Even Chen, A. The Binding of Isaac: Mystical and Philosophical Interpretation of the Bible

A. Even Chen, The Binding of Isaac: Mystical and Philosophical Interpretation of the Bible (Hebrew). Tel Aviv, Yedioth Ahronoth: 2006. Pp. 253. No ISBN; no price. *

I have been studying the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 22) for as long as I can remember and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the range of the interpretational literature until I read Alexander Even Chen’s new book on the subject. The Akeda (from the Hebrew for “binding”) is only nineteen verses long but it has produced a whole library of poetry, short stories, art, and music, as well as commentary. Even Chen, instead of presenting a review of the exegetical traditions, has given us a typology of readings of this well-known biblical narrative.

After a brief introduction, Even Chen deals with the Akeda in the literature of Hasidei Ashkenaz (northern Europe, during the Christian crusades). Rabbi Elazar of Worms, following the rabbinic midrash, sees in this story the hand of Satan (read, the crusaders) who is totally vanquished by Abraham (read, the Jews). Isaac is petrified into silence. He is killed, resurrected, and is about to be slaughtered again when the angel stops Abraham. He, then, goes to heaven until he is healed. (Read, the Jews killed in the crusades will be resurrected and healed.) Sarah, upon hearing what happened, chokes and dies. This reading of the Akeda is mirrored in the horrifying poetry written at that time that depicts fathers slaying their children, as Abraham slaughtered his, so that the crusaders would not defile them.

Even Chen next deals with the philosopher’s reading. Maimonides (d. 1204, Egypt) maintains that the Akeda never actually happened. Rather, the story is part of a prophetic moment. It is a metaphor for an event that happened in the consciousness of Abraham who, at the beginning of the Akeda, is in a dream state (level four of prophecy) and, at the end, has advanced to speech-with-an-angel (level eleven). In this latter state, Abraham realizes that the Divine would never want child sacrifice, an error he had made at the beginning of the story in a lower state of mind. The Akeda, thus, is a lesson in intellectual perfection. It also has a political moral: that, ultimately, love and fear of God are embodied in obedience.

Even Chen then approaches the Akeda from the point of view of the Zohar (c. 1293, Spain) in which the Akeda is also interpreted as a moment in spiritual development and praxis. Abraham’s leaving Mesopotamia and wandering in the Holy Land is interpreted as his search for his true character as the embodiment the sefira of Hesed (grace). However, after arriving in the south (Hesed), he still cannot effect tikkun (rehabilitation of the Divine) because he has no identification with the sefira of Gevura (judgment). In the Akeda, Abraham experiences extreme judgment, even replying brusquely to Isaac’s question. This enables him, then, to combine Hesed and Gevura and generate Tiferet (mercy). In that combination, he effects tikkun. As such, Abraham serves as a model for all theosophic meditation. (I disagree with Even Chen that the sefirot of the Zohar seek “balance”; I think it is more correct to say that they seek an interactive flow of energy.)

Having contrasted historical, philosophical, and mystical readings of the Akeda, Even Chen moves to Abarbanel (d. 1508, Venice) who, together with others, believes that Abraham misunderstands God’s command to sacrifice Isaac and, hence, fails the test. It is the angel who corrects him.

Moving into the pre-modern period, Even Chen deals with the hasidic figure, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (d. 1810, eastern Europe). This chapter is long and, in my opinion, confused, partly because Even Chen tries to read the anthologized homilies of Levi Yitzhak as one continuous text. There are, it seems to me, five themes that Even Chen identifies: first, the Lurianic motif of contraction, shattering, and rehabilitation of divine sparks; second, the zoharic motif of the union of Hesed and Gevura; third, the hasidic motif of the annihilation of the self through shedding of this-worldly habits in order to mystically “cling” to God; fourth, the hasidic motif of the contrast between love of God (“devoting one’s soul to God”; mesirut nefesh) and fear of God (meticulous observance of the commandments); and fifth, the hasidic motif of the role of the tsaddik (rebbe) as the one who must redeem the hidden divine sparks from their shells of evil. Levi Yitzhak touches on all of these themes and makes the point that, both in his leaving Mesopotamia and in the Akeda, Abraham experiences “total devotion of his soul to God” and, hence, mystical annihilation into the Godhead (Ayin). The difference between Abraham’s initial and his last mystical experience is that, in the first encounter, Abraham experiences God only for himself; the mystical experience has no rehabilitative power. However, in the Akeda, Abraham’s experience of God “sweetens the judgments,” i.e., it rehabilitates the divine and other realms. In this, Levi Yitzhak adds to the zoharic and Lurianic teachings.

From the modern period, Even Chen chooses Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. 1888, Germany), Rabbi I. Kook (d. 1935, Palestine), and Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972, New York). Rav Kook, a kabbalist who was also the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine (not, the State of Israel), believes that reality is an illusion and that one must penetrate to the most inner self, the point where one meets the divine image, and free that self from all social, intellectual, physical, and moral norms – just as God, Godself, is beyond all such limits. Abraham tries this all his life and, in the Akeda, he finally achieves this breakthrough by using supernatural force to split the wood and by shattering all moral norms and accepting God’s command to sacrifice his child. Isaac, too, accepts this breaking of all intellectual and moral norms as the only true way to the inner self / spark and, hence, to God Who is above all law. In the moment of putting Isaac on the altar, Abraham and Isaac’s souls are filled with divine light and holiness, and they are not even conscious that what they are doing is contrary to all (human) ethical norms. It is the angel who, in stopping Abraham, brings him back to earthly reality. The centrality of self-discovery in Rav Kook’s thought and in his poems (cited by Even Chen at the end and the beginning of this chapter) is shocking.

Even Chen closes the book with Heschel who dealt with the Akeda in his early work on the prophets and, again, in his last work on the Kotzker Rebbe and Kierkegaard. The latter is the fuller interpretation. In it, Heschel teaches that Abraham frees himself from the lies of normal reality and confronts the Absolute in his own total nakedness. Abraham’s faith is in his separating himself from his ego and society, and in following God wherever God takes him. To this, Heschel adds that Abraham survives the test of faith twice: once in the beginning when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham must give up all his dreams and hopes for the future as well as his love for his son; and again, in the moment when the angel countermands the original command, and Abraham must give up all the energy he has invested in worshiping God as he was told. The compassionate nature of the angel’s counter-order, however, reassures Abraham of God’s love as the dispute over Sodom reassured him of God’s justice.

What a fine typology – a very good selection of strongly contrasting readings of the same nineteen verses. What an intelligent way to show how some masters have read this most masterful of stories. This book deserves to be translated into English and published for a wider audience.

David R. Blumenthal, Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies, Emory University

* This appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, xx (xxxxx) xxx-xxx.