Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour

The forgotten story of the arrogant, overbearing egotist who, with one speech, united the American Jewish community behind the Zionist idea and helped secure the Jewish future
Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver speaks at the 1948 Republican Convention. Photo by Leonard Mccombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
 
Observation
Allan Arkush
Dec. 11 2013 10:38PM

Dateline: Washington, March 1948

A scant two months before Israel’s declaration of independence, it seemed the U.S. might retreat from supporting the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into two states. American Zionist leaders were desperate to reach President Truman, who refused to meet with them. So they turned to Eddie Jacobson, the president’s old business partner from Missouri, for whom the door to the Oval Office was always open. But, despite Jacobson’s plea that the president meet with Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organization, Truman wouldn’t budge. Then his friend tried a final ploy:

I happened to rest my eyes on a beautiful model of a statue of Andrew Jackson. . . . I then found myself saying to the President, almost word for word: “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. . . . Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived. . . . I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.”

Truman kept silent for a bit, then looked Jacobson straight in the eye and grumbled: “You win, you bald-headed sonuvabitch, I will see him.”

The President’s session with Weizmann proved immensely important, effectively halting the opponents of Jewish statehood. And Jacobson remains to this day something of a folk-hero for many American Jews—despite the fact that Weizmann wasn’t really his hero (he later admitted that what he told Truman was a spur-of-the-moment fabrication). But if American Jews are in search of a true Zionist hero, a champion who deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated, they need only look to Abba Hillel Silver, a Reform rabbi and Zionist leader who is today all but forgotten.

 

Silver’s life story—he was born in 1893 and died 50 years ago this past Thanksgiving—doesn’t fit neatly into the familiar picture of American Jewish history. Serving for decades as the rabbi of “The Temple,” a prestigious Reform congregation in Cleveland that observed the Sabbath on Sunday, he was not descended from old-line German-Jewish stock, as would befit the occupant of such a post, but a Lithuanian-born immigrant. Only fifteen years before being hired at The Temple, he was living on New York’s Lower East Side as a nine-year-old boy sporting sidecurls and speaking Yiddish. And yet he became an exceptionally successful congregational rabbi as well as a very reputable scholar.

Even more atypically, Silver was not someone whose greatness was evident at first glance—or at first hearing. To watch him in a video documentary or in one of the brief clips that have made their way onto YouTube is not necessarily to admire him. He seems stiff, artificial, almost preposterously pompous. One isn’t surprised to learn from his biographer, Marc Lee Raphael, that some people “found him arrogant, overbearing, domineering, egotistical, contemptuous, and an enemy of anyone who dared oppose him or one of his ideas.” His most readily available piece of writing, a speech delivered in August 1943 and reprinted in Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, may seem, on a quick reading, rather run of the mill.

In fact, it was anything but. As we shall see, this same speech, perhaps Silver’s single most powerful, most consequential, and most immediately effective act of public persuasion, exemplifies to a high degree the indisputable greatness of the man.

Today, in the aftermath of innumerable attacks on the American Jews for their failure to come to the aid of their European brethren during the Holocaust, it is easy to picture the community of that time as downright indifferent to the Jewish fate. And indeed many Jews, understandably fixated on America’s role in the wider war, may have preferred to remain ignorant or in denial of the specifically Jewish catastrophe. But by no means all: by 1943, activists in the Jewish community were acutely aware of the devastation that was taking place in Europe and wracked by their own inability to stop it.

This was particularly true of America’s Zionists, who a year earlier, in May 1942, had responded to the plight of European Jewry with a dramatic new initiative. Spurred by David Ben-Gurion and others, prominently including Abba Hillel Silver, 600 delegates from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Hadassah, and religious and labor-Zionist parties declared at a conference in New York that the postwar order envisioned by President Roosevelt—an order to be built on “foundations of peace, justice, and equality”—could not be realized without a solution to the wrenching problem of “Jewish homelessness.” Calling on the British Mandatory power to open the gates of Palestine to desperate Jewish refugees, the delegates then dropped their earlier reticence on the subject of actual Jewish statehood, insisting in the conference’s final plank “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”

The next step was to mobilize the entire American Jewish community behind this Zionist initiative, which would come to be known (after the hotel where the conference was held) as the “Biltmore Program.” In that monumental endeavor, Silver’s role was pivotal.

It also marked something of a personal turnabout. True, he had been a Zionist throughout his adult life and even earlier. In 1904, at the age of eleven, he was one of the co-founders of the Lower East Side’s Dr. Herzl Zion Club. But upon reaching maturity he had shifted his allegiance from political Zionism to “cultural Zionism,” a movement focused on solving not the problem of the Jews—i.e., statelessness—but the “problem of Judaism.” In 1917, explaining his position to a skeptical hiring committee at The Temple, he had articulated his commitment to the creation of a “spiritual and cultural center in Palestine” that would “galvanize Jewish life the world over.” Then and later, he would repeatedly assert that “the political thrust of Zionism is for me secondary.”

Only in the dire circumstances of the Nazi era did Silver come to understand that there would be no achieving Zionism’s cultural and spiritual aims without Jewish political independence—whereupon he tirelessly threw himself into helping to promote that overriding end. The chance came to form a united front on the issue came in August 1943, fifteen months after the Biltmore conference, as delegates representing virtually all of American Jewry assembled at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

 

A significant majority at the Waldorf conference were affiliated with Zionist organizations, thus improving the odds of obtaining a full-throated call for a Jewish state. Still, there was strong opposition to be overcome. Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, influential president of the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, was pushing for a watered-down resolution demanding removal of the British-imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine but omitting any mention of statehood. Several prominent Zionists were of similar mind. Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, co-chair with Silver of the American Zionist Emergency Council, had cold feet; as Raphael writes, Wise “explicitly urged the delegates not to adopt the Biltmore program’s final plank.”

Silver himself had not been allotted speaking time at the Waldorf conference, but the militantly Zionist delegates of the American Jewish Congress had arranged to send him to the platform. No audio recording exists of the speech he proceeded to deliver—which may be just as well since we’ve lost the taste for his style of high public oratory. On this occasion, however, his words, which were in no sense overblown, are sufficient in themselves to convey their profound impact on those listening.

“The reconstitution of the Jewish people as a nation in its homeland,” Silver declared,

is not a playful political conceit of ours. . . . It is the cry of despair of a people driven to the wall, fighting for its very life. . . . . From the infested, typhus-ridden ghetto of Warsaw, from the death-block of Nazi-occupied lands where myriads of our people are awaiting execution by the slow or the quick method, from a hundred concentration camps which befoul the map of Europe . . . comes the cry: “Enough, there must be a final end to all this, a sure and certain end!”

