The binding of Isaac… and Ishmael

Life is sacred. It is not just meaningful, though it is that. Nor is it simply beautiful, although it can be. Life is sacred. Given by God, uniquely to everyone in existence, with a specific purpose. Our lives – the lives of everyone in this room, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t – are loving gifts from our Creator. With them, we can either repair or destroy the world.

I hope that we’ll be able to come out of this Holy Day season more aware of the sanctity of our own lives and of everyone else’s. spiritual ideals to the fore. But whose lives are sacred? Whose lives do we truly value, and whose lives do we treat as disposable? It can be harder to see the sanctity in some lives than it is in others. It is harder – perhaps hardest – to see sanctity in the lives of people we don’t know. There are people we forget and erase before we’ve even had the chance to see God’s spirit in them.

The Torah portion for this week, the Aqedah, is an example of such a problem. One line sticks out for me in this parashah. In this story of the patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son on the altar, it is perhaps the most troubling. It seems innocuous at first. But I keep coming back to it, and the more I come back to it, the more it bothers me. The text says:

Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.[1]

Take your son, your only one… The text says that same phrase three times. When the angel intervenes and speaks to Abraham, we hear:

Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For I now know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.[2]

Your only son…

After Abraham sacrifices a ram in the place of Isaac, the angel speaks again:

Since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…[3]

Again and again, ‘your only son.’ But that’s impossible! Abraham does not have only one son. Isaac is the younger of two children. Abraham has an older son, Ishmael. In only the immediately preceding parashah, Abraham sent away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Has he forgotten them already?

This problem has bothered rabbinic commentators too. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers up a story:

“But I have two sons,” Abraham said.

“Your only one,” was the reply.

“But each is the only one of his mother!”

“Whom you love,” he was told.

“But I love both!”

“Even Isaac.”[4]

The conversation he puts in Abraham’s mouth is really the conversation of the reader with the text: doesn’t Abraham have another son whom he loves? How can Ishmael be erased so flippantly and insensitively from the text? Rashi suggests a number of solutions:

Perhaps lest Abraham’s mind reeled under the sudden shock. Further, to make his command more precious to him. And finally, that he might receive a reward for every word spoken.[5]

Yes, God is speaking like this to calm Abraham down. If he just blurted out: “Go and kill Isaac!”, Abraham might not have had the strength to do it. So God breaks the commandment down, gently feeding him each bit. But Rashi’s answer doesn’t tell us the most important detail: what on earth has happened to Ishmael?

Some rabbinic commentators have tried other approaches. Some suggest that we could translate יְחִֽידְךָ֤ not as your only one, but as your favourite one.[6] But the root of the word יְחִֽידְךָ֤ is אחד – one, and it doesn’t mean favourite in any other context. We can only really translate it that way if that’s what we want it to mean. And is that what we want it to mean? Do we want to think of Abraham, the father of all nations, as choosing a favourite between the children that will create Judaism and Islam? Does it actually make the text that much better?

Not only is God asking Abraham to kill Isaac, but God has already erased Ishmael. Can that really be true? Is that the God we believe in and worship?

It bothered me so much I went for lunch with a Muslim friend to ask him what he made of it. How did his tradition, that holds Ishmael in such high regard, deal with this troubling passage? I asked: “what does your tradition say about the binding of Isaac?”

“You mean Ishmael?” he said.

“No, no,” I said, “Isaac, who Abraham takes up Mount Moriah to sacrifice.”

“Ishmael,” he countered, “who Abraham takes up Al-Haram…” He grinned at me. “I know your tradition says something different…”

It was so funny. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Islamic story might be different. We took out a Quran and read the story as it appears:

Abraham said, “Indeed, I will go to where I am ordered by my God; Who will guide me. My God, grant me a child from among the righteous.”

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him favourable mention among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.”[7]

It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? But there’s a new problem: this text doesn’t mention Ishmael either. It doesn’t mention Isaac, but it doesn’t mention Ishmael. In fact, it turns out that in the early days of Islamic jurisprudence, the interpreters were undecided. 135 authoritative readings said it was Isaac; 113 said it was Ishmael. But gradually the weight shifted, and by the 10th Century, everyone agreed that it was Ishmael.[8]

So here we have two contradictory traditions: a Jewish tradition that erases Ishmael and an Islamic one that erases Isaac. What do we do with this? How can we reconcile these stories?

I think the Tosefta, that first text of rabbinic commentary, offers a compelling answer. The sages were dealing with a problem of two contradictory schools of thought – the House of Shammai said that a room was unclean and the House of Hillel said a room was clean. The Tosefta reaches this conclusion:

Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.[9]

David Hartman, a rabbi from the Bronx in New York, suggests this means we need to be able to hold multiple contradictory ideas at once. Whereas Western philosophy tries to drive everyone to one conclusion at the expense of all others, Jewish thought teaches that all words about God are words of God. Judaism teaches us to sustain and embrace contradiction.[10] We learn to build a heart big enough that it can include all voices, especially the voices that we might want to drown out.

