The Dangers of Reassuring Interpretations of Abraham’s Near-Sacrifice of His Son

Sept. 17 2020

On Rosh Hashana, which begins tomorrow evening, the story of the Binding of Isaac is read in synagogues, and invoked throughout the liturgy. Aaron Koller delves into some of the greatest Jewish readings of this troubling story in his book Unbinding Isaac, and in particular takes to task the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretation, which would have a significant influence on such rabbinic thinkers as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Abraham Socher writes in his review:

Kierkegaard, and the many interpreters who have followed him in concentrating on Abraham’s existential dilemma, reduce Isaac to “a mere prop in the story.” . . . As Koller points out, the Jewish tradition, by contrast, did not forget Isaac. Indeed, when the akeidah, [as the story is known in Hebrew], came to be taken as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom, Isaac’s willingness to die for God became at least as important as his father’s willingness to kill for Him. Thus, Ephraim of Bonn’s searing akeidah poem, written in the wake of Jewish martyrdom in the Second and Third Crusades, depicts Isaac as his father’s willing partner.

To Koller, the message of the akeidah is ultimately one about a “higher value” that God wishes to teach to Abraham:

That higher value, [Koller] goes on to argue, is the biblical recognition that children are not the property of their parents: “children, like all other human beings, cannot be mere adjuncts in someone else’s religious experience.” This is, I think, a profound teaching; we have all seen children—or, to put it less dramatically, their childhoods—sacrificed on the altar of parental desires, including spiritual ones. But is this the teaching of the akeidah?

What seems missing to me in reassuring interpretations of the akeidah such as Koller’s is that they read it as eradicating the notion of a father’s debt to God [by treating it] as a religious mistake. . . . The fifth chapter of Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches that ten things were created on the eve of the first Sabbath. Among them, some authorities include “the ram of our father Abraham,” which is to say that from the outset of creation an animal substitute was intended for Isaac but not that the trial itself was a mistake.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Binding of Isaac, Jewish Thought, Kierkegaard, Rosh Hashanah

 

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror