In addition to all the virtual students with whom I have corresponded , the number of real students I have met in Jerusalem continues to grow; I hope to continue to be able to meet students when they are in Israel. This past week, unlike the previous week, there were virtually no comments, I suspect that the reason in part was due to the fact that, in addition to delays in transmission and reading, Masada does not hold the emotional charge it once did and that matters connected with the Bible tend to more provocative in general, which may be the case again this week, though not only is the phone company on strike but all of the phone lines are becoming disabled which may slow down communication.

This week I will take the biblical story of the Akedah, in which, as reported in Genesis 22, after being commanded to do so by God, Abraham bound his son Isaac and attempted to slaughter him, and I will trace how subsequent generations of Jews understood that story, embedded it into their culture, acted upon it.

The Biblical Account

(for a Bible see

This biblical story, perhaps the most challenging of all, has produced much commentary and explanation, most of it aimed at rationalizing what appears to be both an extreme request on the part of God, excessive diligence to fulfill it on the part of Abraham, an incredibly passive response on the part of Isaac-who is no mere babe, and total silence on the part of the other spectators.

Most explanations focus on the fact that God's request for Abraham to offer his son up as a burnt offering is prefaced by the expression that this was a test. Conventional wisdom, therefore, quietly adds the sense of the word "only" before the word "test" because most are unwilling to see God as really testing somebody by expecting the slaughter of a son, but only seeing how far he would go. Such discussions then usually trot out all sorts of notions about Judaism being a religion of life, that such behavior is un-Jewish, and that child-sacrifice is abhorrent in the Bible (For a classic presentation of the apologetic position connected with any aspect of the Bible and subsequent Jewish life, see the comments in the J. Hertz's Soncino edition of the Humash, especially his Additional Notes at the end of each of the five books of the Torah, on the Akedah, see p. 201).

This course, however, is premised on the idea that Jewish experience cannot be characterized by any one simple notion, and Judaism with its myriads of levels of textual and interpretative development as well as conflicting social and cultural patterns can never be glibly characterized as being for or against anything, whether we like it or not. Thus an honest reading of the Bible and Jewish culture requires reading them against our own preferences.

In the matter of biblical child sacrifice, several authors have recently explored the phenomenon in depth, especially Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son; but see also James Williams, The Bible, Violence and the Sacred; and Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred and the Scapegoat, who, while creating interesting categories of analysis, is unwilling to apply them consistently to Christianity as well as Judaism.

According to Levenson, in Exodus 22:28-29 God simply states: ". . . The first born among your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks. . ." Whatever the word "give" means, it is done for both human and animals and no mention is made of any form of substitution, an idea that only appears in Exodus 34:20 where the firstling of an ass and humans are redeemed with animals. A similar request for the first born is made in Exodus 13:1-2, which is also followed by the opportunity for an animal substitution in verses 12-15. In the book of Numbers, however, instead of animal substitutes for the human firstborn, God asks for the Levites to be His (Numbers 3:11-13; 8:14-19; 18:15).

While in other places, there are strong condemnations of child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10), fulminations that would be unnecessary were such a practice not prevalent, there are instances where child sacrifice was reported, often in a matter-of-fact manner, sometimes even with approval. For example, 2 Kings 3:27 reports that Mesha, the king of Moab, offered his heir as a burnt offering to avert the danger of an Israelite invasion. In other words, the biblical author of the account accepts the efficacy of the deed, noting that the sacrifice produced a great wrath, ketzef, which seems to have been external to the actors in the story, giving the impression that the sacrifice influenced a divine force to act on behalf of Moab.

