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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad