The sacrifice of Isaac

Devadatta

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Recently stumbled on a book by Alan Dershowitz on the Torah. Forget the name - not surprising since the book itself is forgettable - but it has to do with the stories of the sacrifice of Isaac, the book of Job, and really takes a kind of superficial view, judging these stories in the light of everyday morality, as in, how could a father think of doing such a thing?

So I'd be interested in hearing deeper interpretations of the Isaac sacrifice story from people within in the Jewish tradition, and especially from students of Kabbalah, etc.

To start off, I'll offer what I'd consider the obvious level of interpretation: the story illustrates a central theme of the ultimate power and authority of God. As Abraham’s son and heir and in terms of the cultural/psychological context, Isaac is everything to Abraham. But in terms of the larger narrative he’s more than everything: he's Israel, the covenant and the future. In that sense, when Abraham sacrifices Isaac he sacrifices himself and his people as well. He makes this sacrifice by assenting to the order from God. This act of assent is effectively an act of complete renunciation, with parallels in other traditions. It effectively lifts Abraham – and Israel - out of the merely human realm. Symbolically, Israel now must be willing to sacrifice even itself to the will of God. This idea is paralleled in monastic traditions that involve the complete renunciation of the household (family) life. In this case, Abraham doesn’t leave family life, but in effect dies to the mundane view of fatherhood and is reborn as a different and a more awe-ful kind of father. Hence I would also call this a death and resurrection story (which is after all only a subset of the idea of complete renunciation).

So again I’d be interested in hearing other or contrary sides to this, especially from people in the tradition.
 
judging these stories in the light of everyday morality, as in, how could a father think of doing such a thing?
yeah, such approaches are pretty much doomed to inadequacy in most cases.

the "akedah" or "binding of isaac" story is actually almost as central to judaism as the exodus from egypt and the giving of the Torah. yet it is rarely given its due as such outside the tradition, as it is apparently so alien to modern or rationalist ways of thinking. as i heard someone put it, "every time i read it i find something new to object to"! yet this is the piece that is in the daily liturgy at the beginning of the morning service - not, say, the ten commandments. this if anything should be our clue as to the degree of its importance.

in a way, what the akedah story is about is as our paradigm for the ultimate relationship with G!D. this actually is what our mystical friend is referring to. in fact, from my PoV, it's the only interpretation that truly "makes sense".

the story illustrates a central theme of the ultimate power and authority of G!D
for me, it's not so much about this - it is not that G!D forces abraham to do it so much as that abraham does it of his own free will, thus passing the "test". in which case, the question becomes "what would constitute a reason for not just going on with it, but doing it with the full intention of the heart"

in terms of the larger narrative he’s more than everything: he's Israel, the covenant and the future. In that sense, when Abraham sacrifices Isaac he sacrifices himself and his people as well. He makes this sacrifice by assenting to the order from G!D. This act of assent is effectively an act of complete renunciation, with parallels in other traditions. It effectively lifts Abraham – and Israel - out of the merely human realm. Symbolically, Israel now must be willing to sacrifice even itself to the will of G!D.
this is certainly a valid interpretation. for the mystics, however, it is simply not enough. they have to find a *compelling reason* for abraham to *want* to, as it were, actually call G!D's bluff?

this brings us to the idea alluded to here:

Isaac represents the left line, which Avraham must sacrifice before he can move to the right line and then the middle line.
what this is telling us, in effect, is that the "left line" (or "pillar" or "column" as i would term it) which is associated with G!D's stern or harsh judgement whereas the right column is associated with the outpouring of Divine mercy. so, what abraham is in effect doing is an utterly superhuman act - he is entirely shutting down his *own* right column in order to, effectively, *force* G!D to open the floodgates of the Divine right column - in doing so he fundamentally alters the balance of forces in the cosmos, by impelling G!D to Act in accordance with G!D's own Attribute of mercy. this, surely, is the only way you can reconcile such an act - by understanding that in this context, it has levels beyond the immediate, human consequences, because it is the result of a Divine command. needless to say, this is a very great mystery and remains difficult to understand.

b'shalom

bananabrain
 
bananabrain said:
what this is telling us, in effect, is that the "left line" (or "pillar" or "column" as i would term it) which is associated with G!D's stern or harsh judgement whereas the right column is associated with the outpouring of Divine mercy. so, what abraham is in effect doing is an utterly superhuman act - he is entirely shutting down his *own* right column in order to, effectively, *force* G!D to open the floodgates of the Divine right column - in doing so he fundamentally alters the balance of forces in the cosmos, by impelling G!D to Act in accordance with G!D's own Attribute of mercy. this, surely, is the only way you can reconcile such an act - by understanding that in this context, it has levels beyond the immediate, human consequences, because it is the result of a Divine command. needless to say, this is a very great mystery and remains difficult to understand.

Hi BB. You were on holiday when I first posted this thread so there's been some timelag. I've only today noticed your response.

In between, I've done a little reading on the Zohar and the ten sefirot, etc. The left, right & middle here no doubt refer to Din, Hesed & Tiferet. But the so-called kabbalah explanation I came across was that Abram had been too much on the Hesed side and needed to balance it with Din, which seemed to me a very unsatisfactory explantion. What you offer here is much more interesting and makes more sense to me, psychologically as well as mystically, whatever we mean by that term.

And I would agree with you, non-expert as I am, of the great importance of this passage in the bible; and to me it's one of the passages that truly is of universal interest, even to someone like myself who doesn't subscribe to the biblical narrative as a whole.

The Book of Job is another example to me of a story of universal importance that is generally trivialized by a superficial reading. To me, the import of this book extends beyond its monotheistic setting. Its truth speaks to non-theists as well, though it's hard to summarize that truth without falling into weak paraphrase. You almost need to experience it the way Job did.

The Zohar, I've been led to believe, is more or less a midrash on Genesis, but are there any interesting interpretations of the Book of Job in the tradition that you know about?

Thanks for your thoughts on Abram & Isaac. For me, it was a case of ask and ye shall receive.

Cheers.
 
thanks, devadatta, very kind of ya.

interesting question, this. i'm not all that on iyyov (that's "job" to you) but it seems to me that the central question is an exploration of the mystical attitude to theodicy - in other words, did he deserve it on some level? i am aware that most of the major mediaeval mystical authorities are interested in this particular question and therefore it also seems to me that the following (albeit rather expensive) book might be a good place to start, as job is definitely the base text for the operation of what is known as hashgachah pratit, otherwise known as "providence". the precise details of how this works is, naturally, a matter of intense debate.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/t...f=sr_1_3/104-3594495-2732762?v=glance&s=books

happy hunting and let me know what you find out!

b'shalom

bananabrain
 
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