For years, I was afraid of dogs. If man’s best friend came near me, my instinctive fear made me turn to jelly, then turn and run as fast as I could. Either out of playfulness, curiosity, or hunter instinct, the dog would inevitably bark, then run after me, making me even more fearful.
It took me many more years to understand that my fear was not instinctive at all, but generally the product of poor conditioning. Gradually, I learned how to approach dogs in ways that were not threatening to them or to me
Having known how it feels to be afraid of dogs, I am certain that one of the most disturbing images of God I have ever encountered is the poet Emily Dickinson’s comparison of God to an angry dog. Let’s read her brief but lacerating comparison, which is part of her interpretation of the Binding of Isaac, one of Jewish tradition’s most complex stories:
Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—
Not a hesitation—
Flattered by Obeisance
Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.
Ouch, or rather woof, Emily, that hurts!
Playing on the fact that God spelled backwards is “dog,” Dickinson engages in her usual skewering of religious dogma (seriously, no pun intended) about God and faith that prevailed in her time. She imagines God as a tyrannical bulldog appeased by Abraham’s obedience to God’s command that he sacrifice his son, Isaac. Isaac lives to tell his kids the tale about how his fanatical father almost murdered him to satisfy God. We imagine him saying to them, “I’ll tell you, kids, had it not been for the fact that your grandpa behaved in such a well- mannered, obedient way with that crazy junkyard dog, the Lord, and tried to put me to death, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you!”
Dickinson’s critique is less of Father Abraham, than of God, our Father in heaven. Abraham is portrayed as a hapless, feeble human being trying to calm down the divine Canine, who is the real bully in the biblical story. In Dickinson’s re-telling of the story, God essentially tortured Abraham and Isaac psychologically by insisting upon Abraham’s obedience to God’s horrible command. Once God was “flattered by obeisance,” that is, flattered by Abraham’s obedience to God’s orders, “Tyranny demurred,” God the tyrant, hesitated to make Abraham carry out Isaac’s killing.
Our poet’s description of God as a mean dog demanding pacification is shocking. Yet it is actually part of a pretty conventional view taken by some readers of this Bible story who are horrified by the notion that God would demand such a thing of a parent, even as a mere test of Abraham’s faith, as the Torah makes clear to us it was. What is far less conventional is Dickinson’s midrash, or creative interpretation, that Isaac talked to his children, the brothers Esau and Jacob, about his experience. After Isaac’s near sacrifice by his father, the incident is never mentioned again in the Torah, which is silent about how the event affected Isaac and his family. Later Torah interpretations by our rabbinic sages do imagine Isaac having an opinion of what God and his father almost did to him. But these stories basically see Isaac as a model of religious piety and martyrdom who would have willingly died for God, a model which our ancestors at times employed to make sense of their own martyrdom at the hands of our oppressors. Our ancestors generally did not put criticism of God into the mouths of our greatest Bible heroes, especially not in their discussions with their children.
Still, the great thing about the way we Jews read the Torah interpretively is that we often use its sparse texts as jumping off points for thinking radically about the pressing moral and spiritual issues that are bothering us. Given that rich history of our experience with our holiest book, I want to suggest that Emily Dickinson (who was not, herself, Jewish) is on to something: her views of God notwithstanding, what if Isaac actually had a conversation with his sons about his traumatic experience of nearly being sacrificed by his father to God? What if he could have? Would it or could it have changed the brothers’ sibling rivalry, which the Torah tells us had such a drastic effect on their family? Would it have helped both of them to understand their father, their mother, their own bitterness towards each other with greater compassion? How might such a conversation have changed their relationships with God, and by extension, our relationships with God as their descendants?
A parent is not obligated to relate every personal detail of his or her life and past to his or her children. At times, in families, some things are better left unsaid, out of a sense of privacy, good taste, and sensitivity. People have a right and an obligation to move forward, grow, repent, and not be hounded by the past. A person also has a right not to have his or her past be abused by others for salacious gossip.
Yet in far more cases, the more parents can explain to their descendants, “This is where our family comes from, these are the stories of my past, of our past, lying below the surface of our present,” the more children can come to understand who they and their families are. The more the unspoken emotional wounds found even in the best of families can begin to heal by being brought out into the light of dialogue and forgiveness. Jewish moral theology demands that vidui, confession of one’s sins and imperfections, is an indispensable part of true teshuvah, re-turning in repentance. In this coming year, may we, our families, our Jewish people, and all people be granted the life and strength to tell the stories, pleasant and painful, of who we are, where we come from, and how we can nevertheless still freely become the best that we can be.