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The Suffering of Issac: reading the Bible after the Holocaust

The Suffering of Issac: reading the Bible after the Holocaust

Introduction

Through a repulsive request, the God who created life and blessed humans commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. ‘How could God require a faithful servant to obey through a grotesque action,’ ‘Why would God seek the death of a child who was a son of promise, especially since this is condemned elsewhere,’ and ‘How could Abraham obey God’s command without energetically entreating for Isaac’s life?’ These are hard questions still waiting for proper answers. However, there are other questions that must be raised that are frequently not asked. For example, “What was Isaac’s reaction to everything that was taking place? Also,  ‘Why did nobody stand up for the injustice that was happening before them?’ Lastly, ‘Is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son due to factors outside of obedience?’ Questions such as these are unable to be addressed properly through traditional exegetical systems, but reading after the Shoah provides a way to address these questions by reading for the victim (in this case Isaac). In doing so, one is listening to voices that were left unheard before.

Humanity takes for granted how powerful their voices can be when used effectively. People portrayed in the Hebrew Bible are like people today: some were rejected, hurt, and even killed. Others cried out and nobody answered, they wanted to be considered, but they were too quickly forgotten. There is a difference between being a voice for the voiceless and giving a voice to the voiceless. They are not interchangeable and one is far more compassionate. In reality, these forgotten human beings do not necessarily need a voice, for they had one. What they need is for far more people to listen and carry their cries further.

The Shoah embraces an amplified cry of voices that will never be heard, the voices of human beings who were herded like cattle into train cars and erased from the memory of the world. There is no explanation for such cruel actions and nothing can be done to fully bring justice to these individuals. Their suffering was useless to the world, yet the cause of their suffering will forever be a part of human history. The Shoah is not an event to be ignored or pushed to the side; rather it should become a part of human thinking and understanding. Reading the Bible after the Shoah recognizes that there are voices in every story that are brushed aside as insignificant and disposable to the writer. Therefore, in the wake of the Shoah, one is prompted to consider it a responsibility to recognize these individuals and not repeat the cruelty shown to those who remained voiceless throughout history. This is something traditional theological systems for reading the Hebrew Bible have not historically addressed.  Traditional interpretive systems are notorious for foregrounding the heroes of the story and easily forgetting those who were given no chance from the beginning. Take for example Abraham, who quickly became the model of faith at the foundation of three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His willingness to obey God’s command was, and is, the pinnacle point in Abraham’s story. In fact, the willingness to sacrifice one’s child becomes the quintessential model of faith over a passionate protection of the child.

Therefore, it becomes crucial how to step behind the curtain and listen to the voices of the other characters involved in the narrative. The traditional exegesis of this story stealthily moves to conventional contexts for interpretation, namely sacrifice and faith. For example, by looking at the concept of sacrifice the traditional exegetical study will determine in what ways it conforms, deviates from, or sheds light on known sacrificial practices. Related closely to that is whether this story represents the end of a supposed practice of child sacrifice and the institution of animal sacrifices. However, even if child sacrifice was practiced in the Near East, such interpretations fail to recognize that Abraham is/was revered not for putting an end to the practice but for his willingness to go through with it. The very thing that establishes Abraham as the father of the faith is that which is most terrifying. Reading after the Shoah recognizes the story may no longer revolve around substitution or faithfulness, but rather about an establishment of a new ethic. This new ethic no longer focuses on what is morally or ethically correct, but what is commanded of God. If these two worlds are separated, which is appropriate for humankind?

This foundational story of Abraham is not causative in any direct sense, but because it exemplifies and legitimizes specific assumptions regarding a hierarchical structure of authority, a specific form of family, a definition of gender, and the value of obedience all simultaneously, it seems sacrilegious to question these issues. However, reading this story after the Shoah should shake a sense of responsibility in the reader to not defend the patriarch, but rather to listen to the voice of the victims. The story of Abraham has bequeathed a moral legacy that must be identified and brought under the spotlight. Through illuminating the assumptions built into the Abraham myth, people today can better go about the task of reconstruction.

