Isaac and Ishmael
Chapter 22 of Genesis begins:
And it was, after these things, that God tested Abraham. He said to him: ‘Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’
In Targum Pseudo-Yonatan, an Aramaic translation of the Torah from around the seventh century CE, this single verse of the Torah is expanded into a story that explains the origin of God’s testing of Abraham.
And it was after these things that Isaac and Ishmael argued.
Ishmael said: ‘It is right that I should inherit what is my father’s because I am his firstborn son.’
Isaac said: ‘It is right that I should inherit what is my father’s because I am the son of Sarah, his wife, and you are the son of Hagar, my mother’s handmaid.’
Ishmael makes what we would consider to be a commonsense claim to inherit, since he is the oldest. Isaac dismisses Ishmael’s claim to inherit on the basis of their mothers’ relative social status.
Ishmael said: ‘I am more righteous than you, because I was circumcised at thirteen years; and had it been my will to refuse, they would not have been able to force me to be circumcised. Whereas, you were circumcised at eight days; if you had knowledge, maybe they could not have forced you to be circumcised.’
In other words, Ishmael questions Isaac’s devotion to God’s cause. While he had made the decision willingly and in full knowledge of the pain that circumcision would cause, Isaac had had the decision made for him when he was still too young to decide for himself, and too young to know how painful it would be. Ishmael feels a pride at having taken the covenant upon himself with his eyes open. Isaac, on the other hand, can make no such boast.
Isaac responded: ‘Behold, today I am thirty-six years old, and if the Holy Blessed One were to require all my limbs, I would not delay.
Having not given himself over to the covenant willingly to begin with, Isaac feels it necessary to assert his bodily allegiance now – perhaps suggesting to Ishmael that covenant is an ongoing, rather than a singular, act.
These words were heard before the Sovereign of the World, and the Word of the ETERNAL at once tested Abraham, and said to him: ‘Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’
Thus, the author of the Targum brings us out of the exchange between Isaac and Ishmael, and back to the original dialogue between God and Abraham. And yet Isaac is still with us in the narrative, since now we are constantly in mind that it is because he has stated his willingness to give all his limbs over to God that Abraham is being spoken to. In other words, the test is really for Isaac.
I ask myself whom I most identify with in this dialogue between Isaac and Ismael, and I find myself leaning towards Ishmael. As a patrilineal Jew, I take exception to Isaac’s claim that Ishmael is less entitled because of his mother’s lower status. Unfortunately, his view is one that has been propagated by many generations of Jews, for whom the religious identity of someone’s mother is the supreme test of whether someone truly belongs in their community.
And yet in the past I have been too quick to dismiss those who see their inherited Jewish identity as being profoundly meaningful, and find it difficult when I have seemed to question their sense of belonging because they choose to celebrate their Judaism in ways other than going to synagogue. For many, the existential crisis precipitated by the Holocaust is enough for them to hold on their Jewish identity, without having a sense of choosing a religious way of life. As I have moved into the role of rabbinic student, this is something of which I have become increasingly aware and (I hope) sensitive.
It could be said, then, that Isaac and Ishmael represent two different extremes of what it means to be part of Jewish tradition. On the one hand, it is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. It’s a birthright and a burden that can only really be understood by those who carry it for their entire lives. On the other hand, it is a direct experience of religious life that is in the moment and needs to be pursued and embraced, rather than simply inherited from the last generation.
Most of us live with these two ways of approaching tradition in some kind of balance. And this balance is never more evident than when families and communities come together for lifecycle events. Ishmael and Isaac are ultimately reunited when they come together to bury their father. They are drawn back together by the inescapable pull of the human lifecycle, and that is what we can hope continues to reconcile the different parts of our communities and our families.
It is in those times that the force of centuries of culture comes into contact with the electricity of a particular moment of joy, or wonder, or grief. Maybe it is in those times that our tradition is most whole.
Elliott Karstadt Leo Baeck rabbinic student