embodiment at the Society of Bible Literature 2017 Conference. Rachel left me a copy of her paper for me to read.

The second impetus was seeing Samuel Tétreault’s “The 7 Figures” dance/circus troupe from Montreal perform “triptyque” at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. As Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage, wrote in his program notes: “When the body becomes the voice, the eyes learn to listen, and the head connects to the heart.” Marie Chouinard’s opening piece featuring an apparently crippled couple dance with twisted “crutches” was the most profound of these fascinating trio of choreographed works. In the second work, Victor Quijada had the whole troupe balancing in different ways on tall rods or canes rather than crutches with tiny platforms as the artists balanced between stillness and movement as they reached for the heavens and risked greater vulnerability. Sometimes they pulled together; at other times, they tore apart.

The most fascinating visually was Marcos Morau’s third piece, by far the longest, in which a hospital bed was the centrepiece, but a hospital bed that ended up floating in the air and then turning sideways to become a climbing wall. However, in this piece, we were gradually removed from the mundane, from the boredom of reality and the daily news about Donald Trump’s latest tripping over himself and his own words, and taken into a space where dream and reality meet, where vision and the ordinary of human life encounter one another. The artists stumble. They recover, whether on unicycles or using aerial straps, in their quest for freedom through escaping reality.

I should not omit the whimsical duo between the first and second performances to give time for a change in sets. Their short performance of Fred Astaire via Charlie Chaplin offered a brilliantly funny sight gag underwritten by a very serious commentary on play versus drudgery. As one of my fellows quoted in yesterday’s Torah study group, if something is done that you enjoy on Shabat, it is not work. But the same action treated as drudgery is halachically forbidden. Mopping a floor can be a delightful and inventive dance or a robotic and distressing exercise in drudgery.

I will return to the dance company. But first my daughter’s paper on the Mishkan as the place where the fascinans, the alluring and appealing aspects of the divine, meet “face-to-face” with the tremendum, the repulsive aspects of God. This is where revelation takes place at the encounter of the human and divine and the clash between the fascinans and the tremendum. It is another lesson in how the voice can be seen, the oral visualized, where danger and desire intertwine as God’s voice emerges from the midst of the fire to establish a divine presence.

God descends within a cloud in a moment of crisis in the tabernacle tale. In Morau’s dance/circus piece, the dancers ascend from a death bed. The cause of death is evidently watching shadows on the cave wall via TV; humans ascend to escape banality. When God descends in the Torah, it is to dwell in a vacuum, an empty space (a tokh), among and framed by the cherubim. That is the Heaven above the vault of the earth from which He speaks to set fire to earthly vanities.

God remains immanent. In Morau’s circus/dance, humans rise transcendent above the stage challenging the pull of gravity. But the latter, like the sacred text, is part of a “locomotor” rather than a “locative” thesis. Stasis does not stand at the centre of the universe. Change does. We are not intended to be couch potatoes sitting on our hospital beds slowly dying, but doers and shakers. Worship is not centred in the sacred temple, but in the arc of the covenant that moves even in the diaspora, with the people. God sits upon the seat of mercy. But it is a place of danger, a place of risk into which no one can go, except in the ancient world the High Priest, and even then, only once a year on Yom Kippur. God sits upon a “couch” of mystery rather than banality.

The dancers/circus performers in the triptych provide a mirror for that sacred space through men and women rising to challenge nature’s gravity. They can do so even if crippled. They may be constrained by bent limbs and twisted appendages, but, despite such constraints, they express the voice of freedom in the movement of their flesh and bones.

Chouinard’s piece takes off where the binding of Isaac ends. One dancer is hung all bound up in mid air. Her partner comes to her rescue and carefully, deliberately, slowly, unbinds her. He came to her on crutches. And she rises like a newborn calf, unsteady on her legs and herself needing the aid of deformed wooden appendages. While the tribe descended from the people of the book obtain their “breakthroughs” via restraint and constraint, in the first dance/circus piece influenced by the Japanese Kinbaku art of bondage, restraint is refined into an aesthetic. That which initially appears ugly and abnormal becomes a thing of beauty.

