Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Akeida

The binding if Isaac, the story of how Abraham prepared to slaughter his son after being commanded to do so by God has been interpreted for nearly two millennia as the quintessential example of total submission to God’s Will, and of the exemplary suspension of one’s own sense of morality in the name of God’s Word as expressed in the Bible. Such is a common line of reasoning, still heard at the pulpit today.

A few questions: Firstly, from a Jewish perspective (the Hebrew Scriptures are after all – Jewish), is a “good Jew” really supposed to suspend his sense of morality? Is it not a principle in the Talmud that the Law “is not in Heaven”, namely that it is man’s responsibility to build, with his own judgment of right and wrong? Surely Abraham SHOULD be using his moral compass, and therefore should have refused to murder his son.

Secondly: What are we to make of the apparent contradictions in the text?

1) Abraham is told to sacrifice his son but the place of the sacrifice is not given to him until after 3 days of traveling.

2) God (Elokim) tells Abraham to sacrifice his son but an Angel of Lord (YW) stops him.

3) Abraham tells his two servants to expect both Isaac and himself to return after prostrating themselves to the Lord.

4) After being stopped, Abraham is rewarded for “not withholding his son”.

Before addressing these points, one should be aware of how Judaism’s greatest Orthodox Rabbi, Moses Maimonides explained prophecy in his book – The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides views the stories about God in the Bible to be anthropomorphic in nature, to the extent that ‘God said to Abraham’ really means ‘Abraham understood’. Prophecy for Maimonides is intellectual revelation of truth (incidentally he viewed scientists to be a certain part of the way towards prophecy). In any event, ‘God speaks’ should be understood as the Prophet hears something new which is true. Maimonides does not discuss the fact that had Abraham gone ahead with child sacrifice he would have been a murderer, but he does explain a line of reasoning that existed in the act for Abraham, namely that this would be service of God without reward, since the only reward Abraham wanted in his life was to have a son from his wife.It seems according to Maimonidean prophecy, that Abraham had reached a point where he had to know whether child sacrifice (prevalent at the time) was indeed the true way.

This is further indicated by the incomplete nature of the initial command – “take him to a place that I will show you” or namely – “travel with Isaac until the truth becomes clear”.The incomplete nature of the initial command, and the fact that when he did finally “see the place” (or understand what was true) he told his servants that both Isaac and he would return (the implication is – both return ALIVE) strongly suggest Abraham had made up his mind not to go ahead with child sacrifice. This is also indicated by his response to Isaac, when asked where the sacrificial animal was – “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering” or namely – it will become clear that there will be an animal not a human sacrifice.

But what are we supposed to make of Abraham’s actually binding Isaac, and lifting the knife “to slaughter his son”?

Although the text uses language of determination here (after all, it doesn’t just say Abraham lifted his knife, it adds the purpose “to slaughter his son”), it should be noted that this is where the story reaches it’s climax. It is now that Abraham has his name called twice (a Biblical sign of God’s Love, or as Maimonides would say, a new level of intellectual revelation). Some commentators say that Abraham was now testing God – but either way, it is only at this point of final action that Abraham can see this was not the true path.

Incidentally, we don’t hear from the Angel of the Lord who stopped him again until Moses and the burning bush, and some see Moses’ prophecy as a direct continuation of Abraham’s. Also, Abraham is not recorded as having spoken to God or Isaac after this harrowing story.Finally, what of the reward given to Abraham?

In verse 22:12 the Angel of the Lord tells Abraham that he will become a great nation specifically because he did not withhold his son. Doesn’t this imply that the text is suggesting there really was nothing wrong with the initial command and that it was only though God’s grace that Isaac was saved?

In Maimonidean terms, no. Abraham is being rewarded for what he was willing to give up for what was true. Had he concluded that child sacrifice was correct, he would have done the difficult deed. But this is the story of his discovery that child sacrifice was not, in the end, the true way.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pinchas and Religious Violence

The Torah tells us that God rewarded Pinchas killing and Israelite man and a Midyanite woman who were copulating in public. Numbers 25:8:

an Israelite man brought to his companions a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman's body.

The Torah was written at a time when less eyebrows would be raised at this act of violence - but today, the question of whether Pinchas was right to kill the two lovers is impossible to ignore. Some interesting attempts at answering the problem come from the Midrash, from psychology and from the Ishbetzer Rebbe. The Midrashic approach sees Pinchas' spear as a phallic symbol and the psychological approach sees violence as the opposite action to sex, both here. For the Ishbitzer, the verses describe a tragic love story, here.

The question remains a strong one, however.

In attempting to understand the justification that the Torah gives Pinchas' actions, I think it should be noted the verses continue immediately to describe end of the devastation that was being caused:

Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; Those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

Thus the Torah actually puts Pinchas' action in a specific context for us - it was an action that saved lives. In Numbers 25:11 and 12, it is this saving of lives that is explicitly implied as being pleasing to God, and what makes Pinchas worthy of reward:

The LORD said to Moses, "Pinchas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites because he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites."

