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

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Purity and Circumcision

Purity – Parashat Tazria & Metzora (פרשת תזריע־מצרע)

by

Howard Adelman

When I explored the interpretations of Aaron’s response – silence – to the death of his two oldest sons at the hands of God because they had contaminated the holy of holies by not observing the precise instructions to be followed in performing a sacrifice, I did not explore the objective circumstances which ostensibly gave rise to those two deaths and the issue of ritual purity that dominates not only the Aaron story, but this whole section of Leviticus and, in particular, the parshah for this week. Those dictates governing purity entail not only the issue of sacrifice in the holy of holies, but also, for example, the ritual of purification when a woman immerses in a mikvah and when a male Jewish infant is circumcised on the eighth day of his life.

Purity is, and always has been, a health issue. This is clear in the discussions of tzaraat, usually translated, and for many, mistranslated, as leprosy, but which might be black mold, psoriasis, a terrible rash or Hansen’s disease. Purification using spring water, two birds (!), a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop is involved so that a contemporary reader may suspect that he or she is reading about voodoo medicine. However, I want to concentrate on brit milah, ritual circumcision of male infants, rather than treatment of tzaraat or immersion in a mikvah following a woman’s period of menstruation or as integral to a process of conversion.

In the mikvah ritual, purification is said to be necessary because the discharge of female blood into and through the vagina is viewed as impure. In the brit milah of an infant male, blood is spilled to bring about purification. Or is the process for the purpose of purification? After all, there is no suggestion that the foreskin is impure, only the possibility in modern science that retention of the foreskin may create a greater propensity for accumulating impurities.

Let me expand on this latter issue, if only to get it out of the way. (An article by Aaron E. Carroll in The New Health Care, 9 May 2016, explores these issues more deeply.) The judgement of the net benefits of circumcision to health has seesawed back and forth between an estimate that health benefits of circumcision are not significant enough to inflict pain on the infant to the 2012 conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics restoring an older determination that the health benefits outweighed any risks involved in the procedure, especially if the procedure follows strict purity rules. The implication was not that every male child should undergo circumcision, but that circumcision should be available to every male infant and be covered by health insurance for significant savings in health costs over the long run.

Why? Circumcised penises have lower levels of yeast and bacteria. Higher levels of the latter are correlated with greater risk for developing urinary tract infections. Thus, the chance of a boy contracting a urinary tract infection is ten times greater for a male with an uncircumcised penis than for a male with a circumcised penis. But the benefits are too small to make male circumcision mandatory since the incidence of urinary tract infection is so low that perhaps only 1 additional male in 100 would be prevented from contracting a urinary tract infection if the practice of male circumcision was made universal. This is particularly true because correlation does not entail causation; other factors may be more significant as causes –parents of circumcised male infants may culturally wash penises more regularly, as may adult males. No one knows.

However, other risks of disease are reduced – penile cancer (again, relatively rare), H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis or herpes. The only statistical benefit that emerges as very significant is the chance on contracting H.I.V. – a 1-2% reduction in the rate of the disease when males are circumcised. Male circumcision can be considered preventive, akin to getting a vaccination.

What is the downside? Medical complications from the procedure. Arguably, reduced sexual satisfaction, but little evidence to support such a belief. But the only issue of any significance is the pain inflicted on the male infant. Many would argue that the pain is minimal when local anaesthetics ae used and very short lived – in contrast when the procedure is performed on an adult male.

There is also the issue of social benefits to health and not just individual benefits. Perhaps an argument can be made in terms of society benefit resulting from lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases, especially H.I.V., which is why vaccines are almost mandatory. Again, the economic benefits to society as a whole are small compared to the claim that the rights of the child are infringed upon by the commission of intentional harm without significant benefit.  The pinprick of a vaccination needle does not change the body. Male circumcision does.

On balance, the case for male circumcision becoming a community wide standard practice is more positive than negative, but, unlike fluoridation of water, which also results in somatic changes – strengthening teeth and the resistance to dental caries – the health benefits of male circumcision are relatively marginal.

In other words, the issue of male circumcision of an infant at eight days of age is ultimately much more an issue of religious ritual purity rather than physical purity or health.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that, “Circumcision is the physical expression of the faith that lives in love.” Sanctification transforms the connection between sex and violence to a connection between sex and love. His argument boils down to infant circumcision defining the relationship of a man to his wife, turning biology into spirituality, converting the male propensity to want to reproduce to perpetuate his genes to a partnership of man and wife, a partnership of mutual affirmation. Sacks is clearly a feminist. Power is sacrificed in favour of love and relationship, not only between a male and his female partner, but between man and God, between God and the people of Israel, God’s wife. Purity entails staying monogamous; promiscuity is a betrayal of both God and one’s wife. Baal must be transformed by circumcising male power and transforming sex in the process from an act of biological drive to a choice of love, to a covenantal rather than a power relationship.

