My three-session class, now called The Many Faces of Abraham, has now expanded to five lessons. The first two were “The Call of Abraham” and “The Midrashic Abraham.” The one I am working on next is “The Muslim Abraham,” and next week (I hope) is “Sarah and Hagar,” while (if all goes to plan) the last class is “The Akedah and Its’ Aftermath.” The rabbi is being very tough on my work, but maybe there is a reason for this. I mean, beyond his wanting to see me put out a good class. I did mention to him–foolishly, as it turned out–that if I did a particularly good job, I might be able to edit the book and send it to a less up-scale version of Jewish Lives. I have my doubts whether this is really possible, though. I mean, I have no particular degree outside of a bachelor’s in history at a small Protestant college. Anyway, I will do my best with the class.
One thing I have gotten out of this is that I feel like I am really learning about the Biblical and post-Biblical personality of Abraham. He is truly a man who is “many things to many people,” to Jews the Jew par Excellence who discovered God and kept Kosher; to Christians the first convert to God’s religion even before Jewish law was given to Moses; and to Muslims the original Muslim, who received the Quran whole before it was lost by his descendants. To all of us, Abraham was a seeker after Truth. Yes, whatever Abraham stood for, everyone wants to claim it. It is his mystique.
As I write about this story, I think about what it means to me, because for me it is more than just a story. I know, intellectually, that it probably began as a legend at one time, handed down by pious Jew to pious Jew, before it hit pen and ink on a sheep skin scroll. Yet to me that moment of Abraham’s Call by God is more than just a story about a man in the Bible: it is my story, because I was a convert. In fact, it was almost chance that I sought to leave so much of my previous life behind to become a Jew. I was talking to Dr. Golden in her office when I called Judaism an “ethnic religion.” She told me this was wrong. She said that Judaism was a “universal faith,” and that if a person went to the Jews, they would accept them. I had already left Christianity, mind you. This has only turned out to be partially true: I have learned to accept that there are Jews, including “cultural Jews” that don’t always “get” why a newcomer would want to be accepted. Yet in reality, in college I had a friend in my rabbi and my new people that I didn’t have anywhere else except in my teachers at school. Part of this was my mental illness: people at my college didn’t always understand why I was sick. Jews have a greater tolerance for personal eccentricity than Christians, in my experience. The point is that I really seemed finally to find my heart’s home in the Jewish people.
Anyway, I am working my way to the climax of Abraham’s life, the Akedah (“the Binding of Isaac”). The Akedah has been compared to the ultimate sacrifice that a person can make for God. In fact, modern people–largely in reaction to Kierkegaard–have been repelled to the barbarity of the act. Who could literally sacrifice their son to God? Yet if you only accept that it was a profound act of love, that as one Hasid put it, “Abraham’s heart was filled with joy even as there were tears in his eyes,” than you will see the beauty of the Jewish spirit. If you accept that Abraham loved his son deeply, but that in Abraham’s awe of the Creator, Abraham will make any sacrifice, no matter how much it hurt, then you will see the beauty of the story.
And God in the story rejects the extremity of the sacrifice. After Abraham, nobody is allowed to sacrifice a child, because if it is not allowed of Abraham, nobody else is allowed to do it, either. The idea is that in the Canaan where it was first told, there was some–not a lot–of human sacrifice. Yet God spoke to Abraham in the story so Jews would know it was unlawful to make that sacrifice to God or any other. Yet there is a powerful beauty that transforms a merely polemical story into a story about parenthood, piety, and love. True love, it implies, has no limit. The love of an Abraham will not say “no” to God even for the son he loves more than his own life.
According to Jon Levenson, this story was interpreted for both Jewish and Christian martyrs, with the martyr dying the way the “son” in the story was willing to die. Today many Jews find this disturbing: Why did the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust go meekly to their graves? Yet it is hard to say how they could have escaped the Nazis to a person who was not raised Jewish. They ask more tellingly: Why would a God who loved His people allow them to die that way? My only answer is that though it was a terrible fate, and there was no glory in it, if we let go of our traditions, we are sacrificing what they wanted to destroy in us. Elie Wiesel wrote that he could not see good in the Akedah, and that he wanted Job in the Book of Job to get a real answer. Yet Elie Wiesel never let go of his belief in God even as he protested to God. Jews have the right to protest: Abraham protested the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses argued with God all the time; and David on the issue of Uzzah’s death (Uzzah died trying to save the Ark of the Covenant). Yet all of the three of them believed finally there would be an answer. Jews have to believe in that answer in order to be Jewish. Or at least, I do. I may not know what it is, yet. But it exists.
That is why I still believe in Abraham, spiritual seeker and primary human acter in the Akedah.