Are the ropes cut, are the chains which bind us smashed? Or are they carefully and systematically unwound and then transformed into a way of freedom as in the dance performance? Does a woman lay on railway tracks totally tied up waiting to be rescued by the heroic male before the train runs over her as we left the movie theatre as kids waiting a week for the next episode. Or is she rescued, not from the danger of a seaming monster, but from her own constraints and limitations, and then allowed to move and prance, to swing and dance? The rope becomes part of an erotic means of rising from the dead in a dream or oneiric state rather than, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, like the penis in western culture, crashing down in a flabby mess, collapsing, wasted and diminished and no longer with a voice.

This artistic expression becomes much more pronounced in the third choreographed piece by Marcos Morau’s oneiric rope performances when the dancers bind themselves to rise to the heavens. The binding itself is not meant to constrain by ropes ineptly wound around them, but by ropes aesthetically twisted so that the constraints themselves become integral parts of their bodies as they dance in mid-air. The Kazami-Ryu strappado suspension becomes a thing of awe and wonder as we delight in the relaxation rather than tension enabled by the skill of the performers. It is not as if we were watching human artists portrayed as divine or semi-divine beings, as in Superman or Wonder Woman, but rather the emphasis is on the effort to raise and transform the human form into its highest heavenly presence. Thus, though clearly influenced by Japanese art and bodily performance, the choreography remains within the Western aniconic tradition that rejects the portrayal of deities in a bodily form.

But the Western tradition is one preoccupied with sin and failure and the need for atonement. In the choreography we saw last evening, constraints and limits are simply part of the natural world, part of our collective birthright, and we escape from sin, not by browbeating ourselves, not by thumping on our chests in remorse, but by using gravity itself to rise above the world, to become a force of nature oneself. We can stand upside down, balanced on small poles with a relatively miniscule platform. Last evening offered a remarkable demonstration of how natural forces can be balanced and held still, not simply to balance upside down on one’s hands, but to project oneself sideways with only the pole and the tiny platform for support.

In the biblical text, the Israelites are punished for idolatry, for worshiping a calf made of solid gold. One might transform that weighty object into gold leaf in the Mishkan. Last evening, the performers left the inert metal behind and opted for a life in empty space. Yesterday morning, the silver ornaments and velvet cover were removed from the Torah scroll I held to allow and encourage an encounter between the divine and the human through reading of words. In the performance yesterday evening, there is neither a dependence nor an expectation of any divine intercession. It was not about God only helping those who help themselves, but demonstrating how a tribe could help one another and rise into the heavens. In the Hebrew Bible, God descends. Humans only walk and climb to the tops of mountains. But that is where pagan gods lived. The God of the Hebrews did not live in a single space. In the performances last evening, humans could not be confined to our normal spatial range, but could strive and soar as apparently effortless as birds without any divine being hovering above and without any net below to catch them when and if they fall.

On Saturday morning at synagogue I was “chosen” and rewarded with the honour of carrying one of the sacred scrolls. In the evening I was carried away by rising, turning, bending and twisting to try to rise above the pull of mediocrity. It was an evening in which I could listen with my eyes and my head could move closer to the seat of mercy, the heart, vicariously by a very different route. In the morning, God was not present but experienced as an absence. In the evening, God was absent; humans rose to fill the heavenly space.

Will that path through the beauty and magical performance of the body have its own hubris even as it attempts to balance centrifugal and centripetal forces to somewhat overcome the pull of gravity? In that vision, do we pull ourselves upwards by out own bootstraps or our own canes? We are uplifted by beauty instead of raised up by a commitment to the written word, to law and ethics.

