Put to the test
I’m a big fan of “pop midrash” — cultural ephemera that comments, not always reverently, on the Bible.
I have, for instance, a collection of children’s books about Noah’s Ark. Each takes the story in a slightly different direction, but all wrestle with ideas that preoccupied sages over the centuries: Could Noah have done more to save others? What was the “wickedness of man” that caused God to wipe out everyone but Noah’s family? What happens inside an ark full of animals on a 40-day voyage?
As my teacher Noam Zion taught me, every work inspired by the Bible — from Rembrandt’s Esther to Steinbeck’s East of Eden — is doing the same work as the sages who teased moral lessons and legal principles out of the Torah text. The terse Bible stories leave out more than they include, leaving the interpreter to imagine what’s missing: the characters’ appearance, their relationship with other characters, their motivations.
With its menagerie and happy ending (that is, before Noah gets drunk and naked), Noah’s Ark lends itself to children’s stories. By contrast, with the exception of illustrated Bibles, there aren’t many children’s books based on the binding of Isaac. It’s hard to imagine curling up at bedtime with a story of an old man who agrees to take his son up a mountain and offer him up as a burned sacrifice.
The few pop interpretations of the Akeda are, understandably, very dark, although maybe not as dark as “The Binding Of Isaac,” a video game released in 2010. In this version, Isaac is a little boy whose mother is a Christian religious fanatic. She hears a voice telling her that Isaac is corrupted with sin and must be sacrificed. When the boy sees her take up a butcher’s knife, he escapes through a trap door and into a maze of treasure rooms, where he battles demons. The action is punctuated with images of Isaac, curled up in tears.
While far from the original story, the game nevertheless touches on themes found in the Midrash and other commentary. Was Abraham demonstrating his devotion to God, or abdicating moral judgment in heeding a heavenly voice? (Kierkegaard calls this the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”) What was Isaac thinking and feeling as his father bound him to the wood pile?
Most of all, the game’s set-up captures the strangeness and outrageousness of a story that we read on the second day of Rosh Hashana. What are we to make of this cruel request from God, and Abraham’s quiet agreement to carry it out?
Some see the story as an indictment of the Abrahamic faiths, showing the lengths to which people will go to please their God and justifying all forms of zealotry carried out in the name of religion. An editorial in the Star-Ledger took this tack a few years ago. Outraged rabbis and community leaders pointed out that the weight of midrashic opinion draws exactly the opposite conclusion. In fact, the angel stays Abraham’s hand, replacing Isaac with a ram. The clear message of the story, says the Torah, is that God reviles human sacrifice. He wants our obedience, yes, but not our children’s blood.
But even Abraham’s obedience has discomfited generations of readers. “How can the Torah regard as Abraham’s supreme achievement that he was willing to do what the worst of idolaters do?” asks Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain. Sacks suggests that Abraham passed a different sort of test. It wasn’t a question of obedience; rather, in asking Abraham to “renounce ownership” of Isaac, God sent the message that children do not belong to their parents, but to God. And by establishing that children are not the property of their parents, God “creates legal space between parent and child, because only when that space exists do children have the room to grow as independent individuals.”
It’s a lovely conclusion, although I can imagine many simpler, and less cruel, ways of getting there. I’d prefer to think that the Torah is aware of the troubling spiritual and ethical implications of the story, and is telling us something different: That Abraham failed the test.
What’s the textual proof? According to a convincing sermon delivered by a friend a few years ago, it is the fact that up until the near-sacrifice of Isaac, God spoke with Abraham one on one. Henceforth, God dispatches an angel to do His talking. In fact, God will no longer speak directly with Abraham in the rest of the Torah.
Perhaps that explains why Abraham’s mission remains unfulfilled in his lifetime: as a result of the Akeda, he fell out of God’s favor. It will take his grandson, Jacob, to make the story whole — and then only after he earns his new name, Israel, by wrestling with an angel. Perhaps we earn our name — we earn our covenant — only when we wrestle with God. Not when we put aside our moral reasoning and human instincts, but when we engage with the tradition by bringing those faculties to bear. Only when we’re willing to wrestle with the implications and consequences of faith and obedience do we really pass the test.
Shana tova u’metuka.