I don’t think I’ve made any bones in the past about the fact that I don’t find the Akedah a troubling story, in the traditional sense. Of course it is a fundamentally troubling story—a man told by his god to take his precious son and slaughter him as a sacrificial offering, only to be told at the last minute that it was a test and that he doesn’t have to actually do it. What I mean is that, if you’ll pardon me, I don’t seem to get hung up on the standard, to my mind somewhat prudish questions, such as: “What kind of a god would ask such a thing?” and “What kind of man would be willing to do it?”
I’m reminded at this time of what the late Christopher Hitchens said in an interview, when he was taken to task for all of the name-dropping that occurred in his memoir, Hitch-22. He said something like, “Well, would you really have wanted to read a memoir that wasn’t about anything or anyone interesting?”
If the Torah gave us a story about Abraham and Isaac having a nice game of catch, and then going off to perform a very eco-friendly tashlich it might make a great edition for the PJ Library, but I don’t think it would transfix us year after year. It is precisely the troubling nature of this story that should, and does, prompt us to return to it and struggle with its meaning year after year, in a way that I think is only cheaply solved by questioning the premise of the story, from what we might consider our more enlightened perspective.
It’s one of my missions in life to get us to stop thinking of ourselves as superior to the Akedah, which is what I think we do by asking such questions as this, before we have walked a mile through the wilderness of Moriah in its shoes. Because I think we need to realize the extent to which we are already walking in its shoes, and have no answer for its conundrum better than the one it already provides us with.
Of course, I am not talking about a literal, fundamentalist reading of the story: if we are simply talking about a religious fanatic who would sacrifice anything for his God, then I’m not taking. But we find so many ways to open up so many others Torah stories—peeling away layers of piety and literalism until we expose something raw, true, and human. I’m not sure why it is we tend to come up short in this regard when approachign the Akedah—maybe it’s because the idea of putting children in harms way triggers something in us, and we simply need to distnace ourselves from the imagination of it. We would have Torah support in this, actually—when listing the sins of the nations that are being disinherited by the Israelites, the Torah invokes offering children to Moloch, presumed to be some sort of fire sacrifice such as seems to be demanded of Abraham, as the absolute worst sin of them all.
But there is so much beneath the surgace of this story that is so tremblingly human that it seems a shame, if not a scandal, to lock it’s deeper resonance away beneath layers of our own literalist propriety. I’ve found redeeming ways to look at it in the past, and, precisely in this season where I myself have become a father of a beloved son, I want to express a new one today.
By way of background, and context, I first want to investigate two other “positive” readings of the Akedah—both of which have achieved a certain degree of status in the cultured world.
The first is the classic, quasi-religious work of existential philosophy, “Fear and Trembling” by Soren Kierkegaard. In essence, Kierkegaard takes up the paradox of Abraham—a man who loves his son and yet is willing to take him to the sacrifice if God demands. His solution is a paradox in and of itself: Abraham is perfectly willing to walk the road, and prepared to do what is required of him, and at the same time perfect in his faith that in the end he will not have to do it. Thus, when Isaac asks the poignant question, “Where is the lamb for the offering?” and Abraham responds, “God will provide it,” it is not to be understood as a pained obfuscation, but as a statement of faith. Kierkegaard uses the story to convey the ambivalence of lived experience, and to laud Abraham as a ‘knight of faith’—someone who can hold in his mind, simultaneously, both the imperitave of walking a dark and mortal road, and the commitment that doing so is a leap of faith into the arms of a righteous God. In fancy talk, if I recall corectly, they call this “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”
There’s another “positive” reading that I’m fond of, which may be more or less familisr to you than Kierkegaard, depending on your tastes, but it is certainly easier to play on the guitsr. This one also differs in that it takes the matter on from Isaac’s perspective, rather than Abraham’s I’m referring to the great song “The Story of Isaac,” by the incomparable Leonard Cohen.
“The door it opened slowly/my father he came in,/I was nine years old.” This is an ominous beginning, both in words and melody, and for a long time, not having taken the time to read the words carefully, I assumed the relationship between father and son was being portrayed as one that partook of the dark mystery of abuse. The song certainly does get around to speaking of the abuse of a younger generation by an elder, in what seems like an anti-war message, in the third stanza: “You who build the altars now/to sacrifice these children/you must not do it anymore./A scheme is not a vision/and you never have been tempted/by a demon or a god.” I assumed that Abraham (or God, for that matter) was being used by Cohen as an example of the masters of war who send innocent children to the slaughter, as is certainly the case in the use of the Akedah by the World War One poet, Wilfred Owen.
