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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II


The Akida

What does sacrifice mean in the traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity? I was struck by how much we focus on Isaac and Abraham, on the notion that we as Jews have abrogated a tradition of child sacrifice, something that always struck me as reading backward from the present sensibilities to the past, and especially as leaving us missing larger overriding points.

I want to get to the point concerning sacrifice by working on what appears generally marginal, or what Jacques Derrida calls "the supplement."

In the case of the sacrifice of Isaac, I have in my mind the famous painting by Rembrandt in which we see the old man, knife in hand, posed and poised over the body of his bound son, the light falling on Isaac's throat, the white beard of Abraham flowing as he is about to strike. This is a striking baroque presentation of the angel flying directly toward us, stopping the hand of the slayer, the knife falling down toward the scabbard, while below lies the white immobilized body of Isaac. Abraham is looking up toward the angel, startled. "And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said: 'Abraham, Abraham.' And he said: 'Here I am.' And He said: 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.' And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns" (Gen. 22:10-13).

In Rembrandt's version, the bright lights focus our gaze on the drama, and lost in the obscurity lies the image of the apprehensive ram, the real victim in this drama, placed in this version to the left of Abraham, barely visible in the lower third of the canvas, where the scabbard points toward him.

We talk of the miracle of the angel's intervention, focus on his words acknowledging Abraham's successful passing of this test of his faith, and await the words of reward to come: "because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, ... in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou has hearkened to my voice" (Gen. 22:16–18).

The miracle of the ram is lost in this painting, in this narrative; his imminent sacrifice-for why else would he be there?—is not even mentioned. But the more we look into that darkness for his image, the more we begin to appreciate that he is the sacrifice we were waiting for; he is the miracle we hadn't noticed, he is the price to be paid for Isaac's life, for without the ram, who or what would have served to answer Isaac's tremulous question to his father, "Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?"(Gen. 22:7).

What importance can be attributed to this ram? It is the sacrifice that God provided, as Abraham had indicated to Isaac. For every Isaac saved, there must be a ram sacrificed; this is what the story tells us, because if this were not the case, the angel's intervention would have sufficed. The ram is not a payment for a sin, either, not a sin-offering. Isaac is innocent, his bare neck, his bound hands, his stifled face tell us he is the victim of the old man's knife, to be rescued, like all victims. And the poor ram, his horns visible, looking on at the scene where he is about to be substituted for the boy, held immobile in his place, his blood to pay for something we cannot quite fathom. Where have we seen this scene before?

What did the children of Egypt do that our sons should have had their lives spared? What did the lamb do whose blood painted our doors, so that another angel, with another knife, might pass over our children, leaving us in its shadow as it went upon its murderous mission. We lived because they died; we might say. "We went on, were able to go on, be free to go on, to fulfill the promise of God to Abraham, because of those Egyptian lamb-children who were not spared." Our lives cannot be separated from theirs; the miracle of the passing over tied to the miracle of their slaughter, of which not a word of remorse is to be uttered, their shadows barely visible in the narrative, because at midnight it is always the dark hour of the bone: "And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead" (Ex. 12:29–30). After this we were freed; we left; the exodus began, and the children left behind were never heard of again. Yet they were the price of the miracle, their deaths had made it possible; they were, like the ram, the miracle that went barely noticed, except by their houses. Who would be there to mourn for a ram?

When Abraham sent Ishmael forth with his mother, it was to satisfy the request of Sarah against Abraham's own wishes. Hagar was given some bread and a bottle of water, and then was sent away: "...and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said: 'Let me not look upon the death of the child.' And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept" (Gen. 11:14–16).

All this to satisfy Sarah, the jealous wife. Sarah sees this son of Hagar the Egyptian, as she is called, the son whom Hagar "had borne unto Abraham, making sport," and she says, "Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac" (Gen. 11:9–10). She can't even bring herself to give them their names, Hagar, Ishmael, or Ismail as he is known to others. We can say that she is ready to sacrifice Ishmael for Isaac, though Ishmael was the elder son, and his only sin seemed to be "making sport," an innocuous enough description that the rabbinical commentators are at great pains to paint as all kinds of evil activities. Yet those commentaries are tendentious, clearly intended to exculpate our great ancestors of their cruelty in sending mother and child out to their death, with a bottle of water and a loaf of bread. Abraham grieved before the sight of the unjust destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, another test of his righteousness; he grieved here as well, but obeyed because he always obeyed God, and because God reassured him it would come out all right; the son of the bondswoman would survive to found a nation.

