In the pagan world, the practice of child sacrifice was widespread. In the Torah, it is considered the worst of all sins. The Torah abhors the notion of child sacrifice … with one exception. The exception is found in this week’s Torah portion, with the binding of Isaac in the story of the Akedah.
Earlier in Vayera, Abraham bargains hard with God on behalf of the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: suppose there are 50 innocent people? What if the 50 innocent are 5 short? What if 40 are found there? What if 30 are found there? What if 20 are found there? And what if 10 are found there? It sounds like a negotiation taking place in a Middle East marketplace! Abraham just keeps talking right back to God – relentlessly pushing God to be merciful!
But later in Vayera, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham proceeds accordingly. Prepares to sacrifice his beloved son in an act of blind obedience! ‘Okey dokey! I hadn’t expected to have any children anyway. Easy come easy go.’
Why did Abraham not protest? Why did he not throw a barrage of questions and arguments at God, as he did in his attempted defense of Sodom and Gomorrah? Strangers were worth saving, but not his own son?
One of the lessons of this portion is that children belong to God, not to their parents, and the point of the story is that Abraham wholly demonstrated his understanding that Isaac belonged to God. I understand this lesson – parents are merely guardians of their children. Nonetheless, I don’t accept Abraham’s blind obedience at such a moment.
One of the best features of Judaism is that we get to ask questions, and not simply accept what we are told. I know in my heart that my God would want me to ask questions if I was told to kill my child — a lot of questions. Moreover, my God would require me to examine why I should or should not perform this particular act.
Coming from other religions, Jews-by-choice are often struck by the emphasis in Judaism on asking, questioning, searching. Judaism encourages individuals to conduct a personal search for answers. And liberal Judaism takes this personal search to the extreme. The whole point of liberal Judaism is that we are supposed to examine each aspect of Judaism, dissect it, and then put it back together in a manner that makes sense for each of us individually.
Many liberal Jews I know are most interested in expressing their Jewishness by engaging in social justice – it’s the aspect of Judaism that most speaks to them. And they have no interest in partaking of the detailed instructions of daily life as prescribed by traditional Judaism.
That does not mean, however, that traditional elements of Judaism should be ignored. The Torah and Jewish tradition contain tremendous wisdom that can be used to guide our lives. For example, some of Judaism’s wisest teachings can be found in how it instructs us to move through the mourning process. A liberal Jew should sift through that wisdom, and incorporate the parts that hold meaning for them into their own practice.
This, in fact, is exactly what I do when crafting a funeral or other life cycle ceremony for a family – I explain the traditions as prescribed by traditional Judaism, and work with the family to discern and incorporate those traditions that will enhance the ceremony for them.
Just down the street from me here in Newton, Massachusetts, Mayyim Chayim has taken the traditional mikveh and reconfigured it as a meaningful, relevant entity for modern-day Jewish expression. This strikingly beautiful, welcoming space takes one’s breath away, and draws liberal Jews into this traditional practice in a contemporary manner. The question was asked and brilliantly answered: how can we make Mikveh relevant to the lives of secular Jews and Jews all along the spectrum of observance?
Liberal Judaism rejects blind obedience and blind faith, but those of us who identify as liberal Jews need not and should not be ignorant of Jewish law and tradition; rather, we should ask questions, learn, make educated choices, and act upon them.
Question. Learn. Think. Choose. Act.