Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Father's Day Tale

I have long been fascinated by the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac, an event known in Hebrew as the "akeda" (ah' kay DAH). Perhaps my interest was first aroused because I share Isaac's Hebrew name, Yitzchak. But the story is compelling enough that I think I'd have found my way to it in any event.

Let's review. God grants Abraham a child, Isaac, in his old age. God then assures the new father, repeatedly, that a great nation will issue from Isaac. Until one day, when, without warning, God calls to Abraham and says to him:
Take your son—your favored one, whom you love—Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.
(Translation adapted from the JPS Tanakh.)  Let's look at two interpretations of this shocking (even by biblical standards) demand. The first is from Rashi, the 11th century French Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak whose exegesis is still the first to be studied by any student of Torah or Talmud. The original text recounts no response from Abraham to God, jumping to Abraham's immediate compliance "early the next morning". Rashi, however, relying on Talmudic and Midrashic sources, describes this dialog:
God: Take your son
Abraham: I have two sons
God: Your favored one
Abraham: Each is the favorite of his mother
God: Whom you love
Abraham: I love them both
God: Isaac.
Rashi goes on to explain that God is breaking the news to Abraham slowly, so as not to shock him. Thoughtful, no?

A very different dialog is imagined by a commentator of greater fame but perhaps less scholarly repute, Bob Dylan:
Oh, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man you must be puttin' me on"
God says, "No", Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Dylan clearly finds the idea that Abraham simply submitted to God's outrageous and immoral demand hard to swallow. He isn't alone. Earlier in the Torah, Abraham is unafraid to challenge God's decision to destroy Sodom, a city filled with strangers; surely he would do at least as much in defense of his own child!

In the end, of course, Isaac is saved by the voice of an angel who commands Abraham to stay his hand just as it is poised over his bound and vulnerable son. But the fact remains that, as the Torah recounts the story, Abraham was ready and willing to end his son's life there on Mount Moriah. Was Abraham's compliance a show of faith that God would ultimately retract his vicious command, or did Abraham simply subordinate his own sense of morality (not to mention his instincts as a father) to the will of the God he worshipped?

It is on this point that the fundamentalists part company with the rest of us. No God can command us to behave immorally; indeed, that is the litmus test for any God we might imagine. And yet, even today, God commands fathers to sacrifice their sons, tragically failing to intercede at the critical moment as He did with Abraham. But the father's hand doesn't just strike down the son; it sweeps away the Passover celebrants, the teenagers out for a night of dancing, the mothers and fathers working at their desks on a high floor of New York's tallest towers. Because in the fundamentalist doctrine, morality is a purely secular conceit: it is only the will of God that matters.

Modern Orthodox scholar Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writes of the akeda, "[T]he entire story comes to teach that our G-d of ethical monotheism would never expect a parent to slaughter his son in His name". In other words, maybe Abraham was misled precisely so that we should not be. Whatever our idea of God, even His will cannot trump our duty of moral behavior. History has shown us only too clearly what happens when those priorities are inverted.