Thursday, October 8, 2009

Honor Your Jewish Parents; Dead Isaac

1. Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York: MacMillan, 1980) 297.

R. Hanina’s dictum was that “He who is commanded and fulfills is greater than he who fulfills though not commanded” (B.T. Kiddushin 31a).

I read this passage for my Talmud class at Jewish Theological Seminary some years ago. The topic is honoring one’s parents. According to the passage, Gentiles are not subject to this command, presumably because “Honor your father and your mother” is not one of the seven Noachide rules that Gentiles have to observe. Jews, however, are required to honor their parents. The point of the passage is that Jews who honor their parents in obedience to God’s command have more merit than Gentiles who honor their parents without being bound to such a requirement.

For my Talmud partner, it should be the other way around: Wouldn’t those who do good without being commanded by God deserve more merit than those simply obeying God’s command? I mean, aren’t the mature stages of Kohlberg’s “stages of spiritual development” the ones in which the believer isn’t simply following orders, but is doing good because it’s, well, good? But, for Judaism, there’s a larger issue than just doing good: one should yield in faith and obedience to the God of Israel, who chose Israel for a special mission. Judaism advocated neither faith without good works nor good works without faith. They wanted the performance of good deeds to flow from a love of God that produced obedience, which would give the good deeds a cosmic significance within God’s purposes.

Unlike the Judaism of B.T. Kiddushin 31a, the apostle Paul believed that Gentiles were required by God to honor their parents (Romans 1:30). Many like to argue that Paul was influenced by the Jewish belief that Gentiles ought to observe the seven Noachide commandments. I disagree, if such a notion assumes that Paul thought Gentiles should only observe those seven commandments. Paul held that Gentiles should honor their parents as well.

2. Jon Levenson, The Death and the Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven: Yale, 1993) 194.

We have already seen that the possible interpretations of the midrashic allusions to the blood of Isaac are three. The first is the minimalist view: no blood was spilled, but God graciously reckoned Abraham’s and Isaac’s devout intention as the equivalent of the bloody deed. Next comes the intermediate position: Abraham drew a fraction of Isaac’s lifeblood as a token of the sacrifice he was prepared to carry out. The third view is maximalist: the father slew his son, and the son gave up his life, in obedience to the command of God.

Offhand, I wonder how the third position (that Abraham actually killed Isaac) jibes with the part of Genesis 22 where the angel tells Abraham to do nothing to his son. But the issue is this: there’s a Jewish tradition that God blessed Israel on account of the blood of Isaac, the same way that Christians believe believers are blessed because of the blood of Christ. Was Isaac’s shed blood only potential? For some, the answer is “no,” for Isaac died for his descendants, Israel, and I guess he was resurrected soon thereafter.

Some of the issue may have been that Jews were being martyred, and they looked to Isaac as someone who died for God. Some thought it was enough of an inspiration that Isaac was willing to die. For others, that wasn’t sufficient, so Isaac must have literally and actually laid down his life.

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