The Emotional Frame of the Akedah

The Emotional Frame of the Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

In my last series of blogs before the Aside, I suggested that the four previous narratives prior to the actual story of the binding of Isaac provided a frame for understanding the story of the requested sacrifice. I suggest that the frame is an emotional one. Further, the frame encompasses the full range of basic human emotions which can be divided into four sets. (Research at Glasgow University confirmed that the 42 facial muscles operate to convey four basic emotions.)

The four sets and their corresponding narratives are charted below. I have also included how each relates to four different (and exhaustive) functions in life.

Story                                Emotion                      Life Function

Sarah Laughs                   happy/sad                   replication (vs barren)

Sodom &Gomorrah        hope/fear                     survival (vs death)

Abimelech                       trust/distrust                detachment (vs disgust)

Birth of Isaac                   anticipation/surprise   action (vs passivity)

There is no dispute that the core of the portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1-15) is about replicating oneself, having progeny. However, in Hebrew thought, in contrast to Aristotle, happiness is not a goal in itself; it is a by-product of other activities, the greatest of which is giving birth to a child. Happiness (eudaimonia for the ancient Greeks) does NOT depend on the cultivation of virtue. As both Sarah and Rebekah unequivocally demonstrate, petulance and conniving rather than virtue may accompany a defence of your child or even your favourite child.

The pure form of laughter is boundless, open and all-encompassing but does not in-itself encompass the whole of life as it did for Aristotle. It is one pole of one pair of emotions; there are three other pairs just as basic. Happiness does not depend on fulfilling certain requirements, even keeping God’s commandments. It is not a consequence of meeting certain conditions, including obeying God’s commandments or even getting an education in the Great Works. Happiness is an accompaniment of certain types of actions. Happiness is NOT the supreme good. It is NOT an ultimate end in life, an end-in-itself. But it is a basic good.

Basic happiness entails being calm and untroubled, a concept captured by the term serene. In my blog on the section which I called “Sarah Laughs,” I distinguished various senses of laughter. A different sense of laughter or joy is determined by that with which it is combined. When combined with hope, the joy turns into elation. When married to trust, we experience a state of satisfaction, somewhat different than serenity since there is an objective reference credited with the joy. If the joy is tied to something anticipated in the future, the joy can become ecstatic.

Sadness is the absence of any sense of joy. When sad, we have lost touch with ruach, with the spirit in life. We are lonely, depressed and dejected – low in spirit. When combined with fear, the sadness expresses itself as a sense of grief about the past and gloom toward the future. When married to distrust, sadness turns into a deep sorrow. When we find ourselves in a dark tunnel without a ray of light coming from any opening, we have sunk into depression.

Between the two polarities of happiness and sadness are to be found derision, jest, absurdity and mockery. Each is a different admixture of happiness and sadness.

Abraham expressed his derision at the idea that he and Sarah could have a child at their advanced ages by laughing so hard that he fell flat on his face at the opposite proposition and promise that the couple would indeed have a child. We, alongside first Abraham and then Sarah in the first of the quartet of stories, laugh at the improbable juxtaposition of two antithetical propositions:

Abraham and Sarah will have a child

Abraham and Sarah biologically cannot have a child.

In one sense, you cannot laugh at the miracle of life and not fall on your face in embarrassment.

Abraham does not tell Sarah of God’s patently absurd promise. Sarah, hiding in the wings, also laughs at the prophecy, but inwardly, not as a sight gag as with Abraham. That is the difference between Sarah’s and Abraham’s derision. Abraham openly laughs at the messenger who conveys the incredulous prophecy. Sarah takes the message and laughs mostly at herself, at her unattractiveness at the age of ninety, at the biological absurdity of having a child at that age, at the idea of suddenly, and miraculously, opening her womb that had for so long been closed to the possibility of reproduction. There is a huge gap between her bemusement and Abraham’s scoffing.

