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TAKE YOUR SON: PSYCHOANALYTIC INTERPRETATION

TAKE YOUR SON: PSYCHOANALYTIC INTERPRETATION OF THE “AKEDA” – BINDING OF ISAAC (GENESIS 22)

BINDING OF ISAAC (GENESIS 22)

HENRY ABRAMOVITCH

Lecture Given to Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology Conference, June 2011

I am delighted to be here with you in Moscow and want to thank all of those who made my visit possible, especially Yulia K. It was especially moving to meet some of you at Montreal IAAP Congress and see you called up to the stage to become Jungian analysts.

As you can all tell from my family name, Abramovitch, my paternal roots are in this part of the world. I also grew up in a family in which the greatest psychologist was considered not Freud, or even Jung, but Dostoyevsky. The opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” was seen as the best introduction to marriage as a psychological relation. Like Chekov’s Three Sisters, I wondered if I would ever come to Moscow. So this visit is a kind of symbolic homecoming for me. My family name, also means “son of Abram”, which may also help explain my passion and destiny for searching for archetypal father in “Our Father Abraham”

My topic is the psychodynamics of father-son conflict but I want to begin with an active imagination. “Please put down your pens. Relax. Sink into your chair. Shut your eyes. Imagine that you are a child again, playing happily in your room…Suddenly, the door opens and it is your father. He tells you that together, you are going on a journey… You start walking for a long time in silence together, through the countryside…You are wondering where you are going. Finally, you ask, “Where are we going?” and are told, “We will know when we get there.” You continue walking, climbing up a mountain. When you reach the top, father says,” Stand against that rock and do not move.” He then pulls out a gun and aims it at you…” You wake up from this nightmare.

Now turn to the person next to you and share something of what you felt…

This active imagination is inspired by the terrible story of the binding of Isaac, told in Genesis 22:1-19 known in Hebrew as the akeda, and that is how I shall refer to it. When one first considers the akeda, it seems the act of a madman: a psychotic, psychopath, senex personality, who is possessed by an inflated/grandiose “God complex”. It is a nightmare, like a dagger held to your throat; a horrible, religious perversion and yet Jewish, Christian and Moslem traditions, all herald it as a supreme moment of faith, for which Abraham and all his descendants, including all of us here in the room, are blessed: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…(22:18)

Abraham is most often understood as Knight of Faith and the Prince of Obedience. God the Father tells Abraham, to kill the thing he loves and he obeys with fear and trembling. The Supreme Divine Authority demands submission and obedience, or in Jungian terms an all-powerful Self dictates to an overpowered, subjugated Ego. Many interpretations of the akeda from Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan are based on this view, well illustrated in the opening lines of early Dylan song, Highway 61:

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"

Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin' you better run"

Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"

God says, "Out on Highway 61."

But this interpretation has a serious flaw. It is based on a mistranslation of the Biblical Hebrew. In most translations, God says to Abraham, “Take your son…” But the Hebrew says: “kakh na”. “Take” would involve “kakh” alone; so what is “na” doing there? “na” is an untranslatable term indicating polite request that may be translated “Please take” or “Will you take” but certainly NOT a command.

In Genesis, alone there are 25 examples of “na”. Each is a request, often an unusual request as when Abram asks his wife to pretend to be his sister; or when God asks Abraham to look up toward the night sky and count the stars. Whatever akeda is, it is not about an Abraham possessed by authoritarian great father complex demanding submission. Rather, Abraham is asked to make a choice. To choose between two things that he loves best.

I want to make clear that I am speaking of “God” not from the point of view of theology (Jews tend to avoid theology, calling the Divine: “The Place”, “The Name”, “The Holy One” and view God as ever-present but unknowable) but following Jung from point of view of psychology indicative of the Self and Abraham’s evolving God-image.

I am a passionate Jew but when I read the akeda, I wish I were a Christian. For a Christian believer, the “sacrifice of Isaac” (as Christians call the akeda) makes sense. It is the clearest pre-figuration of the sacrifice of a Son by another Father; like Isaac, Jesus is His Father’s only beloved son; like Isaac, Jesus travels to receive his fate in Jerusalem; like Isaac, Jesus carries wood on his back up a mountainside; like Isaac, Jesus, asks one poignant question of his Father quoting Psalm 22:1: “Father, father, why have you abandoned/forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). There is one difference. Isaac is saved at the very last minute, while Jesus, the archetypal abandoned son, dies alone on the cross. Jesus, the man of Love encounters thanatos; while Isaac returns from a near death experience with a born again Eros. For Jesus, death is a prelude to resurrection, for Isaac, it is the beginning of his initiation.

