IS THIS BOOK FOR YOUR GROUP?
Would your group like to explore new insights into the ancient story of the binding of Isaac? Through his own probing commentary and insightful spiritual reflections, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, called “one of the most insightful and articulate rabbis of his generation” by the eminent Rabbi Harold Kushner, will challenge you and your group to go beneath the simple shocking story of the Akedah and ask: who is the tester, who is the tested and what motivates the test? He will invite you to use this powerful tale as a tool for your own soul wrestling, to transcend its words to confront your own existential sacrifices and ability to face—and surmount—life’s tests.
6 x 9, 176 pp, Quality Paperback, 978-1-58023-631-7
Challenges you to go beneath the brief, shocking story and ask: who is the tester, who is the tested and what motivates the test?
Among stories so terrible they rend our hearts, so profound they touch the depths of our souls, and so exalted they reach to heaven, none is more poignant than the Bible story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. A story revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and turned over and over by great secular thinkers searching for meaning, this gripping tale shocks us into complete attention, then takes us—in nineteen short verses—on a roller coaster ride of emotion, challenge and hope.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, known widely for making the Hebrew Bible relevant to our lives, draws on generations of Jewish sages, philosophers and scholars to explore this ancient story, known as the binding of Isaac or the test of Abraham. He invites us to use this powerful tale as a tool for our own soul wrestling, to transcend its words to confront our own existential sacrifices and our ability to face—and surmount—life’s tests. By applying this tale’s lessons to everyday events, Artson compels us to pay closer attention to our lives and, through our priorities, responsibilities, mindfulness and faith, ask ourselves if we are passing our own tests.
“Rabbi Artson takes Abraham’s test and through personal testimony and deep learning, teaches all of us crucial lessons about faith, learning and love.”
—Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles; author, Why Faith Matters
“A book that belongs in every Jewish home. A treasure for all who long to make sense of the Torah’s most perplexing narrative. [It] masterfully offers us the tools we need to confront our deepest questions of faith with new eyes and a new understanding. This is a work we will return to over and over again, and with each reading we will emerge transformed.”
—Rabbi Naomi Levy, author, Hope Will Find You; spiritual leader, Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center
“Draws poignantly and pointedly upon Rabbi Artson’s own life story as well as upon his vast Jewish and secular knowledge to illuminate and provide original explanations of a text that has been read and debated for millennia. In so doing, he offers the contemporary reader new insights into a controversial and ancient story, and ignites a passion for the wisdom inherent in Torah with his readers. This is an enriching book!”
—Rabbi David Ellenson, president, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
“Rabbi Artson has taken on the most challenging story in the Bible, the binding of Isaac, and has found valuable lessons for all of us in it.”
—Rabbi Harold Kushner, author, When Bad Things Happen to Good People
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a rabbi learned in Jewish texts who also has a sophisticated grasp of cutting-edge contemporary theology? While we are imagining, we might as well give this rabbi an uncanny ability to explain complex ideas in simple ways. And would it be too much to ask for the rabbi to also have a soul—a profound understanding of human beings and a hard-won personal faith? As you read this book, you will marvel at Rabbi Artson’s unique combination of gifts. More importantly, Rabbi Artson will accompany you—like a good rabbi should—while you consider the challenging questions arising from Abraham’s story, and your own.”
—Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, PhD, associate professor of religious studies; director, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
“Invites us to travel the heights and depths of this gripping biblical narrative as a mirror of our own soul’s quest. Aided by Rabbi Artson’s illuminating translation, multi-layered commentary, and opportunities for deeply personal contemplation, we encounter not only Abraham and Isaac within the story, but our own selves. If you face life-tests that challenge you, use this wisdom well! You will grow in faith, courage and insight!”
—Rabbi Marcia Prager, director and dean, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal Ordination Program; author, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine
“Offers a fresh reading of the text, exhibiting the generosity of spirit and the daring imagination that has always marked the best of Rabbinic Judaism. Artson shows how the text provides an epitome of all that matters to Jewish faith. This is an important read for Christians, both to see a skilled rabbi working with the text and to read of the rich gift that this daringly Jewish text offers to faith. His reading of the text exhibits the deep theological and demanding moral dimensions of Torah faith that goes way beneath conventional religion. In Artson’s hands the text arrives at freshness. So will the reader!”
—Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary; author, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination
“Through the lens of the Bible’s most troubling tale, Rabbi Brad Artson weaves meditations on life’s most profound challenges. Life and Bible become intertwined to enrich and enliven one another.”
—Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
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Introduction: Seeing Ourselves in the Biblical Mirror
- What do you seek when you study Torah or Scripture?
- Explore how you understand the authority of the Bible and its wisdom. Does it matter who wrote it? Does it matter if God gave it or how God gave it?
- What is the value of using multiple approaches to derive meaning from an ancient text? What are the challenges?
Part One: Translation & Commentary
- Once you have read through the translation, summarize the story and its plot line. Then describe places you would want to explore further, areas that shocked you, surprised you, made you angry or disappointed.