How long is it to last? Are we forever to live a homeless people on the world’s crumbs of sympathy?. . . Should not all this be compensated for finally and at long last with the re-establishment of a free Jewish Commonwealth?

Is not this historic justice, and is this world today not reaching out so desperately and so pathetically for a new world order of justice?. . . Are we not deserving of it?

Are we going to take counsel here of fear of what this one or that one might say, of how our actions are likely to be misinterpreted; or are we to take counsel of our inner moral convictions, of our faith, of our history, of our achievements, and go forward in faith?

In the judgment of the Israeli historian Ofer Schiff, these words of Silver’s, which “overwhelmed the hundreds of delegates at the congress and brought many of them to tears,” reflect “the principled, American democratic meaning that Silver lent to the demand for the establishment of a national home.” I’m not so sure. It’s true that, in earlier speeches, Silver had explicitly linked the creation of a Jewish state to the overall American war aim of fostering a new world order. But there is a simpler explanation for why he electrified his audience at the Waldorf: he made them feel the agony of the Jews caught in Hitler’s web, preparing them for the climactic moment when he would hammer home the only logical answer to their kinsmen’s desperate predicament:

We cannot truly rescue the Jews of Europe unless we have free immigration into Palestine. We cannot have free immigration into Palestine unless our political rights are recognized there. Our political rights cannot be recognized there unless our historic connection with the country is acknowledged and our right to rebuild our national home is reaffirmed. These are inseparable links in the chain. The whole chain breaks if one of the links is missing. Do not beguile yourselves. Do not let anyone beguile you. . . .

The speech won the day. Weeping delegates rose to sing Hatikvah, over and over again, and then resoundingly moved to endorse the resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth. Rabbi Elmer Berger, the director of the newly formed American Council for Judaism—an anti-Zionist rump of the Reform movement—tried to make light of the event. (“No one could say that in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1943, the Jewish ‘people’ had asked for a Jewish state.”) But Tamar de Sola Pool, the president of Hadassah, better understood what had been accomplished:

We have now won over not merely individuals; we now have at our side whole national organizations with thousands and hundreds of thousands of members. . . . They are now flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. All that we stand for, all that we struggle for, has become for them, too an integral ideal.

 

Uniting the great majority of American Jews behind the Biltmore program did not, of course, bring that program to fruition. In the aftermath of the conference, the Zionists’ major task, in the words of Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the new president of the ZOA, was to “win the wholehearted approval of the American Government and people.”

The effort to obtain that approval, and then to sustain it, is not the most exciting part of the Zionist saga during those years, but it is nonetheless of central importance. After World War II, had the American government not become involved in the Palestine question and done what it did for the Zionist movement, a Jewish state would most likely never have come into being.

Ronald and Allis Radosh have made this abundantly clear in their recent A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, a book in which Abba Hillel Silver naturally plays a major role. The Radoshes do not dwell at length, however, on the crucial work performed by Silver in the period prior to the Truman administration. It was in those few years that he laid the basis for what was to come.

 

Right after the Waldorf-Astoria conference, writes Rabbi Leon I. Feuer, Silver’s Washington deputy, “Dr. Silver asked me (drafted me would be more accurate) to take a year’s leave of absence from my Toledo congregation, which generously consented, to take charge of the office of the Emergency Council which was to be opened in Washington and which would have to become the focus of our activities.” Before settling in the capital, Feuer spent some weeks in New York City organizing roughly 150 “active and enthusiastic local committees” dedicated to mobilizing Jewish opinion and action around the country. The extraordinary labors these activists would perform made them, for Feuer, some of “the unsung heroes of the struggle for the founding of Israel.”

Once in Washington, Feuer put together a core team that, under Silver’s leadership, strove

a) to inform and educate congressmen and other government officials and such other persons outside of government—reporters, editors, former government officials—who might be able to exert some influence on American policy, about the urgency of the Jewish situation in Europe as well as about the justice and legality of the Zionist cause; b) to develop as much opposition as we could in the same quarters to the [1939] British White Paper [reneging on the Balfour Declaration and strangling Jewish immigration to Palestine]; c) and finally to focus our efforts either on the introduction and passage through Congress of a resolution expressing opposition to the British White Paper, or to go the whole way and try to put the Congress on record as favoring the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine after the war.

Feuer’s 1976 reminiscence, The Birth of the Jewish Lobby [sic!], gives due credit to Silver’s inspirational role but doesn’t say enough about the extent of his direct involvement in day-to-day affairs during this formative period. That story appears in an earlier book by Feuer, A Personal Memoir (1967). There he recalls how, “during the hectic period of the 1940s, when he was leading the Zionist campaign for American support,” Silver “was compelled to spend nearly every week from Monday to Thursday in New York and Washington.” He would then return home to Cleveland almost every weekend “to meet with his confirmation class, which he disliked missing, and to occupy his pulpit on Sunday mornings.”

Silver’s devotion to the task was, Feuer tells us, “simply indescribable.” He “traveled constantly, addressed literally hundreds of meetings, interviewed scores of prominent personages, and fought like a tiger to make the cause and his judgment of events prevail.” Feuer had known Silver and looked up to him from the time he was a teenager; his recollections of the man, if not exactly lyrical, help us not only to see him better but to understand the kind of admiration he was capable of exciting in the right company.

 

Harry Truman was not among that company. In fact, he couldn’t stand Silver, and his refusal to meet with him in early 1948 is one of the reasons why the Zionist leaders, at the end of the day, required the services of Eddie Jacobson. But the great leader of American Zionism deserves to be better remembered than Truman’s admittedly helpful buddy.

He also deserves to be better remembered than another man with whom he might be more appropriately compared: Judah Magnes. The California-born Magnes was one of a number of Reform rabbis who had broken early with the movement’s anti-Zionist outlook. An associate rabbi for a time at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, and a leader of American Jewry in the 1910s, Magnes had left the U.S. in 1922 for Palestine, where he became president of the newly founded Hebrew University.

Like Silver, Magnes was above all a cultural Zionist. He differed with Silver, however, in seeing the political thrust of Zionism as not merely secondary but altogether expendable. “I should be willing,” he announced after the murderous anti-Jewish Arab riots of 1929, “to yield the Jewish ‘State’ and the Jewish ‘majority’” in favor of a bi-national, Jewish-Arab government. Under such a regime, he believed, it would be possible to create “a spiritual and intellectual center for Judaism and the Jewish people” without depriving the Arabs of Palestine of their legitimate rights.

This was a position from which Magnes never deviated. Nothing that happened subsequently, either in Europe or in Palestine, led him to reassess his view. During World War II, he led the opposition to the Biltmore program; after the war, he lobbied actively in Washington against the establishment of a Jewish state. As late as May 1948, after Eddie Jacobson had done his work, he was still urging President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall to replace the UN partition plan with a UN trusteeship over all of Palestine.