Where is the miracle in Beersheba? When the water is spent, and Hagar goes off to weep, the angel, the good old angel, calls out to Hagar to be reassured, to take her son's hand. "And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad a drink. And God was with the lad, and he grew" (Gen. 11:19–20). Just like the moment with the ram, when God opens Abraham's eyes, Abraham lifts his eyes and sees the ram. Here God opens Hagar's eyes.

We move to the Muslim frame. Though Ismail has other roles to play in the religion, this is the one with the greatest miracle, the miracle of the water which saves the lives of Hagar and Ismail. In the Islamic version, Abraham accompanies Hagar and Ismail as far as Mecca, then a desert location, where he abandons them to return to Sarah. According to one version, "Hagar, full of pity for the thirsty child, runs back and forth between the two hills, al-Safa and al-Marwa, the origin of a later pilgrimage tradition. Meanwhile, however, the little Ismail scratches the sand and thus helps the spring of Zamzam break through. In another hadith version, after abandoning them, Abraham, there called Ibrahim, faces Mecca and prays, "O Lord! Grant that the hearts of some men may be affected with kindness towards them and bestow upon them all sorts of fruit so that they may be thankful." Hagar then breast-feeds Ismail until her milk runs out. When Ismail begins to complain of thirst, "she could not bear to see him in such plight. Hajira (as she is called here) ran seven times from the hill of Safa to Marwa in quest of water. As she was about to commence the eighth trip, her attention was drawn to the crying child who in the agony of thirst was kicking the ground. Lo! The water gushed forth miraculously from the earth in the form of a fountain to save Prophet Ismail (peace be upon him) from the tortures of thirst" (Bukhari).

These waters of Zamzam are now considered holy in Islam. They made the miracle of Ismail's survival possible, like the ram and the Egyptian children. They are the miracle, a miracle that provided for another, and thus were the supplement to the story of Ismail and his life. As Ismail lives, in Islamic traditions, he grows up and with Ibrahim rebuilts the Kaaba in Mecca, lost as it had been in the flood of Noah; and he is taken to be sacrificed there by Ibrahim, but saved. The account in the Koran is almost off-hand, and Ismail is not named, but rather indicated to be Abraham's other son beside Isaac. Here is the account: "Abraham says, 'My son, I see in a dream that I shall sacrifice thee; consider, what thinkest thou?' He said, 'My father, do as thou art bidden; thou shalt find me, God willing, one of the steadfast.' When they had surrendered, and he flung him upon his brow, We called unto him, 'Abraham, thou hast confirmed the vision; even so we recompense the good-doers. This is indeed the manifest trial'" (The Rangers, 100–105). The account continues, "We ransomed him with a mighty sacrifice, 'Peace be upon Abraham'" (106). And then Abraham is told good tidings of Isaac, received a blessing with Isaac, whose seed we are told contains some good-doers and some self-wrongers" (110–114)

These are the stories of how the deaths of the children are avoided by sacrifices and miracles; it is the sacrifices and miracles that interest me here, not the trial, test, or threatened deaths of the children. Because for us, it is the sacrifice averted, not accomplished, that constitutes the main point, and whatever else is sacrificed or miraculously accomplished, is important in its role as the price or act needed to forestall the sacrifice.

In Christianity, that doesn't happen. Christ is sacrificed, he is the lamb, there is no substitute. Yet as a sacrifice, he is paying for the sins of others, according to Christianity; for us, for everyone. He is thus both the Isaac and the ram; the waters of Zamzam and Ismail; the Israelite children and the Egyptian children. He is not passed over; he is the lamb whose blood is needed for our children to be saved. He is, as Mary's son, the child that is sacrificed, whose death cannot be held off. And as such, his sacrifice is both the price paid and the miracle that accompanies the payment. I am calling the ram and the waters the miracle, or the death of the Egyptian children and the lamb's blood the miracle; but those miracles are intended to save Isaac, Ismail, and the Israelite children. Who could save Jesus but himself? He pays with his life to save himself, but there is no life saved, only sins absolved. Here is where I want to go with this.