Thanks to Avram Piha for pointing that out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A dark two years

This week, the loved ones will know that Kuntar will be feted to a hero's welcome staged by Hezbollah, whose claims to being a religious organization, stain the word religious with a level of sadism that is astonishing, reaching new levels with every gloat by the torture master who calls himself a spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Bradley Burston on Hezbollah and the prisoner exchange

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sadam, Yoni and I

Middle-aged Sefardi men and hot-shot Arab teenagers don't always see eye to eye. Forget about politics, I'm talking about basketball.

Pick up 3 on 3 at the
Gan usually involves waiting one's turn to play, and choosing your other two team mates from the losers, or from those who are also waiting their turn on the side. Yesterday, I ended up playing with Sadam and Yoni, and to be honest, we made a damn good team.

But before I picked these two six footers to do all my dirty work (rebounding and driving), a word about the tension on the court just 15 minutes earlier. Sadam had been playing on a team with a middle aged Sefardi guy who made no secret of his displeasure of Sadam's inability to pass (it was a fair point to be honest). But he took it too far. Maybe because he was an Arab, or maybe just because, he shouted at him in front of everyone. What's worse, Sadam took it very badly. I was impressed with his response though. After being humiliated, he shouted back: "I give you the same respect I give my father! He would never talk to me this way in front of other people! I'm not playing with you!" And he stormed off the court.

Nothing short of free food would hold up a game at the Gan, and surely soon enough they found a replacement for Sadam and continued to play. But I felt uneasy. The guy was really upset, and to be honest, apart from him being right to be angry at being humiliated, I don't think it is ever a good idea to let an Arab walk away from Jews feeling like he was wronged by them.

I sat down next to him, and without meaning to get political I said, "listen, sometimes even when you are in the right, you have to continue..." I didn't add - "I'm not talking about the Middle East you know?" but it was OK, he appreciated having me on his side. When it was my turn to play, I asked him to join my team, and spotting a group of short Chareidi boys still wearing their black trousers and white shirts waiting their turn on the side, I quickly turned to one of the members of the losing team, Yoni, (6ft 3 " and wearing shorts) and asked him to join us.

We were unbeaten for a good few games - we won in style - I felt like I'd made peace in the Middle East. Then Yoni had to go back to Efrat, and non other that Mr Sefardi guy, the source of Sadam's anger was the only person available. "Yallah" I thought. I asked him to join us. They both hesitated, then smiled and shook hands and we started. There was no shouting this time, but I think I finally learnt what it means to be the pointguard (playmaker) on the team - in my efforts to keep them both happy I hardly took a single shot!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pagan Gods in 2008

Here's an article from the Telegraph about CJ Kanuha, a surfer who took on the waves caused by lava flowing from a live volcano (click the picture to make it bigger). The water was so hot it caused the wax on his board to melt and he also sustained light injuries.

But what struck me most from the article was the offering he made to a Hawaiian godess of fire called Pele. In the words of his photographer:

"Not leaving an offering could have resulted in bad luck, a value that most native Hawaiians strongly believe in"

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Chukat: Wandering Jews

It seems the Jews have been wandering around for a long time indeed. This week's Parsha, Chukat, has two stories about Jews asking for rights of passage and being refused:

First they ask Edom (descendants of Jacob's twin, Esav) to pass through their land, but are refused permission:

"Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory. But Edom answered: "You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword." The Israelites replied: "We will go along the main road, and if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to pass through on foot—nothing else." Again they answered: "You may not pass through."

and then, after a detour:

Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: "Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway until we have passed through your territory." But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the desert against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the story of the St Louis, the Havana bound ship containing 936 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. First, the Cubans said no, then, the U.S and Canada also denied them entry. Eventually, Hitler's foes (the U.K, France, Belgium and Holland) took them in.

There are claims on Wikipedia that the purpose of Germany's sending the St Louis across the world was to demonstrate that the world agreed that the Jews were an unwanted problem. The passengers were given asylum, (and apparently their fate is unknown) but the humiliation suffered was of historical proportions.

Of course, the parallel between the St Louis story and this week's Parsha is not wholly accurate. In Parshat Chukat the Jews are fully capable of fighting Edom, but choose not to. Also later, when the Amorites attack, Israel chooses to fight and wins.

But then again, 9 years after the St Louis story Israel did decide to fight, and also won. So perhaps the parallel isn't such a bad one after all.

Korach: No losers when arguing about the truth

A very nice quote from Jonathan Sacks about Parshat Korach:

When you argue about the truth, even when you lose you win.

He also compares Korach's rebellion to the political opportunism used in the Russian Revolution. I love historical examples that parallel the Torah's stories.

The short Dvar Torah can be heard here.