Another approach to making sense of akeda is to use mythology. Mythological perspective would see Abraham’s act as an example of a “Laius complex”. Laius, as you all remember, was Oedipus’ father. While Laius was still young, his rivals usurped the throne of Thebes. Some Thebans, wishing to see his line of Cadmus continue, smuggled Laius out of the city who was given refuge by a neighboring. In spite of this act of “hesed”, loving kindnesss in Hebrew, Laius abducted and raped the King's young son. Later, Laius managed to return to Thebes. He became king again and married Jocasta his Queen. Laius heard an oracle from Delphi that his son was destined to murder him. As a result, Laius refused to have sex with his Queen, in fear of his unborn children competitors. Like Abrahm’s nieces in Genesis 19, his wife, Jocasta got him drunk, made love or rather stole his semen, and got herself pregnant. When the child was born, Laius demanded that the threatening infant be killed. It was his mother, Jocasta, who actually turned over her baby to die slowly of starvation - a fact that Freud who had a highly idealized relationship with his own mother ignored, and led to his “misreading” of the Oedipal story. Had Freud or Jung paid attention to the beginning of the Oedipus myth, parents’ wish to kill their own child would also been universalized and seen as the precipitating factor in child’s preoccupation with incest and murder (Wheeley 1992).

Laius complex, an archetypal aspect of the Negative Great Father can be found in other Greek myths, as well as in the Old and New Testaments that reinforces the idea that we are dealing with archetypal situation. In early Greek mythology, Cronus envied the power of his father, Uranus, the ruler of the universe. With the help of his mother, Gaia, Cronus attacked his father, cutting off his genitals with a sickle, and casting the severed phallus into the sea. From the phallus, Aphrodite later emerged. This first period of Cronus' rule was a Golden Age, as everyone did the right thing. Later, Cronus learned from his parents, Gaia and Uranus, that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, just as he had overthrown his father. As a result, although he sired the gods Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon by Rhea, he devoured them all as soon as they were born. Cronos devouring his own children is terrifyingly expressed in Goya’s and Rubens’ famous painting [show image?]. A parallel story is found in Old Testament at the opening of the Book of Exodus: Pharaoh demands the death of all male babies born of Hebrew mothers. In New Testament, Herod’s massacre of the innocents in the Gospels is another example. (Matthew 2:16-18). These are acts of dictator who want to defeat time, to be divine and live forever; they are self-absorbed, narcissists who know nothing of generativity and generosity. To allow your son to live is to accept that one day, you will die and he will continue after you. That is the hidden link of sex and death. The first task of a son is to survive his father’s murderous envy.

Collectively, Laius complex expresses a cultural complex involving the psychological power struggle between the generations. The older generation acts out a murderous envy of the younger generation’s vitality and youthfulness. Laius and his son meet on a bridge as the old man and young neither willing to give way. Political revolutionaries often develop a Laius complex once they are in power. They often see younger comrades as potential competitors, or opportunists without sufficient ideological fervor and become an aging Senex never relinquishing their position, a pattern we can see mostly clearly in Cuba, where the average age of the leadership is 80, but in many other once revolutionary countries, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Egypt, Yemen as well as elsewhere.

Now let us have a closer look at the Text. Traditionally, Jews believe the way toward the Divine is through studying and exploring His texts. Asking challenging questions and not taking things at face value has always been a Jewish preoccupation. The first public act of a Jewish child is to ask question at the Passover seder. The best student is not the one who can answer the question but who can come up with a better question. Joke: “Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question”? Answer: “Why not?” Sometimes in analysis, the best intervention is not an interpretation but a unexpected question.

I will be referring to the Hebrew original via a new English translation[1] I believe gives the best feel for the original.

Text

As you can see, the akeda narrative is placed within a “frame” familiar from the Book of Job: ““Now after these events. God tested Abraham”. The first phrase, “After these things” implies that we must see akeda, not as an isolated, act but in sequence; every time this phrase appears in Scripture, it refers to preceding events especially in the previous chapter (cf. Ch 15). In previous chapter 21, Abraham reaches a pinnacle of paternity, status and success. The miracle child Isaac whose name means “Laughter/Laughing” is born. Local King comes to make a treaty of everlasting friendship, saying, “God is with you in all things“; Abraham calls out “the name of the Lord, the everlasting God” (Hebrew: el olam). These events describe what my teacher Dan Levinson in his Season’s of a Man’s Life, called a “stable period” of consolidation and mature achievement, unlike periods of turmoil and transition like a mid life crisis. There is one traumatic event that puts akeda into perspective and it concerns his relation to his firstborn son, whose name means “God will Hear/Hears” [[check].

Shortly after Isaac is weaned, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, demands that Abraham expel their adopted firstborn son, born to slave-surrogate saying, “Drive out this slave woman and her son for the son of this slave-woman shall not share-inheritance with my son, with Yitzchak!” The Text says clearly: “The matter was exceedingly bad in Abraham’s eyes because of his son.” (21:11)

Abraham sends Ishmael and his mother into the desert with only some water and bread to an almost certain death. Why does Abraham, who has exquisite moral sensibilities, do what he knows to be wrong? Here, he does it because God tells him to. Divine approval suggests it is a spiritual act and a conscious sacrifice. The language of the revelation, “Follow Sarah in all things she says!” (21:12) indicates a powerful need to honor the feminine and in Rabbinic tradition Sarah is considered a greater prophet than Abraham himself. The fate of Ishmael and Isaac are linked: Like Isaac, Abraham sends his beloved son off to the most bitter of fates. Like Isaac, Ishmael sets out in the early morning –leading many to suggest God appeared in a dream – or that the entire akeda is a dream; like Isaac, Ishmael would be dead, except for the intervention of angel. Ishmael’s sacrifice prefigures and parallels akeda. In a sense, it is the first akeda! It suggests a lingering Laius orientation toward his sons.

Sarah’s power complex and God’s approval would have led mother and son to develop the excessive closeness or even pathological maternal symbiosis. Breaking such symbiosis is not simple. Jung noted that fear of the father may drive a boy out of his identification with his mother, or it make cause him to cling still more, leading to neurotic situation. Abraham’s Inner Voice may well have understood the need to dramatically severe this regressive mother-son bond. A fascinating piece of cross-cultural research in Africa discovered that the greater maternal symbiosis e.g. as measured by mother-son sleeping arrangements, the more brutal were male initiation rituals. From that perspective, the akeda was just such a traumatic male initiation rite, separating Isaac from his mother and the maternal. Not surprisingly, Jewish tradition links Sarah hearing about the akeda with her death reported in the following chapter 23.

The next phrase, “God tested Abraham”, creates a tension between the reader and Abraham. We know it is a test, even if Abraham does not. As a result, the reader is present as a complicit observer of the unfolding divine psychodrama.

When God tells Abraham to take his son and “offer him up there as an offering-up upon one of the mountains.” (22:1) - How does Abraham respond? Does he protest and cry against this terrible injustice? No, he remains silent. Now, silence has many voices, and we know from our clinical work it is vital to understand a patient’s silence. Is it the silence of agreement or a silence of defiance? Or…

To help understand, Abraham’s silence, I want to review a previous encouters with his Voice.[2] All along, we can see a developing intimacy and dialogue that reaches its highpoint in Chapter 18. Abraham learns from God that He is about to destroy the wicked towns of Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham responds:

Abraham came close and said:

Will you really sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

Perhaps there are fifty innocent within the city,

Will you really sweep it away?

…Heaven forbid for you!

The judge of all earth – will not do what is just?[3]

[more?]

In this dynamic encounter between ego and Self, you can see the essence of Abraham’s spiritual revolution: humanity’s relationship with Divinity is based not on blind submission to a Higher Authority, as in religions of the time and epic Enuma Elisha, but genuine dialogue. While a man must know his place - Abraham says, “I am but earth and ashes” (18:26) - there are times when one can, and indeed should, argue with God. Arguing with God (and everyone else) has a strong tradition in Jewish culture[4] and it begins here with Abraham, as does the saving power of 36 just ones, the “lamedvavnik”

Abraham is also the First Prophet. Archetypally, he defends humanity to an angry God, while acting as His representative to Humankind e.g. praying for the life of local King and to open the blocked wombs of the woman of Gerar. Abraham’s most poignant role is as the original, archetypal human rights activist, demanding that God Himself be subject to His own laws: “The judge of all the earth – will he not do what is just?” (18:25). No one, not even God, is above universal principles of justice and the rule of law. Surely, Abraham can be considered the patron saint of all those who demand justice in the face of tyranny.

When he had ended bargaining, Abraham must have been confident that there were 10 decent men in the City and so had saved Sodom; on the following day, looking down upon “dense-smoke of a furnace” (19:28), Abraham watching, seeing, understanding that he had been naïve concerning the pervasiveness and reality of human evil. This confrontation with the collective Shadow was a necessary moment of disillusionment. Viewing the holocaust from afar seeing the smoke rising from the place where he had stood before the Lord is one of the great moments of silence in Scripture.

