Google “optical illusions” and you will pull up a huge number of moving and stationary, black-and-white and color, geometric and random drawings that have in common the ability to look first like one very definite image, and then like a totally different one, to the normal human eye. I just finished reading a Dan Simmons novel, Flashback, which had pretty much the same effect on me, not for the first time. Reading Ayn Rand does the same thing. So do some of the postings on this blog. They make me acutely aware that my fondest dream may be your worst nightmare. Dunno whether I am the only person for whom my fondest dream may be my worst nightmare. That, of course, is why we Wired Sisters are multiple.
I’ll start with the religious version of this phenomenon, which I used as a Rosh HaShanah discussion last year under the title The Abrahamic Split. Some bibliographical and linguistic notes: Rabbi Michael Lerner is the author of Jewish Renewal. “Milhemet Mitzvah” is, in traditional Jewish thinking, a war which is commanded by the Holy One, as opposed to wars which are either optional or forbidden. The only one of these that everybody seems to agree on was the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, the subject matter of the second through fifth books of the Bible. “Midrash” is how the various scholars explain what the biblical characters did between the installments of the text. What Woody Allen does at the end of this discussion is also midrash. Maimonides was a twelfth-century rabbi, scholar, philosopher, and physician, whose views of scripture often seem to come out of left field. So here it is. Next posting will be the political angle.
Over recent decades, we have become conscious of a double voice in the Jewish tradition, a voice on one hand of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and on the other of “remember Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:17.) Those of us who follow political and religious controversies are all too aware that this double voice is duplicated in Islam ([Qur’an, Sura 2:256] “There shall be no compulsion in religion…. [Sura 18:29] Proclaim: “This is the truth from your Lord,” then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve”, and on the other side [Sura 47.4] “When you encounter the unbelievers, Strike off their heads. Until you have made a wide slaughter among them…” Similarly, Christians can quote the Gospel of Matthew: ” Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5: 44-45) Or they can call down the wrath of Heaven in the form of Crusades, new and old. Before the Crusades, after all, was the Jihad. And before the Jihad was the Milchemet Mitzvah. After a while, some of us find the lazy way out. We decide that the Holy Blessed One was speaking only in the words of love and mercy. We who hear that voice, among all the Abrahamic faiths, can talk to each other. But we need pay no attention to those, in all three faiths, who hear the voice of cruelty and revenge. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in Jewish Renewal, even suggests that that voice is not the voice of God at all.
Let us leave aside for the moment Whose voices those are, on both sides of the Abrahamic split. Let’s look at where, historically, they are first heard. I think the Jewish tradition first hears them both, side by side, in the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which is the root narrative of all three of the Abrahamic faiths (Genesis 22:1-19.) Abraham hears the voice of the Holy Blessed One, at night, tell him to take his son up to the Mount and “offer” him. Michael Lerner will tell us that that was not the Holy One’s voice. Maimonides will tell us that it was a prophetic vision meant to show us how far one may be expected to go in obedience to Heaven—but that the actual Akedah may never have happened at all. The Muslims tell us that the son designated for offering was Ishmael, not Isaac. The Christians tell us that the whole thing prefigured the sacrifice of Christ. But let us assume for the moment that what Abraham heard was really the voice of Heaven. He certainly behaved as if he believed that. He took the two “lads” (midrash tells us they were Ishmael and Eliezer) and Isaac, and all of the paraphernalia of sacrifice except the sacrificial animal, and walked three days toward a place “to be announced.” When they got there, Abraham apparently knew this was the place, even though he did not hear any divine voice saying “Okay, here you are. Up on that mountain there.” He looked up and there it was, without so much as a “You Are Here” sign.
But Abraham also never quite comes out and says that Isaac is to be the victim. Is this because the voice in his vision told him only to “offer” his son, and not to kill him? Some of the midrash points in that direction. Other midrash, coming from the time of the Rhineland massacres a thousand years later (when the Crusaders stopped off on their way to the Holy Land to kill enormous numbers of Jews), will not accept that lawyer-like parsing of words. That midrash depicts Isaac preparing himself to be killed, and asking his father’s help to be a worthy victim. Indeed, in some of that body of midrash, Isaac is actually killed, and then revived.
At any rate, Abraham sends the “lads” away, binds his son on the altar, and raises his knife. And then he hears another voice. The text says it is the voice of an angel or a messenger, but we are familiar by now with the ever-shifting line between the Holy One and the angels, between Principal and Agent. “Lay not your hand on the child,” that voice says, “nor do anything to hurt him.” Abraham, confused, stops, frozen, his arm raised. He is here to do what he has been commanded. Now he is commanded to stop. What does he do now?
Completely distracted from what he has so painfully nerved himself to do, he looks around, and sees a ram. The Ram. Sees him “after,” “behind,” in Hebrew “achar.’ The Hebrew in such a construction, would normally have been “acharav”—behind him. Midrash makes much of the oddness of the locution here, based on its axiom that the Holy One does not waste words. Does “achar” mean, as it often does, “in the future”? Maimonides thinks so. Is Abraham seeing the generations after, looking back on the story as we are doing now, and asking himself, not only “what does the Holy One want me to do?” but “what does the Holy One want all of us to do, for generations to come”? Abraham, after all, is a prophet. Prophets have visions. They see the future. Or futures.
The Ram is caught in the bushes—“basbaq,” a locution that, in modern Hebrew, means something like “in the turmoils of everyday life.” Which is something more likely to happen to us than to rams. Or is Abraham the one who is caught in turmoil? At any rate he resolves the turmoil by taking the ram from the bushes and substituting him for Isaac on the altar, where he completes the offering.
The midrash makes this ram the raw material of Jewish ritual for centuries afterward. “The ashes of the parts burnt upon the altar formed the foundation of the inner altar, whereon the expiatory sacrifice was brought once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the day on which the offering of Isaac took place. Of the sinews of the ram, David made ten strings for his harp upon which he played. The skin served Elijah for his girdle, and of his two horns, the one was blown at the end of the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the other will be used to proclaim the end of the Exile, when the “great horn shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and they that were outcasts in the land of Egypt, and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem.” And of course we have been blowing the ram’s horn, the shofar, during the Days of Awe, for the same purpose. For the purpose, in fact, of making us hear once again, and again and again, that other voice of Heaven, holding us back from the ultimate violence.
The only midrash I have been able to find that brings these two voices into simultaneity, if not harmony, comes from, of all people, Woody Allen.
“And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”
And Abraham said, “But thou said —”
“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?” And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er – not really … no.”
“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”
And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”
And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”
“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”
And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”
But the Tradition is not comfortable with that view either. We do not discard one of the divine voices in the Torah because it is cruel, or cast doubt on its reality because it was “only” a prophetic vision, nor because the Holy One was only joking. All of those are tempting, and we are honest with ourselves about the temptation. But in the end we side with the Sanhedrin, as it ruled between the strictness of the rabbinic school of Shammai and the humility and humanity of the school of Hillel: Elu v’elu divrei elohim hayyim—These and those are both the words of the Living God—but the law—our law, because we are only human–must follow the merciful school of Hillel.