By Rabbi Robert B. Barr
Note: This story makes reference to the Binding of Isaac story in the Bible, Genesis chapter 22. You can find it online here.
Part of what makes Congregation Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org unique is our willingness to change – we are not stuck on the past – or stuck to tradition for its own sake. In fact, while we recognize and respect our people’s past and appreciate that our ancestors created rituals and behaviors that spoke to their generation – we also realize that what they crafted may not speak to us as modern Jews. And so, it is incumbent on each of us to not simply walk away from our heritage; rather, we must reshape the old or craft something new. It is our responsibility – to continually revitalize our expressions of Judaism.
So now for one piece of tradition to which our congregation no longer adheres. For years, Congregation Beth Adam read the Binding of Isaac (Genesis chapter 22, called the Akedah in Hebrew) on Rosh Hashanah morning because it is the assigned Torah portion. Just as there is a Torah portion assigned to each week, the rabbis assigned Torah portions to the various holidays and festivals. While Congregation Beth Adam has always allowed Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to pick a Torah portion that speaks to them – rather than being bound by ancient assignments – the Congregation had not originally been as willing to push this boundary on the High Holidays.
The decision to read the Binding of Isaac or not was one that stirred passion and concern over the years within the congregation. The bottom line – it is a problematic Torah portion.
On the one hand, the story is straightforward and unambiguous. The basic sketch:
1. God tests Abraham
2. The test is to see if he will sacrifice his son Isaac
3. Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son
4. God has to stop him
It may seem like a straightforward outline – but the problem is that the story is not an easy one to accept. After all, it is a story of a father willing to murder his own son – and a God who is willing to ask him to do so.
Given that uncomfortable scenario, rabbis and commentators have spent generations trying to make this story acceptable. Sometimes they have tried to obscure what is obvious – and at other times they have tried to reshape the story to make it more palatable. Truth be told – the Jewish community does not want its mythic father to be the kind of guy who is willing to kill his own son.
So, how have commentators tried to make the story relevant? Probably the most frequently cited justification for the Binding of Isaac story is that it was written as a polemic against human sacrifice. In other words, according to this explanation, human sacrifice was common during Abraham’s time, and it was not uncommon for people to kill their children. In fact, in “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” Gunther W. Plaut writes (page 149):
“The practice of human sacrifice, which was well-known to the ancients and central to the cults of Israel’s neighbors, stands as a backdrop to [Genesis] chapter 22. In the framework of his time and experience, Abraham could have considered the command to sacrifice his son entirely legitimate.”
Given that context, the rabbis/commentators say: yes, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, because it was normative. Next, God steps in to save the day by not allowing Abraham to complete the act.
That explanation may sound good at first, but the problem is that the story is still not easy to accept. It’s a common explanation – but it does not suffice. It does not address the torment that was inflicted on Abraham – or Isaac – or his mother Sarah. Why would God have put them through such a horrible sham? Nor does it address the fact that elsewhere in the Bible God issues decrees without such psychodrama. For example, in the Ten Commandments God proclaims “honor thy father and mother” – without requiring Isaac to try to beat up his father and then God intervening to make the point. Thus, while the commentators attempt to make this story about stopping human sacrifice – it is really just an attempt to make the story into something different.
Other commentators have worked to move away from the attempted slaughter of Isaac; instead they say this is a story about Abraham’s deep love of God. Some have noted Abraham’s “unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty” – as they attempt to turn this horrific act into something noble and religious. Further, some even say this about Isaac – that he willingly went along with it because he too was an obedient servant. At root, these are attempts to put this into the context of dying for a cause – the highest sacrifice a person can make. However, that is not what this story is about. It is not about a person risking his life for a higher purpose. This is a story about a father wiling to kill his son.
I have struggled over the years to make sense of this story. At one time, I embraced a stream of commentary that said that Abraham failed the test. In other words, God did not want Abraham to obey. God never intended for Isaac to be sacrificed. This is the one commentary that came even close to justifying what is obviously a tragic tale.
