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

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

Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy