the fourth rabbi

When M was little, the tzaddik gave him a book of Bible Stories. I think it changed my son forever.

That night I heard this scream from upstairs, and ran up to see what was wrong. He was tucked in bed with the book in his lap, outraged. He got right to the point:

“How could God want Abraham to sacrifice his son?” my only son and oldest child demanded.

Maybe it was my moment of crisis, not his. I’m not really sure. I taught this stuff, you’d think I’d have an answer for my kid. But no. I realized that any answer I gave him would not be good enough. So, at least for that night, we switched reading materials to something more manageable. A real cop out. I’m not sure what we read instead. I mean, what’s the antidote to God demanding one’s son be sacrificed — when it’s your own son reading this stuff. He wasn’t quite old enough for Kafka.

I decided to research the Abraham problem. I started to call the rabbis. And I know this is going to sound like a joke, but this, I swear is true. It just sounds like a joke.

The first rabbi I called was the head rabbi at a conservative congregation in the City.

“I tell them that everyone has to make a sacrifice for God,” he answered promptly. Like that was going to satisfy my kid.

Before continuing, I should tell you that there actually was something at stake. My son had been begging to go to Hebrew School. I don’t even know where he heard about Hebrew School. I had been insisting I could teach him Hebrew at home — along with Arabic. I figured a nice balance was in order for the next generation. My firstborn just rolled his eyes at me. He wanted the real deal.

One day I was driving home form work and the emergency car phone (remember those?) rang.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, “What’s the emergency?”

“You haven’t signed me up for Hebrew School!” he insisted.

“Is this an emergency?”

“Yes!” he answered.

“Ok, I see you’re serious about this. I promise I’ll take care of it.” And we hung up. I still had 45 minutes more to my commute before we could have a chat about the Hebrew School thing at home. But ten minutes later the phone rings again. I’m not even to Palo Alto yet.

“Did you sign me up yet?” he asked.

So, okay, he was that kind of kid. And I figured that the first rabbi who could come up with an answer that would satisfy my son, would get our business in the Hebrew School department. Well, the first rabbi failed.

The second rabbi I called was the head rabbi at one of the large reform synagogues.

“I teach,” he said, “that Abraham made the wrong choice. He should have refused.” He paused. “But that doesn’t really work with the rest of the parsha,” he added. And he stopped. Good start, but I wasn’t impressed with the lack of follow up.

The third rabbi I saw in person. He was in town running workshops in Jewish Renewal, and I still think of him as my own mentor. The third rabbi was of course, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. And when I’ve had questions, he has shown me that I also have answers. And so, I asked him my son’s question about the Akedah, and Abraham bringing Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice. And I trusted that at last I’d have a satisfying answer.

Reb Zalman got a big smile on his face. He always had a wonderful, wise smile.

“Such a blessing,” he beamed, “to have a son who asks such questions!”

I waited.

That was it. That was the answer. And of course he was right, but that kind of an answer wasn’t going to satisfy my kid. And so, I went back to my dad and complained to him of this. And here’s what the tzaddik said:

“You see, in those days all the deities demanded human sacrifice. So it wasn’t so odd that Abraham would just comply. Human sacrifice was well within the dominant paradigm of that era. The importance of the story is just the opposite — that here was a god that seemed at first like all the others — just another ethnic god demanding his due. But this god changed all the rules. The Akedah teaches us that human sacrifice stops now. The paradigm shifts, and animal sacrifice will suffice.”

I love the tzaddik. I think he’s why I’m an anthropologist. And I thought it was an answer that my son would be satisfied with as well — although it meant I still didn’t have any place I was willing to send him for his Jewish education. But at least I had an answer.

So that night, at bedtime I went up to give M his grandpa’s satisfying midrash on the Akedah and the end of human sacrifice. He nodded, briefly at the answer, not terribly impressed, and looked down. He had the Bible Stories book in hand, and clearly he had continued reading on his own. He was pointing to the page he was on, and said:

“So why does God kill Pharoah’s son, then, huh?”

The fourth rabbi was Reconstructionist. He said, “well, God’s got a problem, doesn’t he? We all do! And we get to think about consequences of our actions…”

My kid signed himself up and sent himself to Hebrew School.

And then he went to Law School.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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