Bereishit

A Pediatric Akeidah

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Chaim Trachtman

 

Like most readers of Humash, I feel the irresistible pull back to the extraordinary 19-sentence story of the Akeidah in chapter 22 of Genesis. It is an iconic example of laconic Biblical prose that packs a powerful emotional and intellectual wallop. Again, like others, I have written about the Akeidah from the perspective of Avraham, the recipient of the divine command to sacrifice his son.[1] However, the recent publication of Aaron Koller’s exciting new book, Unbinding Isaac (Jewish Publication Society, University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and reading Moshe Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice (Princeton University Press, 2012) have prompted me to approach the Akeidah along a different route, one more consistent with my day job.

Among the many insightful ideas that Koller has about this enigmatic test, a key point is the need to reintroduce Yitzhak into the drama. There are midrashim and piyyutim cited by Koller that do, in fact, fill in the gap that Yitzhak occupies in the unfolding story. They create a more detailed back-and-forth conversation in which Yitzhak either goads his father on or mockingly questions his father’s sanity. However, they are the exceptions to the prevailing depiction of Yitzhak as the soft-spoken obedient son. These midrashim portray Yitzhak as a foil to Avraham but not an active protagonist. Koller focuses on Yitzhak’s position in the story. It is one thing to ask how Avraham could agree to follow through on a demand that violated every ethical imperative. He may have met the divine challenge and proven that he was a Kierkegaardian “knight of faith.”[2] Nevertheless, how could Avraham have allowed that demonstration to come at the expense of another person’s life, his precious son’s life? Koller forces us to look squarely at Yitzhak as he climbs Mt. Moriah, an innocent victim on the verge of being sacrificed to God. The threat of violence to a child is an inescapable element of the story.

Halbertal’s book-length essay highlights exactly that feature of sacrifice, the violence that is inherent in the act, regardless of whether it is sacrifice to a higher power or sacrifice for a cause. The profoundly asymmetric and hierarchical power relationship between God and man creates the potential for inscrutable rejection of any human gift to God. This can trigger a furious reaction by man if he perceives partiality towards the gifts of other human beings. Moreover, the need to slaughter an innocent living substitute creates a milieu in which violence is an essential part of the activity. Regardless of whether one accepts Rambam’s idea that sacrifices serve an educational purpose to wean people from paganism (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45), or Ramban’s view that sacrifice is a symbolic act in which the goat or ram is a proxy for the human being who deserves punishment (Leviticus 1:9), an animal is killed on the altar. Similarly, when sacrificing for something, the glorification of the cause can lead to the justification of murder of antagonists to the cause. What makes the Akeidah so thought-provoking is the demand to sacrifice a child and the possible justification of the act as proof of obedience to God.

In searching for parallels, the only other instance of mandatory violence to a child in the Humash that I can identify is the episode of the ben sorer u-moreh (the wayward and rebellious son). This case also represents a most challenging episode, just 4 sentences in length (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The law entails the execution of a wayward youth for adolescent misbehavior – petty thievery and gluttonous eating habits. The Rabbis, bothered by the disproportionate punishment, justified the capital sentence because the delinquent activity foreshadowed a future life of much more serious crime and mayhem (see Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:18). Like the Akeidah, it has been subjected to endless scrutiny and analysis by commentators — ancient, medieval, and modern. Again, what makes the law of ben sorer u-moreh so troubling is the killing of a child, a violent act of killing in which the parents are full participants. It is true that parents are not obligated to haul their son (the Rabbis excluded daughters from this law [Sanhedrin 8:1]) into juvenile court whenever his behavior satisfies the criteria of ben sorer u-moreh. However, if they do, and the shoe fits, then they must follow through to the pre-ordained judicial conclusion, namely the stoning of their child, and demonstrate their acceptance of the divine legislation.

Reading the episodes of the Akeidah and ben sorer u-moreh in parallel, I will locate thematic similarities and contrasts. I will then analyze what the juxtaposition of these two descriptions of potential violence to minors might mean.

The first thing that goes awry in the case of the ben sorer u-moreh, is that the son does not hear the voice of his mother and father (Deuteronomy 21:18). This is mirrored by the two voices Avraham does hear during the Akeidah story – the first when God addresses him and issues his test command to sacrifice Yitzhak (Genesis 22:2) and the second when the angel tells him to stop just as he is ready to lower the blade of knife onto his son’s neck (Genesis 22:11-12). The ben sorer u-moreh fails to listen to his parents’ instruction while Avraham obeys both instructions.