Hebrews and Hebrew kings also practiced child sacrifice. In 2 Kings 16:3, the king of Judah, Ahaz, made his son pass through fire, a practice elsewhere associated with "molech" (2 Kings 23:10), but often not . This practice was regularly condemned by the prophet Jeremiah, " which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into my mind" (Jeremiah 19:5-6); ". . . with fire that I did not command and which did not even enter my mind," (Jeremiah 7:31-32 and also 32:35). A condemnation so excessive and so defensive-God has to disassociate himself personally from such sacrifices-- that, according to Levenson, "The prophet does protest too much." This discussion raises the question whether, contrary to conventional wisdom and most translations, Molech was the name of a pagan deity, as most would like to believe, or the name of a sacrifice offered to God by the Hebrews as members of any other people would do in the ancient near east, a phenomenon illustrated in several other prophetic passages:

1) The Hebrew of Isaiah 30:33 directly associates molech/melech (the same consonants in both words-the vowels were added much later) with God himself, but translations often dodge this fact by rendering the term as king instead: "For a fire (tofteh, usually tofet, translated in Jeremiah as a proper noun of the place were the burning takes place), has been arranged, also it is for molech (often read as melech and translated as king) is prepared; a deep bonfire of fire with much wood, the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, burns it." Thus here the Lord is directly associated with stoking the fire which will consume the Assyrian enemies of Israel.

2) In Ezekiel 20: 25-26 seems to acknowledge that God ordained human sacrifice, unaccompanied by any reference to the option of substitution, a fact that He comes to regret: "And I also gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live. I defiled them with their very gifts when they set aside every first issue of the womb, in order to destroy them so that they might know that I am the Lord." Thus, here destruction of human life is associated with God's desire for recognition.

3) In Micah 6:6-8 similarly raises the possibility of child sacrifice: "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow down before God on high. Should I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Does the Lord want a thousand rams, with myriads of rivers of fat? Should I give by oldest son as a sin offering, the fruit of my belly as a sin offering for my soul?"

The questions thus become not whether in the Bible child sacrifice was not acceptable, but under what circumstances? If it was to the Lord God was it acceptable, as long as it was not to other gods? Was child sacrifice part of a popular religion but shunned by the official religion? Where the laws of the Bible against this as in other matters actually followed? Three stories bear out these questions:

1) In the book of Judges chapter 11: 29-40, after the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, he made a vow to the Lord, fighting wars to consolidate Israelite territory, that if the Lord allowed him to prevail over the Ammonites, that: "the one who goes out that will go out from the door of my house to welcome me on my peaceful return from the Ammonites shall be for the Lord and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." After he won and returned home it was his only child, an unnamed daughter, who greeted him first with drums and dances. When he saw her he tore his garments as a sign of mourning and expressed his great consternation that his vow was irreversible. She seems to recognize his position and asks for two months in the mountains with her female companions to bewail her virginity. At the end of the agreed upon period, the Bible reports that "she returned to her father and he did to her according to the vow that he vowed and she never knew a man." Depending how this is punctuated (punctuation was added much later), it could be read to indicate that he either offered her up as a sacrifice or he fulfilled his vow by depriving her of a sex life, committing her to some sort of biblical Jewish nunnery in the mountains, a prospect that is heightened by the last sentence fragments of the story which tell that it became a law in Israel that for four days every year young women went to bewail Jephthah's daughter. What is not clear is whether they all went at the same time or separately and whether she was among them or not. In other words, whether sacrificing her sex life served as a substitute for burning her as an offering.

2) In Exodus 4:24-25, a story that is not part of most religious school curriculums, God tries to kill either Moses or his son. Tzipporah, Moses Midianite wife, therefore picked up a piece of flint, circumcised her son, and threw the bloody foreskin of her son at "his feet," meaning either Moses or her son, an act which saved the endangered person whom she called "a bridegroom of blood." This story shows in an important way that God does seek the death of people and that the blood of children has a redemptive quality.

3) In Genesis 21: 9-19 Abraham, this whole discussion about child sacrifice started with him, was prepared to sacrifice his oldest son, Ishmael, the son of his concubine Hagar. Because the presence of the child, born to Abraham and Sarah as part of a surrogate arrangement, now offended Sarah after her own son, Isaac, was born, she wanted the child and its mother expelled, a request that bothered Abraham until God told him to listen to the voice of his wife and that he would make a great nation of this son as well. So Abraham got up early in the morning, gave Hagar and Ishmael some bread and water and sent them into the wilderness of Beersheva, in the days before there were any gas stations and convenience stores along the route. Soon the water ran out, which Abraham must have expected, and Hagar prepared for the death of the boy, until God intervened.

