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Some Reflections on Isaac’s Near-Death Experience

 

Popular culture often adds its own midrashic spin to famous biblical stories. The episode known as the Akedah, “The Binding of Isaac” illustrates the harrowing chapter when Abraham almost saw his future go literally, “up in smoke.” Bob Dylan and Woody Allen both add a remarkable subtext to the story where Abraham nearly ritually slaughtered his son as a sacrifice to God.

Dylan sees a dark side to God’s behavior. In his song, Highway Sixty One Revisited, Dylan writes:

  • “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’ God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.’”

Some people experience God as a demonic being that is out to “get us,” if we fail to worship God properly. In the Midrashic imagination, God’s behavior in this instance is reminiscent of Job’s experience. Job, as you probably know, experienced God as an adversary. In fact, the name, “Iyob” means “enemy,” and the identity of this “enemy” remains an enigma throughout this particular biblical book.

Woody Allen offers a neo-Kantian approach to the Akedah story. Like Kant, Allen contends that Abraham actually fails the test.

  • God: “I jokingly suggest you to sacrifice Isaac and you immediately run out to do it.” And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.” “But does this not prove I love you, that I was willing to donate mine only son on your whim?” And the Lord said, “No, Abraham, that doesn’t prove anything at all. All it proves that lunatics and fanatics will follow any order no matter how asinine, as long as it comes from a resonant and well-modulated voice.”

Woody Allen’s interpretation is one that even some Hassidic Rebbes have embraced. Emil Fackenheim, one of the greatest  Jewish theologians of the Holocaust, recalls the following story told to him by a Hasid:

  • A Hasid once called me: “I want to see you.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “I have something to teach you. So he showed up, about 25 years old, in his black garb and payot [side curls]. What I remember was his question: “Did it ever occur to you that the God who asks Abraham to do the Akeda [binding of Isaac] as a sacrifice, sends an angel to stop it?” And he said, ‘God was fed up with Abraham: when he asked him to sacrifice his son ‑‑ that was the test ‑‑‑ He wanted Abraham to say NO!” [The Hasid might have been surprised to know that Immanuel Kant made the same observation over 2 centuries ago!]

Yes, the story of the Akedah creates cognitive dissonance in us.

How do we differentiate between the voice of God and the voice that mimics and parodies God, but is in reality, the voice of cruelty and evil?

If one examines Midrash Rabbah on the Akedah, the Sages intimated that Satan is the one who instigated this ordeal for Abraham. In symbolical and psychological terms, Abraham’s test consists of differentiating between the true voice of God and the voice that parodies God (Satan).

I believe that the Midrash offers a profound insight.

The Akedah teaches us that there are two types of religiosity. One is authentic and life affirming, the other type of religiosity is a cheap imitation because it doesn’t inspire people to live in accordance with Judaism’s highest principles.

Discerning God’s voice isn’t too hard, for any God who would demand that we sacrifice our children, is hardly worthy of our love or our devotion. God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac ‑‑ He wanted Abraham to just say NO! The prophet Jeremiah makes this point abundantly clear in his condemnation of Molech worship, which had taken root in ancient Israel:

  • Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the shrines of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Tophet, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter (Jer. 19:4-6).

The Talmud adds an important interpretation of the above Scriptural text:

And it is further written, “which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind.” —   This refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab, as it is said, “Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall” (2 Kings 3:27) –  This portion of the verse refers to the daughter of Jephthah. (Judg. 11:13) “nor did it enter my mind”  —  This refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham.[1]

Unfortunately, we have witnessed the horrors of 9/11 and countless acts of terrorism in the world where parents send their children to maim and destroy in the Name of God. Too often, religious people use God to justify every conceivable evil.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook once said that a great amount of the world’s suffering is because people have a confused conception of God. As religious people, we must make sure that our thoughts of God are clean and free from the dross of deceptive fantasies that are based on human inadequacies.  Faith in God must enhance human happiness and promote a  reverence for life.

When the duty to honor God is conceived of in an enlightened manner, it raises human worth and the worth of all creatures, filling them with generosity of spirit, combined with genuine humility. But a crude conception of God tends toward the idolatrous, and degrades the dignity of man and  of other beings. . . .

So how do we know when it is the God of Truth who is addressing us, and not the God of human depravity? Remember the words of Rav Kook. If we feel the pull to act in a way that is compassionate and merciful, if we feel the pull to sacrifice ourselves for the good of the many; then it is in all likelihood the voice of God that is touching our souls—this kind of sacrifice is the noblest of all.



[1] BT Ta’anit 4a.

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