Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"The Most Exalted Symbol for Our Time"? Rewriting 'Isaac' in Tel Aviv

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"The Most Exalted Symbol for Our Time"? Rewriting 'Isaac' in Tel Aviv

Article excerpt

"Isaac is a passive object of the experiment," declared Moshe Shamir early in 1957, about a decade before his notorious shift to the right wing of the Israeli political map. Almost half a century later it is time to interrogate the psychological construction of the "first sons" of the Zionist revolution, especiallytheir evolving use of the Aqedah and other sacrificial narratives as tropes for their own ideological predicaments.

This article analyzes the role of three modern frames of reference in shaping the discourse on sacrifice in Israel's most "Zionist" period, its first decade: Freudian psychology, Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and twentieth-century scholarship on the Hebrew Crusade Chronicles. It argues that these newly discovered perspectives were employed in a dual process, one that signaled both a critique of sacrifice, and a psychological defense against such a critique. This ambivalence has ultimately culminated in a political dividing line between the upholders and rejecters of the Zionist, and also traditionally Jewish, position on sacrifice.


The intimate bond between the Hebrew Bible and Jewish nationalism of the last hundred years is well known and amply documented. In particular, the Bible has been credited with molding the modern, mostly secular, Jewish identity, which emerged in the Land of Israel in the early twentieth century. As a repository of the ancient Israelite past, the biblical corpus in fact functioned as a nation-building text, precisely like other ethnic myths that had been recovered and disseminated under the banner of European Romanticism and Nationalism. As such, it affected all aspects of the Hebrew national secularist renaissance, impacting its language and letters, ideology and politics, aesthetics and ethics. (1)

Just like other modern national identities, however, Israeli identity has been recently contested by contemporary critics, on the grounds that it is nothing more than a cultural "construct," "product," or "invention," if not altogether an "imagined community." (2) On the face of it, one might well apply this critique to the history of what some have called Israel's "bibliomania."

This mania gained momentum, argues Anita Shapira, especially after the establishment of the State of Israel, when the first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, "elevated the Bible to the chief intellectual focus of the young state." (3)

Nevertheless, one need not forget that this "elevation" was not a new invention. In fact, the Bible has enjoyed this elevated status in Jewish intellectual life throughout history, despite the competition from later post--biblical sources (in particular from the Talmud, the codified oral law). The Hebrew Bible, as Robert Alter recently argued, actually "provides contemporary cultural criticism with the very paradigm for the idea of the canon." (4) Moreover, he cogently continues, in the Jewish tradition, the Bible had been "doubly" canonized--as an ethical as well as a literary (and linguistic) model. It is this "double canonicity" that made possible its rich after-life in the modernist, secularized world of letters, far beyond the scope of Jewish writing (as evidenced by Alter's fascinating "biblical journey" from Kafka to Joyce, Faulkner, and other modernists).

In light of this historical continuity, the attempt to co-opt the Bible in the service of nascent Jewish nationalism is not surprising, nor can it be considered as mere "construction." On the contrary: it may remarkably illustrate the alternative approach to national formation, the one suggested by Anthony D. Smith and his cohorts. (5) Rather than "imaginary," Smith sees nationalism as a community's response to its quite down-to-earth emotional needs to connect with its ethnic myths, symbols, and memories. (6) Such a communal need is attested to, for example, by the popularity of the Bible in the abundance of unsolicited dramatic scripts (most of which never saw the light of stage) written in Hebrew as early as the 1930s. …

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