These stories bring us back to the Akedah, a story which can be seen as affirming the necessary quality of sacrifice for receiving God's promises. In this story there seems to be nothing in the text that argues against child sacrifice, that questions how God could make such a request, or that shows that the biblical writers disapproved of it. In fact, it could be argued that the text represents Abraham as quite enthusiastic about sacrificing his son. Abraham got up early in the morning, as he did with his expulsion of Ishmael; for more than three days he traveled with Isaac to the appointed place, certainly having plenty of time to mull over what he had been asked to do; asked the other servant boys not to go up with them, leaving no room for any sort of human intervention; and required the angelic messenger to call him twice to stop the sacrifice, showing how involved he was in starting the sacrifice. Twice God noted that Abraham had not withheld his son from him. Finally, raising the possibility that Abraham may have actually sacrificed his son, at the end of the story Abraham returns to Beersheva without Isaac.

The Akedah in the Midrash

The midrash reflects subsequent Jewish views of the Bible. Aspects of the midrash on the Akedah have been collected in two very famous, elegant, and insightful works by Shalom Spiegel, first in his Hebrew article, "Me-aggadot ha-akedah," which appeared in the Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume and then in his The Last Trial, an English book in which the Hebrew article was translated.

Spiegel demonstrates that already in the earliest generations of rabbinic development the understanding emerged that Abraham had actually killed Isaac, or at least drew his blood, burned him until his ashes remained on the alter, and then Isaac was revived from the dead. Isaac's sacrifice served as atonement for the sins of the Jewish people, aspects of Hebrew ritual which Spiegel saw as rooted in the ancient biblical commandments to sacrifice the first born.

This rabbinic understanding of the Adekdah met two needs of the Jews during the early rabbinic period. On the one hand, this was a period of persecution by the Romans in which many Jews died. The story of the Akedah gave their deaths meaning. On the other hand, this was the period in which Christianity rose. The Akedah provided a biblical, Jewish, myth to match that of Jesus who died and was resurrected as atonement for sin, although Spiegel tried to argue that all these views can be dated to Jewish texts prior to the advent of Christianity, a view that I am not sure that can be supported. The image of Isaac carrying the wood up the mountain like one carries his own cross strikes me as influenced by Christian imagery (Genesis Rabbah 59). Furthermore, that the Akedah was chosen to be read on Rosh Hashanah, the second day of the New Year, confirms that it had an overwhelming message for the Jews, a fact no less startling than the reading of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Thus in the course of the Holiday Abraham tries to kill off both his sons.

The Akedah in the Piyyut

One of the purposes of this course is to introduce various aspects of Jewish cultural creativity. One of the richest, although not without controversy, has been piyyut. The Hebrew word piyyut is based on the Greek word for poetry. Piyyut, which began to appear in the land of Israel in around the fourth century CE, constituted poetic reactions, often based on midrash, to biblical stories, especially the sacrifices, various prayers in the prayerbook, and subsequent events in Jewish history. Piyyut uses rich, imaginative language that is so creative it is almost enigmatic. One view of the development of piyyut understands it as a form of biblical exegesis when study of the Torah was banned by the Romans. Most piyyut was only preserved by accident in the Cairo Geniza, a medieval storehouse for worn out manuscripts, some was included in the text of the prayerbook. During the medieval period Jews around the world continued to write more restrained Piyyut, usually reflecting the poetic styles of the country in which they lived. In Spain, under Islamic influence the Hebrew poets there made a major break from the tradition of piyyut to produce rhymed and metered poetry that drew almost exclusively on the vocabulary of the Bible, a trend that was continued in other Islamic countries and then in Italy, especially under the influence of Renaissance poetic genres. During the nineteenth and twentieth century enlightened Jews, maskilim, made fun of the arcane language of piyyut and modern Jews, both Reform and Orthodox, began to eliminate much of this cultural treasure from the prayerbook, although some is still found in the High Holiday prayerbook of every movement and makes great fun to decode when the services tend to drag.

