Magazine article Tikkun

Reinterpreting the Binding of Isaac

Magazine article Tikkun

Reinterpreting the Binding of Isaac

Article excerpt

A Response to September 11

This year, as every year, Jews will gather during the high Holy Days to ask God for forgiveness and pray for the strength to turn from what has been hurtful and uncompassionate. In the midst of this profoundly intense and intimate moment, a Torah reader will once again chant one of the most terrifying Bible portions of the Jewish tradition, the Binding of Isaac, known as the Akeda.

The traditional understanding of this text teaches that God told Abraham to bind his son Isaac and sacrifice him to God as a burnt offering. Without hesitation, Abraham obeyed; then, at the last moment, right before the blade struck Isaac, an angel intervened to save Isaac's life. The story ends with God praising and rewarding Abraham for his act of faith. Every year, we struggle with this text, but particularly now, in our post-September 11 world, we need to ask ourselves whether judaism can base one of its central stories on compliance with a demand for human sacrifice to God. Can there ever be a time when we are justified in an attempt to kill an innocent human being because we believe such killing is an order from God? For those of us searching for a politics of meaning, how can this story fit in and even support our framework?

What I have to offer is not a comforting alternative, but it is one that can be hopeful. I propose that this is a story of what happens when, in spite of God, man attempts to kill another human being in the name of faith. This is our story, the story of a world of human beings who in an effort to honor God have sought to destroy what is most valuable and holy to God. And, it is a story of God as the teacher of alternative visions. Perhaps if we see ourselves in this human story, we can recommit ourselves to ending the fragmentation, the divisiveness, and the horror we see around us.

Several years ago, TlKKUN editor Rabbi Michael Lerner proposed, in his book Jewish Renewal, that Abraham was able to bind and even attempt to kill his son because he was reenacting the abuse imposed on him when he was a child. In this version, the tendency to reenact upon others the pain inflicted upon us, known as repetition compulsion, rendered Abraham unable to distinguish between the true voice of God and the voice of the false gods of his youth, between a voice of care and voices of abuse. When Abraham mistakes the gods of his childhood for the true God, he is capable of killing Isaac. The power in the story, as developed by Lerner, is that Abraham is finally able to break that repetition compulsion, break the chain of pain so that it does not continue through the generations. We thus learn from Abraham that we are capable of changing ourselves and our world.

While the explanation offered by Lerner is critical to understanding both our cruelty and our capacity to change behavior, the Akeda goes beyond that. This story offers a challenge to patriarchal culture as a whole. Within a patriarchal culture, action is often valued over empathy. "Don't just sit there, do something!" is held to be a truism at the expense of "don't just do something, sit there." In a patriarchal culture, when God speaks, man acts rather than remaining still in order to hear what is probably a multi-layered message. When Abraham lifts up his knife, the religion developed in Torah is still in its infancy, and its values are just beginning to develop. Will we be a people of action at the expense of empathy, or a people who value listening and compassion? If the latter is the case, then God has to teach a traditional man in a patriarchal society to go against everything he has learned about maleness and open himself to true empathic listening. And this teaching becomes one of our central stories, a story that is replayed and thus emphasized each year during our High Holy Day service.

The Akeda begins when we find out that God is planning to test Abraham. God tells Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go for/to yourself to Mount Moriah. …

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