The Emotional Frame and the Akedah
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