Magnes was not benighted; perhaps worse, he was an idealist. “Obstinate and single-minded,” in the words of the historian Arthur Goren, he was “a preacher turned political man who refused to accept the dichotomy between the moral and the real worlds.” This last aspect of his character, indeed, is what has made him a latter-day object of admiration among some Jewish intellectuals disaffected from the state of Israel and the Zionist cause. One shudders to imagine how things might have unfolded had Magnes possessed the talents and influence of Silver, a no less obstinate and single-minded preacher-turned-politician. Fortunately, he did not.

At a time of great crisis, Abba Hillel Silver saw very clearly that the immediate imperative was Jewish independence, and that in the absence of this, all dreams of Jewish cultural renewal in Palestine, let alone the fates of untold numbers of Jewish survivors and refugees, would go forfeit. He set aside everything else—everything—in order to fight tooth and nail for that overriding imperative. Only after independence had been won did he return to his earlier preoccupations as a rabbi and scholar, concerning himself in his later years with what he never ceased to see as Zionism’s task of preserving “the integrity of our spiritual heritage,” and transmitting it to the rest of the world.

________________

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

More about: Chaim Weizmann, Foreign Policy, Harry Truman, Israel, Jewish State, Nazism, Palestine, Zionism

 

Jacob, the Innocent Con Artist

Was Jacob born to greatness, did he achieve it, or did he have it thrust upon him by his mother?

Jacob, the Innocent Con Artist
Jacob Deceives Isaac by James Tissot, 1902. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Nov. 20 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


This week’s Torah portion of Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9) is about the costs and benefits of obedience, or of emulation if you will. Where Abraham’s story begins with God’s demand that he leave his father’s house and go wherever the Almighty wants him to go, this story is about three men, none of whom really wants to leave his father’s house, and one woman who sees to it that her sons do what God requires. The story is about staying, not going, and the price exacted by each.

But these are the annals of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham fathered Isaac.
And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Pedan,
sister of Laban the Aramean, as his wife.
And Isaac entreated the Lord when he found his wife was barren
and the Lord assented to him and Rebecca his wife conceived.
And the children rattled about inside her and she said, Why am I like this?
And she went to inquire of the Lord and the Lord told her,
Two peoples are in your belly and two nations will part from your loins
and one nation will fortify the other
and the elder will make offerings to the younger.

A key question at this point is just what is meant by “the elder”? Many commentators have justified Rebecca’s subsequent actions as being intended to fulfil this prophecy by seeing to it that her firstborn son Esau will make offerings to his younger twin Jacob. Her actions do fulfil the prophecy, but in exactly the way she does not want. Yes, they allow Jacob to assume the role of firstborn, but they also drive him from his father Isaac’s house, only to return many years (and several Torah portions) later to make offerings to his “younger” brother Esau in recompense for having stolen the birthright and their father’s blessing. So what does this story mean?

But the boys grew and Esau became a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field,
and Jacob was an innocent man who lived in tents.
And Isaac loved Esau for the game in his mouth, but Rebecca loves Jacob.
And Jacob stewed a stew and Esau came from the field and he was tired
and Esau said to Jacob, Give me a mouthful of that red red stuff now
for I’m tired (that’s why they called him Red).
But Jacob said, Sell me your birthright today,
and Esau said, Here I am going to expire—what do I need the birthright for?
But Jacob said, Swear to me today
and he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob
and Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew
and he ate and he drank and he rose and he left.
And Esau scorned the birthright.

Two more details as the story sets its traps. The description of Jacob as an innocent man who dwells in tents is left like a loaded gun in the middle of the stage. First, in what sense is he innocent? I always assumed the Torah was being profoundly ironic here—just for starters, Jacob is hustling his brother for the birthright only two lines later—but I’ve been forced to conclude otherwise.  Jacob, I think, is innocent in the way the third son in the Passover Haggadah is innocent (both texts use the same Hebrew word). There’s a wise son who has faith, a wicked son who voices doubt, an innocent son, and lastly one so simple he can’t even ask questions. Jacob is like the innocent son in not really considering the consequences of his actions. He does not behave in such a way that a rabbinic court might consider him, for legal purposes, a grownup.

Who, then, should inherit Abraham’s blessing: the driven but dangerously “innocent” Jacob, or the rightful heir who is so unfit to inherit that he’ll trade his birthright to fill his stomach?  So far, our story seems to present us with an impossible choice.

The second key detail is the description of Jacob as a tent-dweller. Unlike Esau, an independent creature soon to defy parental authority by choosing his own wives, Jacob will go from his mother’s home to his uncle’s, and will take his wives where he’s been told to by his parents; it will be another 20 years before he finally strikes out on his own with his own family. Jacob is conflicted: between the drive to acquire greatness at any cost and the impulse to conform with what is expected of him. Is that the kind of person we want inheriting the family mission?

As if to parallel the dilemma, the narrative now interrupts itself to catch us up on the story of the boys’ father, Isaac:

But there was a famine in the land, apart from the first famine in Abraham’s day
and Isaac went to Avimelekh king of the Philistines, toward Grar
and the Lord showed Himself to him and said, Do not go down to Egypt,
fix in the land that I’ll tell you, migrate to this land and I’ll be with you and bless you.
For to you and your descendants I’ll give these lands
and I will fulfil the oath I swore to Abraham your father. . . .
And Isaac sowed in that land and realized in that year a hundredfold
and the Lord blessed him, and the man became greater . . .
and the Philistines envied him.
And all the wells his father’s servants dug in his father Abraham’s day
the Philistines had blocked and filled with dust. . . .
But Isaac went from there and pitched his camp at the Grar river and settled there
and Isaac settled and dug the water wells they’d dug in the days of his father Abraham
that the Philistines blocked after Abraham’s death
and he named them by the names his father called them. . . .
And he went up from there to Beer Sheva and the Lord showed Himself to him at night
and said, I am the God of Abraham your father.
Do not fear for I am with you and I will bless you and make many your descendants
For the sake of my servant Abraham.

 

This episode contrasts two modes of receiving and then transmitting the divine blessing. We have already seen Jacob hustling and chafing at the reins, but here we see his father following meticulously, assiduously, in his father’s footsteps. When faced with a famine, he does what Daddy did and goes down to Grar to Avimelekh, but the Lord appears and tells him explicitly that his mission is different from Abraham’s—he is a preserver, not a creator. He is not to go down to Egypt, but rather to hold onto and strengthen the claim of Abraham on these lands. Isaac re-digs wells and reclaims them with the same names his father had given them.

Isaac is the second generation, consolidating the wealth of the initial money-maker. Nearly all cultures have a version of the expression, “from rags to riches to rags in three generations.” If it is to be the story of this family, it won’t be Isaac’s fault. He’s holding on.

