Torah in Its Time
Rosh Hashanah 5776
September 14, 2015 – 1 Tishre 5776
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
This morning, we’ve read perhaps one of the Torah’s most challenging passages. The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, which has become the Reform movement’s traditional Torah reading for the morning of Rosh Hashanah, details the near sacrifice of Abraham’s younger son, Isaac – incidentally, Sarah’s only son – and God’s command to Abraham to carry out this seemingly horrific act. A lot of ink has been spilt over trying to understand this text, covering everything from a seemingly unacceptable request on God’s part to a test of Abraham’s faith to a challenge of Isaac’s silence throughout the ordeal. The near sacrifice of Isaac makes us ask how God could demand such a thing of Abraham? What would possess Abraham to agree? Why does Abraham protest the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but say nothing about the pending sacrifice of his own son?
As unclear as the text is in many regards, it is clear on one thing. The Akedah is a test. We often add the word ‘only’ because we aren’t willing to think that God would actually ask Abraham to slaughter his son. So, we tell ourselves, it is only a test. We want to believe that God’s request is un-Jewish, that Judaism is all about life – our Yom Kippur Torah reading will tell us, “Choose life!” – but the truth is that we cannot really say that Judaism is for or against anything, because there is so much variety in the texts of our tradition. So, we have to ask ourselves, what is the message of the Akedah? What is the Binding of Isaac trying to tell us?
In Christianity, this story is about God’s ability to bring Isaac back from the dead. In Christian text, and in some Jewish text, as well, Isaac is actually sacrificed. Abraham comes back from the mountain alone, after all, and God resurrects Isaac. Christianity sees this as foreshadowing for the resurrection of Jesus. But that is not what this text means for us. In Islam, this text is all about submission to God’s will. Abraham and his son – in the Qur’an it is unclear whether it is Ishmael or Isaac – both submit to God’s will and when the son realizes what’s going to happen, he encourages his father to continue. Though there are echoes of this in Jewish text, this, too, isn’t our message. So what is?
Some have asserted, as I will share with you this morning, that the Akedah is “God’s way of proclaiming … opposition to human sacrifice.” There’s nothing in the Akedah that firmly argues against child sacrifice. Abraham seems to agree, even getting up early in the morning, traveling a three days’ journey with plenty of time to change his mind, and leaving the two servants behind so that they cannot protest. Even the angel has to call out to him twice before he stops. While there are those who oppose this theory about the Akedah – we’re Jewish after all, of course there are – let’s explore this for a moment.
Abraham is in a land where the local people engage in the human sacrifice. Even Torah asserts that human sacrifice is a possibility. Biblical scholar Jon Levenson writes that in Exodus, God says that the first born among your sons you shall give to the Eternal. The same is true for cattle and flocks. The same rule applies to both animals and people and there is no mention at that point of any kind of substitution that can be made. Elsewhere, Torah allows for substitution and eventually, we develop the tradition of pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of the firstborn by which the firstborn son is redeemed from Temple service. Leviticus and Deuteronomy both speak out against child sacrifice, but there are other places in the Hebrew Bible where it takes place.
It is possible that in the Akedah, Abraham makes a declaration to accept God’s laws and God makes a declaration not to accept human blood. If, as I’ve just mentioned, there are places in Torah where the text implies that firstborn males belong to God, perhaps in the same way that animals, which will be offered as a sacrifice do, and there are other places where child sacrifice actually occurs, then how can the Akedah be a text that speaks out against human sacrifice? In the 13th century, Ibn Kaspi writes that this story is not just about uprooting the practice of child sacrifice, but also about Abraham’s disapproval of it. In Ibn Kaspi’s writings, Abraham plans to offer a ram in place of Isaac even before he spots the ram in the thicket. With this interpretation, all of a sudden, both God and Abraham on are on the same side, both standing against human sacrifice.
“In rabbinic literature, tensions can be generally observed between the need to emphasize the significance of the Akedah and, at the same time, to preserve the prophetic protest against human sacrifice.” In the Talmud, the Sages teach, based on a verse from Jeremiah, that God did not demand the sacrifice of the son of Mesha in Second Kings, of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges, or of Isaac in this morning’s Torah reading. So, we simultaneously see texts that create an opportunity for human sacrifice, those in which it actually occurs, others that create an out, and still some that assert that it was not God’s intention. How do we reconcile this?