No matter how the rabbis and commentators have tried to save this story and to put it in a positive light, there is no way for this story to be anything other than what it is – a story about Abraham, a man who believes in his God and is thus willing to kill his son when God asks him to.
This is the story that rabbis all over the world read every year. And yet, it is a story about blind obedience; it is a story about doing what God says even when it sounds immoral; and it is God who is right at the end. The message there is that no matter what, your job as the New Year begins is to do what God says – even if it involves killing an innocent child.
In 2004, I came to the point in my rabbinate and in my thinking where I realized that this story is no longer acceptable. Despite their attempts, there is no commentator or sermon that can make this Torah parable acceptable or justifiable. It is time to stop pretending and to start calling this story what it is – an immoral unjustifiable act.
As citizens of the 21st century, we live in the shadow of an event in which men, women, and children were rounded up and murdered simply because of who they were. Sadly, the defense that many of the murderers used to justify their acts was to say “I was just following orders.” Had Abraham been put on trial, would he also have said “I was just following orders”?
Unfortunately, we live in an age where people have flown planes into buildings and strapped bombs onto their bodies to kill innocent men, women, and children – often explaining that it is what their God wants of them. Had Abraham been asked, would he also have said “I was just doing what my God wanted of me”?
We live in a time when a Prime Minister of Israel (Yitzchak Rabin in 2005) was assassinated by a fellow Jew for trying to make peace. The assassin’s justification was that God gave us the land of Israel so giving it back would deny what God wants. In the summer of 2004, similar statements were made against the Prime Minister by some radical rabbis in Israel. In June of 2004 Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal of the Old City of Jerusalem said that anyone who gives up part of the land of Israel (even a single settlement) to a non-Jew could be the target of a religiously sanctioned murder (New York Times 8/5/04 “Protect Sharon from the Right”). To justify killing, Rabbi Avigdor uses a passage from the Talmud (a rabbinic text codified around the year 500 CE). Avigdor is doing what countless rabbis throughout the ages have done with the Binding of Isaac – trying to justify the unjustifiable.
For me, it has ended. I am no longer willing to stand up here and read a story that I was embarrassed to read to our children. I will not read a story that tells of a father willing to murder and I will not claim that this is a man we should emulate – calling Abraham the father of our people. That will not be part of my annual Rosh Hashanah traditions any more.
In an age when terrorism is often grounded in religious fundamentalism – grounded in claims of what God wants – I can no longer read this story. I do not want this story to represent me or my understanding of Judaism. I do not ever want to give anyone the opportunity to say that the story of Abraham (the father of the Jews) justifies their actions to do something unjustifiable.
Why the big deal? You may be thinking: what difference does it make? So what if this congregation doesn’t read the Binding of Isaac story each year on Rosh Hashanah but instead chooses to read stories that we do not have to twist into knots to feel comfortable with? Certainly, I am not naïve enough to think that this will change the world and that people will suddenly stop saying “I did such and such because God told me so.”
The reason that I made this decision is that in our community – in the sanctuary in which we celebrate the High Holidays – I wanted to say without equivocation that the type of thinking that whitewashes the Binding of Isaac story is wrong. I want to know that on each Rosh Hashanah – when we plan for the year ahead and review the year just ended – that we don’t begin the year telling a story that does not represent our highest ideals.
Other congregations may or may not decide to follow suit. Even if I end up being a lone voice, I am speaking out against this text that presents a world view that we find abhorrent.
Certainly this decision will not change the world; but, it will change the corner in which we live. In order to begin changing our world and changing the culture in which people can attribute their actions to divine authority, we must start here and now. The Jewish New Year is an appropriate time to send a clear and unambiguous message that we expect more; we have high standards for others and for ourselves.
You may be wondering what Congregation Beth Adam reads in place of the Binding of Isaac. The answer is that we pick different readings each year. One year we read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Click here to find out how Rabbi Barr made that decision