Forsythe and Abraham - RH Second Day - 5779
A few years ago, my wife bought us two tickets to a dance performance one Saturday night. This is not unusual. My wife was a dancer for several years, and I generally like the dance performances, although we sometimes have a deal that for every dance performance I go to with her, she attends a sporting event with me.
We went to see the dance company of William Forsythe, an avant garde modern dance troupe from Frankfurt. Forsythe’s dance is kind of founded in principles of classical ballet and post-modernist deconstructivism and performance art and the exploration of political themes , all things that I can get on board with, in the right circumstances. And overall, the performance was fine and I didn’t mind, until one piece came along that I absolutely hated, and as a result, I never want to see a performance by William Forsythe again.
The piece came in the middle of the performance. A man walks onto the stage. A woman is there, seated behind a desk. The woman begins to describe a bombing. In the background, modern electronic music plays in a sort of unattached and chaotic manner. The man begins to lightly sort-of-walk-dance around the stage, as if avoiding things. The man returns to sit. The woman stops speaking. The music stops. The woman stands up, and begins something like the same speech she just gave, except now, she’s screaming, and speaking backward. And by that I mean, she screaming nonsensical words that sound like words in reverse. The man stands and prances about again. The atonal chaotic music returns, louder than before. Then it stops. The man goes back to stepping lightly around the stage and mimes picking up things. Each time he stoops, he announces “a piece of a bumper here, a finger there, a bit of scalp here, a school textbook here” and so forth. Some more music plays, and the piece ends.
I hated it because it was viscerally unpleasant. Which, I am fairly certain, is entirely intentional. I hated it. And yet it was extremely memorable. Now, personally, I don’t really go to the theater or to a performance or to be made unhappy and uncomfortable. But I recognize that sometimes in life, we need to experience discomfort in irder for things to be brought into focus.
I tell this story as an introduction to the parasha for Rosh Hashanah second day; the story of Abraham and Isaac going up Mount Moriah. I will confess something to you: I have not given a sermon on this story in my entire 12 year rabbinic career. And that is because of the simple fact that I do not like this story. I do not like the events of it. I do not like several of the potential messages of it. I do not like many of the ex post facto rationalizations of it.
Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, traditionally referred to as ‘Akeidat Yitzhak’ or ‘the binding of isaac’ is classically understood by medieval commentators to be linked to Rosh Hashanah because it is principally about Abraham’s supreme faith in God. According to this understand, we are to glorify and praise Abraham because he trust so firmly in God that he would murder his only son if God commanded it. Abraham is, according to this interpretation, the paragon of faith, and this story was put on this date by the rabbis of the 3rd century to remind us to trust in God, the one true judge. A sub-rationalization of this same idea from some commentators is that Abraham knew that God would never ask him to sacrifice his son, and so the entire exercise is a kind of weird performance in which all the parties know how it’s going to go down in the end, but they pretend otherwise. In both of these understandings, God is testing Abraham, and the fact that Abraham raises the knife over Isaac before being commanded to stop means that Abraham passed the test.
Another interpretation that is commonly given by some contemporary rabbis is that Abraham actually failed the test. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was supposed to say “What are you, nuts? No way. Find some other schmuck to be your cultist. I’m joining the Philistines or the Hittites or some other tribe that doesn’t require infanticide.”
There’s another interpretation by biblical scholars that, at least in it’s time and place, the story was actually quite progressive. At the time, the scholars say, human sacrifice was widely practiced. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a repudiation of human sacrifice - a note to ancient peoples and to Jews, that from here on out, we Jews don’t do this kind of thing.
Lastly, there are many intriguing midrashim about the binding of Isaac story that add elements to make it more palatable. A midrash is a retelling of a biblical tale by later rabbis with additions or amendments to the original story. If you’ve ever seen ‘Wizard of Oz’, and have also seen the later musicals ‘The Wiz’ or ‘Wicked’, then you know what midrash is. There is a series of midrash in which it is not God that asks Abraham to go up the mountain with the intent to sacrifice Isaac, but rather Satan that is whispering in Abraham’s ear to do the terrible deed.
There are some other interesting interpretations in this vein worth exploring. One take that I like is from the Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who wrote that although it was hard for Abraham to bind Isaac on the altar, it was just as hard to release him, because Abraham realized that Isaac would remember that his father had tried to kill him for the rest of his life. In fact, from this point in the Torah onward, we never see Abraham and Isaac speaking with each other again.
