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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Family values

The traditional Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah come from Genesis: the birth of Isaac on the first day, and the “binding” of Isaac, the akedah, on the second. Many Reform congregations that observe only one day of Rosh Hashanah read the akedah on that day; a few read the traditional selection for the first day and don’t read the akedah at all, except in the weekly cycle of Torah readings.

It is hard to explain why these should have been chosen as the Rosh Hashanah readings. Both selections raise serious moral questions that the Torah does not answer; the akedah, in particular, gives rabbis an inexhaustible sermon topic.
The problem is especially acute at children’s services. If the service includes the reading of Torah, do we really want young children to hear a story in which an apparently loving father almost kills the long-awaited child? Books of Bible stories for children often omit or abridge this episode, but what choice is there when it’s the Torah reading?

Some congregations read it at children’s services, but possibly without translation and almost certainly without explanation. The Reform machzor offers an alternative reading, the Creation story, that some congregations read in family services (or in adult services on one day or the other).

That doesn’t help us as teachers. Although we may certainly be selective in choosing which parts of the Bible to teach, emphasizing those that have the most educational value for children of the age we’re teaching, the fact that the akedah is the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah suggests that it’s too important to skip. And in class, the “Ann Landers solution”—using language that young children won’t understand—isn’t an option.

Worse, the conventional lesson won’t work. Usually Abraham is presented as a model of faith: willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of his God. Would you want your father to have that kind of faith?

With older students it’s possible to confront the issue directly, for example by putting Abraham on trial for child endangerment. While that isn’t appropriate for younger students, it suggests an approach that doesn’t completely gloss over the appearance of abuse or neglect.

That is to shift the focus away from a view of Abraham’s faith as a near-insanity that drives him almost to kill his son. That is, to move toward the view that his faith allows Abraham to follow God’s call while believing that God will not make him go through with the sacrifice of Isaac. It’s a view that is more in accord with the rest of Torah, where the message (from last week’s Torah reading) that comes through most consistently is “choose life.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, teaching about an equally disturbing episode of thinly veiled abuse in the Bible, the story of Lot’s daughters, observes that the study of Torah has healing power, and that if we avoid teaching the disturbing parts, we deny this healing to those who most need it. But we have a choice. We can teach the akedah as the story of a man whose faith is so strong that he is willing to kill his son, with God as the teacher administering a test that Abraham passes. Or we can teach that it’s a story in which God prevents him from killing Isaac, with God as the coach who keeps him from failing.

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