There are plenty of texts in Torah that we need to read in the context of their time. Torah allows for all sorts of practices we wouldn’t fathom today and throughout our text are references to a time that doesn’t resemble our own. Still, we find meaning in Torah. Torah permits slavery. It would seem that a people just free from Egypt, where they were slaves themselves, would know better than to perpetuate slavery. But when we look at the laws of slavery in Torah, many of them restrict the ways in which it can be practiced. Perhaps God permits slavery in Torah because it is the first step in outlawing it in Judaism all together. All the Israelites know when they cross the Sea of Reeds is slavery. To eliminate it in one fell swoop would pull the rug out from under a people likely already in trauma. God begins to place restrictions in order to move them towards a higher ideal, one in which slavery is no longer permitted.
The entire sacrificial system is foreign to us, yet there is still meaning in it. Our ancestors in the days of the Temple would have observed this day with sacrificial offerings. How would you feel if that were part of our worship today? I’d hardly be excited about it. Still, the sacrificial system created the foundation of our worship practice today and sacrifice was replaced with prayer. The sin offerings, the thanksgiving offerings, and the peace offerings became our prayers for forgiveness, our words of gratitude, and our requests for peace, so learning about them in the context of their time can help us to understand these prayers in our own lives.
There’s plenty that we miss when we don’t understand the historical context of the Torah narrative. When Rebekah dresses Jacob in a goatskin in order for him to feel more like his hairier brother, Esau, so that their father will give Jacob the blessing instead of Esau, Rebekah is using an old shepherding trick, one that modern shepherds still use today, but one that would be lost on us. Ewes, on occasion, when they give birth to lambs, especially in the case of triplets, will reject one of their young. Shepherds will skin a stillborn lamb and place its hide on the rejected lamb, sending over to the mother of the stillborn, who will smell the hide and believe that the lamb is her own. Then, she’ll nurse it and the lamb will survive. The original audience of Torah and its authors would have recognized this in the scene with Rebekah and Isaac, but it is lost on us if we don’t understand Torah in its time.
The problem contemporary readers have with Torah is that we’ve been exposed to Biblical literalism. Today’s Torah text, even in the Hebrew, is just one of many versions, even if it is the one that we have accepted as authoritative. Most people engage with its text in translation, which is, in and of itself, an interpretation. Literal interpretation of our texts creates serious misconceptions. If we don’t take the Akedah literally, if we accept that perhaps it never actually happened, then what it tells us today is what matters. Even the ancient Jewish sages, who believed Torah was divinely authored, understood it to be filled with metaphor and symbolism.
Torah is filled with material including – beyond laws, narrative, and history – myth and legend. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut described myth as the stories that explain our existence, such as the tale of the Garden of Eden that explains why we die. He taught that legends are the sagas of the past and part of our folk memory. We can’t dismiss myth and legend as irrelevant just because they aren’t history. “Keep in mind that the Torah not only speaks of history, but has made history by helping to shape human thought.” Our task today, with the Akedah and with the whole of Torah and Jewish text, is to understand it in the context of its time so that we can find its message for us in our time. Shanah Tovah.
“Akedah,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 1, pp. 555-560
Fuchs, Stephen Lewis. “Chapter VI: Abraham: God’s Covenantal Partner,” What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, 2014.
Goodman, James. “Understanding Genesis 22: God and Child Sacrifice,” MyJewishLearning.com
Plaut, W. Gunther, “General Introduction to the Torah,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005, pp. xxxvii-xliii.
“The Akedah and History: Child Sacrifice and Redemption,” The Jewish Agency for Israel, www.jewishagency.org/jewish-culture/content/25449.
 James Goodman, “Understanding Genesis 22: God and Child Sacrifice,” MyJewishLearning.com.
 Exodus 22:28-29.
 Exodus 13:12-15.
 “Akedah,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 1, p. 556.
 W. Gunther Plaut, “General Introduction to the Torah,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005, p. xl.