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Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative, by Yael S. Feldman. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. 421 pp. $60.00.
This book focuses on modern Hebrew retellings of the aqedah, the story of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. With background references to ancient, medieval, and modern philosophical attitudes toward this myth, Feldman traces its ubiquitous “psychopolitical” role in modern Hebrew literature over the last century. Her sheer number of examples, many of them central to contemporary Israeli culture, incontrovertibly establish that the aqedah has indeed functioned as one of the foundational cornerstones of modern Zionist and post-zionist discourse, a malleable structure that can be manipulated in many different, even opposed directions, by all those who have seized upon it since ancient times.
Feldman’s most important contribution to understanding aqedaic rhetoric is her identification of politicized intergenerational syndromes operating behind and grafted onto the familiar Biblical symbols. She argues that what may just look like a literary reworking of the Biblical story often masks a politicized Oedipus complex (or any other generational and gendered variations of this complex) projected onto the sparse parameters of Abraham and Isaac’s relationship. To trace the main permutations of this modern psychopolitical conversation with Genesis 22, Feldman moves from a review of theories about the role and rhetoric of sacrifice in ancient times, to a detailed chronological overview of aqedaic discourse in the modern Hebrew imagination from 1904 until the present. In particular, she focuses on changing attitudes towards the idea of victimhood and (self)sacrifice from the “phases” of Second and Third Aliyah (1904–14 and 1919–23) to the War of Independence (1948), the Six Day War (1967), Yom Kippur War (1973), and finally the literature of protest surrounding the First War in Lebanon (1982).
Wars in Israel are often discussed in terms of the “generation” that had been allegedly most traumatized by it. Intergenerational conflicts are thus easily projected unto the aqedah’s pliable structure, so it can serve just as comfortably to blame Abraham or shake up Isaac, revisit the banished brother Ishmael or appeal to the absent mother Sarah. This malleability enables a spectrum of political attitudes ranging from naive pacifism to messianic nationalism, always linked to patricidal fantasies and filicidal counter accusations. Usually these are two sides of the same predicament—complicated here through obsessive reinterpretation of a malleable and suggestive biblical intertext that is constantly revisited in light of specific historical events such as the Crusades, the Holocaust, and different facets of the Arab-Israeli conflict. All these literary transmutations of the biblical story are ultimately driven by the question of whether there might have been a better alternative to the road taken.
Of course Abraham’s binding of his “only” son on Mount Moriah was traditionally interpreted as an act of total obedience to a God who thereby prohibited the child sacrifices and initiation rites practiced in the Canaanite region. But secular Israeli discourse has turned this scenario of binding obedience (aqedah means binding) into such a fraught arena that now the term aqedah can be employed to refer to any ideologically conditioned violent death, or potential harm, involving offspring.
This attitude comes closer to a Christian notion of martyrdom, whereby Jesus’ crucifixion is interpreted as the fulfillment of the aqedah’s potential. Feldman illustrates the ongoing permeability between the two faiths, so that even if one might think that at some point Christian ideas about a son’s sacrifice overlaid and colored the aqedah’s original opposition to human sacrifice, Feldman’s nuanced analysis shows that this trajectory of influence is more complicated, given that within Jewish tradition itself, martyrological stances were glorified at various times since antiquity in midrashic interpretations of the aqedah and also in references to historical acts of martyrdom usually undertaken as a last measure of physical or ideological self defense.
Feldman’s interdisciplinary probe into aqedaic rhetoric via the methods of literary analysis, cultural anthropology, and psychoanalysis allows her to retrace both the literary and political history of modern Israel. The value of her book is therefore twofold: it offers a valuable overview of canonical and forgotten works of Hebrew literature from the last hundred years, and it illuminates shifting attitudes towards heroism and victimhood, in the context of Jewish history and literary traditions beyond Israel.
Among the literary examples that Feldman examines, I particularly enjoyed the “minority” views which she analyzes in generous detail. These contrarian positions help her articulate the dominant attitudes towards heroism and victimhood that appear to characterize each cultural “phase.” Despite this comprehensiveness, blind spots naturally remain, not only regarding central literary figures (Agnon) and central historical paradigms (for example, the impact of martyrological references to the Inquisition), but also a much broader gap concerning the actual importance of the aqedah relative to other biblical myths underlying modern Hebrew culture. This broader gap can be filled only by conducting further studies of this kind on the other foundational myths and symbols of Israeli culture, above all, the trope of exodus and return to the land of Canaan/Zion and related issues. When we have Feldmanian probes into all these foundational paradigms, we will be in a better position to assess the aqedah’s actual importance within modern Hebrew culture.
Feldman’s study stands as a role model for continuing investigations of biblical tropes in modern literatures; indeed her book may even remain the crowning study of the binding of Isaac as a literary trope. But one thing is certain—its readers are unlikely to ever again encounter any kind of sacrificial narrative without harking back to Feldman’s observations.