Unbinding Isaac (Aaron Koller) - A Review

UNBINDING ISAAC: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought. By Aaron Koller. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Xxxiv + 223 pages.

         Abraham is a central figure in three religions. For Christians, he is the exemplar of faithfulness.  In Hebrews 11, a passage that defines the nature of faith, the author explicitly points to Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac as an example of this faith in God. It should be noted, that in the Hebrews account, the author intimates that Abraham went into this test believing that God could raise the dead. Therefore, Abraham hoped that even if he sacrificed Isaac, he would receive him back from God (Heb. 11:17-19). The Christian reading, the one I’ve imbibed, of course, is not the only possible reading of this story. It might behoove us to attend to other interpretations, especially Jewish ones.

One who has offered a Jewish perspective on this story is Aaron Koller. Koller is a professor of Near Eastern and Jewish studies at Yeshiva University and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College. Koller brings a strong understanding of the biblical, historical, and philosophical dimensions of this story. While he brings a Jewish perspective to this conversation, which is to be expected from one who is Jewish, he also engages with Christian interpretations, especially that of Soren Kierkegaard. Thus, Christian and Jewish readers have much to learn from the differing interpretations of a central story of the faith found in Genesis 22. What emerges from this book is an enlightening interpretation of a story that has inspired some and horrified others, helping us make sense of this story, and perhaps find something of value in it.   

The title of the book—Unbinding Isaacis important to the conversation. Note that it doesn’t refer to sacrifice, which is the meaning of the word Akedah, but rather the act of unbinding Isaac, putting a stop to the sacrificial act. The Hebrew word Akedah is used within Judaism to describe Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Of the passage, Koller writes that "these three hundred words have haunted readers for thousands of years" (p. xx). He points out how unadorned the story is. The language spare, with little drama or dialogue. Yet the story is powerful, even as it is horrific. Koller notes that unlike other "texts of terror," this one gets much use in Judaism. For example, it is one of the readings for Rosh Hashanah, which includes people of all ages.

One modern figure who plays a central role in this work of interpretation is Kierkegaard, who has had a major influence on how Christians read this story, but Jews as well. Thus, Koller, explores in some depth Kierkegaard's interpretation, its possible contexts, and how Jewish interpreters have engaged it. While it has influenced some interpretations, for the most part, Jewish interpreters have rejected it as not being true to Jewish faith and understandings of God. I will admit that for the most part, I agree with the Jewish interpretation (and that as a Christian minister and theologian).

While we may experience this text with revulsion and terror, it has played a central role in Judaism. It has been pictured in mosaic floors in synagogues, for instance. It is invoked on fast days. But how do we interpret it? That is the task Koller takes up as he engages with interpreters who approach the story from philosophical and theological vantage points. He explores questions about what the story says about God, believers, and faith itself. He also explores how this story speaks to trauma, including the many centuries of persecution. It is also an exploration of the relationship of faith to ethics since in Kierkegaard's portrayal of the story, ethics is set aside in the name of faith. As Koller writes, "Kierkegaard and others have claimed that the essence of the story, if it can be boiled down to a single lesson, is that true faith may necessitate the violation of the ethical on occasion and that the person of faith may in fact defy what she knows to be ethical for her faith, on rare but real occasions" (p. xxviii). Koller rejects such an argument and offers a convincing defense of an alternative interpretation.

Koller explores the passage in eight chapters. He begins with Jewish experiences of the Akedah, before moving on to Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story in Fear and Trembling. The chapter on Kierkegaard is fascinating and illuminating in describing and unpacking the idea that Abraham is the “knight of faith.” While Koller admits that the idea that Kierkegaard’s faith-oriented interpretation is defensible, it’s not the only interpretation. In fact, it’s not the one Koller takes up. Having laid out Kierkegaard’s interpretation he moves on to nineteenth-century Jewish interpretations that parallel Kierkegaard's, but unlikely were influenced by him since Kierkegaard's writings weren't well known until much later. Nevertheless, the similarities suggest that they emerged out of a common culture, that was emphasizing personal faith. While Kierkegaard likely didn't influence 19th-century interpretations, his interpretation in Fear and Trembling did influence 20th-century conversations within Judaism. Although not everyone followed this lead, some important interpreters embraced the leap of faith Kierkegaard spoke of, even at the cost of ethics. For them “the Akedah is the archetype of religious life,” but according to Koller, this view is “quite at odds with earlier approaches, Jewish or otherwise. The major gap was the adoption of the leap of faith, the willingness to act on faith even against everything known to be right, without correcting the view of right and wrong” (p. 90).

