“Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” by Aaron Koller— An Original Reading

Koller, Aaron. “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

An Original Reading

Amos Lassen

Those of you who know me also know that the story of the Akeda in the Hebrew Bible is one that has been both a source of concern and a fascination for me. I have written innumerable commentaries on it and have lists of thoughts about it running on my computer. I have presented my thoughts on it at least six times in public and each is different. I read whatever I can find about it and its mystery often haunts me. Naturally I was excited to learn of Aaron Koller’s “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” and anxious to get my hands on a copy.

Koller guides us on a journey of discovery for our times about the binding of Isaac story.  We look at Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s views of the story as “teaching suspension of ethics for the sake of faith”. From this, Jewish thinkers have developed this idea as a cornerstone of their religious worldview. Koller examines and critiques Kierkegaard’s perspective and later interpretations of it  textually, religiously and ethically.  We are all aware of the current criticism that has been levelled against Abraham as a man and as a father. Koller explores this in Jewish thought, from ancient poems and midrashim to contemporary Israel narratives, as well as Jewish responses to the Akedah over the generations.

He succeeds in bringing all of this together along with what we now know about human sacrifice in the Phoenician world and gives us an original reading of the Akedah. He maintains that the God of the bible would like to want child sacrifice because it is a remarkable display of devotion. However, God does not want child sacrifice because it would violate the child’s autonomy. The high point in the drama is not the binding of Isaac but the moment when Abraham is told to unbind him; release him. While the Torah does not allow child sacrifice, some of Israel’s neighbors saw it as a religiously inspiring act. What the lesson we get from the binding of Isaac is that an authentically religious act cannot be done through the harm of another human being.

Is this a new thought to me? I am not sure. Harming another has certainly been an important topic but I do not know that I take that as the ultimate lesson from the Akeda. It does seem to me, however, that we have looked at those twenty-something verses over and over again throughout history from every possible perspective and they remain puzzling to this day. I do not think it is possible to authoritatively say that we understand what they mean. I have spent hours looking at them and feeling exhausted afterwards.

Koller, with his knowledge of both biblical literature and the Jewish interpretive tradition is able to unbind the Akedah to show its philosophy and theology in their greatness. As he struggles to understand it, he manages to pull it out from the dominant and dangerous interpretation that faith justifies violence. He then gives us the message that echoes God’s words to Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy!”

It is Koller’s stance that “one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another” and this is “rooted on the text as a morally compelling vision for sincere faith in a modern world that too often finds form in false fundamentalisms.” 

I am in awe of the amount of study that went into this book especially as I look at my bookshelf and see nine books on the binding and realize that there are nine different theories on the passage. The journey we take with Koller includes material from wide sources ranging from ancient, medieval, and modern sources both Jewish and Christian; Hasidic, Mitnagdic, and secular; scholarly, poetic and even archaeological yet the focus and clarity is never lost.

Koller guides us to learn from what these sources have to say and to critique them ethically and intellectually. He then presents his own interpretation of the text remaining respectful of what the bible says as he regards it with religious sensitivity. What Koller has to say is not only refreshing but brilliant and completely new.  He does not disregard what others have said and uses generations of scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, and Jewish thought. He interprets their voices as to the times in which they spoke and where and then presents us with a timely understanding of ancient lore. Koller critiques others’ interpretations and then maintains that what the binding of Isaac does is teach ethics as theology instead of submission.  

What is unique here is that Koller’s study combines all of the perspectives already mentioned and then presents them all together. By doing this, we see the Akedah in a new exciting way.  



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