Interestingly, the son disregards the admonishments of both his mother and father. In contrast, only the father is present during the Akeidah narrative and the son walks along in support of the solitary parent. Perhaps, based on midrashim that depict Sarah’s fatal reaction on learning about the Akeidah (Midrash Tanhuma Vayera 23, section 5), Avraham intuitively knew what his wife’s response would have been had he asked her to accompany him to Mt. Moriah. When confronted with their misbehaving child, the parents have to forcefully grab their son out of his home environment and drag him to the elders at the gate of the city (Deuteronomy 21:19). Their act is one of upholding the rule of law. Avraham also has to leave home and embark on a journey to the location that God has indicated for the sacrifice. However, the destination in Avraham’s case is a mountain top, far from civilization and established social structure (Genesis 22:2). Sacrifice to God, it would seem, is best offered out of the gaze of onlookers to ensure that the motivation is pure. The parents of the ben sorer u-moreh are silent and do not speak with their child as they escort him to court. Avraham, on the other hand, has an oblique but tender conversation with Yitzhak, perhaps hoping to prepare him for what lies ahead, perhaps to reassure him that everything will work out well in the end (Genesis 22:7-8). Finally, the end of the stories differ dramatically — the wayward son is stoned to death while Yitzhak is saved and tragedy is averted. The comparisons between the two texts are outlined in the following Table.

Textual feature

Ben sorer u-moreh

Akeidah

Hearing/listening/obeying

The son does not hear/obey his parents

Avraham hears and obeys the commands of God and the angel

Parents

Father and mother

Father alone

Action

Grab the son from home

Journey together from home

Destination

City gate and court

Mt. Moriah, no people

Conversation

None

Father-son dialogue

Outcome

Son is executed

Yitzhak is spared from sacrifice

To this point, the texts seem very divergent. The Akeidah is a story of a shared mission and love of God, the law of ben sorer u-moreh is a case of filial rejection, conflict, and rupture. However, there is a deep commonality in the two stories. The moral glue that holds both narratives together is the potential killing of a minor and it is this imminent violence that has caused so much anxiety among readers of Humash.

I propose that we view the chapter of the Akeidah in the same way some read the chapter about the ben sorer u-moreh. The Rabbis recognized the moral quandary created by this juvenile law. This is evidenced by the urgency to rationalize the harsh punishment with the assertion that it was justified based on the inevitable outcome, nidon al shem sofo (Sanhedrin 71b). To limit its impact, they turned to the details in the text and created a dense thicket of conditions to limit its potency. Based on midrashim which required the parents to be of the same height, to speak with an identical vocal sonority, which defined to the milligram the amount of food to be stolen and eaten, and limited the vulnerable period to a fleeting moment in the adolescent’s growth, one Tanna, Rabbi Yehudah, concluded that the ben sorer u-moreh “never was and never will be.” This conclusion is reinforced by Rabbi Shimon, who asserted that it was implausible that two parents would ever agree to hand over their delinquent son to the court merely because of fears of what he might become in the future (Sanhedrin 71a).

Similarly, I suggest that the Akeidah raises terrifying questions about man’s faith obligation to God. Therefore, it could only occur after a specific 3-day journey by donkey, with father and son walking in lock step synchrony, covering a distance within a millimeter to a mountain with defined humidity and visibility, using a specific brand of knife and self-kindling wood, in an area with vegetation that can trap rams, and where an angel speaks when the father’s arm is at a defined acute angle. In brief, it never happened and it never will. Instead, the Akeidah could be interpreted in a Maimonidean fashion as a prophetic vision. Maimonides himself states that the command from God and its revocation by the angel were voices internal to Avraham, in line with his general view of prophecy (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:24). However, Maimonides in other places shows a willingness to interpret entire episodes, such as Avraham and the three angels, as prophetic visions (Guide to the Perplexed 2:41-44). This approach can be applied to the Akeidah as well. This vision was necessary for Avraham’s ethical development but was not an actual historical event. Alternatively, one could argue that the circumstances are so circumscribed and the event so singular that it cannot serve as precedent for mundane ethical conduct.

So why do we learn about the Akeidah and the sugya of ben sorer u-moreh? In the words of Rabbi Yehudah, the answer is to study and receive the reward. Nevertheless, we study the texts not simply for vicarious interest. The overall themes of these sections are supremely important and timeless. The perennial dilemma of balancing obedience to God and ethical behavior to man was not discovered by Avraham. The challenge of being a responsible parent and rearing morally competent children is highlighted by the first couple to walk the earth. Adam and Eve must have done some serious soul-searching for how they failed as parents, for reasons why one of their sons could have been so provoked by jealousy to murder his brother.

However, the question remains, namely, why is killing a minor, violence to children, such a central element in the Akeidah episode and in the law of ben sorer u-moreh? Although ancient cultures considered child sacrifice an authentic means of showing devotion to the deity, the Torah unequivocally rejects these idolatrous practices. It repeatedly condemns the practice of offering a child to Moloch as a paradigm of worship of false gods (Leviticus 20:2-5). For us, it is unthinkable to sacrifice a child for any personal reason or private cause. Similarly, pre-emptive punishment of a black sheep child is unacceptable. People are convicted and punished for crimes committed, not crimes anticipated. Furthermore, in both Rabbinic and modern legal codes, minors are judged separately and are spared harsh punishment for even serious crimes in the hope that they can be rehabilitated and lead moral lives as they mature.

