“The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development” by Burton L. Visotzky— Rereading Genesis

Visotzky, Burton L. “The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development”, Crown, 1997.

Rereading Genesis

Amos Lassen

Burton L. Visotzky, one of America’s most respected scholars of religion takes us back to the book of Genesis to reread its narratives and have a close look at the brutal power within and then to apply what we read to ethical issues we face in our lives today. This reading lets us gain moral developments as we read that Visotzky says that on first reading that the book is just “an ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family . . . a story about rape, incest, murder, deception, brute force, sex, and blood lust”.  These stories, however, have a lot to say about human dilemmas and ethical problems that we have in our own lives. By looking into the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Esau and holding up these characters of Scripture to critical inquiry, we get a fresh and useful look at ethics and morality. We see here the darkest sides of the stories (25 of the 50 chapters) but with a sense of humor that keeps everything fresh and entertaining. We read the stories and see the characters as related to life today, providing us with a way to look at and think about moral development. Genesis has stories of betrayal, greed, hate, incest, and murder and even with these, author Visotzky sees goodness coming out of the Bible but only if readers are willing to accept it as a challenge to their own moral imagination and not simply as an inspirational story.

No doubt what he says offends traditionalist sensibilities by how he puts modern social theorists above God in his reading of the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and the other flawed characters in the middle chapters of Genesis. He also astounds those progressives who see no need to retain this ancient text in the modern canon. Our good rabbi insist on the importance of the Genesis story, even as he reinterprets it in ways alien to inherited orthodoxy. Unlike orthodoxy that leads to faith and piety, Visotzky’s revisionism takes readers toward critical scrutiny of their own moral orientation in a contemporary world that is as bewildering as Abraham and Sarah’s.

Rabbi Visotzky uses the tension between implicit text and exegeses in light of the current community and the explicit simple story in its context. Throughout the book he urges us to have compassion for the characters. “It is the whole point of moral education to be able to imagine being in another’s position” In the story of Abraham and Sarah, he tries to imagine Hagar’s view not as a vessel, but as a prophet and mother of a nation. He uses examples from his own life experiences so that we will see the point that no one really understands what is happening in another’s life.

Much of the book focuses on Abraham and Sarah. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is in need of ethical interpretation of God’s action, and he references Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical. The book sheds light on the events of Abraham’s family in a way that few commentators have really explored. Looking at both Midrash and Tanach, Visotzky unites this ancient world with the dynamics of today’s family. We gain refreshing and believable discussions of some of the most controversial topics and then we are able to apply their relevance to us today.

While some of his interpretations are “out-there” and others might even be considered mildly offensive to traditional readings, they are all interesting and inspire and encourage us to think originally. We gain new ways of thinking and new possibilities as to what is really there and how to relate that to contemporary life.

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