But there is a price to pay for being obedient. The blessing Isaac receives and has to transmit is not really “his”—everything the Lord does for Isaac, after all his filial service, is done for the sake of Abraham. Isaac is just a place holder before the advent of the next creative spark, the one who will think outside the box. Who will it be, and what will he pay for the privilege?

And it was when Esau was forty years old that he took to wife
Judith daughter of Be’eri the Hittite and Basmat daughter of Eilon the Hittite
and they were the bane of Isaac and Rebecca’s spirit.

Bane or no bane, Isaac still wants to bestow the blessing on Esau, not Jacob. He initiates the process by telling his favorite son to go hunt some game, “so that I’m alive to bless you before I die.” But, fatefully, Rebecca intervenes:

And Rebecca spoke to Jacob her son, saying, Look
I heard your father talking to your brother Esau,
but now my boy listen to me about what I’m telling you—
go now to the goat pen and get me two nice kids
and I’ll make them tasty things for your father
the way he likes, and you bring them to your father for him to eat
so he’ll bless you before he dies. But Jacob said to Rebecca his mother,
Since my brother Esau is a fuzzy man and I am a smooth man,
maybe my father will feel me and he’ll see me as a fraud
and I’ll bring a curse on myself, not a blessing.
But his mother told him, Your curse be on me my son,
just listen to me and go get them for me.
And he went and he took and he brought them for his mother
and his mother made tasty things as his father liked.
And Rebecca took the clothes of her big boy Esau,
the finery that was with her at home,
and dressed Jacob her little boy,
and the pelts of the kid goats she pulled over his hands
and over his exposed throat,
and she put the tasty things and the bread she made in the hand of Jacob her son.
And he came to his father and said, Dad,
and he said, I’m here. Who’re you, my son?
And Jacob told his father, I’m Esau your firstborn,
I have done as you told me,
get up now and sit you down to eat my game
so you’ll live to bless me.
But Isaac said to his son, What were you so quick to find, my son?
And he said, Just what the Lord your God chanced before me.
But Isaac said to Jacob, Come on over and let me feel, my son,
if you are he, my son Esau, or not.
And Jacob went over to his father Isaac and he felt him and said,
The voice is Jacob’s voice but the hands are Esau’s hands.
And he didn’t recognize him because his hands were fuzzy like his brother Esau’s,
and he blessed his son, but said: Is it you my son Esau?
and he said, It’s me,
and he told him, Serve me and I’ll eat my son’s game
so I’ll bless you while I’m still alive.
And he served him and he ate and he brought him wine and he drank
and he went over and kissed him and he smelled the smell of his clothes
and blessed him and said,
Look, my son smells like the smell of a field blessed by the Lord.

 

The drama of this scene is unequalled by anything outside of Shakespeare. Again and again, Isaac’s instincts tell him that this is not the son he wants to bless; again and again, Jacob holds his breath thinking he’s going to be discovered; again and again, he has to lie. Commentators note that after the scene where Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, the text never refers to him as the firstborn. It keeps hammering home that one of the two is older and one younger, one bigger and one smaller, but never that Esau is the firstborn: that is, the presumed heir. Which is one reason it’s such a shock in this scene to hear our hero lying to his father, who clearly loves Esau dearly.

And then, no sooner has Isaac finished blessing Jacob than Esau enters. Now the father is confused:
Who was it then who hunted game
and brought it me and I ate it all
before you came, and I blessed him, and blessed shall he remain?
As Esau heard his father’s words he cried a great and most bitter cry
and told his father, Bless me too, Daddy.
But he said, Your brother came by wiles
and took your blessing.
And Esau bore a grudge against Jacob over the blessing his father blessed him,
and Esau said in his heart, The days to mourn my father are nigh,
and I’ll kill Jacob my brother. And Rebecca was told the words of Esau her big boy
and sent to call Jacob her little boy
and told him, Look, Esau your brother
comforts himself with the thought of killing you,
but now my son listen to me and get up and flee for yourself
to my brother Laban, toward Haran, and you’ll settle with him a few days
until your brother’s fury wanes
until your brother’s rage falls away from you
and he forgets what you did to him
and I’ll send to take you from there.
Why should I lose both of you in one day?

But losing them both is exactly what she has caused to happen. Rebecca will die before Jacob eventually comes home, and her machinations alienate her from Esau. Having caused Jacob’s exile, she now puts in motion a formal dissociation of Esau from the inheriting line of the family:

And Rebecca said to Isaac, I’m at the end of my tether from these Hittite girls.
If Jacob takes himself a wife from these Hittite girls, from these girls in the land
Why should I want to live?
And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him
and commanded him and said, Don’t take a wife from the Canaanite girls,
get up and go to Padan Aram the home of Betuel your mother’s father
and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.
And the God Shadai will bless you and make you fruitful and make you many
and you shall be a host of peoples and he’ll give you the blessing of Abraham. . . .
And Esau saw that Isaac blessed Jacob
and Esau saw that the Canaanite girls looked bad to Isaac his father
and Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahlat daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham
sister of Nevayot over his wives, to be his wife.

I find this passage almost as heart-breaking as Esau’s desperately sad cry to his father to bless him, too. This urge to please his parents by marrying again, and then going disastrously to the family of the bypassed Ishmael to do so, reminds me of the moment in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman when the desperate younger brother Happy tells his  mother: “I’m gonna get married Mom. I wanted to tell you,” and she says, “Go to sleep, dear.” And he says, “I just wanted to tell you,” but she still isn’t listening.

The truly awful thing about this story is that Esau is clearly unworthy of the blessing of Abraham. As if the early incident with the stew were not enough, he has twice gone off without consulting his parents and married the wrong person, which is what Abraham spent the entire previous week’s reading (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)  making sure Isaac wouldn’t do. So it clearly cannot be Esau who will continue the family story—but why does it have to be so painful? And why has Isaac had to spend his life following in Abraham’s footsteps only to be told that God has put up with him only for his dead father’s sake? And why, despite his own love for Esau, must Isaac go through the bedside charade over the blessing?  Whatever Isaac’s own preferences may be, he always bows to Rebecca’s aims, recognizing that when Jacob leaves home to do her bidding and marry the way he himself did at his father’s command, the blessing will go with him. Blessed he shall be.

And the blessing, finally, is a burden. What Abraham did out of a deep and developing relationship with the Almighty, Jacob does out of a mixture of innate ambition and familial imperative. Neither he nor Esau is ever addressed directly by God. Rebecca engineers it all. It is only once he is cast out of his father’s house that, in next week’s reading, God appears to him. And only when he returns to confront Esau as a well-to-do and independent pater familias will he encounter and wrestle with the mysterious entity in the night.