- Where there areas that elevated you or inspired you?
- Working through the commentary, do you find yourself drawn to one of the four approaches more than the others? Why?
- Do you find yourself distanced from one of the approaches more than the others? Why?
- What surprised you in the commentary?
- What did you see in the story that you had missed before?
- What would you add as your own commentary?
Part Two: Deepening Our Encounters
- Share a challenge or tragedy you faced in your own life. How did it change you? What did it teach you?
- Think about the Akedah in the light of your own life experience. What would you learn after being bound on the altar?
- Share a time you gave yourself completely to someone, to a community, to a moment of possibility. How does a stance of Hineni change your life?
- Sometimes we live in the moment and at other times we focus on preparing for times yet to come. How do you know when to prioritize one or the other? Can you recall a time when that assessment was crucial? Can you share such a challenge you are currently facing?
- How do you reconcile love and loyalty to a person with love and loyalty for an ideal or value? Can you think of a moment of such conflict in your own life? How did you finesse that tension? If you had it to do again, would your response be different? Did Abraham manage to balance his love for his son and his commitment to God’s will? Did Isaac balance reverence for his father and love of life?
- Sarah was conspicuously missing from the Akedah story. How do you think that shapes the telling? Talk about the ways that women might be marginalized in your own community. In what ways could you help them attain greater centrality? Are there others in your community who are invisible or shunted aside? How might focusing on Sarah in the Akedah help serve as a corrective?
- If the people who know you best were to be asked, would they think that you live out your core values, or would they identify a gap between the talk you talk and the walk you walk? Would you? How does Abraham deal with that gap in his own life? How might you deal with it on your own?
- What are you prepared to sacrifice for your highest ideals? What are you prepared to impose on those you love for your highest ideals? What do you learn from Abraham and Isaac’s wrestling with that same challenge?
- Relations between parents and children are often complex, integrating deep love and strong conflict at the same time. Talk about Abraham and Isaac and their father-son relationship. How can you learn from them and improve your own parent-child relationships?
- Life brings great joys and also great suffering. Think about the ways that Abraham and Isaac suffered in the Akedah. Reflect on moments in your own life of great exultation and great sorrow. How does seeing yourself in the light of the biblical tale shape your experience of these perennial realities?
Conclusion: Belief—Know Before Whom You Stand
- Is there a test you are currently facing? How does your faith help you (or hinder you) in coping with it?
- How can you find ways to make meaning in your struggles?
- What possibilities do the examples of Abraham and Isaac open for you that you had not previously considered?
- What resources does the example of a God who stays Abraham’s hand and sends the ram offer you that you had not previously considered?
Why did you write this book?
Each year at Rosh Hashanah, Jews gather in record numbers. During the services, the Torah reading is the shocking story of the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac and the test of Abraham. The notion that God would command the slaughter of one’s beloved child, that the founder of the three monotheistic faiths would consent, and that Isaac would passively participate are chilling. The intrusion of such a bloody tale in the midst of the beautiful services distracts many participants from the larger goals of the day, and it occurred to me that there must be hidden wisdom to justify why this tale was the one selected for such a prominent moment. I wrote the book as a way of exploring what wisdom might be found in the story.
What did you find?
Well, approaching the Bible as a repository of wisdom allows me to sidestep questions of authorship and authority. It allows people with very different ideologies and faiths to open themselves to the biblical tale as it is, and to respond to it without preconditions. Given that the Bible is the classic of all classics, it should not be surprising that the more I read and re-read this story, the more I found it speaking to how we can face life’s tests with greater meaning, resilience, and success.
Can you give an example of the wisdom you found?
Sure. I looked at the story of the Akedah, and asked, for example, why is it that Isaac is the only one of the three patriarchs who is described as loving his wife (and her loving him back), the only one never to leave the Land of Israel despite famine, but the least famous of all three? And I traced this distinct set of choices to the fact that alone of the three patriarchs, Isaac had confronted his mortality as a young man. In “What You Learn When You’re Under the Knife,” I apply Isaac’s insights to allow us all to seize the moment and live more lovingly, more consciously in the present.
So the book consists of a series of chapters exploring different messages found in the Akedah?
Well, that is the second part of the book, with chapters on mortality, paradox, priorities, solidarity, faith, fear, and virtues like faithfulness, resilience, joy. But the first part of the book provides a translation of the entire biblical story and an extensive commentary that allows the reader to draw close to the tale itself on four different levels: the contextual meaning, the intellectual meaning hinted at, the emotional, existential meaning, and the spiritual, hidden meaning. All four meanings reinforce and deepen our translation of an ancient story into contemporary living.
Is this book just for Jews?
This book is meant for anyone who is interested in reflecting on the key tests that every human being faces in the course of being alive. Jews will find resources from their own tradition, and Christians and Muslims will hear abundant echoes that parallel insights within their own faiths. But all people share a common humanity, and the power of the Bible as great literature unites us all. The Akedah is a way of exploring our shared humanity in the light of one of the great masterpieces of human creativity and one of the world’s most famous and powerful stories.