These conversations provide the foundation for the deeper discussion of the story, which begins with a chapter in which Koller offers his criticism of Kierkegaard's position. This is from a Jewish perspective. One of the elements lifted up in this discussion is the "erasure of Isaac." Why does Isaac disappear from the story after the intervention? For that matter, why does Isaac so often disappear from our normal interpretations of the story? In most interpretations, it's all about Abraham and not Isaac. This, according to Koller is "monstrous.” Therefore, he attempts to draw our attention to the role Isaac plays in the story. To do otherwise negates the question of ethics. Ultimately, he concludes in his criticism of Kierkegaard, that in Judaism ethics can't be suspended. For my part, I found his criticism of Kierkegaard’s interpretation convincing.

We know that the story involves child sacrifice, even if Abraham didn't succeed. Koller suggests that child sacrifice was an accepted act within ancient society, including in ancient Israel. If we are to offer our best, wouldn't that include one's firstborn? Again, this is a most enlightening discussion, even if it is unsettling. Koller writes that "Child sacrifice is thus a temptation for worshipers, as well as for God. It is no wonder, then, that God tempted Abraham and told him to offer his only child as a sacrifice. The question, then, is why God turned Isaac away at the last moment." (p. 126). Yes, that is the question why did God issue the command and then change things up at the last minute?

Koller uses two chapters to address the question of why, if child sacrifice is not only acceptable but desirable, did Isaac live? Why didn't Isaac die? Engaging with Maimonides, Koller attempts to show how the Akedah is rejected, but not completely, and how this was discussed in Jewish philosophical circles in the pre-modern age. The chapter on Maimonides is followed by a more explicit discussion of the ultimate rejection of child sacrifice. Koller asks why, if child sacrifice was desirable, then "what value is so transcendent that it disallows child sacrifice?" (p. 141). To get there, Koller invites us to consider the possibility that perhaps Abraham misheard God. Or it's possible that God misled Abraham, even as God had done in other cases. These are unsettling issues, but important ones. So, why doesn't God want child sacrifice? The answer might be found in the question of whether a child is a possession. Was Isaac a possession that Abraham could rightfully offer up? Perhaps not.

In his conclusion, Koller notes that the idea that ethics can be suspended in the name of faith is dangerous. Therefore, Kierkegaard was wrong in suggesting that absolute obedience is an appropriate stance for the knight of faith to take. It might sound a bit odd, but I think it is something deeply rooted in Judaism, which emphasizes ethics. Koller writes that the lesson that can be drawn here is that "if confronted by a conflict between a divine imperative and our obligations toward other human beings, we should seek out the face of the Other. By doing so, we may be privileged to an even deeper understanding of the religious imperatives, and we may discover that these obligations and the obligations to the human Other are merely two sides of the same coin" (p. 153).

I have had the blessing of reading several recent books on matters of religion and scripture from a Jewish perspective. I must say, not only have I learned from them, but I have had my faith challenged—in a good way. In Koller’s engagement with the story of the Akedah, we have another excellent book that, while written for a Jewish audience, needs to be read carefully by a Christian audience, especially clergy who are tasked with interpreting passages like this one. While faith and obedience to God is a core element of religious life, we must not set aside the ethical. We must ask the question of God, whether what is asked of us is appropriate. Thus, Kierkegaard is likely wrong about Abraham’s faith. If Kierkegaard is wrong, what about the author of Hebrews, who points to the Akedah as an example of faith? Attending to Jewish interpretations will prove enlightening! Such is the case with Aaron Koller's Unbinding Isaac. 


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