So perhaps that’s an answer to my problem. We need to reconcile these two contradictory stories: Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, and so was Ishmael. Isaac was Abraham’s favourite son, and so was Ishmael. Both a source of blessing, both blessed, both their lives sacred, both our traditions sacred, all stemming from one God.

The Torah says that Isaac was Abraham’s only son because, in a way, there only ever was one son. That one son was both Isaac and Ishmael. Some Christians say that the sacrifice of Isaac prefigured the crucifixion of Jesus, or represented it.[11] Yes, let us include that truth too. Rather than try to erase difference, let’s embrace the tension of contradiction and recognise what is sacred in every story. The message is the same in all of them: a rejection of violence, opposition to the sacrifice of human life, reverence for the God who created us all.

I think this religious analysis has some important political implications. Two years ago, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, published a book called ‘Not in God’s Name’. The theology of it was subtle and beautiful. He used stories like those of Isaac and Ishmael to suggest that all people were meant for their own blessings. He extrapolated this to thinking about religion: that nobody should make an exclusive claim to truth – that Jews, Muslims and Christians should all be able to respect one another.[12]

But from this solid foundation, Jonathan Sacks went in a troubling direction. He said that people should not try to make exclusive claims to truth, and then focused most of his book on criticising Muslim terrorists for doing that. Of course, I agree with his opposition to such terrorism. But given that his book was inevitably going to be read almost entirely by Jews, shouldn’t he have said more to challenge his own community? In the way he set it out, it felt very much like he was accusing everyone else of carrying out violence, without acknowledging that we, too, are imperfect. Such rhetoric only encourages division and continues the cycle of hate.

It turns out that Jonathan Sacks did not just make a rhetorical error. Earlier in the year, he recorded a film for Mizrachi Olami, a far-right religious nationalist party in Israel, where he encouraged Jews all over the world to join the organisation on a march through Jerusalem.[13] This is an annual march, drawing thousands of people, who run through the Palestinian part of the city in the east, intimidating residents and shouting racist slogans. On this day, shops close and streets clear as people prepare for violence.[14] Under pressure, Jonathan Sacks eventually agreed that he would not actually march with the group, but continued to produce promotional material for them.[15] I have to seriously question what this does to suggest that different religions can be blessed, or that all lives deserve respect.

I think that if we are going to build a heart of many rooms, it must at least be big enough to accommodate the grievances and frustrations of Palestinians. We must be able to see how we can be oppressors, as well as victims. We must confront all the contradictions that living in this modern world involves.

I spent August studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. It is a place that really confronts you to deal with contradictory truths. I spent my days in a university where I learnt so much and met so many exciting people. On my breaks, I’d stare out over the garden. That university overlooks a refugee camp, full of high-rise buildings, crowded with people who have been stateless since the War of 1948, and surrounded by a concrete separation wall.

I found myself feeling safer wearing a kippah than ever before, and at the same time so much more uncomfortable. I quite like wearing the kippah in England, where it feels like a symbol of difference, personal piety and a reminder to live up to the best expectations of others. In Jerusalem, where the religious-right are in power and wield religious symbols to trample on the rights of various people, my clothes took on a new meaning I didn’t like. I know of one rosh yeshiva, a rabbi heading up a study-house in Jerusalem, who wore only half a kippah, to reflect the conflicted place he felt, torn between the religious and secular worlds, externalising his inner turmoil.

I want to be able to live with these tensions, but it is not an easy feeling. Maybe that’s necessary. Dealing with contradictions means being uncomfortable. There is something frightening about truly believing that life is sacred. It means knowing that we are special, unique and placed here by God. But it also means acknowledging that this is true of everyone, including of people whose stories might contradict ours.

This year, may we build hearts large enough to include those stories, and all stories of struggle. May we learn to see the sanctity in all lives and, above all, may we find a way to peace.

Shana tovah.

ram

[1] Gen 22:2

[2] Gen 22:12

[3] Gen 22:16-17

[4] Soncino 108

[5] Soncino 108

[6] Sefaria; JPS

[7] Qur’an Surah As-Saffat 37:99-111

[8] Reuven Firestone, ‘Journeys in Holy Lands’, pp. 153-151

[9] Tosefta Sotah 7:7

[10] David Hartman, ‘A Heart of Many Rooms’

[11] e.g. Jung, ‘Answer to Job’

[12] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZr_lsT6vkE

[14] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.791549

[15] http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.789728

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