Unlike Lot’s wife who becomes a pilar of salt, symbolically frozen in the PTSD process by prematurely looking back at the trauma scene, Abraham is transformed into an ethical-witness with an intense survivor mission [like his nieces]. Abraham would feel that he was spared the fate of Sodom for a reason: “to do what is right and just”.[5]

Abraham’s ability to question injustice and speak his mind makes his silence at the injustice of the akeda all the more poignant.

I believe given the reassurance the experience of Sodom and Ishmael, Abraham understood the akeda was something he had to go through –even if he did not know where it would end. Philosophers challenge Abraham and ask how did you know it was the voice of God and not the Devil. Is it psychosis or Self? Despite the overt immorality of the Call, he never doubted that it was from divine Self and not from the devil; for the rest of us, it is not always so clear…

Returning the text, you notice there are two word that repeat three times during the short 19 lines of the text. The first is :“Heneni “Here I am”, cognate to “here” and the second is: yachadav. “together”, cognate to “one, unity “ehad”.

When God first calls Abraham by name, “Abraham, Abraham” he replies, “Heneini” “Here I am”. When Isaac calls him father to ask his question, he answers the same, “heneini”. The third and final “heneni” comes at the climatic moment when the messenger calls Abraham to do not harm to his son.

Abraham’s response, “Heneini” will become the standard response to a Divine Call for Moses, Samuel, Isaiah and others; it indicates a readiness to hear and a sense of being fully present and might well be translated “Ready”. Heneini, “Here I am. Ready!” is existential attitude needed to be responsive, fully presence to listen to the Voice, the call, our children and our patients.

“Together” also appears three times: when father and son leave servants and go off together; again, after Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s question; and finally when Abraham returns with lads but without Isaac to go together to Beersheva. Akeda, one would think is about brutal separation, but the underlying theme is a symphony of togetherness, of different sorts of unity. Midrash, traditionally explains that the second “yakhav” represents Isaac’s understanding that he is the one to be sacrificed and accepts his fate and goes together with his father. In a similar way, I believe, as we shall see, that Abraham also came back to his lads wholehearted.

Together these two words present the essence of Abraham’s message to his son and in a way to us. The first is the need to be Ready to respond. The second is the fundamental importance of togetherness, unity, comm.-unity, bonding and at the same time being true to your Self. It is a high wire act that we are all on.

But the question must be asked:

Why does God need to test Abraham? And what is being tested?

To understand the nature of the test, I must make a detour to the “psychology of revolutionary”. Normally, family life is based on kinship continuity, the ongoing bond between parent and children who in turn become parents to next generation. True, children need to symbolically distance themselves from their parents and their values in order to begin their own journey toward individuation, even symbolically to kill them, but typically after adolescent there is a rapprochment. As one young man said, “It is remarkable how much my parents have grown up in the last couple of years!”

Revolutionaries, in contrast, reject biological kinship and instead substitute an elective kinship based on a spontaneous communion of kindred souls and total identification with a common mission and ideology. Solidarity among comrades is intense; relatives and friends who do not share this ideological commitment become outsiders, even strangers. Revolution is based on a dramatic break with the past to create a new order, a new heaven on earth. This is true at the outset of Christianity when it was still a sect of Judaism. When members of his family come to visit Jesus, he replies:

"Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand toward his disciples he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven; he is my brother and sister and mother. (Matthew 12:46-50)…For I have come to set a man against his father, [a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man's enemies will be those of his own household].” (Mat. 10:34-6)

The same rejection of family is true of Zionist Socialists who founded the egalitarian Kibbutz in Israel, or the Bolsheviks who founded Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Once successful, every revolutionary faces the dilemma of continuity: how do I pass on the spirit of the revolution to the next generation?

The revolutionary founder, whether spiritual or political, has secret.
And it is unacknowledged guilt that he/she abandoned his father; how does he know my “sons” will not do the same? Paradoxically, how does revolutionary assure his sons be loyal to a tradition of disloyalty?