As much as I sympathize with the goal, I do not buy into this romanticizing of the ritual of circumcision. For it is a ritual between a father and son, between God and a male Jew. In actuality, the mother usually stays in another room because she is so fearful and appalled by the pain being inflicted upon her newborn infant. Since the event – barring exceptions because of the health of the newborn – takes place on the eighth day, and the world was created symbolically in seven days, Rabbi Sacks may be on the right track in suggesting that the brit is a first stage in transforming the laws of nature into cultural practices on route to creating a civilization. But what precisely is unnatural about the act of circumcision?

It may also have to do with the Jewish conception that practice precedes faith. Do it and you may come to understand. Hence, not only must the procedure shunt aside any “rights of the child,” but it cannot be left until the male is older or even an adult when it is much more painful as well as a greater risk. Further, it is an exercise in branding, in implanting in the flesh a spiritual message. But it is not like a tattoo on the arm. It is the foreskin of the penis that is cut, not because it is a lowly organ as some Jewish puritans contend, but because it is central to propagation – both to physical propagation and to Jewish continuity. The transformation of male/female relations could qualify, except that there is little indication that the circumcision has anything to do with sex.

What could it be about? The bris physically symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jewish people as indicated when Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine, circumcised himself as a brand upon his flesh signifying the covenant that he had made with God. There is no mention that God empathized with that pain and experienced suffering because of it. But Abraham not only suffered pain when he circumcised himself, but suffered a much greater pain when he was commanded to sacrifice his son. (Genesis 21:4) The circumcision commemorates Abraham’s pain much more than that of an infant eight-day-old male.

When a father, even if only through a surrogate, cuts the foreskin of his own son, the pain is direct and not just in the imagination as it is for the mother. When a father marks his son with a permanent alteration in his son’s flesh, in one of if not the most significant organs of the male as a male, then the issue is at its core about the willingness, against all one’s personal sympathies for the child, to inflict pain on one’s own son.

God does it to man. (Women suffer naturally in childbirth.) A father does it to his son. The ritual is akin to the one the priest performs when incense is brought daily before God. The latter must be done with exact precision. So too must the circumcision of the infant child be. Further, it must be an act carried out in great sobriety and with proper preparation. But with help from the community – the mohel who serves as the surrogate, the sandek who holds the child’s legs apart, the kvatters, the messengers who carry the infant on behalf of the grief-stricken mother. Though the brit milah is a celebration, that takes place afterwards. The ritual up to that point is about sacrifice and pain. The infant brought forth to have his foreskin sacrificed and to be made part o those blessed.

Why blessed? Cutting a penis and calling it a blessing, inflicting pain on an infant and calling it highly significant, that is the real dilemma of the ritual. The actual pain may be slight and the health benefits may be real even if not huge, but the ritual is clearly what the ceremony is about. It is an irreversible act entailing the sacrifice of a symbolic token of flesh taken from an organ of male reproduction to point to the need, not to just reproduce children, but to reproduce male children with a mark cut into them, a mark indicating a covenant.

That is the crunch point. What is the covenant about? Some take it to be about strict obedience to God’s commands. But the Jewish people continually challenged God. The relationship was not a pacific one. There were thrusts and parries. But at all times, in your heart – God could even kill your two oldest sons – even if God’s act was disproportionate and wrong, it was not perceived to result from malice, but for one’s own good.

So too the action of the father. However a father fails his son, it is not out of malice. A father must not only teach his son that he loves him, but that the son must never absolutely trust his father. Even one’s own father can give one pain, and do it when one is most vulnerable. Rather than teaching absolute obedience and absolute perfection of a father-figure, even a father you love can betray your trust, can betray your faith.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder both that he cannot trust his penis, which seems to have a “mind” of its own, but cannot even absolutely trust his father. Distrust, not absolute faith, must be an integral part of the relationship between man and God, between a son and his father, and between humans and their relationship to authority figures.

Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” Circumcision is the first step in making a Jewish male infant into a holy being, not holy because he surrenders himself in total faith to another, but because he is branded in his flesh to always distrust another no matter how much he loves and respects that other. To be clean is not to be immaculate. Pure faith is restricted to the holy of holies. However, it is the wholly holy which is unclean in the analogy. To be clean is to engage in the right balance between trust and distrust, between total trust in one’s father and also guarded that even a loving father can betray you. Purity must be applied to the ordinary, to the common, to make sure the flesh is not contaminated. But purity of the spirit does not belong in the common, in the flesh, for in this world we need both trust and distrust.

To quote a blog I wrote a year ago: “If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.”