Does it matter that Sarah denigrates herself while Abraham rails at the message itself? Abraham is not reproved; Sarah, in contrast, is questioned and challenged. The difference does matter. Abraham guffaws; he engages in slapstick. Sarah only denigrates herself. With self-abnegation, her laughter hides her sadness. However, there is an irony. Though hiding, in expressing her dejection even if behind the mask of derision of a promise, Sarah opens herself to the possibility that her womb will be opened. She is prepared for the possibility that others will share in her joy. As she says at the birth of Isaac: “God made me laugh so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (21:6)

Contrast Sarah’s self-disparagement with the sneering with which Lot is greeted by his son-in-laws when he tells them that the end of the world as they know it is at hand. They treat a life-and-death message, not just a promise of reproduction, as a jest.

In the story of Abimelech, which evidently takes place sometime between the prophecy that Sarah will have a child and Isaac’s birth, Abimelech supposedly absconds with a withered ninety-year-old no-longer beautiful woman. How absurd! Either Abimelech was blind to her age and, as in a Hollywood comedy, saw only smooth skin and a luscious figure when objectively that was not the case (a version of Ramban’s interpretation), or Sarah actually returned to her former beauty and smooth and delicate skin. If Sarah giving birth at her age seems a natural impossibility, Sarah becoming attractive to Abimelech seems an absurdity. We, the readers, laugh even as source criticism tears apart the series of stories to root them in different original texts, as if the effort at combination ignored all contradictions instead of playing with them.

In the final stage of laughter, when Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and Sarah becomes “a woman of valour” and a vehicle of continuity, when the pain of labour is followed by the exhilaration of Isaac’s birth, Sarah laughs on that last day as derision, jest, absurdity come together in an inversion of self-mockery; a child is born. “What is closed opens [the lungs], and what is open closes” [dependency and blood supply through the umbilical cord.]

If the theme of laughter in its various forms and the move from the hidden to the open and transparent takes place against the theme of reproduction through the four tales of the frame, a very different theme is introduced in the Sodom and Gomorrah story – one of fear and anxiety, anger and regret as Lot and his family cope with death on a mass scale. Lot moved to a prosperous city to participate in its dream of the future and delight in the present. Below the surface of pleasure and hedonism, there was anxiety.

With God’s determination to eliminate the sinners as well as the sins, normal anticipation turned to apprehension and worry. The sons-in-law ignored the fear and treated the threats as a joke. In contrast, Abraham took the threat seriously and, out of care and empathy for the innocent, tried to bargain with God. He was unsuccessful. Those blind to the threat were destroyed. Even Lot’s wife, who remained nostalgically attached to what she had, became frozen and unable to move into the future. In Aristotle’s philosophical world, she became inanimate like minerals and lost her soul.

God refused to live amidst us lest his wrath once released consume us. God disappeared from our presence in an act of contrition and mercy to protect us. Hope then became not reliance on God nor a deliberate ignoring of that which one should fear, but an acceptance and, as the emotion matured, a sense of self-confidence. The latter was not a belief in the best-of-all-possible-worlds nor its twin brother that emerged first from the womb of Rebecca, an illusionary belief.

The opposite of hope is fear, loss of hope and pessimism about the future and then an unjustified resigned paranoia towards any agent we confront. However, as that fear develops further, when caught up in the dichotomy of trust and distrust, directed at oneself, that anxiety and dread become timidity and eventually shyness when directed at oneself. It becomes panic, dismay and even fury when directed at others. It was in the latter stages that Lot’s daughters decide to sleep with their drunken father in order to conceive, to enjoy the happiness of progeny.

If the story of the three messengers, each a carrier of a different dichotomy than happiness and sadness – hope and fear, trust and distrust, anticipation and astonishment – dealt primarily with the polarity of happiness and sadness, if the story of Sodom and Gomorrah dealt with the duality of hope and fear, the story of Abimelech dealt with trust and distrust. However, the narrative went beyond basic trust and reliance on the word of another. Abraham misrepresented the status of Sarah as his sister (she is his half-sister) and not his wife. Abimelech, who absconded with her, was the recipient of a divine message in a dream that revealed the truth. Disgusted at the deceit and the position in which he had been placed, Abimelech confronted Abraham on his deceit driven by fear.

