“Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative” by Yael S. Feldman— Understanding Sacrifice

glory and agony

Feldman, Yael S. “Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative” (Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture), Stanford University Press, 2010.

Understanding Sacrifice

Amos Lassen

Attitudes are constantly in a state of flux and when we think about sacrifice, we become aware of the differences in attitude even more. Yael Feldman gives us the first history of shifting attitudes toward sacrifice in Hebrew culture and as I read, I remembered something I had once learned in my Hebrew Biblical Studies. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew, “korban”, comes from the verb which means to come closer to and this presents a whole new issue. We in the English speaking world understand sacrifice to mean giving something up for some reason. In Hebrew, however, the word means to become close so we can understand sacrifice as meaning becoming one with or nearing that possibility.

Feldman maintains that the point of departure of national sacrifice comes with Zionism’s preoccupation (or as she says, “obsessive preoccupation”) with the “primal scene” or the near-killing (sacrifice) of Isaac and how this act has been central in literature, art, psychology, philosophy and politics. If we add to this how sacrifice has been considered in the 20th century (violence and martyrdom), we get a very complex picture that gives us many insights (and sometimes contradictory) into the beginnings and gender of national sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Isaac was not the first sacrifice we learn of in scripture. For over 3000 years we have writings about sacrifice, both real and aborted, both voluntary and violent, both male and female (Isaac, Ishmael, Jephthah’s daughter, Iphigenia, Jesus and so on). Feldman maintains that sacrifice as a concept came into being out of what was left of religious martyrdom and it shows us that there was a “sacred underside” to Western secularism in Israel and in other places as well.

Feldman shows us howwriters, poets, dramatis, critics, some scholars, and a few visual artists in the State of Israel during the last century have dealt with sacrifice and how it has affected what they do. In using the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac as a jumping off point, we are given insight into the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary investigations into the nature of the issue.

I suppose we can label Feldman’s work as something of historiography of Hebrew national culture and we see how there has been some kind of preoccupation with Genesis 22. It is through this that we understand the significance of Modern Hebrew culture. Personally whenever I think of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah and the knife held high above the patriarch’s head, I imagine myself hearing a cry that was heard around the world. There are not many scenes as dramatic as this. By using the Akedah, Yael Feldman shows us a way to investigate Biblical tropes in modern literature and we see the binding of Isaac as more of a literary trope than anything else. By showing us how the Akedah is used in modern Israeli literature, we become aware of the various and changing ways a father’s obedience to God by being ready to willingly sacrifice his son has assumed a secular metaphor for self-sacrifice in the military and heroic death in battle.

For me, this book is a special treat as the Akedah story has always fascinated me and has been one of my greatest fields of confusion. The binding of Isaac is not a tradition that is uniform or that is limited just to Genesis 22. In the Hebrew Bible, Isaac is saved at the last minute yet there are rabbinic traditions that say that he was indeed killed on the mountain. How we see Isaac is also not a uniform depiction. Some see him as a young child who is innocent and knows nothing of his father’s plans; others see him as being not only in on the plan but as a willing accomplice who voluntarily goes to his death. Feldman’s take is consistent with 20th century Jewish thought and Israeli literature. What Feldman really gives us is an exploration of the conscious and intentional use of the Biblical text for a later writer. She even goes so far as to show us how a certain Israeli author came to understand his specific interpretation of the Akedah or some other later Jewish or Christian reading tradition.

Feldman looks at the story of Abraham and Isaac and shows how their story has been interpreted to portray an intergenerational conflict. Using this psycho-analytical theory she uses Freudian understandings of the characters. She says that the relationship between father, Abraham and son, Isaac is based on positives and negatives with Isaac’s act of self-immolation as positive while Isaac as a passive and submissive victim is negative.

In her introduction, Feldman looks at sacrifice as a concept and she emphasizes the lack of distinction in Hebrew for the difference between the words “victim” and “sacrifice” and claims that this is probably due to the many traditions that existed and the general ambivalence toward the Akedah story. We ask if Isaac was the victim of Abraham’s plan (thus God’s plan as well) or did he knowingly choose to sacrifice himself. If we look at the larger of Jewish history, do we find Isaac as a fitting symbol of those who perished during the pogroms and the Holocaust, or has he become the symbol for those who heroically offer themselves up for the sake of his people and the land? Further, we can ask if a victim of persecution who dies in a passive manner can be a hero and a martyr.

In the early writings from Israel before statehood, the ideas of heroism and sacrifice loomed large and the idea of “Kiddush hashem” or martyrdom was new. Looking at the Hebrew Bible we come to Judges 11: 29-40 and the story of Jephthah and his daughter, a story that is tense as it deals with male activity and female passivity and it has come to represent the change from traditional Jewish passivity to religious heroism and them onto Jewish nationalism which hoped to contain an active political and secular heroism of those who were willing to die for the land.

Before the First World War, the Akedah returned to importance with the vision of Isaac as a military hero who proudly and gladly goes to his acts of sacrifice. This continued after the war and the idea of dying for one’s country represents great sacrifice. The son must decide if he is going to give his life even though he may ask for his father’s blessing. It is at this point that some Christian writers try to connect the binding of Isaac with the crucified Jesus who gave up his life for others.

With the Second World War and Israel’s War of Independence, the Akedah was again rewritten. There was a new relationship between fathers and sons and the Abrahams of that generation were the Isaacs of the preceding generation. Writers began to question the nature of the responsibilities of fathers. Now, does that make Abraham attain heroic status because he gives up his son or is he evil because he encourages his son to give himself up? And then there was the greatest sacrifice of all—the Holocaust—in which some 6,000,000 Jews were sacrificed. Here we see the difference between willing sacrifice (as in the State of Israel) and a tragic victim (as in the Holocaust) and this created great tension as writers dealt with the Akedah.

With the modern state of Israel, the whole issue of sacrifice and martyrdom was questioned. That glorious sacrifice of dying for one’s country died with the Sinai campaign in 1956 when young Israelis expressed their fear of war. This basically continued until 1967 and the Six Day War and then onto 1973 and the Yom Kippur War. Writers began seeing Isaac as an unwilling sacrifice and as a dead victim. We asked, “What kind of father would kill his son”? “What kind of right did that father have”? Some female writers began to look at the Akedah as “private sacrifice”—a woman who surrendered to her husband desires. Others looked to Ishmael, the banished brother of Isaac and soon the Akedah began to take on the meaning of two brothers as a way to write about the violence between Muslims and Jews, between Israelis and Palestinians. Then there were others who highlighted Sarah and her silence about what her husband was going to do.

There is so much here in this book and because of that it is a bit difficult at times to follow Feldman. Add to that the fact that literary development and ideological development are not linear. Trying to divide time periods is also difficult but with patience and will this can be the most enlightening book about one of the most problematic texts in religious writing.