Reading Sensitivity is Essential

Reading sensitivity is essential for contemporary readers because it allows them to bear witness to individuals who were abused and left unrecognized. When victims are left unheard they remain oppressed, and contemporary readers are then left responsible. This essay will first define suffering through the Shoah, and, by reading through this lens, readers will then become suitable to recognize the suffering that took place in the Akedah. After this happens, and readers are able to face history and the capabilities of humans to torment and dehumanize other humans, this essay will walk through and ask the difficult questions. Reading sensitivity does not leave any stone unturned to the point that even God’s actions are questioned. Reading sensitivity seeks justice for the victims in the Akedah, even if that justice is found at the risk of Abraham’s legacy.

Levinas on Suffering: Attention to the Other

Suffering is like any other sensory experience, such as seeing blue or tasting sour. The thing that sets suffering apart is its ability of being too much to bear. One is not able to get on top of suffering, nor hold on to it. Therefore, the experience of suffering is frustrating and rejecting. Emmanuel Levinas describes suffering as a “quasi-contradictory structure,” in that it has given to humankind a sensation that they are unable to take—which is categorically ambiguous. Not only is suffering capable of showing human beings vulnerability and passivity of our sensibility, but suffering is “precisely evil” in the way it rips through human beings and overwhelms humanity.

The interhuman relation is the place of ethic in that it opens upon the space between those who cry out and those who hear and attend. The experience of being “called-out” is equivalent to that of suffering—it is given to one without asking, and they are not to refuse or apprehend it. The suffering then becomes useful from the interhuman perspective; suffering can thus become “meaningful to me,” even as it is “useless to the Other.” However, awareness of this inescapable obligation makes the idea of God even more difficult to grasp. For Levinas, the Shoah is paradigmatic of his barbarism and the “disproportion between suffering and every theodicy was shown at Auschwitz with a glaring, obvious clarity.” It is impossible to make annihilation reasonable or explainable. One cannot blame the innocence of the victims as justification for the disasters of the Shoah. Therefore, theodicy has become unthinkable. But what is good now depends on ones lived commitment to keeping the faith with the Others, with no metaphysical assurance, and only one’s own resources of openness and responsiveness to draw upon. It is a high calling to a difficult faith and a difficult freedom.

The Philosophy of Hannah Arendt: Evil Perpetuated Through Thoughtlessness

Hannah Arendt was more than a radical thinker for her time, she was a woman who was able to look past the grotesque nature of the Shoah and find its origins. Arendt’s major claim was that most evil derives from those who never make up their minds of being good or being evil. It is simply the people who are just being and not thinking. Thus, the Shoah was possible due to ordinary people who were doing their job and ordinary soldiers who were simply following orders. During Eichamann’s trial, Arendt diligent watched and reported of him showing no sign of guilt or distress for his direct involvement in the murder of six million innocent lives. For Eichmann, he was simply obeying orders, doing his job, and honestly abiding by the laws. In the end, Arendt’s thesis was that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on clichéd defenses rather than thinking for himself; he was motivated by professional promotion rather than integrity. It is through this mentality that millions of innocent lives were systematically murdered.

The Shoah leaves those left in the ashes scratching their heads and asking ’why,’ but there is no ‘why’. Evil exist because humanity refuses to recognize the Other. Humans become so transfixed in obeying orders that they blind themselves to the sight of suffering and cover their ears to the sound of weeping. It is no longer about integrity, but about what needs to get done. Humans create their own evil.  