The three main ancient payytanim, those who wrote piyyutim, known by name were Yose ben Yose, Yannai, and Eliezer Kalir, although very little is known about them. Many other anonymous payytanim wrote as well, among them the author of a piyyut on the Akedah (T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, pp. 201-202). This piyyut stresses the religious quality of the commandment to sacrifice Isaac, the haste with which Abraham followed the commandment, and the salvific quality of the act, even though it ended with the sacrifice of a ram instead of the boy: ". . . your boy as a fragrant offering I desired - - how he observed the commandment, not delaying at all! He quickly split the wood. . . offering up a lamb, taking in his hand a sword, he showed no mercy. . . Accept, God, these ashes, remember us with his covenant, consider us his Akedah, answer the affliction of our soul."

The Akedah and The First Crusade

The First Crusade, called for in 1095 by the pope as a way for European Christians to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims who had conquered it, produced the immediate, unintended result of a series of violent, unprecedented, popular attacks on Jewish communities, particularly in the Rhineland. In the course of May 1096 Jews in Worms, Speyer, and Mainz (Mayence) were slaughtered or forcibly converted and in some cases they chose to take the lives of their loved ones and then their own, often in the form of ritual human sacrifice. Narratives and poetry from the period graphically reflect the influence of the Akedah on Jewish reactions to the Crusades.

In an anonymous dirge on the Martyrs of Mainz (Carmi, p. 372-373), the language of the biblical story of the Akedah is mixed with the descriptions of martyrdom (kiddush ha-shem, sanctifying the divine name), and ritual sacrifice: "Young men went forth, each from his room, to sanctify the great name, because today he tests his chosen ones." Rabbis extended their necks to be slaughtered and a mother bound (not, however, using the same root as Akedah) her child and the father said a blessing on the slaughter. Mothers strangled their children and brides kissed their new husbands and ran off to be slaughtered. The analogy to the Akedah is made explicit when the poet asks why, with so many being bound and destroyed, the angels are not interrupting it this time.

David bar Meshullam of Speyer (twelfth century) wrote an even more graphic dirge on the massacres, chosen death, and ritual slaughter, mixed with a call for vengeance, with even more explicit references to the Akedah (Carmi, pp. 374-375). The central theme of his poem is the ritual quality of the bloody acts of self immolation, regularly drawing on the same root as the word Akedah, performed by the Jews. The poet noted that the original Akedah has a power to protect the Jews, but now the number of sacrifices multiplies. It is important to note that writing in Germany he used Hebrew metrical forms from Spain, a sign of expanding cultural influences on the Jews of Germany. He also wrote his rhyming poem using a double acrostic, every two lines begin with the same Hebrew letter moving through the alphabet in order, then an acrostic that spells out his name, more or less-probably altered because various editors did not realize what he was doing. Thus, this was a cultural artifact based on a variety of aesthetic criteria. Even writing about self-immolation, the poet was very careful about the form his work took and imposed challenges on his writing that heightened his display of artistic virtuosity.

The major poem about subsequent ritual sacrifices in the Rhineland was written by Ephraim of Bonn (1132-1200), chronicler of the Second Crusade of 1145-1149, and featured in Spiegel's work (Carmi, pp. 379-384, for those following the Hebrew and the English in Carmi, in this poem (only) the columns of Hebrew do not line up accurately with those of the English.) Stylistically, this poem was written as an Atbash acrostic, in other words, each line (every two lines in this printed version), begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order going both forwards from Aleph and backwards from Tav, hence the expression Atbash (Aleph, Tav, Bet, Shin). Each hemistich , half line, also rhymes with the next. This poem retells the story of the Akedah in great detail emphasizing Abraham's enthusiasm to fulfill the divine commandment to sacrifice his son. Adding a dash of local color to the story, it identifies Mt. Scopus as the place from which Abraham at the end of the three days of travel had seen where he was to perform the sacrifice-Mt. Moriah, presumably the Temple Mount-now the Dome of the Rock, which still can be seen very well from Mt. Scopus. The key to this poem is the fact that it explicitly states that Isaac was aware of what was going to happen to him, blessed the Lord, and asked that his ashes be taken to his mother. Abraham then, after pinning him down, ritually slaughtered Isaac. Then, not only is Isaac resurrected by God, but his zealous father tries to slaughter him again, causing the Lord to have to call out to him a second time. Once his son had been accepted as a sacrifice by God and transported to the Garden of Eden, he then offered up the ram. Afterwards, the father and son met again and prayed together that their deed would atone for the sins of future generations of Jews.