There is another commandment that some of the Rabbis included in the category of “never was and never will be,” namely the law of ir ha-nidahat, the idolatrous city.[3] Again, one reason those Rabbis reached this conclusion was because they created so many boundary conditions, that ultimately the law was rendered inoperative. However, there is an aspect of the law that is discussed in detail in the Tosefta Sanhedrin (Chapter 14, Halakhah 3) and that is relevant to this discussion. There is an anonymous opinion that the children of the idolators are not killed while Rabbi Eliezer asserts that they are. Rabbi Akiva supports the anonymous opinion, claiming that this sparing of children is a manifestation of divine mercy. Rabbi Elchanan Samet has suggested that the requirement to slaughter the minors who lived in the idolatrous city, following R. Eliezer’s opinion, and codified by Rambam in the Laws of Idolatry (4:6), may have represented an insurmountable moral dilemma for some of the Rabbis.[4] Therefore, it is conceivable that, in addition to the specific reasons outlined in the Gemara, this unsparing prerequisite led these same Rabbis to conclude that ir  ha-nidahat could not be an actionable law. This echoes R. Shimon’s reservations about the credibility of the law of ben sorer u-moreh. The law of the ir  ha-nidahat epitomizes the challenges of policing moral standards on a communal level. However, like the Akeidah and the ben sorer u-moreh narratives, the potential for violence to children hovers over the ir  ha-nidahat and provoked efforts to limit its force and, for some, even move it into the category of “never was and never will be.”

The extreme tension created by the potential for violence to the pediatric members of society in the Akeidah and ben sorer u-moreh texts serves to highlight the essential educational role of these two episodes in cultures committed to living life in the shadow of the divine. The potential killing of a child or young adolescent serves a pedagogical function. The looming death focuses the mind on these moral concerns that have plagued humanity from day one – how to balance obedience to God and man and how to balance love of family and obedience to the law. Although violence is never the solution to these problems, the possibility is always there. Killing may be unavoidable when the moral fabric is torn or it may tragically be necessary in very rare instances when its integrity is threatened. This is the rationale for self-sacrifice when commanded to murder someone else, commit adultery, or engage in idolatry. It is the defense of just wars. Nevertheless, these are exceptions and men and women need to be cognizant of the destructive force of violence, especially to children, as they form communities of faith and growing families. Avraham’s behavior in response to God’s command to sacrifice Yitzhak and the parents’ willingness to proactively entrust their delinquent son to the court are often viewed as acts of sanctification of God’s name. However, in principle, this supreme sacrifice is only required when a person is asked to commit murder, violate sexual norms, or engage in idolatry and devolves on one’s own self. It was not meant to sanction the sacrifice of another person. If anything, were such a situation to occur in real life, one could argue that Avraham should have offered himself for God to do with as He wished, offering up his own life as proof of his devotion rather than consider sacrificing Yitzhak. Similarly, any parents who voluntarily bring their kid to be tried as a ben sorer u-moreh should be prosecuted for botched child rearing. Regardless, the potential to use other people, especially dependents, as a means to prove loyalty to God or establish parental authority should give people reason to pause and rethink their moral calculus.

In conclusion, we engage with the Akeidah and ben sorer u-moreh narratives to learn how to address ethical dilemmas, large and small, that arise as we strive to lead religious lives. There are multiple moral problems raised by these texts including whether divine commands can be verified, whether they can mandate violation of human ethics, the infallibility and intelligibility of divine law. The complex way that the Rabbis dealt with these texts highlights the extremity of the circumstances in these two cases. In this essay, in the wake of Koller and Halbertal, I have explored the mortal danger to children that they signify. I suggest that the potential for violence that permeates both narratives is not meant to be directed at minors per se. Instead, it is intended to raise the stakes by illustrating how innocent children can be caught up in our efforts to demonstrate our faith in God and the Halakhah. People may consider self-sacrifice but should not countenance the sacrifice of another, especially a minor, as an act of divine sanctification or to demonstrate their obedience to law. The narratives remind us of the threat to the viability of communities if men and women fail to pay attention to their obligations to God and to their children and how to keep the two in balance.

Thanks to David Fried (Lehrhaus editor) for his careful read of this essay and his many thoughtful comments and suggestions. 


[1] http://www.thetorah.com/article/the-maimonidean-akedah.

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1985).

[3] The law of the leprous house was also deemed by some to be a case that was only theoretical. However, I will not take it up because it is not relevant to the current discussion.

[4] Elchanan Samet, Studies in the Weekly Parashah (Second Series): Vayikra-Bamidbar-Devarim (Hebrew) (2005), 382-8.