Refusing to Face Reality

Another key component that must be addressed in reading after the Shoah is the accepted state of alterity the Jews were facing. In the film Shoah, this is shown ever so brightly through the interviews conducted around the Treblinka train station. Here, current Treblinka villagers crowded around the camera to give their insight to the devastating events they witnessed. As if proud of their involvement, or lack there of, these men spoke over each other, fighting for the camera’s full attention. The men, who worked in the same fields that were only 100 yards from the death camp, recall the hideous screams to which they became inured. Though some of the locals showed remorse for what they witnessed, many did not; one man in particular made a statement which best highlights the alterity the Jews were facing. When asked why he never attempted to do anything, he responded by pointing towards the translator and saying, “She cuts her finger and it does not hurt me.” By categorizing the Jews into a state of otherness, he was able to justify the suffering they were enduring. He was not troubled, he was not one of them, and therefore he did not need to become involved.

Alterity is a dreadful thing that is capable of creeping into the lives of ordinary people. It does not take an overpowering, evil force to reach the magnitude of the Shoah. It takes ordinary people, such as these villagers, who allow themselves to label the suffering individuals, who were screaming and crying in their own backyards, as something “Other.” Unfortunately, the screams at the Treblinka station were not a unique moment in history where alterity flourished, but rather alterity is an ongoing condition that the humankind has been, and most likely will always be battling.

The Shoah film allows its viewers to experience the tragedy of what happened outside the borders of the extermination camps. It gave a glimpse at the amount of people who were capable of casting their eyes down or drinking alcohol until they were incompetent of feeling rather than speak up for the innocent lives that were being slaughtered. People make claims today that the Shoah could never happen again, for the world would never allow such an evil to reach the same amount of power. These people are too naïve to see that the same evil that allowed the Shoah to take place resided not only under the Nazi uniform, but also in ordinary people. Alterity allows humans to categorize, minimize, and torment other human beings. When one human being is able to categorize another, it is there that evil resides.

Samuel Bak and the Akedah: Victims and Helplessness

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Samuel Bak’s interpretation of the Akedah is intriguing and his experience and survival of the Shoah ties closely to the idea of “sacrifice” and “obedience.” Using the Akedah as a descriptive echo chamber, Bak’s art of the Akedah implies that the yearning for the traditional faith of Abraham will have to wait in line until Isaac, the orphaned and bloodied, has had a chance to say what his wounded eyes have witnessed. Through his art, Bak not only shows readers his own interpretation, but also gives viewers an opportunity to hear from those who were left unheard.

The image above is one of the many pieces done of the Akedah by Bak. He brings the viewers to the climax of the story with Isaac fully bound on top of the alter with the knife of Abraham held to his neck. Abraham seems to be distracted from his task, either answering to the call of the angels, or perhaps looking away from his actions as if they were not happening. Isaac is defenseless. With no hope of escape, his arms are bound behind his back and his eyes staring in a plea to God to let the disaster end. Bak has intriguing ways of implementing characteristics and emotions tied tightly to the Shoah in his paintings, and this piece does not lack such an influence. It is easy for one to point towards the Nazis as the source of evil, as if it was through their existence that the Shoah reached its fullest magnitude. Though there is no denial here that the Nazis most certainly played a major role in the destruction of six million innocent lives, it was not solely their actions which committed murder, but their lack of action. To the average Nazi, just as Eichmann, they were simply obeying commands. Looking away, they were completely oblivious to the knife in their hand as they held it at the neck of an innocent human being.

Bak has kneeled in Isaac’s place. He has felt the cold kiss of death brush against his throat, and has had fear encompass him. He has felt bound, and defenseless, with no hope for survival. He has felt betrayed by those who he had at one time trusted. Living behind the eyes of Isaac is in fact a memory to Bak, and it is through his paintings like Akedah that he attempts to bring that sense of helplessness and betrayal to the minds of his viewers. Abraham had a choice and it is Isaac, like Bak, who must live with that choice, despite the outcome of events.

The Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Problems and questions in the story of Abraham and Isaac

One component of the Akedah that must be addressed is God’s involvement in the story. Abraham is showing his faithfulness to God, and this should be exemplified, but why would God ask such an erroneous task of his creation? For a God that humankind is called to approach in awe, amazement, and engagement, he has allowed frightening things to happen to his people, and in the case of the Akedah, asked for it. In Martin A. Sweeney’s breakdown of this subject, he walks his readers through the understanding and various approaches to Jewish theology after the Shoah. This is an important redaction of opinions because it allows a platform for God’s involvement in the Shoah and his relationship with his creation to be wrestled with. As was addressed through Levinas, the presence of “useless suffering” must be accepted in order to fully comprehend the presence of the Shoah. Where God is found in conjunction to this suffering is in question, but the presence of this form of suffering must not be ignored. Through this, Martin Buber’s understanding of God’s relationship with creation becomes clearer when he expresses that there are times when the all-powerful and righteous God chooses to remain hidden in times of crises. This is not understood in the tradition deistic lens, but rather God allows humans to work through their own moral agenda. Eliezer Berkovits probes why God would do such a thing and responds that it is necessary for human beings to exercise full moral responsibility as partners with God in the world of creation. Therefore, there are times when God must withdraw from the world to allow humans the opportunity to develop morally, exercise free will, and fulfill the divine purpose of human beings in the world. If God were to intervene, even through time of tragedy, this would jeopardize the learning process in which humans must be engaged in. This does not bring justice to the Shoah, or redeem God of these hideous acts, but it allows acceptance in the brokenness of the world.

The explanation above does not validate the Shoah, and it certainly does not help explain stories found in the Hebrew Bible such as the Akedah. In the Akedah, there is not a question of declaring an absence of God or not; God is present in this story, and in fact is asking Abraham for a bloody and immoral illustration of his faith. God is not stepping away from the world in the same way he did not step away from the world in Genesis 6. It is not the lack of God which brought about destruction, but the request of him. Therefore, how can one justify the Shoah as an event in history that was orchestrated by human beings free will, when the example of God given to people is one of vengeance and destruction? Perhaps there is not reconciliation between these vastly different characteristics of God, or perhaps one must find the balance between that which is historical and that which is mythologized for literary purposes. Regardless, God’s involvement in the Akedah must be observed further, and the existence of the Shoah must loom close by as this study progresses.  

Reading Genesis 22

The two key characters found in this narrative are Abraham, who serves as the dominant character, and his son, Isaac. There are then two focal points in the narrative: preparation for the offering of Isaac (vv. 1-10) and the outcome of Abraham’s complete obedience to the command (vv. 11-19). Focusing on the first, God approaches Abraham with a test that contradicts the good nature often associated with God. God commands Abraham to take his “only son” to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him as one would sacrifice an animal (vv. 1-2). Without a hint of hesitation or rebuttal, Abraham chopped the wood, loaded the mule, and left with his son Isaac and two servants to make a sacrifice to God. It must be asked if Sarah knew of Abraham’s intentions. Surely she saw them leave without taking an animal to be given, and surely she questioned what Abraham’s motives were as he walked away with her only son. The same questions asked of Sarah are then asked of the two servants that set out for the mountain with Abraham and Isaac. Of course, they were simply obeying their master’s orders. Whatever was going to happen was not their responsibility, so they remained silent and at the bottom of the mountain.

Now alone, Abraham and Isaac reached the top of the mountain where Abraham builds an alter and the sacrifice is bound by his father. It has been questioned here if Isaac would have been in support of this act of his father and if he was willing to see this deed to its end. Why then was it necessary for Isaac to be bound? Ropes tied tightly around his arms, Isaac was left defenseless against his obedient father. At the pinnacle of the narrative, the reader finds Abraham acting in his obedience; with a knife in hand he raises it to murder his son. Nobody is around to witness this horrific scene besides an angel of the LORD who calls Abraham off of Isaac and provides an alternative to be sacrificed. Is that it? That cannot possibly be the outcome to an attempted murder story! Abraham seems to wipe his hands clean and the narrative wraps itself up neatly as if there was no problem in the events that had just taken place.