Anthropologists divide succession or formal continuity into two main types: genealogical inheritance by birthright and kinship and charismatic inheritance by selection and outstanding ability. The benefit of birthright is an assured, pre-determined tradition. Everyone knows who will be the next king, priest or head of the family business. The down side is that leader may be ill-prepared for the job. Charismatic pattern is the mirror image. The new leader is dynamic and highly capable but the transition may be uncertain, even violent, leading to civil war. Sometimes, the best approach is to combine the best of both systems. Moses, a charismatic political refugee who came to power, left political leadership to his chosen successor, Joshua, while creating a hereditary priest-caste based in his own family, beginning with his own brother. Every Cohen, Kagan, Katz is a priest-descendant of Moses’ brother who still play a significant role in Jewish ritual. Likewise, the highpoint of the Roman Empire occurred when a series of Emperors, adopted worthy successors as sons, combing a charismatic succession with a fictive kinship; when Marcus Aurelius named his own biological son as Emperor, catastrophe and decline immediately followed. Within the Bible, there are 28 cases of father-to-son inheritance in Old Testament and in none is there a single, clear-cut case where a father simply and successfully initiates his firstborn son to be his chosen heir and spiritual successor. Most Biblical fathers, like Adam, Jacob, Samuel, or David undergo traumatic loss in relation to their sons. The akeda is, therefore, part of a pervasive pattern of traumatic succession and disputed inheritance.
Succession in psychoanalytic institutes is no less problematic –Eisold (2008) found that often the analytic “fathers” manipulate those they train into carrying out their wishes, pressuring their followers to become apostles. Freud despite persona of professional organization, manipulated from behind the scene via The Secret Committee. These compliant “sons” live constricted lives, obedient lives, complying with old theories and methods, vying to be each more faithful and unoriginal than the next. Those who do break away and become independent are ‘destined to feel guilty for killing off their fathers’. (Eisold 2008: 619). Revolutionaries therefore have intensely ambivalent relationships with their own children/sons. They yearn for them to continue their revolution and fear them for their independence. This is exactly what happened between the Revolutionary Founder Freud and his designated Crown Prince Jung, specifically Freud’s feeling that Jung had "death wishes” to him:

"Why are you so interested in these corpses?" he (Freud) asked me (Jung) several times. He was inordinately vexed by the whole thing and during one such conversation, while we were having dinner together, he suddenly fainted. Afterwards he said to me that he was convinced that all this chatter about corpses meant that I had death-wishes toward him...

Jung who avoided institutional structures nevertheless maintained control by his charismatic authority. In some vague way, he would decide if you were individuated enough to be analyst. If you routers have felt IAAP excessively bureaucratic, it is in compensation for how Jung handled things [Neumann]
Is the President chosen because of his analytic pedigree - i.e. who his analyst was, as was discovered in fascinating study of four American Psychoanalytic Institutes, appropriately titled, Unfree Association? I was chosen as founding President of my group, Israel Institute of Jungian Psychology after a painful split and I would like to think it was for my abilities and not for the fact that my analyst was first graduate of Jung Institute in Zurich. I wonder what tradition your youthful, Russian Association will embrace.
To put in different way: How can a revolutionary’s own son become revolutionary’s trusted disciple? This is the heart of Abraham’s crisis on continuity and generativity.


