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Covenantal Models of Protest and Submission

  • Covenantal Models of Protest and Submission

    Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
D'var Torah By: 

Vayeira is an especially challenging and memorable Torah portion for it provides us with two very different models of what it means to live in covenantal relationship with God. When God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah, and all of their inhabitants will be destroyed because of their unlawfulness, Abraham immediately protests God's proposed actions. "Far be it from You to do such a thing," says Abraham, "killing innocent and wicked alike ... Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25). In one Rabbinic midrash, Abraham directly challenges God, saying "You have sworn not to bring a deluge [or flood] upon the world. ... Not a deluge of water will You bring but a deluge of fire? ... [If so], You have not acted according to Your oath" (B'reishit Rabbah 49:9). Abraham then bargains with God, ultimately convincing the Eternal to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if as few as 10 righteous people can be found. God isn't angry with Abraham for calling into question either God's proposed actions or God's sense of justice. Indeed, by agreeing to spare the people if 10 among them are righteous, it seems that the intimate, covenantal relationship that God previously established already has made Abraham a "covenant-partner" (Eugene B. Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew [Philadelphia: JPS, 1991], p. 222 ).

This model of faith, identified by theologian David Blumenthal as a "theology of protest" (David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest [Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993], p. 250 ff.), exists elsewhere in the Bible (perhaps most notably in the Book of Job), in classical Rabbinic, Chasidic, and modern Jewish literature (religious and secular), and in the works of such post-holocaust Jewish thinkers as Elie Wiesel, Irving Greenberg, and Blumenthal himself (for a fuller discussion of this subject, see Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990]).

Yet there is another model of faith also found in Parashat Vayeira, namely that of unquestioning submission to God's command. Although God has already promised Abraham that the covenant will be continued through his son, Isaac, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering on a mountain in the land of Moriah (Genesis 22:2). While previously, Abraham argued for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, most of whom he did not know, he doesn't argue here for the life of his beloved son. Nor does he question the future of the covenant after Isaac's death, even though Isaac is unmarried and childless. Made to choose between love for his son and obedience to God, he chooses the latter. God's test is one of religious devotion. According to Genesis 22:12, Abraham passes it because of his willingness to sacrifice his son.

Over the ages, Jews have drawn on either or both of these models, with neither serving as the definitive model of what it means religiously to be a Jew. While I find myself more drawn to Genesis 18 and its theology of protest, I find it impossible to simply ignore Genesis 22 (the Akeidah, the "binding [of Isaac]") and its model of submission. The Akeidah is read in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and during the year, and has long been the subject of rabbinic commentaries, sermons, essays, and books by Western scholars (see Fear and Trembling by Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard,1843; Jon D. Levenson's The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, 1993; and, Yael Feldman's Glory and Agony: Isaac's Sacrifice and National Narrative, 2010). As a foundational story in both Judaism and Christianity, the binding of Isaac has been the subject of artistic representations from the 15th century Renaissance through today. It continues to fascinate, challenge, and trouble us, for even if we believe that God would never have allowed Abraham to actually kill Isaac, it is difficult to trust, or love, a God whose religious tests are as cruel as the one given to Abraham.

Many years ago, I wrote a midrash on Genesis 22, looking at the biblical text through the eyes of Sarah, who awakens one morning to find Abraham and Isaac gone. After hours of waiting, Sarah sees them walk back down the mountain, with Isaac far behind his father, "walking slowly, his head turning from side to side, his hands oddly moving as though he were trying to make sense of something," and she instantly knows where they have been and why they had gone. In emotions ranging from fear to anger to disgust, Sarah goes inside her tent to avoid hearing Abraham's excuses and what he thinks that God demanded, and prays that "if only for one night, Abraham would leave her alone" (Ellen M. Umansky, "Re-Visioning Sarah: A Midrash on Genesis 22," first published in the late 1980s, and most accessible today in Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, eds., Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook, Revised Ed. [Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press], 2009, p. 319).

Were I to write that midrash today, Sarah would be more assertive, confronting Abraham much in the way that Abraham confronts God in Genesis 18. For if we believe in the relationship between God and the Jewish people as eternal and loving, those of us who hear God telling us to sacrifice our children, whether they be our own children or those of our community or country, should at least question whether we have heard God correctly. And if, like Abraham, we think that we have heard God correctly but that what God is asking of us is morally wrong, we need to protest, as Abraham did earlier on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis 22 tells us that in God's view, Abraham passed the test because he was willing to kill his son; in my view, and I imagine in Sarah's, by forgetting his responsibilities as God's covenantal partner, Abraham actually failed.

Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y.

Learning Assertiveness
Davar Acher By: 
Darah R. Lerner

Standing up for the rights of others is a hallmark of Jewish tradition. But how do we measure up when the need is in our own homes or for our own families? How many of us who work for justice stumble at our own doorsteps? Dr. Ellen M. Umansky points out that Abraham and Sarah (even as envisioned in Umansky's midrash) fail to protest, fail to speak up when God asks the unthinkable in their own home.

Clearly this is a challenge beyond our text. In the song, "Easy To Be Hard," from the 1967 musical "Hair" we hear these words:

How can people be so heartless
How can people be so cruel
Easy to be hard
Easy to be cold …
And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice
Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?

How does Abraham act as he does?

Assertiveness trainings of the 1970s were popular programs to provide tools for dealing with difficult situations in our lives. Assertiveness is "speaking up for yourself and demanding respect from others without trying to bring the other party down, casting aspersions on them, or in some other way attacking them" (David M. Allen M.D., "Whatever Happened to Assertiveness Training," Psychology Today, Sept. 28, 2015).

While God may have accepted Abraham's behavior when called to sacrifice Isaac, the readers, you and I, are unsettled. Furthermore, God and Abraham never have the same relationship after that. There are no grand interactions, no moral challenges. And the people in Abraham's life, Isaac and Sarah, go silent. Silence spreads.

To resolve this problem for our lives, we need to revisit the order of events. First comes the modeling of standing up to God by Abraham and then is the silence at the binding of Isaac.

The silence screams out to us exactly because of the earlier protest. After being taught assertiveness by Abraham's response we want to see it in action throughout his life. That is our portion's challenge and message for our life — learn to be a voice of protest even for our very own.

Rabbi Darah R. Lerner is the spiritual leader Congregation Beth El in Bangor, ME.

11/19/2016
Reference Materials: 

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110
Haftarah, II Kings 4:1–37
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 334−337; Revised Edition, pp. 149−152