In the end, it is difficult to say whether Jacob, the “innocent” con artist, was born to greatness, achieved greatness, or had greatness thrust upon him by his mother.

But he has no choice now. He wanted it, and it’s all his. Rebecca’s parting words to him—“flee for yourself”—deliberately contain an echo of God’s initial word to Abraham—“go for yourself.” But it is one thing to go, and another to flee. For an awfully long time, the family mission that Jacob sets out on will look like a road to rags, not riches. One thing that fulfilling the divine will does not guarantee, in Jacob’s case, is a life of ease.

If anyone profits materially in this story, it is Esau, the one who has also lost the most emotionally. But nobody wants to leave home. And nobody in this story is loved by God as much as He loved His servant Abraham.

More about: Esau, Isaac, Jacob, The Monthly Portion, Toledot, Torah

 

Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist

A just-reissued classic explores an unfamiliar realm of Jewish experience—and is a great American tale besides.

Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist
Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Defense League, stands in the midst of protestors in Washington, March 20, 1977. AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi.
 
Observation
Nov. 18 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef (forthcoming from Syracuse University Press). His essays and reviews have appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, Commentary, and elsewhere, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.


For anyone interested in modern Israel, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (2013), by Yossi Klein Halevi, has been widely praised as essential reading (though some reviewers, including Ruth Wisse in Mosaic, have offered cooler appraisals). In my own generally positive review of the book, I expressed the hope that its success might win some attention for Halevi’s first two works, both of them autobiographical narratives that I find more engrossing than last year’s sprawling epic of the socialist left and the religious right in the Jewish state.

Now the first of those earlier books, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (1995), has been republished with a new foreword by the author. In it, the American-born and -raised Halevi tells the story of his youth in the 1960s and 70s as the son of a Holocaust survivor; his activist participation in the movement to free Soviet Jewry; his involvement in and break with the extremist Jewish Defense League (JDL); and his eventual emigration from the United States to make his home in Israel.

“My father lived in a hole,” Memoirs begins, in a dark parody of the opening line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But the childhood tales on which Halevi was raised were not the stuff of Middle Earth fantasy but the dire chronicle of his father’s escape from Nazi cattle cars and the year he spent with two other Jews huddled in a six-by-eight-foot pit dug in the forest. After the war, having left Hungary and made his way to Brooklyn, where he married and where Halevi was born in 1953, the father sought to impart the truths his son would need to know in order to negotiate a world eternally hostile to Jews. “The most innocent details of our lives,” the boy learns, “contained awesome lessons for survival.” Among these lessons: the ever-suspect nature of Gentiles and the persistence, even if sometimes disguised, of their hatred.

This “Planet of the Jews,” as Halevi calls it, was the shadow opposite of the great mainstream, suburbanizing world of American Jewry in the 1950s and 60s; indeed, that world was the real target of his father’s contempt. To him, these truly “American” Jews were the comfortable and the complacent, anxious only when it came to preserving their still-fragile place in American society. During the war, they “didn’t try to save the relatives they’d left behind in Europe because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves with a noisy rescue campaign, jeopardize their assimilation into America.” After the war, they were the Jews “who were embarrassed to be ‘too’ Jewish, who laughed when a Yiddish word was mentioned in a joke as if that were itself the punch line, who turned an identity we’d been martyred for into vaudeville.”

“An identity we’d been martyred for.” With the emphasis on that “we,” Halevi writes that he internalized the severe conclusions of his father’s experience as if they and that experience were his own. “Though born in America, I was no American Jew. I would never assimilate, become a spectator to Jewish suffering.”

And so the conundrum of Halevi’s youth—and the central rift described in Memoirs—was how to reconcile his father’s view of the world with the incommensurately different reality of postwar America. His father’s “main teaching” was “to know the world without illusion.” Yet postwar America, seen without illusion, looked to be exceedingly hospitable to its Jews. Even his father insisted on the country’s fundamental goodness, its exceptional character. But his pre-adolescent son could not accept the contradiction. “My father’s love for America,” he writes of his boyhood convictions, “was a classic case of Jewish self-delusion, of refusing to see the world as it is.” Not for this youngster the mistake of Jewish naiveté that had doomed European Jews in the war. And so the son set out to find menace and threat, and to confront it boldly.

 

As became increasingly apparent during the 1960s, there was in fact a major Jewish population in danger of destruction. Not America’s, and not Israel’s (or at least so it would seem in the victorious wake of the Six-Day War), but the millions trapped in the Soviet Union and subject to an insidious campaign of persecution. Here was a crisis suited to Halevi’s youthful understanding of Jewish history. His early involvement in the movement to free Soviet Jews was, as for other young activists of the time, a signal of his distance from an American Jewish mainstream that was inveterately slow to act, uneasy about dramatic protest politics, and highly trusting of American administrations, especially Democratic ones, to make the right policy decisions.

All of twelve years old, Halevi became active in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). Memoirs describes his encounters with Jacob Birnbaum, the founder of the vanguard youth organization, Glenn Richter, its indefatigable organizer, and Shlomo Carlebach, its de-facto bard, and portrays the group’s early marches and demonstrations. Yet by the early 1970s he had become hungry for redder meat, and soon discovered it in Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.

Unlike SSSJ, with its civil-rights model of peaceful demonstrations and consciousness-raising, the JDL was temperamentally of a piece with the apocalyptic 1970s politics of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers. In their campaign of direct and often violent action on behalf of Soviet Jews, JDLers attacked the Soviet consulate in New York, disrupted concerts and performances by visiting Soviet artists, and engaged in acts of terrorism like exploding a pipe bomb outside Aeroflot’s Manhattan office. In a case that haunts this book, a JDL smoke bomb thrown into the office of the impresario Sol Hurok, who promoted concerts by visiting Soviet performers, took the life of a Jewish secretary by smoke inhalation.

Halevi’s personal claim to JDL fame was his own brainchild: organizing a sit-in not in New York but in Moscow itself. Not yet twenty, he and seven other young Jewish activists managed to get into the Soviet Union during Passover 1973 with the intention of occupying the Moscow emigration office. Their hope was to create a public embarrassment for the Soviets and for Washington at a time when some American congressmen and Jewish leaders were questioning the need to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a crucial piece of legislation that would make normal American trade relations with the Soviet Union conditional on the Kremlin’s granting exit visas to its citizens. Halevi’s recounting of this dangerous venture and its outcome is the book’s most riveting episode.

The later portions of Memoirs go on to describe Halevi’s disillusionment with Kahane and break with the JDL. As the 1970s proceed, we see him sliding into shiftless nihilism, depression, and drugs. The final chapters, rather than pointing to a single event that would signal his emergence from his father’s shadow and his youthful demons, are instead an accretion of various episodes that, without reaching a definitive conclusion, bring us to a sense of cautious uplift. Chief among the episodes are his father’s death, his relationship with a charming New England WASP who converts to Judaism and becomes his wife, and their decision to move to Israel. Attending Thanksgiving dinner at his future wife’s family home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Halevi is surprised to find how little he feels an outsider, and delivers a little encomium to America:

Somehow, I belonged in this house’s history. America had created the neutral ground on which Lynn and I could so effortlessly join, allowed a Christian girl to bring home a boy named Yossi without creating a family scandal. America had not only given equality to the Jews but to Judaism, which Lynn could explore with simple curiosity, ignoring the stigma of centuries. America had let me heal, let me work out my inherited trauma, and be as angry as I wanted, even at America itself.

 

It is instructive to read Memoirs alongside David Horowitz’s Radical Son (1997), another fine memoir of the American 1960s. Horowitz, too, tells of a burdened childhood, in this case as the son of Communists; of involvement in radical politics (the New Left and the Black Panthers); and of a final break with the left. Each of these two similar political journeys turns on the relationship between a father and a son. In each, the abstracting urgency of a grand ideological struggle slowly gives way to the realities of personal loneliness, individual moral choice, and the possibility of connection. And each describes a slow acceptance of the fundamental beneficence of America.

Both memoirs, for all their protagonists’ youthful anti-Americanism, are thus also quintessentially American stories. The new edition of Halevi’s Memoirs bears the subtitle, “The Story of a Transformation,” but the original subtitle, “An American Story,” was more accurate. As Halevi himself acknowledges, even his involvement in the JDL was, ironically, an expression of his inescapable Americanness:

The JDL offered me entry into both the danger zone of Jewish history and the fun house of America, allowed me to become at once my father’s contemporary and a Yippie. Indeed, the JDL was the most fully American of any Jewish organization, for it tested, without anxiety, the limits of American tolerance toward Jews. We relied on the basic restraint of the police even as we provoked them, trusted in the protection of the American government even as we threatened its interests.

But there is more to Halevi’s book than this. In his foreword to the new edition of Memoirs, Halevi tells us that when he began to write the book in the early 1970s, at the age of nineteen, he intended it as “a defense of Jewish militancy,” but that “[a]fter abandoning the project and then returning to it two decades later, what emerged was a repudiation, rather than a celebration, of Jewish rage.”

In truth, the value of the book derives from neither of these impulses. Most American Jews today, going about their business while a genocidally inclined Iran acquires nuclear capability with the blandest of rebukes from the American president most of them voted for, hardly require a brief against Jewish militancy. Rather, the significance of Memoirs lies elsewhere.

First, it explores a realm of American Jewish experience unfamiliar to many: Orthodox, still working-class in an era of expanding Jewish affluence, and oppositional in a more than merely gestural way to the mainstream synthesis of American Jewish identity achieved by the children and grandchildren of the great wave of Eastern European immigrants.

In some ways, then, Memoirs is still quite cognate with the classic “World of Our Fathers” trajectory of American Jewish experience: immigration, Americanization, and generational conflict of the kind chronicled in, for instance, Isaac Rosenfeld’s mid-century autobiographical novel Passage from Home (1946). But Halevi’s story deals with the second half of the 20th century, and with the foundational realities of Israel and the Holocaust. More than a mere updating of the classic story, it shifts that story in new directions.

And that is its second, and greater, significance. Memoirs departs from the assumptions that still shape much of American Jewish writing and the cultural understandings of American Jews. It is decidedly and even profoundly an American story, but its trajectory points toward Israel. Indeed, to the extent that it is a story about transcending Jewish rage, that rage becomes resolved not in America but in the only place on the globe where such resolution can fully occur—and where the burdens of minority consciousness can be finally laid aside.

The results of this process can be seen in Halevi’s second book, which is a kind of unacknowledged sequel to Memoirs. In At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (2001), Halevi explains that only after becoming an Israeli and living in a majority-Jewish society was he able to engage undefensively with the spiritual beauty of Judaism’s sister religions.

My point here is not that Memoirs is a Zionist book, but that it is both an American and a Zionist book, a work of Jewish American writing that bids America a grateful farewell. This stance is unlikely to displace the central tendency of mainstream American Jewish literature, whose arc extends from Ellis Island to suburbia to, these days, the fictionalized shtetls of the postmodern imagination. Yet it is interesting that the novelist David Bezmozgis, himself one of those Soviet Jews on whose behalf the young Halevi fought in the late 1960s and early 70s, should recently have asserted that the current mode of American Jewish writing may altogether be reaching a point of exhaustion, and that future vitality and distinctiveness are more likely to be found through a long-deferred engagement with Israel.

If Bezmozgis is correct, then Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist is not just a chronicle of the past but advance notice of things to come.

More about: American Jewish literature, Jewish Defense League, Meir Kahane, Yossi Klein Halevi

 

The Temple Mount: In Whose Hands?

The reason Jews can’t pray at Judaism’s holiest site.

The Temple Mount: In Whose Hands?
Aerial view of the Temple Mount. Wikimedia Commons.
 
Observation
Nov. 12 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Meir Soloveichik is rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.


The irony went largely unnoticed. On October 29, an Israeli rabbi and tour guide was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt several steps away from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. On the entrance walls to that building, boldly emblazoned, are these stirring words by the man whose legacy the Center honors:

Not by the right of might have we returned to the land of our forefathers but by the might of right. . . . And therein, all of its inhabitants, the citizen as well as the resident, will live in freedom and justice, in solidarity and peace.

The victim of the attack has long advocated that both Jews and Muslims be allowed to pray, in freedom and peace, on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to both faiths and the locus of Jewish aspiration for millennia. In doing so, he has championed not might but right: in a Jewish state that serves as an island of liberty in the Middle East, why should Jews be the only citizens deprived of the right to pray at what is their faith’s holiest site?

Those who speak out on this matter have been labeled by some in the Israeli and Western media as “extremists” and inciters of violence. Meanwhile, the would-be assassin has been celebrated as a hero not only by Hamas, with which his family is connected, but also by the leader of the Palestinian Authority. Two days after the October 29 incident, Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, reaffirmed his support for what is known as the “status quo”—the arrangement according to which Jews are allowed to visit but forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount.

As the days pass and the situation in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel has become more volatile—and more violent—other government figures, including Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have reiterated that in today’s tense circumstances, Jews should refrain from visiting the Temple Mount. Yaalon’s concerns are understandably prudential. Still, as this latest chapter in a dispiriting story continues, it may be worth setting the issue of prayer on the Temple Mount in context.

