Jews didn’t need to celebrate Halloween this year to experience the chills of the season. We had more than enough chills reading the Torah portion, Vayeira, two weeks ago, with its terrifying story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and sacrifice him to the Lord. Abraham’s passivity makes us shudder. The man who argued with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah says nothing when commanded to offer up his own child. We have to wonder whether this father bears any resemblance to the dreadfully sick people we sometimes read about who murder their own children after hearing “voices” ordering them to do so.
The story tugs at our heartstrings as the father and son walk silently side by side, and it becomes almost unbearable in that poignant moment when Isaac points to the firestone and wood and asks where the sheep is for the offering. We finally sigh with relief when the angel stays Abraham’s hand, and we know that he is not mad, after all, but has passed God’s horrific test. The emotions the story arouses — no matter how many times we read it — has made it one of the most frequently told and most consistently depicted through the ages. But here’s an interesting thing: More often than not, the work of art or the retelling of the story labels it not the “binding” of Isaac, but the “sacrifice” of Isaac. I’m thinking of early Christian writings and sculptures like those on the door of Chartres Cathedral that show Isaac as prefiguring Jesus, in Christian dogma sacrificed on the cross to redeem others. And I’m thinking of a 15th-century sculpture by the Italian Donatello that portrays a suffering Isaac, with Abraham’s knife at his neck, or a painting by the 17th-century Caravaggio, in which Isaac’s face is contorted with terror. All are called “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”
Jews through the ages also identified with Isaac as they suffered and died during times of dire persecutions. The Cßrusade chronicles of the Middle Ages describe how parents in Mainz and Worms slaughtered their children and themselves to avoid forced conversions, evoking the martyrdoms of Abraham and Isaac in their last breaths. In the early days of modern Israel, Isaac became a symbol of the nation’s fallen warriors, regarded as necessary sacrifices for the state. Later writers, such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, have written more critically of fathers who sacrifice their sons in war after war to fulfill their own ideology.
And yet, the very essence of the Akedah story, too often forgotten, is the fact that Isaac was NOT sacrificed. This story tells of the binding of Isaac and his release, not his death, and that makes all the difference. In his classic study, “The Last Trial,” the scholar Shalom Spiegel showed that the sacrifice of children was almost universal in the ancient world. Early peoples believed that by sacrificing their first-born children on the night of the first full moon in the springtime, they could appease the gods, who would then protect the products of their fields, cattle and families. Judaism transformed that practice by abolishing child sacrifice and substituting animal sacrifices instead, as in the sacrifice of the paschal lamb in the Passover narrative.
Christianity, which developed in the same environment as Judaism, did not reject the pagan child sacrifice practice. Unlike Isaac, Jesus was not saved by an angel; he was sacrificed on the cross in the springtime. Afterwards, in Christian theology, he came to be seen as the Son of God and his sacrifice as atonement for the sins of others.
Jews also fell under the influence of the traditions around them, and there are legends in the midrash that have Abraham actually slaughtering Isaac, and some that have Isaac dead and resurrected. But those legends are peripheral to Jewish thought, Spiegel proved. The rejection of human sacrifice in any form is at Judaism’s center, and there is more that goes with that. In Jewish teaching, no human can serve as a sin offering for others. There are no intermediaries; no one dies to atone for our transgressions, and we are each responsible for our own actions. Alone among early peoples to regard human life as invaluable, Judaism carved out a moral vision uniquely its own.
These days, when anti-Semitism has become blatant again, and Jews in many lands feel threatened, it is terribly important that we know our heritage and teach it to our children. The story of the Akedah is at the heart of that heritage. It is the story of the faith of one man, yes, but it is also the story of our people and the ideals that allowed them to be part of the broader world while still remaining distinct from it.
Francine Klagsbrun’s book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.