But when I had a chance to do a closer reading it became clear that this was not the case. In fact, Cohen’s Isaac expresses admiration for his father, and his castigation of warmongers comes in contrast to that admiration. The same third verse continues: “You who stand above them now,/your hatchets blunt and bloody/you were not there before,/when I lay upon a mountain/and my father’s hand was trembling/with the beauty of the word.”
I won’t read the entirety of the first two stanzas, in which Cohen presents his version of the journey to Moriah, though they are quite beautiful. Suffice it to say that they bear out this positive reading of Abraham. It is clear that he is on a real and valid spiritual mission, and that his son can feel and respect the reality of this. They share subtle moments of intimacy along the way, as is the case with the biblical version, and then we hear this gorgeous phrase, like Kierkegaard, in a sense, invoking the ambiguity and commitment of the moment: “Thought I saw an eagle/though it might have been a vulture/I never could decide./Then my father built an altar/he looked once behind his shoulder/he knew I would not hide.”
Clearly, this song joins the line of midrashim that suggests there is more going on in the Akedah than abuse, manipulation, or religious fanaticism run-amuck. There is something imperitave in the father’s journey that commands the allegiance of the son, and, at least in retrospect, his admiration.
It’s worth noting the way in which Cohen crops the original story. There is no word in his song about this being a test; no inkling even of how the journey concluded, though Isaac is alive to tell the tale. And if we are to assume it ended biblically, with the angel of God holding Abraham’s hand back from the slaughter, there is no indication in the story Isaac tells that this diminished the holiness of the experience: “you were not there before,/when I lay upon a mountain/and my father’s hand was trembling/with the beauty of the word.” In this ambiguous phrase, “the word” could be either the one that told Abraham to raise the knife, or to lower it.
Neither of the “positive” readings I’ve shared seem particularly focused on the conclusion of the story, but instead place their emphasis on the journey. Though Kierkegaard seems most concerned with the relationship between Abraham and God, Cohen places the attention where I think it is most deserved: on the relationship of the father and the son as they travel. There is something in the texture of this relationship that still fills Isaac with awe, as he contemplates it however many years later.
I want to go back to the Bible, to tease this out a little further. Imagine that we were to read the original text, in a sense, like the two midrashim I have cited—cutting away the beginning and the end, and placing our attention on the middle. Here’s how it would sound:
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Here I am, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
At this point in actually delivering the talk, I began to ad-lib from notes, but it went something like this:
In the reading of the Akedah I’d like to propose, the beginning and the ending of the story don’t matter in and of themselves, but only in so far as they set up this moment between the father and son. This is similar to the way we might read the book of Job by peeling off the fairytale beginning and ending—a bet between God and the Devil, a miraculous restoration of all that was lost—and simple see it as the profound meditation on human suffering that is set up by these contrivances.
Reading the Akedah similarly, by de-emphasizing what set it in motion and where it ends up, following the lead of the two “commentaries” I discussed, we find this scene: a father and son on a journey that the father, at least, knows to be imperitive. He, the father, does not have the full range of choice available to him, for whatever reason, taking their journey out of the simplistic realm of “right versus wrong.” They have been set on this road together, and all they can really do is walk it.
And, in truth, how many experience do we have that we can compare to this? Are there things we have felt compelled to do that have hurt the ones who trust us and rely upon us, but we cannot fully atone for them, because we do not fully regret them? Or: how do we atone for the things we had to do, but that we cannot explain to the loved ones who suffer for them? For the things we do by virtue of being human beings possessed of will and aspirations that we do not, as least not fully, regret?
And I think most directly of this: Can we bring a child into the world, especially perhaps this very precarious world of ours, beset with so many ominous fears, and gaurantee that he will never suffer gravely for our decision to do so?
It is in these senses that we are all walking on the road to Moriah; and we are walking it all the time.
So what makes Abraham special? What makes him the “knight of faith”?
I think, to use Leonard Cohen’s phrase, it can be put down to “the beauty of the word,” and that word is not so much the word of God as a word of his own coining; a word that he invented: hinneni. Here I am.
Usually he speaks it to affirm commitment to God. But here, in this moment, he speaks it to his son; in response to his son’s question, ‘What is going on?’ It is not exactly a precise answer, but it is an all-encompassing one. Hinneni b’ni. Here I am, my son. As if to say: I cannot offer you the clarity, righteousness, justification, security that you no doubt deserve. I can only offer you my presence. And that I give to you without reservation.
This is the very real situation that lurks in the midst of the story—the tenuous journey that we take through life with the people that depend on us.
We do not have any answer that is better than the one the Akedah offers,and we should stop pretending, in our arrogance, that we do. And that answer is the word spoken by the father turning to his son, knowing that he loves him even if he cannot spare him: Hinneni. Here I am.