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

September 17, 2020 | Abraham Socher
About the author: Abraham Socher is the current and founding editor of the Jewish Review of Books, and professor emeritus at Oberlin College.

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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