It's Not Just Ukraine

What his actions in Eastern Europe tell us about how Vladimir Putin sees the Middle East.
It's Not Just Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs bills making Crimea part of Russia, Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo credit: AP/Sergei Chirikov.
 
Michael Doran
Observation
March 26 2014 12:05AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


Does the Ukraine crisis mark the beginning of a new cold war? The answer from President Obama is a firm no. “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the cold war,” he told a Dutch newspaper.

The president is partially correct. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has neither the intention nor the capability to challenge the entire European order, and it is certainly not mounting a global revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, it is a revanchist power, and its appetites are much larger than the president cares to admit.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a zero-sum game seems obvious. Somewhat less apparent is the fact that his revisionist aspirations also extend elsewhere, and most saliently to the Middle East. 

 

Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” relations with Russia was rooted in the firm conviction that the main cause of Russian-American competition in the Middle East lay in the previous Bush administration’s war on terror, which was read by the Russian leader as a pretext for a global power grab. Bush’s freedom agenda, with its support for democratic reform inside Russia, only confirmed Putin’s worst suspicions.

Alienating Putin, the Obama White House believed, had been a strategic blunder, depriving the United States of a potentially valuable partner. Putin, whatever his faults, was a realist: someone who could cut a deal in situations—like those in the Middle East—where Russia and America shared many interests. Once Putin fully grasped our sincerity, demonstrated by our ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian fears of American aggressiveness would dissipate and Russian-American cooperation would blossom. 

Unfortunately, getting through to Putin proved harder and took longer than expected—though not for want of trying. Famously, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, an open microphone caught Obama making his pitch. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” he told then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. “I understand,” Medvedev answered. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Eventually, Putin did seem to grasp the concept. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped forward last September with an offer to strip Syria’s Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama saw the move as a breakthrough, precisely the kind of mutually beneficial arrangement that the Russian reset was designed to generate. Soon, working together on the chemical-weapons problem, Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov also conspired to launch Geneva II, a peace conference designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. 

In the dawning new era, Syria was seen by the White House as a prototype: a model for stabilizing the Middle East and containing its worst pathologies. If successful, it could be applied to other problems in the region—including the Iranian nuclear program, the greatest challenge of all. In his speech at the General Assembly last September, the president was eager to defend his friendship with Putin in just these terms. “[L]et’s remember this is not a zero-sum endeavor,” Obama reminded his critics. “We’re no longer in a cold war.” 

 

Today, just six months later, the new model is collapsing before our eyes. The proximate cause is the spillover from the Ukraine crisis. On March 19, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that if the West imposed sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia would retaliate by exacting a much greater price: it would throw its support to Iran in the nuclear talks. “The historic importance of what happened . . . regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia,” Ryabkov explained, “is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

Even before Ryabkov issued this extortionate threat, there were clear signs that the Kremlin never truly supported the new model of Middle East cooperation. Kerry and Lavrov did convene Geneva II in January, but the conference ended in abject failure thanks to the intransigence of the Assad regime—which after all is Russia’s client. Shortly thereafter, Kerry openly blamed Russia for the Syrian disaster. “Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” he complained, “not contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are really enabling Assad to double down.”

In the Middle East as in Eastern Europe, then, the reset looks increasingly bankrupt. In fact, being based on two major errors, it never had a chance.

 

The administration’s first error was the failure to appreciate Putin’s either-or perspective on politics, a viewpoint succinctly expressed in Lenin’s famous formula: “who-whom?” Who will dominate whom? In Putin’s view, all accommodations with the United States are tactical maneuvers in a struggle—sometimes overt, sometimes covert—for the upper hand.  

In the bad old days of the cold war, the overtly malevolent intentions of the Kremlin were hard to misread (although, even then, some American leaders did try to misread them). Today, Russia’s motivations are more complex: a unique mix of Great Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, and autocratic whimsy. This makes it difficult to predict the Kremlin’s behavior. For 364 days of the year, a deal between a Western client and Gazprom, the largest Russian natural-gas supplier, will function like a normal business transaction. On the 365th day, to teach the recipient a lesson about who’s really in charge, Putin will cut the gas flow. 

Adding to the unpredictability is Putin’s mercurial-seeming personality. Perhaps the single most revealing fact about him is his interest in Sambo, a Russian form of judo whose techniques have been deliberately tailored to the requirements of each state security service. “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses,” Putin writes in his official biography on the Kremlin website. “I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” As a former KGB agent and judo black belt, Putin is undoubtedly adept at the deceptive move that turns an ordinary handshake into a crippling wristlock, instantly driving the adversary’s head to the ground.

Turning a blind eye to such niceties, Western politicians assumed that by enmeshing Putin in a web of diplomatic and economic deals, they would foster in Moscow a sense of shared destiny that would ultimately work to moderate Russian behavior. As the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, the web has indeed created mutual dependencies. But the crisis also reveals that the two sides do not approach dependency in a spirit of reciprocity. When shaking hands on a deal, Putin never fails to assess whether he has positioned himself for a speedy takedown of his partner. 

The Sambo approach to diplomacy is particularly suited to the Middle East, where international relations, more often than not, is a zero-sum game dominated by brutal men with guns. This is Putin’s natural habitat; as prime minister in 1999, he supported the Russian military’s use of ballistic missiles against civilians in Grozny. It is a simple truism that a leader habitually photographed shirtless while performing feats of derring-do will understand the politics of the Middle East better than sophisticated Westerners who believe that the world has evolved beyond crude displays of machismo.

 

Lack of attention to the perfect fit between Putin’s mentality and Middle East reality constitutes the second error of the administration’s Russian reset.

With respect to political alignments, the most influential event in today’s Middle East is the Syrian civil war. That the conflict is barbarous is easily gleaned from a slogan of the pro-Assad forces, scrawled on buildings in all major cities: “Assad, or we will burn the country.” This demand has divided the entire region into two groups. On one side stand the allies of America: the Saudis, Turks, and other Sunni Muslim states, all of whom agree that, come what may, Assad must go. On the other side, the Iranians, together with Hizballah, have lined up squarely behind Assad, their partner in the so-called Resistance Alliance.

For Putin, Syria has raised two key questions, each a variant of who-whom: (1) who will dominate inside Syria; (2) who will dominate in the region more broadly. It was Foreign Minister Lavrov who two years ago, in a rare slip of the tongue, best explained how Putin saw these questions: “if the current Syrian regime collapses, some countries in the region will want to establish Sunni rule in Syria.” More bluntly, the Kremlin sees itself as the great-power patron not just of the Assad regime but also of Iran and Hizballah—the entire Resistance Alliance. At the time, Moscow’s unvarnished preference for Shiites won little attention in the United States, but it sparked a storm of outrage in the Sunni Arab world, leading one prominent Saudi commentator to dub the foreign minister “Mullah Lavrov.”

Not surprisingly, Putin’s position was in perfect keeping with one of the most fundamental rules of strategy, perhaps best expressed by Machiavelli: “A prince is . . . esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is, when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another.” In the Middle East, Machiavelli’s logic is inescapable, and Putin grasps it intuitively. Not so Obama, who has convinced himself that he can hover above the gritty game on the ground yet somehow still remain an influential player.

In Syria, the United States criticizes Assad harshly and says it sympathizes with the opposition. But it releases only dribs and drabs of military aid to opposition forces while simultaneously qualifying and hedging its diplomatic support. Fretting incessantly about the Sunni jihadist elements fighting the Assad regime, it develops no strategy to combat them; instead, it cozies up to Assad’s Russian and Iranian patrons. When the Sunni allies of the United States compare the confusion of American policy with the clarity of Russian strategy, it’s no wonder they despair.

Obama is not entirely oblivious of the problem. In a recent interview, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked him bluntly, “So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?” His answer: “[T]here are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off-guard. I think change is always scary. I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.” This exercise in condescension, while doing nothing to allay and everything to aggravate the fears of America’s allies, offers a glimpse into the mindset that generated the reset, a mindset that dreamed of a concert arrangement whereby both Russia and America would place a greater value on comity with each other than either would put on its relations with allies. 