A similar understanding of this moment comes in regard not to the near-death of Isaac, but to the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. In the Torah, the next mention of Sarah after the near-sacrifice is her death. According to Midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer:
“When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan became infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham. What did he do? He went to Sarah and asked: ‘Did you hear what happened in the world?’ She answered, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.’ Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died. Abraham came only to find that she had died.”
These two understandings - the first where Abraham and Isaac never speak again, and the second where Sarah thinks that her husband would sacrifice her son, and it kills her - the two share a common theme. In both, the incident of the binding of Isaac is a tragic mistake - a moment in the world of brokenness which shatters a family. This family is devastated by this moment, and they never recover.
In all of these examples, we are asked to wrestle with a difficult and uncomfortable story. A contemporary rabbi, Steven Leder, has offered an interesting opinion on this notion: that just as the bible often offers us instruction on what *to* do, sometimes it is telling us what *not* to do. He pointed to the Akeidah story as just that. The Akeidah story, he said, is child abuse, plain and simple. And even if it was originally intended to demonstrate how Jews don’t practice child sacrifice or that Abraham was a man of great faith, it’s a terrible story that is only in the Torah today as a historical marker for how backward we were 3500 years ago.
There is much precedent for this idea of the Torah as a flawed document whose principles are no longer universally relevant. The text also tells us of the ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ - the ben sorer u’moreh - who is to be taken to the town gate and stoned to death by the community. This law was rendered in-operable way back in the days of the Talmud, 2,000 years ago, and yet Torah scribes still dutifully write the words of that law into our sefer Torah. Over the past fifty years we have come to understand that the biblical understanding of male homosexuality as ‘an abomination’ and a mortal sin is also repugnant and pre-modern. Human beings were created with a variety of different traits and inclinations, and a significant percentage feel no attraction to the opposite sex. We have not struck that line from the Torah either, although Conservative Judaism also doesn’t think homosexuality is illegal or immoral in the slightest.
Outside of the Torah, the same principle exists of retaining in-operative laws on the books. Article 2, section 1, clause 3 of the US constitution states that ‘In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.’ And yet we all know that Hillary Clinton is very much not Donald Trump’s vice-president. The 13th amendment calls for the abolition of slavery, and yet lines in the constitution referring to the return of fugitive slaves from one state to another as well as the counting of slaves as 3/5ths of a person for purposes of census have not been excised from the document.
In other words, we may find certain things morally repugnant, and yet they remain in place, even if we derive no wisdom from those words anymore.
I don’t know if I agree with Rabbi Leder. I don’t know how I feel about looking at the Torah as an example specifically of “what NOT to do”. By the same token, I do not look at the dance performance choreographed by William Forsythe and say ‘that is not dance.’ I don’t like it. But it is dance. I don’t like it. But it is Torah.
And that is where I am left with Isaac and Abraham. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. I do not know what lessons I am to derive from its existence or the cantors recitation of the story. It simply is an uncomfortable thing to experience and reflect upon, like an afternoon in a room with no air conditioning. Sometimes in life, we are meant to be discomforted. It ain’t all peaches and cream.
We ponder the ugliness or the yuckiness or the immorality and it reminds us , perhaps , to hold fast to the good and the holy and the righteous. Like biting into something bitter, it might allow us to better appreciate the things in life and the stories in Torah that are sweet and meaningful.
Moreover, at this time of year - when we recite ‘who will be comfortable and who will be discomforted’ - we ourselves are impelled to discomfort ourselves. We are told by the rabbis that the shofar is meant to wake us from our slumber, that it calls ‘hittoreri, hittoreri kumi oori’ - stir awake, stir awake, get up and arise. The Akeidah does the same thing. It tells us to be uncomfortable - with the story, with the world, and with ourselves. Don’t be passive about the ugly things. We can’t cut them out of the past, but we can work in future to make sure they do not recur again. We are commanded to apologize for our past mistakes and to try to do better in the future. We are commanded to fix the world and not turn a blind eye to its faults - through charity and volunteering and raising our voice in protest or in voting for candidates with good moral intentions.
We are uncomfortable with this story of the past, the Akeidah. Let it mirror our discomfort for our world, and ourselves, that we may create a better story for ourselves in the future.