Abraham’s Willingness

One troubling aspect of this narrative is the lack of resistance that comes from Abraham. In one way this can be a respected characteristic of Abraham, for he understands he is a creature of this world and there is no reason within his own person to dispute, debate, or resist God. An alternative reading of Abraham in this narrative sees him as a man who was not willing to stand up against what was morally right. Reading Abraham through this lens gives a completely different image of the faithful patriarch. If Abraham can be labeled with the same condition as Eichmann, as seen previously, he is more dangerous than once perceived. Perhaps Abraham is living in the state of ordinariness, simply obeying the orders of God, rather than depending on his own understanding of integrity. By allowing this to happen, Abraham is able to justify the slaughter of his “only son.” He does not need to fight it, nor is it in his ability to fight it, because he understands he is a creature of this world.

The construction of otherness then weighs heavily in this story. Abraham had no intentions of stopping his knife that was going to take his son’s life; he had no intentions of considering the Other. Isaac was a child who was not deserving of death. He was defenseless against the power of his father, and it was due to his weakness that Abraham was able to use him as an instrument. Abraham was placed in this same scenario only a few chapters before he pleaded for the lives of those living in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham recognized his responsibility of the Other and pleaded for the lives of the people living in those cities.

What is most remarkable is how Abraham has witnessed the mercy of God at his request, yet when it comes to his own son facing death, there is no retaliation. The faithful patriarch remains silent as his voiceless son follows him to death. Abraham should have been willing to go as far as Levinas in stating the value of the Other should exceed the value of the self. “In ethics, the other’s right to exist has primacy over my own, a primacy epitomized in the ethical edict: you shall not kill.” This ethical edict was not engrained in Abraham, for he was more concerned in obeying a command.

Finally, what if God’s test for Abraham was not the completion of God’s command, but Abraham’s response to the command? Could the substitute ram have been God’s redemptive measure to repair Abraham’s failed attempt of God’s test? Abraham was given a choice to either kill his son as a sacrifice, or to reject this command from God. Abraham chose to not question the command and reaches its completion before God stops him and provides a substitute. The common takeaway is to exemplify a man for being faithful until the end. The flip side sees God disappointed in a man who had multiple opportunities to do the right thing, but instead chose to obey rather than defend. God witnessed Abraham’s faithfulness and acknowledges so, but perhaps God also sees the darkness in Abraham’s heart. Perhaps he sees the guilt in a father who already had to dispose of one son at the command of God, and now another. The choice Abraham made was not necessarily the right one.

The Widespread Injustice

Abraham is not the only character in this story, and certainly is not the only guilty one. As mentioned, many other voices must be listened to in order to fully grasp the magnitude of this narrative. As seen in the Treblinka train station, the weight of this narrative is known when everyone is given an opportunity to speak. The people around that train station, who witnessed the brutality, refused to face the reality that was unraveling in front of them. It was through their unwillingness to respond that the system was able to work out as planned. The systematic killing of innocent lives was left uninterrupted, therefore everything went as planned. For Sarah, the servants, or even Isaac himself, there is no interruption in the narrative. Once reality was ignored and ethics were placed to the side, there was no place for questioning.  

Could things have turned out differently? If Sarah had been heard perhaps she could have provided a different perspective. She had convinced Abraham of impregnating Ishmael, even though it was against God’s will; this could have given her an opportunity to redeem herself and vouch for her son. Instead, she is left out of the story. Then, it would have been out of the question for the servants to have said or done something against the one who was in control, just as it was out of the question for the villagers at the Treblinka train station to have done something to fight against the Nazi soldiers. Therefore, nothing was done at that train station just as nothing was done as Abraham took his son. Contemporary readers are prone to rationalize and move on, leaving the voiceless to remain voiceless.

