Jazz and Deep Wells

Jazz and Deep Wells

by

Howard Adelman

Today is Black Sunday. I know there is no such thing, but I wanted to convey how I see the day by playing off this past Friday of widespread deep discounts and sales and yesterday’s experience. Today I have not simply a two-for-one offer but a two-for-two-for-two offer. What could be better? On the other hand, what could be worse – not only receiving two long missives on the same day, but the second about two entirely different topics and each topic about two different events. The blog will clarify.

Yesterday morning as I was leaving for Torah study, I saw a peregrine falcon eating its prey on the front lawn. I presume that it was an unwitting squirrel. I had never seen a peregrine let alone one up close. I had read that they had been sighted in Toronto, but it was startling to see such a huge bird in front of me. I thought it was the male that I saw, for the mate which appeared was somewhat smaller. But when I read up on falcons this morning, I learned that it must have been the female for females are significantly larger than their masculine mates.

From the rear – the angle from which I watched it – it seemed to have a huge back of thick blue-grey feathers and a black head. The male – the smaller of the pair – had more distinct white markings on its chest. Did you know that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, in a dive reaching over 200 mph? Its highest measured speed is 242 mph. But if peregrines now nest in tall buildings in urban areas, its nest must have been blocks away.

I took the sighting of the peregrine to be a sign – a sign of a positive tale on the human propensity to destroy our planet and other species. For the peregrines were once endangered because of the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT. However, with the banning of DDT, their numbers have rebounded enormously. I also took the sighting in a different sense, for in Torah yesterday morning, before we even started our textual examination, I opened the volume to initially read the tale of Jacob’s ladder that comes immediately before Jacob met Rachel at the well.

Needless to say, I had never read the short account through the eyes of a falcon. If you recall, Jacob was fleeing towards his uncle Laban because he believed Esau was in hot pursuit given that he, Jacob, had deceived Esau out of his father’s blessing to double the act of treachery in the story when he got his brother to give him Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mug of soup. In his dream, (Genesis 28:12-15), Jacob envisioned a ladder or a stairway reaching upwards into the sky. Angels of God were traipsing up and down the stairs – if they were coming from heaven why not down first and then up? God then promised Jacob that his descendants would spread everywhere over the earth, north and west, east and west. God also promised to protect him wherever he went and “bring you back to this land.” Further God said, “I will not leave you until what I have done what I have promised you.” (28:15)

If God had made that promise to falcons, He clearly kept his word. Falcons, once on the verge of extinction, are now everywhere. Further, falcons are like angels rising on the upward drafts of the wind and then diving down for prey. Falcons have superb vision. An excellent capacity for survival has been intertwined with a theme of destruction, preying on other species necessary for survival and repeatedly being faced themselves with species genocide.

The story that was the subject of yesterday’s Torah study was the one that followed, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Jacob continued on after his visionary dream. What did he see first. Verse 2 of chapter 29 reads: “There before his eyes was a well in the open.” The vision was not a dream sequence, but a real sighting. It was not of soaring and diving angels, but of a “well in the open,” also translated as in the “field.” Vision is now grounded. It is focused on earthly things, not long-range promises. And the focus is a well.

As Rabbi Splansky pointed out in comparing three “well” stories, the one where Jacob’s father, Isaac, or his emissary, encountered Rebecca, and the one where Moses came to a well were the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite, had been chased away from watering their sheep until Moses’ intervention, in each case a well is a symbol of overcoming scarcity, scarcity of water and scarcity of progeny. For the women are barren, either because they are virgins or because they seemingly cannot bear children. In the case of both Rebecca and Rachel, the continuity of the generations through time, a necessary correlation to spatially spreading over the land, seems at first to be denied them. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren when first encountered. In each case, the opening of the wombs of the women is attributed to God.

Hence, the well Rabbi Splansky introduced to the group as a basis for a dialectic of correspondence yet difference in all three stories. (The tale of the competition between the first-born and a younger brother was not a topic of focus.) Verse 2 in English and Hebrew reads:

And he looked, and behold! a well in the field, and behold! three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well. בוַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר:

בְאֵ֣ר

Be-ayr or Beer, as in Beersheva, is a well or pit. A well is a source, not simply of physical water, but of God’s word, of His spirit, of His promise. A well is not a natural spring. It is built by humans. It is an artifice of human labour and ingenuity. When Abraham confronted Abimelech after the latter’s servants denied him access to a well Abraham had dug, Abraham insisted on buying it back with money to define in contractural terms what had been promised by God in a covenant. When Moses travelled to Beersheva, he was promised water. “And from there to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses: “assemble the people that I may give them water.” (Number 21:16) And all of Israel sang a song: “Spring up oh well; sing to it.”

The well and the water in it offer a voice from God. It is not just a wishing well, but a well of promise. In particular, it is a promise of bringing waters to the womb and breaking those waters to deliver progeny. A well is a source of fecundity. It is from the waters of that well that the flock of sheep, that God’s flock of Israelites, though certainly not exclusively, are offered drink. However, in Jacob’s vision of the staircase to heaven, Jacob worried that it portended destruction and death. For he believed Esau was following him, intent on killing him in revenge for what he had stolen. A well is also a pit, that into which Joseph was thrown, that into which we are all tossed when we die. God in that sense is not only the source of life, but the deliverer of death and from death. When a hole lacks water, it is a pit. Which will it be?