The rescuing of Isaac is followed by the reward of a nation to be born, us, the Jews. The rescue of Ismail was followed by the reward as well; he becomes the father of the northern Arabs with whom the tribe of the Quraysh are associated—Mohammed's tribe. He reconstitutes, with Abraham, the house of Allah with the Kaaba, thus symbolically raising the house of Islam. At every point where Ismail is mentioned in the Koran, he, like Isaac and Abraham, is associated with the believers, not the unbelievers. What follows in Islamic history is a distinction between the people of the book, which includes Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims, as opposed to unbelievers. As believers, Christians and Jews were considered dhimmi, not as enlightened as believers in the Prophet Mohammed, but still believers to be privileged in treatment, taxes, and prestige. Their difference from unbelievers is the crucial one for Islam. Like Judaism, the descendants of Isaac or of Ishamel are counted as special in God's eyes.

But Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, takes its sacrifice as founding a universal principle, one in which there is no distinction between nations, that is, between lineages of peoples like Jews or Muslims, no categories of those whose lineages were built upon the sacrifices that enabled Isaac and Ismail, or Ishmael, to survive. The sacrifice of their lamb, the Christian lamb, was to be for everyone, and it thus became a religion that required the sacrifice of the child, unlike our religions, Judaism and Islam, that averted the sacrifice of the child. In paying for that sacrifice, they say Jesus paid for the sins of all; whereas we say that the child must not be sacrificed, the miracle lies not in his death but in saving him.

For Jews and Muslims, the messages of our religions are not so universal. If we are the chosen people, we are distinct from others. If Muslims distinguish the people of the book, it is because they condemn those who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian prophets. But we Jews live in a country and in the grip of a civilization that has been dominated by Christians for 2,000 years. They pressure us to abandon our separateness; to subscribe to their doctrine of universal love, universal sacrifice, universal divinity. We begin to lose our distinctiveness as we respond to their pressures, as we accept notions of diversity where everyone is different in ways that don't matter, everyone is equally valuable and important in God's eyes, everyone is fundamentally the same. Muslims begin to lose their distinctiveness as people of the book, and respond in their defensiveness by rejecting Christians and Jews as their enemies, and no longer as believers who sit uneasily within the Muslim camp. Israel has further alienated Muslims from the dhimmi, the other people of the book, further diminishing the notions of differences that can be tolerated. Intolerance for others, sometimes disguised by doctrines of universal love and salvation, now marks the upsurge in religiosity in all camps. We have lost sight of the miracles that bought the rewards to Abraham, to Isaac, to Ishmael, to Hagar, to the Israelite children, and now repeat the Christian mantras about rainbow coalitions and universal understanding, as though differences no longer mattered. Under their banner, whatever might have been distinctive about us will be reduced to bagels and cream cheese, and the ram will have died in vain.

I am not arguing here for a doctrine of faith, nor of fidelity to history, but of fidelity to what makes us ourselves, distinctively Jewish, distinctively tied to a reading of an ancient text that eschews the sacrifice of the child. The only meaning in that act that can belong to us, to us alone, has to be sorted out in the words God speaks to Abraham, "Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou has hearkened to my voice." The genius of the Jewish tradition will have to flow from a reading of this that doesn't flatten it into what Christians would call universal religious principles, and, in my view, that do not fall prey to the equally debilitating interpretations of fundamentalists who never seem to understand texts except on the level of the surface. To be Jewish, for me, is to read this as a supplement to Jewish exceptionalism, and I remind you that the notion of the supplement was developed by a Jew, a great Jewish philosopher named Jacques Derrida. This is why I want to point out the image of the ram that is barely discernable. We can see that ram with Jewish eyes, in our own way, and read its meaning as connected to the intercession of the angel, the surprised look in Abraham's face, and in the survival of Isaac. Let's begin with the survival of the child, and let's go on from there following our own readings, arguing with them, listening to them, challenging them, like good Jews, and not like sheep. We can eat the bagels later.

'Shana tova.

—Ken Harrow
October 2008





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