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The Binding of Isaac and the Beatles

The chapter of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, is no doubt the most problematic one in the entire Torah, raising thorny problems, theological, ethical and covenantal. How are we to understand the notion of a God who tests the faith of “Abraham His lover” by demanding that the latter sacrifice his own son, born after decades of barrenness, and who was meant to continue the covenant that his seed would be a “great nation,” “as numerous as the stars” and as “the sand by the sea,” and who would in due time “inherit the land of Canaan”? There is an unbearable contradiction between what we are taught about God elsewhere, as the very source of all that is good and just and righteous, and what He demands here—what the Danish theologian Kierkegaard called the “theological suspension of the ethical.” And even if, as we readers know in advance from our familiarity with the story, God intended all along to halt this cruel and barbaric human sacrifice at the crucial moment, what does it say about Abraham’s faith? Was he truly a “knight of faith,” or a fool who equated faith with blind obedience to the cruelest, unethical and self-contradictory commandment?

Rivers of ink have been spilled in attempting to understand this problem, and I would not suggest that I have any new solutions to this knotty dilemma that has taxed the best minds over the centuries. On another level: the Akedah is seen in our tradition as the model for Kiddush Hashem—for the willingness of Jews to die in order to sanctify God’s Name. Particularly at those junctures in which Jewish faith was placed to the test—during the First Crusades and at other periods of Muslim or Christian religious fanaticism and persecution, when Jews were confronted with the awful choice of either foregoing their faith or being put to death, Abraham at Mount Moriah was seen as a model of heroism for Jews who were called upon to emulate his single-minded devotion. Here in Israel, some speak of the Akedah—often ironically—in secular terms, as a model for parents who send their children to fight, never knowing whether they too may end up as “sacrifices” for the homeland.

Many years ago, John Lennon of the Beatles wrote a song called “Imagine”:

Imagine there’s no heaven / Its easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today / Oh-oh.
Imagine there’s no countries… Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too/ Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…
This song may have been the closest thing to an ideological manifesto of the Beatles and the 1960’s youth culture for whom they served as spokesmen of a sort—if you will, a kind of anthem for the “hippie nation.” What they (or should I say we—I include my younger self in this movement) saw in the adult world was mostly racism, economic exploitation, war and bloodshed motivated by national or religious differences. Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if all these artificial differences between people were to miraculously disappear? If all the people were to live “for today.” Then the world would live in peace. As the song concludes:

You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope some day you’ll join us /And the world shall live as one.
One line in this song—“nothing to kill or die for”—seems diametrically opposed to the ethos implied by the Akedah, raising a crucial question: Is there anything worth dying for? Is life—meaning, in the end, the individual’s life—dear at all cost? Are there any absolute principles, ideas so central and cardinal, that one must die rather than violate them? Are there any actions so reprehensible, that one must avoid doing them even at the cost of one’s own life?

I think of the generation that preceded those of us who grew up in the ‘60s—the generation that fought against Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, which at times refers to itself as “the Great Generation” because of the qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice called for by that struggle. To the Beatles generation, the concept of the existence of forces so evil that one must do battle against them, was unknown—doubtless because of the dubious justification for the War in Vietnam, which dominated that era. The credo was that people are basically the same, that everyone want the same things from life, and that it’s only the leaders who, for their own diabolical, power-driven reasons, set one group against another.

The Jewish tradition has its own, rather definitive answers, to the question, “Is there anything worth dying for?” The Talmud in Sanhedrin lists three mitzvot for which “one should be killed rather than violate them” (éäøâ åìà éòáø): namely, bloodshed, sexual license (i.e., incest, adultery, and the like), and idolatry. Interestingly, two of these three are social–ethical mitzvot, in the sense that they relate to the Other: i.e., taking another person’s life and violating another person’s sexual integrity. But the last of the three is at once the most cardinal and, doubtless, the most problematic in terms of the ethos underlying Imagine: denying, even for temporary expediency, even to external appearances, one’s loyalty to the God of Israel. This is, in a sense, the crux of the lesson of Akedat Yitzhak, and it is that which, in the end, distinguishes the ethos of the Akedah from that of the ‘60s.

* * * * *

A supplement on the occasion of the seventeenth Yahrzeit of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, which falls this Sunday night and Monday (16th Marheshvan), will follow later today or after Shabbat. For readers living in Jerusalem: an evening dedicated to his memory, including a panel discussion, live music, and dancing will be held at Yakar, 10 Lamed-Heh Street, at 8 pm Sunday evening.

Comment by jack

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