Abraham is a spiritual revolutionary. When an Unknown Voice sends him on a journey to an unknown destination - rather like analysis, it is a classic revolutionary call for a sharp break from father-bound identity and toward one’s destiny. Even the Hebrew phrase, lech lecha translated as “leave” or “go-you-forth” is literally “Go to yourself” as if initiating journey toward individuation.
More or cut
[Significantly, the Text hides the fact, Abraham is abandoning his elderly father]
He feels he has begun something new and precious that must be passed on. But first he must leave his father’s gods. This conflict is expressed in best known Midrash, a kind of Rabbinic active imagination, about Abraham’s early life. Abraham’s father made and sold idols of wood and stone. One day, the father left the young Abraham in charge of the store – a rite of passage. Abraham picked up his father’s hammer and proceeded to smash and destroy all the statues except the largest one in whose hand he placed the hammer. When his father returned, he saw the terrible damage and asked his son what had happened. Abraham calmly told his father that the “gods” started arguing among themselves as to who was more powerful and started fighting and so destroyed each other until only one was left. His father said: “Don’t you know they are only blocks of wood and stone?” Young Abraham replied: “If so, why do you worship them ?”
There are many readings of the legend but it clearly places the issue of continuity and disruption at the forefront. Abraham, the trickster rebel, does not directly confront his father but nevertheless subverts his fathers’ gods, and destroys them. Jung would approve that young Abraham was not attacking his personal father from a regressive Oedipal complex, but only attacking his ideology, as Akhnaton did to his father and Jung did to Papa Freud.
Abraham’s father, Terah, has another hidden/unconscious influence on Abraham and his new God-image and it has to do with how Abraham’s journey is in the shadow of his father’s previous one. When Abraham’s father set out with his family from southern Iraq, his destination was Canaan. [Text states: “Terah took Abram his son…they set out together…to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came as far as Harran, they settled there.” (11:31)] For some unstated reason, Abraham’s father stopped half way across the Fertile Crescent, roughly in modern Kurdistan. Years later, Abraham set out on his journey “to the land I will show you”. Only when Abraham arrives in Canaan, does he learn that this is his destination. Abraham ‘s “unconsciously” completed his father’s unfulfilled dream so that Abraham could now say, “Father, I have arrived, where you wanted to go.” As Jung said: “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically… on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”[6] Or “The personal father inevitably embodies the archetype, which is what endows his figure with its fascinated power.” CW 4 p. 302).] If we consider Abraham’s developing “God-image” we can say, that at this stage, it was emerging unconsciously his father imago. As Jung wrote, “The patriarchs were a stepping stone to the Deity.” Abraham only becomes free of his idealizing father complex when he changes his name from Av - ram, meaning, “My father is supreme/lofty/high” to Av - raham, meaning Father of Many Nations, a Great Father in his own right.
Now we are in a position to understand how akeda resolved revolutionary’s crisis of continuity by recreating for the son the spiritual journey of the father. The poetic cadence of the first call: “Leave/go-you-forth your country, your family, your father’s house, to the land I will let you see.” (12:1) parallels exactly the rhythm of the call to akeda: “Pray take your son, your only-one, whom you love, Yitzhak, and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya/Seeing, and offer him up there as an offering-up upon one of the mountains.” (22:1); in both cases he told to go to an unknown location, - unknown destination is central to any spiritual quest or deep analysis- if you know where you are going, it is not the right place; in taking Isaac and two lads, he is literally taking Isaac away from the world of women into the world of masculine. Their journey recreates Abraham’s earlier journey throughout Canaan as a pilgrim to the Self. Later, father and son, separate from the lads in a further stage of individuation. Most dramatically, Abraham recreates the situation in which he challenged Divine authority at Sodom – Isaac questions the situation clearly showing he has learned the tradition of asking questions and challenging authority. Abraham’s ambiguous, creative response is similar to God’s and teaches something profound about trusting the Process: “God will see for himself to the lamb for offering-up, my son” (22:8). But most of all, the akeda is how Abraham introduces Isaac to the divine, to prophecy, the promises, and to the transcendent; he gives him away and gets him back and then leaves him to work things out for himself alone – rather like the vision quest of Sioux Indians – or the long periods of intense solitude characteristic of the great philosophers.

I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection.

Sigmund Freud

Isaac offered up as Abraham’s son is reborn as prophet of Abraham’s God. Choosing God, Abraham received, God choosing his son.

The next time, we meet Isaac, he is walking and meditating in the field. The akeda has clearly broken his maternal symbiosis and forced him to come to grips with the destiny and survivor mission, he has inherited. He synchronistically meets his future wife Rebeka who comforts him from the death of his mother. For Isaac, this traumatic encounter with death, made him into a survivor, much as Abraham had come away from the smoking furnace of Sodom, with a sense of having been saved, chosen for some special purpose. The blessings addressed to Abraham were his first revelation to continue the spiritual revolution of his father. Isaac was indeed bound to God of Abraham. Akeda was, therefore, a creative trauma, a ritual ordeal and initiation into relationship with the Divine. Abraham had been forced to choose between his son and his Self/Destiny; Isaac now must discover what it means to be chosen

CASE STUDY

Jung taught that people may be unconsciously caught up in different myths or cultural complex and now I want to give brief case illustration. It concerns an Abraham-like figure, [who we can call Abraham] who was a successful professional in a middle European country and who like Abraham, had two sons, who were best friends. He was a modern assimilated, secular, “cultural Jew” proud of the tradition of his Fathers but with a weak, persona-based relation to the Spiritual, the sacred and religious practice. He might go to synagogue once or twice a year, but he would drive on the Sabbath, eat non-kosher food etc. He was a practical, introverted, thinking type. All that changed during his mid-life crisis. He did not turn his anima to new sexual partners; instead he felt a powerful urge to “return” to the Ways of his Fathers or in the Hebrew phrase, “to return to the answer”. He felt that God was speaking to him personally and demanding to make Him the central force in his life. He was not psychotic and did not hear voices but he began to make drastic changes in his lifestyle abandoning his secular life and to follow the 613 commandments of Jewish religious observance, literally the Way (“halakha”). No more driving on Sabbath, no more non-kosher food, prayer three times a day and devoting all of his free time to study ancient Hebrew texts, such as the Talmud. Whenever he was in doubt, he did not consult his own heart but asked his Rabbi, whose word was Law. He had the passion and conviction of the psychology of the covert. Like Abraham, he felt called upon to leave his country, his family and his father’s house, where he had lived all of his life to make “aliya” – literally “to go up” and immigrate to the Land of Israel. Like Abraham, he felt called upon to change his name and naturally forced his sons to do the same. He was following his Inner Voice and returning to his roots in a way that Jung would have approved.