 

The story begins, oddly enough, at Israel’s most triumphant moment. On June 7, 1967, Day 3 of the Six-Day War, the exultant cry of Lt. Gen. Mordechai (“Motta”) Gur—“the Temple Mount is in our hands!”—rang throughout the land. At war’s end, with the whole city of Jerusalem reclaimed and reunited under Israeli sovereignty, authorities faced the question of what to do about the Mount.

At the time, religious management of the site had long been delegated to the Jordanian clerical leadership known as the Waqf. Although Jewish religious law (halakhah) forbids Jews from visiting certain parts of the Mount—the most sacrosanct areas associated with the original Temple of King Solomon—the northern and southern portions of the current space atop the Mount are much later extensions, dating from the time of Roman rule.

Thus, in 1967, as many observers now agree, the most appropriate course would have been for the Israeli government to set aside, in one of these Roman-era locations, a dedicated section for Jewish prayer that would not interfere with Muslim worship. But that did not happen. Instead, Israel’s government handed the keys back to the Waqf. In this, it was abetted by the Chief Rabbinate, which posted a sign informing Jews that they were forbidden to ascend or pray on any portion of the Mount.

The government’s decision, one of the most misguided in Israel’s history, set in place a policy that resulted in the worst of all possible worlds. First, many Jews who continued to visit the Mount did so without any rabbinic guidance, entering areas where according to halakhah they should not have set foot. Second, Israel’s self-imposed ban on Jewish prayer persuaded both the Waqf and the Palestinian and Arab world in general that Israel’s leaders lacked any attachment to or reverence for the site. The Muslim authorities proceeded to destroy the physical evidence that Jews had ever worshipped God on the Mount.

Over the decades, the Waqf dug massive trenches on the Mount and dumped hundreds of truckloads of dirt and archaeological treasures into the Kidron Valley below. For this flagrant violation of the “status quo,” it earned little opprobrium from an Israeli government sensitive then as now to any controversy surrounding the site. In vain did the archaeologist Eilat Mazar argue that “The Israeli government doesn’t really understand that by turning a blind eye to the illegal actions undertaken by the Waqf and the Islamic Movement, it does not achieve the true quiet it seeks, since it only increases the appetite of the Muslim side, which notices that its acts go without punishment.”

In turn, this signal of Jewish indifference, as David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, has recently summed up, “ensured the resonance among Palestinians and the wider Muslim world of Yasir Arafat’s foul false narrative that ‘historically the Temple was not in Palestine’—and that, by pernicious extension, the Jewish nation has no historical sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world at all.”

 

Today, with the support of a diverse group of prominent rabbis from the religious Zionist community, more and more Israelis are embracing the cause of Jewish prayer on the Mount. They have come to realize the incongruity of annually celebrating Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of “the Temple Mount is in our hands,” even as the Hamas flag flies frequently there while Jewish prayer is prohibited. In the words of Tzipi Hotovely, a young Orthodox woman and rising star in the Likud party who now serves as deputy minister of transportation in the Netanyahu government, “Jews’ prayers must be heard on the Mount. This is the holiest place for the Jewish people and the status quo must change.” Hotovely and others are speaking the language not of might but of right, a right grounded, as Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah has it, in the “hope of 2,000 years.”

How Israel’s government will choose to balance pragmatism and principle, only time will tell. But the principle itself could not be clearer. In The Revolt (English edition 1951), Menachem Begin, the founding father of Hotovely and Netanyahu’s political party, recounts how British forces during the Mandate period prevented Jews from sounding the shofar at the Western Wall. At the time, many considered acquiescence to be the wiser course; by contrast, Begin insisted that the right of free Jewish worship in Jerusalem stood at the very core of the independence that Zionists sought.

“What our ancestors refused to tolerate from their ancient oppressors,” Begin wrote, “even at the cost of their lives and freedom, is tolerated by the generation of Jews that describes itself as the last of oppression and the first of redemption.” He went on:

A people that does not defend its holy places—that does not even try to defend them—is not free, however much it may babble about freedom. People that permit the most holy spot in their country and their most sacred feelings to be trampled underfoot are slaves in spirit.

Or, as Tzipi Hotovely has put it in the Knesset, “There is no Zionism without Zion; there is no Zion without Jerusalem; there is no Jerusalem without the Temple Mount.” The right of Jewish prayer on the Mount is linked to the soul of Zionism itself.

More about: Israeli politics, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Menachem Begin, Temple Mount

“Take Now Your Son”

How to understand the Binding of Isaac.

“Take Now Your Son”
From Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603, by Caravaggio. Wikimedia.
 
Observation
Nov. 6 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Jonathan Neumann, a 2011-2012 Tikvah Fellow, lives in London and writes on politics and religion.


The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), known in Hebrew as the akeidah and a centerpiece of this week’s reading in the Torah, is one of the Bible’s most challenging stories. It plays a prominent role in Jewish liturgy and thought; Christian and Islamic thinkers, as well as more recent moral philosophers, have famously grappled with it. But much of what has been written about this episode misses its essential message.

The story, one of the great examples of the Torah’s sparse and powerful narrative style, is straightforward enough: God appears to the patriarch Abraham shortly after his wife Sarah has given birth to Isaac, their long-awaited son. God then tells Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and raise him up there as an elevation offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Early the next morning, Abraham rises to comply dutifully with God’s command. He and Isaac ascend the mountain, and there Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood on which Isaac will be burned, and binds Isaac upon it. Then “Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

At this very moment, an angel calls out from heaven: “Do not lay your hand upon the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you did not spare your son, your only son, from me.” Noticing a ram caught in a nearby bush, Abraham “raised it up as an elevation offering instead of his son.”

And now the angel calls to Abraham again, with a new message from God:

For because you have done this thing, and not spared your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and multiply your offspring as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies; and through your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have listened to my voice.

 

The question that most perplexes modern readers is how God could ask such a thing of Abraham in the first place. The ancient rabbis were also perplexed by the story—but they were less concerned with the morality of God’s request than with His inconsistency. In rabbinic theology, God does not deceive or change His mind on a whim. Yet, if He did not intend for Abraham to kill Isaac, He surely played the deceiver. And if He did intend for Abraham to follow through on His command from the start, He must have changed His mind. No less perplexing, at the end of the episode, Abraham is rewarded, yet he has not really done what God demanded of him.

How did the rabbis resolve these contradictions?

One strand of traditional Jewish interpretation proceeds by rereading the story to suggest that Abraham actually did kill Isaac on the altar. Various midrashim (rabbinic homilies that embellish biblical narratives) refer to the “blood of Isaac” and “the ashes of Isaac,” even though the text makes clear that his blood is not spilled and his body remains unburned. One such commentary focuses on the end of the story, proposing that Abraham offers up the ram “after” his son rather than instead of his son, the implication being that Abraham sacrificed both ram and Isaac.