To be sure, Putin will gladly sign on to American-sponsored initiatives like Geneva II. But he will insist on guiding them in directions that, regardless of their stated intentions, serve the interests of his clients. If the Obama administration has yet to admit or adjust to this reality, that is partly because the Russians do not wave a flag identifying themselves as the great-power patrons of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Nor does Putin back Tehran and Damascus to the hilt as the Soviet Union backed its clients in the cold war.

It is thus more accurate to say that Russia is in an alignment, not an alliance, with Iran and Syria. Depending upon competing priorities and the vicissitudes of world politics, Putin will tack this way today, that way tomorrow. In the end, however, he will never sell out Tehran and Damascus in order to win compliments in Washington; if forced to choose, he will always side with the former against the latter, and will certainly leave them in no doubt that Russia is their most dependable friend in the United Nations Security Council.

It is this fact that makes Russia a revisionist power in the Middle East and the permanent adversary of the United States. 

 

What, then, about the Iranian nuclear question? Hasn’t Russia consistently called for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Didn’t it vote in favor of six Security Council resolutions against Tehran? Hasn’t it signed on to the economic sanctions? Surely all of these actions support the Obama administration’s contention that Russia, in certain contexts, is a valuable partner. 

Indeed, Putin has a strong track record of supporting some actions designed to prevent an Iranian bomb; in an ideal world, he would probably prefer an Iran devoid of such weapons. But he also has a strong track record of building the Iranian nuclear program and of providing security assistance to the Iranian military. Whatever his preferences in an ideal world, in the here and now his goal is less to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than to garner as much power and influence for Russia as he can. He is supportive enough of the United States and its key European partners to maintain credibility with them. On the key issue of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he is never so supportive as to be taken for granted. 

How this cynical game works was revealed in Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s extortionate threat mentioned earlier. It has placed Obama on the horns of a severe dilemma. If, on the one hand, the president simply acquiesces in Putin’s power play in Ukraine, he will embolden not just Russia but also Iran, Syria, and Hizballah by demonstrating that, just as in Syria, he retreats when challenged. If, on the other hand, he marshals a robust Western response, he could well provoke the threatened Russian countermeasures of increased support for Iran.

No matter which course the president follows, the Ukraine crisis has damaged the prestige of the United States in the Middle East. America’s Arab friends in the region, who are on the front line against Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, already feel the pinch, and are deeply uncertain about how to respond. Unlike the Resistance Alliance, they are not accustomed to cooperating on their own. As Karl Marx notoriously said of peasants, America’s Arab allies are like potatoes. When U.S. leadership provides a sack, they take on a single form and become hefty in weight. In its absence, they are a loose assortment of small, isolated units.

The ally who most immediately feels the fallout is Israel. On March 17, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described, with unusual bluntness, the consequences of what he called the “feebleness” of American foreign policy. The Obama administration’s weakness, he argued, was undermining the position not just of Israel but also of America’s Sunni allies. “The moderate Sunni camp in the area expected the United States to support it, and to be firm, like Russia’s support for the Shiite axis,” Yaalon lamented.

Yaalon spoke no less despairingly of Obama’s ability to make good on his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “[A]t some stage,” he observed, “the United States entered into negotiations with them, and unhappily, when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better.” On the matter of Iran, Yaalon concluded, inevitably, “we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

Whether Israel actually has the political will and military capability to launch an independent strike against Iran is anybody’s guess. But two facts are undeniable. First, Putin’s muscular foreign policy and Washington’s timorous response have increased the pressure on Israel to strike independently. Second, Obama has lost influence over the Israelis—just as he lost influence over his Arab allies when he refused to back them on Syria. 

Adrift in Machiavelli’s no man’s land, neither a true friend nor a true enemy, Washington is left with the worst of both worlds, treated by its adversaries with contempt, charged by its friends with abandonment and betrayal. President Obama was correct to say at the UN that the U.S. and Russia are no longer locked in a cold war. But it was a strategic delusion to assume that Putin’s handshake was an offer of partnership. It was instead the opening gambit in a new style of global competition—one that, in the Middle East, Russia and its clients are winning and the United States, despite huge natural advantages, is losing.

__________________________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated. 

More about: Foreign Policy, Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin

 

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