In the course half-century after the First Crusade, three different Hebrew prose chronicles were written. This is in and of itself an interesting cultural phenomenon for two reasons: 1) these were the earliest Hebrew chronicles produced in western Europe and 2) it took several generations until a chronicle of a tragedy of such a scope could be written-a phenomenon paralleled by the appearance of Holocaust studies after a similar amount of time (These texts have been translated into English in books by Shlomo Eidelberg and Robert Chazan). These chronicles described the events of the First Crusade using the term Akedah when parents sacrificed their children, "as Abraham bound Isaac his son" as well as the death of any Jew, "Has there ever been 1100 akedot in one day, all of them like the akedah of Isaac the son of Abraham."

One of the most touching stories of the period is found in the Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson, (Eidelberg, pp. 39-41). The story is about a Jew who accepted baptism and, unlike his wife and father, survived the massacre of the Jews of Mainz, Isaac the son of David, who then carefully planned his own death as atonement for his behavior during the massacre. After recovering lost treasure, he hired workers to repair his father's house, especially the doors that had been smashed in. He then gathered his family together, locked the doors and asked his children if they wanted to be sacrificed to God, to which they consented Then, in the synagogue, at midnight, he slaughtered them to sanctify the divine name and sprinkled their blood on the pillars of the ark where the Torah scrolls were kept, asking that their blood atone for his sins. He then burned the house with his mother in it to sanctify God's name. Throughout this narrative he is referred to as either a saint or as a pious person. He then set fire to the synagogue and, despite pleas from Christians to save his life, he died in the flames, as the narrator assures us that he has ascended with the righteous to the Garden of Eden.

The Adekah in Modern Hebrew Literature

The chronicles of the First Crusade were fully published only during the 1890s, as the 800th anniversary of the events approached. At this time a young, rebellious Hebrew poet named Saul Tchernichowski (1875-1943) had moved from a Russian village to the cosmopolitan setting of Odessa on the Black Sea where he attained a broad secondary education with particular strengths in languages and literature as well as science. Influenced by socialism and Zionism, he turned to a critique of traditional Jewish culture. One of the vehicles he used to convey his emerging views was his poetic retelling of the Crusade chronicle tale of Isaac ben David of Mainz, renaming him Barukh of Mainz. This Hebrew epic was finally published in 1902 and made a momentous impression, becoming a central piece of the canon of modern Hebrew poetry and an anthem for the new emerging Zionist critique of Jewish life (See the translation in Eisig Silberschlaag's book on Tchernichowski and Alan Mintz's discussion in his book Hurban.) What is important for our understanding of the development of Jewish culture around the theme of the Akedah is that Tchernichowski changed radically the emphases that he placed on the version found in the sources. In the Crusade chronicles, children are killed to sanctify the divine name. For Tchernichowski, they are killed as part of an overwhelming desire for revenge against Christians.

This poem starts out with Barukh addressing his dead wife to complain that the Jews have been abandoned by God, to describe his conversion, and to tell how he slaughtered his two daughters, who, unlike Isaac, not mentioned explicitly, did try to fight back against him. He then devotes much of the poem to cursing the Christians and calling for revenge against them, which caused the work to be censored in Russia. The poem is filled with descriptions of blood, but for Tchernichowski, unlike his medieval predecessors, the blood is not of sacrifice but of revenge. He then describes his burning the city down and his great glee, ending with his allowing a nest of swallows to burn in the conflagration rather than trying to save them-a repudiation of a value often stressed in Jewish texts concerning showing kindness to animals.