He had been a feminist before but now he was patriarchal. His wife must be honored as at Shabbat dinner table but was excluded from many aspects of ritual life. Every morning he thanked God that He had not created him as a woman [Woman thank God for creating them “as they are”]. Family life is central to Judaism and many of the commandments such as, “Be fruitful and multiply”; “Speak to your son and teach him…” require family life – [there is no monastic tradition in Judaism] Abraham imposed his orthodox lifestyle on his wife and adolescent sons. They, too, were forced to abandon their sophisticated, secular European life for life dominated by the mysticism of God’s word and meticulous religious observance. Whereas the Father had an authentic religious, if not to say mystical, experience, his sons [and wife] did not. They were forced to go along and obey the “word of the Father” which they struggled to make their own. Yet inwardly, they did resist their Father’s God of the Fathers and felt a latent threat of an Ishmael-like expulsion should they reject the way of the Father. In former times, it was traditional for fathers, whose children left the faith or even just married non-Jews, to “sit shiva” and go through the full, seven-day, mourning ritual and treat the wayward child as if the child had actually died.

The Father’s obsession with God had a narcissistic element in the sense that he was self-absorbed and virtually unaware of the impact of the change on his sons. One might say there was an inflation of ego by Self. He moved to a religious community, sent his sons to religious institutions and resumed his profession.

So long as his sons were outwardly complied, their father was content. The sons maintained a persona-faith but inwardly were returning to questioning. They had also lost a sense of being at home. They were still newcomers in Israel but no longer felt connected to the European milieu they had left.

Now enters, an Israeli cultural complex. In Israel, when a son is born, one automatically thinks of what will happen when he goes to the Army. One of the consequences of coming to Israel is that the two sons were now required to serve for three years in Israel Defense Forces. The father was proud his sons were to become Biblical warriors. The elder son suffered from minor health problem [Asthma] that prevented him from serving in a front-line combat unit as his father expected expected, but his bother was drafted into an elite, anti-terrorist unit. Towards the very end of his army duty, the younger son was killed by one of the terrorists on Hebrew New Year (“Rosh Hashana”) when the story of Abraham is readout aloud in synagogue and the ram’s horn, recalling the akeda, is blown.

How do you think the Father reacted? He was sad but there was no crisis of fatih. It was God’s will. “We do not always understand the ways of the Lord but we must accept them”. The surviving son was devastated but silent. He showed no emotion and none around his father. He blamed him for his brother’s death. He understood his brother’s premature death as an akeda experience. The father’s obsession had led to the immigration to Israel that had led directly to the death of younger son. He was sacrificed for his God. The son confronted his father with this idea and asked him “If God told you to sacrifice me, would you do it?” The father remained silent, neither confirming nor denying it. The father like Abraham had been called upon to make a choice and like Abraham, he had chosen God over his son. One person’s individuation may be another person’s akeda complex. As Jung wrote: WHEN AN INNER SITUATION IS NOT MADE CONSCIOUS, IT HAPPENS OUTSIDE AS FATE” (CW 9,126).

The akeda is a favorite scene in the visual arts. Rembrandt, Andrea Del Sarto, Rubens, Caravaggio, Brunelleschi and Chagall all depict the moment in which the angel restrains Abraham’s daggered hand. Abraham and angel share a mutual gaze, while Isaac remains turned away firmly in his father’s grasp. In this father-centered psychology, the drama is between father and angel, and between impulse and restraint. The painting by the London born, Jerusalem based artist, Mordechai Beck presents a very different view. Avraham raises his blade in ecstasy, while Isaac is bounded, swaddled like a baby. The tension between the vertical of the knife pointing skyward and the horizontal tenderness of the baby is palpable. Significantly, it is before the angel appears. The tension in the painting is not only between father and angel, but between their presence and absence. The knife is there. Will the angel come?