The result of the confrontation was not resentment or even war. Abraham and Abimelech entered into a contractual relationship based both on trust and distrust of the other, trust that the other would fulfill his side of the bargain and distrust that in the future the other might break the terms. The deal was not closed with a handshake, but with an exchange and a legal contract that reinforced the idea that Israelite society would be based, not on a shame culture, but on law, on contracts – even between a man and his wife – and on guilt.

Clearly, the above sketch only offers the flimsiest introduction to the emotions at work that frame the narrative of the binding of Isaac. The above depiction barely touches the story of Isaac’s birth, the tension between anticipation and surprise as action versus passivity become the prime tension (not faith and obedience) in the life of the Israelites.

Aristotle, despite his euphoria over happiness, despite his view that the happy man would be virtuous and that virtue will be the key to that happiness, acknowledges that a life of action is NOT a happy life. Further, action for Aristotle was divorced from the labour of producing one’s clothes and growing one’s food. Action and the productive life belonged to different spheres. Based on such a dichotomy, production could be assigned to serfs and slaves. A man of action was characterized by reason, by thought governing one’s behaviour. In what is possibly Aristotle’s most famous phrase, a human is a rational animal – the more rational and the less like an animal, the more deserving of happiness.

But there is an apparent contradiction as excellence (areté), the ultimate virtue, results from habit not deliberation. It is a product of practice. I will use the sketch above, the tracing of the bare outlines of our emotional expressions, to explicate the story of the birth of Isaac and the narrative concerning the binding of Isaac in the next blog. To understand how sketchy the above analysis is, the chart added hereto as an appendix offers a very abstract outline of the emotions upon which the Torah focuses rather than upon the laws of reason and logic.

The Torah is not a story of rationality, of the reflective and contemplative life, of meditation and in-depth introspection, of the pensive human. That absence in a people that will become known for their mathematical and scientific work has to stand out. Neither Abraham nor Isaac brood as we shall see. They do. They act. There is no alacrity in their behaviour. But I am adumbrating. I am stimulating your anticipation of the next blog. I want you to read it with hunger in your belly, with a voracious appetite – and impatience. I want you to be avid readers filled with fervour.

A Taxonomy of Basic Emotions

 

Happy/Sad                             Transcendent emotions

Happy

Self-directed                           serenity; elation; satisfied; ecstatic

Other-directed                         derision, jest, absurdity and mockery

Sad

Self-directed                           dejection & lonely; gloominess & grief; sorrow; depressed

Other-directed                        grief & loss; nostalgia; betrayed; displaced

 

Hope/Fear                             Present oriented

Hope

Self-directed                           apprehension; worry; acceptance; confidence

Other-directed                        kind; bargaining; illusionary beliefs; Leibnizian optimism

Fear

Self-directed                           pessimism; paranoia; timidity; shyness

Other-directed                        hostility & loathing; terror & panic; dismay; fright & fury

 

Trust/Distrust                        Past oriented

Trust

Self-directed                           aware; grateful; anxious; brave

Other-directed                        attentive; tolerant; assured; admiring

Distrust

Self-directed                           envy; ashamed; stubborn; embarrassed

Other-directed                        dislike; hostile; aversion; revolted; rejection

 

Anticipation/Astonishment Future oriented

Anticipation

Self-directed                           interested; vigilant; apprehensive; uncertain & anxious

Other-directed                        expectant; curious; bored; weary

Astonishment

Self-directed                           upset; stubborn; distracted; rejected

Other-directed                        amazement; astonished; annoyed; dislike and distaste

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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.

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