Tchernichowski was a leader in a movement among the Jews of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century called the Kulturkampf, inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), who rejected western civilization as a decadent slave mentality of humility, weakness, and unnatural morality. He looked to the superman who would affirm life, passion, creativity and called for a transvaluation of values from those of the herd to the will to power. During the 1870s the German Chancellor Bismark launched a Kulturkampf against the Catholic church whose power he felt threatened the state and German unity. The Russian Hebrew poet Judah Leib Gordon (Yalag, 1830-1892) was one of the first to apply Nietzschean values to Jewish culture, attacking the rabbis and prophets for causing the ruin of Jewish political strength. Saul Tchernichowski continued this tradition in Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and finally in Palestine. Because he had a child out of wedlock with a Russian princess in Germany, the rabbis of Palestine did not want to allow any streets to be named after him, something which the casual observer to any Israeli city will notice that they failed to do.

The Akedah in Modern Jewish Culture

In Israel, with so much of the culture based upon both regular and almost universal military experience imposed upon the youth as well as wars serving as decisive markers in cultural developments, the Akedah continues to be a powerful theme in contemporary discourse. Much, but not even all of the literary references were presented in a 1988 Prooftexts article by Ruth Karten-Blum in which she made references to further extensive symposia on the subject. To tie this week's lecture with last week's, the poetry of Isaac Lamdan, most remembered for his monumental work on Masada, describes what will become a major theme in Israeli secular consciousness, "We are all bound here, and with our own hands we brought wood here . And don't ask if the sacrifice will be accepted!" This theme is continued in the poem by Haim Gouri, "Yerushah" (Inheritance, Carmi, p. 565). He was born in Palestine and was one of the leaders of the Palmach generation of poets, those raised in secular Hebrew culture who fought in the 1948 War of Independence. Gourni wrote, "But that moment he (Isaac) bequeathed to his descendants. They were born with the knife in their heart." Similarly, in the famous soldiers' discussion produced during the Six Day War of 1967, The Seventh Day, Siah Lohamim, (though recent studies have shown that the work has been altered in the translation), reference is made to the role of the Akedah and the sacrifice of children in the wars: "These are moments when a man is given a greater insight into Isaac's sacrifice. Kierkegaard asked what Abraham did that night. What did he think about? God didn't tell him to take Isaac out and sacrifice him right away. He was told to take him the next morning. He had a whole night to think. And Kierkegaard asks what he thought about during the night. It's a question that touches on the very meaning of human existence. The Bible says nothing about it. . . . For us, that night lasted six days. We thought: now we've sent our boys away and tomorrow we'll get the awful news" (p. 262).

By contrast, published about the same time, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, touches on similar motifs of child sacrifice, with some fascinating role reversals, without actually mentioning the biblical text:

"So my mother sits down in a chair beside me with a long bread knife in her hand. It is made of stainless steel, and has little sawlike teeth. Which do I want to be, weak or strong, a man or a mouse?

"Doctor, why, why oh why oh why oh why does a mother pull a knife on her own son? I am six, seven years old, how do I know she really wouldn't use it? What am I supposed to do . . . for Christ's sake . . . I believe there is an intention lurking somewhere to draw my blood! Only why? What can she possibly be thinking in her brain? . . . because I will not eat some string beans and a baked potato, point a bread knife at my heart?

"And why doesn't my father stop her?"

In Israel, at least according to literature up to the present, the threat of death comes from an external enemy. In the United States, the threats to Jews are only internal because they have no outside enemies. This may be why the introspective, psychological element looms larger in the Diasporan culture than in the Jewish country and why much of Israeli culture is based on adversarial relationships, which seem to become more vicious as external threats subside.


These texts, not marginal, but produced by the leading representatives of Jewish thought from Tanakh to Palmakh, show the power of blood and sacrifice lurking at the center of the Jewish experience. Jewish culture continued to be vibrant-each of these texts was a literary masterpiece in its day-not despite the violence expressed, but precisely because of it. Understanding the charge that these texts carry requires suspending some of the values that we may have adopted from western culture. One of the challenges facing Jewish culture today is how to, on the one hand, enliven it in the Diaspora where it is no longer imbued with a sense of blood and sacrifice, and, on the other hand, how to tame Israeli culture which still responds viscerally to every minor matter in these momentous categories, leaving themselves both emotionally exhausted and out of step with the emotional pace of Jewish life abroad.






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30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0