Modern Hebrew literature is very concerned with this question. In Genesis, the angel appeared but for many sons in Israel “The angel did not appear to hold back the hand of slaughters.”[7] The narrative focus moves away from God and Abraham to the experience of the sacrificed victims. The akeda becomes a collective metaphor for the holocaust, for Zionism, or any ideology, in which the generation of the fathers sacrifice their sons. The story becomes an allegory of suffering without redemption. The surviving generations who ‘are born with a knife in their heart’[8] inherit the trauma. Abraham is not admired, but accused, even despised. Consider two examples – the first by the outstanding Israeli playwright of his generation, Hanoch Levin:

Dear father, when you stand over my grave

Tired and old and very solitary

And you see how my body is put in the dust,

Ask then my forgiveness.[9]

The second is taken from the epic 1956 novel, “The Days of Ziklag” by S. Yizhar, perhaps the most important writer of the “Palmach” generation who fought in War of Independence:

…I hate Abraham who goes to sacrifice Isaac. What right has he over Isaac, let him sacrifice himself. I hate the God who sent him to sacrifice and besieged him…I hate that Isaac is nothing but an experiment between Abraham and his God.[10]

Isaac has regained his voice. Abraham has become silent. Here we can see how things have come full circle. Just as Abraham argued with God over Sodom, so too, his Israeli descendants challenge Abraham over the injustice of their own, personal akeda. The theme of Isaac slaughtered with no saving angel is a major motif in Israeli poetry. The best known Hebrew poem about the akeda, however, makes no accusation. Yehuda Amichai, who was Israel’s unofficial national poet plays with the absence to turn the story around in a new way:

…I want to sing a memorial song about the ram…

I want to remember the last picture

Like a beautiful photo…the ram

Grasping the thicket before the slaughter.

And the thicket was his last friend.

The angel went home

Isaac went home

And Abraham and God left much earlier

But the real hero of the sacrifice

Is the ram.[11]

In Amichai’s version, the willing victim is not Isaac, but the ram with ‘curly wool and human eyes’. There is no drama as all the other actors have left. The story, deconstructed as a national epic of suffering becomes once again personal and intimate, a compassionate story of the ram and his last friend, the thicket. Abraham is only an absence.

AKEDA SYNDROME

Abraham has been called the most successful individuals in history, the father of the idea that there is one God whom you can find everywhere. It is a God who is in search of man, to use Heschel’s phrase, who like a involved father cares deeply but has high ethical standards.

Akeda story embodies another archetypal experience beyond the realm of fathers and sons. It is an intrusion of the sacred into the everyday. It is the experience of having lost your keys, your wallet, your passport, computer file, you are overtaken with anxiety and despair; and then, suddenly, you find them! It is a moment of miraculously, inspired synchronicity. What was no more, is found. In economic sense, you have gained no value but in a deeper spiritual sense, everything seems changed. Life is hopeful, exuberant, you feel like hugging someone and singing. This is experience that the akeda conveys to us: having lost all, you receive it back again.

So the next time, you find that lost object and rejoice, look up to an unknown place and think of Abraham.


[1] Everett Fox

[2] In their first encounter, God tells Abraham to go and he goes without protest; when Abraham reaches Canaan, God announces that Abraham has arrived at his destination and Abraham calls out in His name. In Chapter 15, God offers Divine protection and reassurance, but Abraham does not remain silent, but challenges God, “What would you give me for I am going to die cursed and childless” (15:2). God responds by promising he will have child…In Ch. 17 Abraham is told to change his name and circumcise his sons on the 8th day. Abraham, again, does not meekly submit but reveals his paternal anxiety that this new identity and ritual will be at Ishmael’s expense: ["And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live in your presence!!" (17:18) [which contain a latent “death wish”].

[3] Genesis 18:23-25. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation. Translation. Schocken Books: New York. 1995

[4] See, Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, Jason Aronson, 1990).

[5] .” On the shadow side, the collective memory of the Sodom holocaust carried an implicit threat to his descendants. If we do not follow the survivor mission of their Fathers, then Sodom will be their fate:“Why has Yahweh treated his land like this? Why this great blaze of anger?” And the people will say, “Because they deserted the covenant of the God of their fathers.” (Deut 29:21-25).

[6] The significance of the father in the destiny of the individual. In: Jung, C., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 4. Princeton University Press, 1970. 368 p. (p. 301-323).

[7] Zalman Schneor, Bindings, quoted in Ruth Kartun-Blum, Profane Scriptures: Reflections on the Dialogue with the Bible in Modern Hebrew Poetry. HUC Press: Cincinnati. 1999, p. 43.

[8] Haim Gouri, Heritage in The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Translated by T. Carmi. London: Penguin 1981, p. 565.

[9] Quoted in Kartun-Blum p. 57.

[10] S. Yizhar, The Days of Ziklag Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1958, vol.2 p. 108 (Hebrew).

[11] Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry: 1948-1994. Selected and translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav (New York: Harper-Collins, 1994, p. 345.