There is no answer to this, nor is there a way contemporary readers can crawl back into the story and ask the characters ‘why?” Instead, reality must be faced. Sarah was left out of the narrative because she did not do anything that left a lasting impact. There is no way of knowing if this means she avoided what was happening, or was completely naïve of Abraham’s actions. As for the servants, there is little said besides their trust in Abraham’s words that “they” would return from the mountain (v. 4). They are not seen questioning or arguing against Abraham’s motives. They remain silent, as many contemporary readers do here.

God’s Hideous Command

The problem with this narrative is holding together and embracing both the dark command of God and his high promise found in chapter eleven. The contradiction in God’s heart seems to be the same reality found in the flood episode. Does God really test his people this way? The narrative begins with a testing from God, but ends with God providing. It is no less an act of radical faith for Abraham to acknowledge the first statement than it is for him to accept the latter. For one to assert that God provides, they must have an intense faith, a faith that must be equally intense to accept that God tests as well. The actions of Abraham, and the call to live under his example, are a call to live in the presence of God. Faithful people usually only desire half of this, while most complacent religions will seek a God who solely provides rather than a God who tests. However, the problem is not in the testing here, but rather in the method of testing. Why would God ask such an erroneous task of his creation, even if it were merely for testing purposes? The argument was thrown around many times that God was testing the Jewish people by metaphorically placing the Shoah into their laps, taking on the phrase of ‘refining through fire.’ Were six million innocent lives considered little more than disposable lab rats to God? What could God provide that would justify the Shoah?

Going back to the formation of ethics, what if the facts about the world (that which defines what is ethically acceptable) include a God who specifically reveals himself and may issue extraordinary commands in specific, unique, contexts and with morally substantial reasons? Even if the story of Abraham is deemed historically unreliable, that is irrelevant of this essay. God’s covenant would be revealed, and Abraham trusted this. Abraham knows that God is able to work through nasty situations because he has done it before. For a God who created the world, bringing a person back to life does not seem to be a difficult task. Now, this does not justify God’s request, but perhaps sheds a little more light on it. By no means was this essay seeking to find answers, but rather ask the hard questions.

Conclusion

Shoah reading sensitivity is willingness to read “against the grain” of traditional readings in order to give a voice to the victims in the story, or to carry their voices further than they were able. This is important, for it makes visible the suffering characters and the injustice bolstered by other characters. By muting the cries of the suffering, readers are taking part in unethical reading and are allowing irresponsible uses of the text to happen. Readers begin to view the flood as God’s saving grace, and ignore passages such as Isaiah 45:7 where God explicitly states his active role in “disaster.” Reading after events such as the Shoah, or even more so reading through events such as the Shoah, does not seek to find a final solution. Rather, it dances on the line between ambiguity and clear contradictions in the text. It questions the silence of Abraham to murder his son and calls out God for his clear contradiction of asking such a thing. It then becomes the reader’s responsibility to bear witness to all the characters, those who are inflicting oppression and those who are being repressed. There is no answer; there is no explanation. There is only an obligation to bear witness to the humanity of the victims.


Resources

Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

Cohen, Richard A, Face to Face with Lévinas, (Albany, NY: State U of New York, 1986).

Copan, Paul, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

Fewell, Danna, Gary A. Phillips, and Yvonne Sherwood, Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak, (Boston: Pucker Art Publications, 2008).

Hartley, John E, Genesis, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000).

Levinas, Emmanuel, “Useless Suffering,” Translated by Richard Cohen.

Sarna, N., The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, (Philadelphia, 1989).

“Shoah,” IFC Films (Criterion Collection), Director, Claude Lanzmann, 1985.

Speiser, E. A., The Anchor Bible: Genesis, (New York, 1964).

Turner, Galen E III. "Children in the Hebrew Bible." Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa 18, no. 2, (September 1994).

Sweeney, Marvin A., “Reading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

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