Others exploit an ambiguity in the text. When the angel appears to Abraham for the second time and says “Because you have done this thing . . . ,” what “thing” is being referred to? It might be his not-sparing Isaac, but it might be his sacrificing the ram. Or it might be both. Thus, one midrash has Abraham praying for the ram to be accepted as if it were Isaac; another suggests that the ram’s name is Isaac; and yet another infers that Isaac’s soul was transferred to the ram just prior to its sacrifice.

Such exegeses imply that something more than a simple substitution is taking place; instead, the sacrifice of the ram is tantamount to the sacrifice of Isaac. In this way, they resolve the problem posed by God’s reversal of His original orders, transforming the story from one about a sacrifice that did not happen into one about a sacrifice that did.

In so doing, however, these midrashic readings make the story even more unpalatable to the modern reader. That God asks Abraham to kill his child is bad enough. Why make it worse by having him actually kill the child, or even symbolically kill him? But with these readings in mind, we can now return to the original text for a closer examination of its message—a message as relevant today as ever.

 

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly does God ask Abraham to do? “Take your son . . . and go to the land of Moriah . . . and raise him up as an elevation offering [olah].” The Hebrew word olah comes from the root meaning “to go up,” as does the verb I have rendered “raise him up.” It is variously rendered as “burnt offering” or “elevation offering.”

What does this have to do with Isaac? The olah offering is distinctive. Unlike most sacrificial offerings, which according to the laws of the Torah are to be eaten after a few parts are thrown on the flames, in this one the animal, after being slaughtered, flayed, and sectioned, is consumed entirely by fire on the altar (Lev.1:3-9). Indeed, the term most likely has its origin in the ascent of the smoke and flames from the burning. In other words, it is as if the animal is literally ascending to heaven.

But, according to the plain sense of the text, Isaac is not burned. So let’s go to another meaning of “elevation,” which could refer simply to the raising-up of the animal to the altar. Does this apply in any way to Isaac?

In fact, Isaac physically ascends over the course of his journey to the mountaintop, and in this sense Abraham does indeed, as he was commanded, “raise him up” or “cause him to ascend.” One midrash makes the point explicitly: in it, after reminding Abraham that he was told to bring Isaac up, God explains that he can now take him down again. But elevation is to be understood in more than a literal sense. In Hebrew, one always “goes up” to the Temple Mount or to the land of Israel (hence the term aliyah, “ascent,” commonly used for Jewish immigration to Israel). The phrases in question may thus refer not just to the altitude of the designated places but to their elevated sanctity.

Nor is Isaac brought up only to the mountaintop or to the altar; he is elevated by being consecrated to God. God has demanded Isaac’s life, and Abraham cedes it. In this reading, the original command is not that Abraham actually kill Isaac but that he elevate him through absolute surrender, an order that can be fulfilled only if Abraham misunderstands it to mean the literal forfeit of a life. The ambiguity is deliberate: Abraham must believe he is required to kill Isaac, for only thus can he demonstrate to God, himself, and the world his acceptance of God’s acquisition of his son.

As some midrashim point out, the final verse of the story states that “Abraham returned” but says nothing of Isaac. If we read the episode as a story of Isaac’s spiritual sanctification, the meaning becomes clear: Isaac remains in a state of spiritual elevation. On Moriah, his life has been given completely to God.

 

Here it may be worth noting another detail of standard sacrificial procedure. Prior to an actual sacrifice, the animal is formally consecrated, made holy. (The Latin root of our word sacrifice means the same thing.) Once consecrated, an animal may not be used for practical purposes—it is forbidden to yoke a consecrated ox to the plow, or shear a consecrated sheep. Nor can the animal simply be replaced with another animal; it maintains its consecrated status even if it develops a physical blemish that disqualifies it from being actually sacrificed.

Rabbinic literature makes much of this idea, contending that Isaac maintains a consecrated status throughout his life. The olah, as many commentators have noted, is the ultimate offering,  the animal being entirely consumed by fire. As such an olah, Isaac is given over entirely to God. As for his father Abraham, he has passed the test by consecrating him to God with the sincere intent of killing him. And as for God, He does not change His mind; rather, He intends from the start that Isaac remain alive. That Abraham (and most readers of the Bible) misunderstand God’s command is by design; God, for His part, is consistent.

And there is something else at play here as well. The blessings that Abraham obtains in reward for his actions confirm those he has already received earlier in Genesis: he will beget many descendants (Gen.12:1-3; 13:16; 15:5); they will inherit the land of Canaan (Gen.15:7); and they will be a byword of blessing to other nations (Gen.12:3). These blessings are meaningful only if he has a son who will live long enough to beget his own children. It is his very willingness to sacrifice the son on whom these blessings depend that earns Abraham their fulfillment.

This impression is bolstered by the final blessing—that  Abraham’s offspring shall inherit the gate of his enemies (Gen.22:17)—which is peculiar to this verse and to a subsequent one in which Rebecca, Isaac’s future bride and mother of his children, is blessed almost identically. The genealogy that follows the akeidah also describes the twelve sons born to Abraham’s brother, foreshadowing the twelve children of Jacob. These literary allusions to the next three generations of Abraham’s descendants (indeed, to the tribes of Israel) underscore the point that Abraham had to sacrifice his progeny to merit having them.

When viewed in context, the Binding of Isaac thus appears to be the climax of the Abraham narrative. The opening of the akeidah episode, when Abraham is told to “go for yourself to the land of Moriah,” echoes God’s original call to Abraham in Gen.12:1: “Go for yourself from your land. . . .”  Moreover, the cadences of that earlier verse, “from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house,” are sounded again at the beginning of the akeidah narrative in the command to sacrifice “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” In both cases, the destinations are unknown: in the first, Abraham is to go “to the land that I will show you”; in the second, he is to sacrifice Isaac “on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” This internal mirroring, a characteristic of biblical style, links the two episodes as a way of indicating that the Binding of Isaac is a culmination of the narrative of Abraham; the subsequent chapters, dealing mainly with Isaac’s marriage, are the denouement.

The message of the akeidah, then, appears, to be that the Jewish people, the offspring of Isaac, are consecrated to God. As the Bible later explicitly declares, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God. God chose you to be a treasured people of all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deut. 14:2). Just as Abraham surrendered and offered up his son to God, so the Israelites must sanctify their lives, and those of their children, in His service. And just as Abraham was prepared to kill Isaac if necessary, so a Jew in extreme circumstances must be prepared for martyrdom. But God’s ultimate preference is for Isaac to live and, in life, serve Him. That service is the covenantal charge to the Jewish people, a living sacrifice to the God of Abraham.

____

The author thanks Jon D. Levenson, upon whose scholarship this essay draws, for comments on an earlier draft.

More about: Abraham, Binding of Isaac, Isaac, Torah