In the Gospel according to John in chapter 4, Jesus was travelling north rather than east like Jacob. Outside the town of Sychar, he sat beside Jacob’s well. The story inverts the original. Jesus asked a woman to give him water from the well. She did, but wondered why he would ask a Samaritan girl? Was he proposing? Jesus then offered the Samaritan from whom he asked for a drink “living water.” The suggestion is that the water on offer had been dead, as dead as the water in the Dead Sea. It had become saline. Jesus was offering, not just to Jews, but now to everyone, to all human kind, “fresh water,” sweet rather than bitter water. The point is not to endorse the message of the Christian narrative as recorded by John, but to indicate and understand a well as a symbol.

The well is covered by a large stone. It will be moved by Jacob. It will be moved by Moses. They as founding fathers move the heavy stone that blocks access to the spirit of creativity, the spirit of procreation which itself is a structure constructed by humans. When a well runs dry, we find only dry bones and not the vital source of life. In Genesis, wells with water recur 25 times.

Wells are built by humans. Wells are accessed by human labour. Humans, as in the Moses tale, can also deny access to the well. In the Jacob story, to save the well from evaporation, the shepherds wait until all the flocks arrive and then remove the rock that covered the well. In the Moses story of the well, access was denied the Midianite women. Moses intervened to provide access. In the Jacob story, Jacob acts without the involvement of the other shepherds to move the stone and provide water for Rachel’s flock.

Why did Jacob do that? Why, when he saw Rachel, did he kiss her and break into tears upon meeting a relative he had never seen? Water flowed out from him instead of into him. It was tears of joy, of happiness. The serenity and unexpressed emotion of Abraham was now left behind. The reticence and passivity of Isaac had been left behind. In place we now have an openly emotional, and, as we soon learn, mentally scheming forefather who dramatically pushes the plot forward just as he intervened to move the stone.

Yesterday evening I went to hear jazz at Koerner Hall. The program featured the much younger Alfredo Rodríguez Trio in the first half and, in the second half, the brilliant jazz pianist, Danilo Pérez with Ben Street on bass & Danilo’s sister, Terri Lynne Carrington, on drums. It was a great performance, but it was akin to hearing the story of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven after one had read the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well as our initiation into one of the greatest love stories in literature.

In the second half, the music of Pérez truly soared up to the heavens and back down to earth, but after hearing the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio, it sounded like dinner music. For the Rodríguez trio was truly brilliant. It took us down into the well of creativity in cyclonic waves of poetic repetition. For Pérez is correct in his comments about jazz. It is global music. It is about freedom. It is about improvisation on repetitive themes.

The most powerful structural element in the biblical text is repetition. But also, the riffs on that repetition. The Torah in the literary world is the foundation of jazz in the world of music and it too plays on sounds, on words, on phrasing and on clauses, and translates the combination into stories. The ingenious variations in each are about identity and difference. The parallelisms challenge us to compare and reflect and to do so at various levels. Both literally and figuratively, Rodríguez took the audience down into the deep well of creativity in one of the greatest jazz performances I have ever heard. Sometimes it was just a fascinating variation on a very familiar tune, and, in the case of the last number the trio played, on a very simple melody from his childhood in Cuba.

I write only about the most haunting number. I believe, if I caught him correctly, it was called Yoruba. His CDs were all sold out when I went to buy one or two, so I had to look it up. I believe it is the one called, “Oye Afra Yoruba-Son,” but I will only know when I hear the song again. The number came from the deepest well of all. I would call it haunting jazz, in-depth ethnic jazz rather than global jazz. Hopefully, in a future blog when I hear the trio again, I myself will write with greater depth.

On a day that started with renewed life diving down to earth and feeding on prey on the ground, I was taken deeper into the ground, into wells of feeling and emotion rarely touched. With Yoruba I went back earlier before my ancestors in the Middle East to the Yoruba in West Africa whose music I happened to hear there. It had the same resonance captured in Rodríguez’ number and offered an older oral history deeper than the written word even if Rodríguez probably got his inspiration from Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba from descendants of African slaves brought to that island. Yoruba culture is based on divination and a search for wells, for the invisible beneath us as well as the invisible above us in the air. It developed as a culture of art and beauty rather than a culture which emphasized ethics and law, but one which both complements and haunts the latter.

In Rodríguez’ interpretation, it does do so by a kind of cyclonic activity that thrusts you down into a powerful inward circulation of notes and phrasing and repetitions that rotate, first downwards and finally upward so that one can once again breath freely. Hearing his music was like being thrust into a low-pressure chamber. He not only moved the stone from the top of the well, but dived down into it. And took the audience with him.

From peregrine falcons to cyclonic trips down wells – what could be better? Especially when you emerge unscathed and still breathing.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Advertisements

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

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.

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