Every Rosh Hashanah when I was a child, my friend’s father would ask us a question at the meal following davening: What kind of Jewish God asks a man to sacrifice his son?
He was referring, of course, to akeidas Yitzchak—the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.
He quoted from the machzor, the high-holiday prayer book: Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.
No one responded—we continued eating our food—but he persisted, banging on the table: “A burnt offering!”
And he would repeat: What kind of crazy God is this, the one we just prayed to?
I heard his question, but it did not speak to me at the time: In those years, I was steeped in traditional doctrine, as I still am, but then I was mostly concerned about being a good boy, listening to my father, and observing the commandments.
Through the years, however, the man’s simple bafflement stayed with me. There was no way to not think about it. We read the story of akeidas Yitzchak every Rosh Hashanah in special sonorous tones. It is a grand reading—the story of a man “listening” to the voice of God and walking three days to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son—but it sounded like a story from a crazy cult or perhaps a Greek myth, not an established, Westernized, “responsible” religion that preached a “sane” love and righteous goodness.
And after these things, God tested Abraham … Take your son your only son, the son that you love.
The more I thought about it, not only did the story of Abraham and Isaac—with its testing and unreasonable sacrifice—seem un-Jewish, it seemed bizarrely different from what I imagined to be the ideal Jewish father-son relationship: filled with boundless love yet tempered by reason.
Of course, no human being dies with the same ideas they were born with. Time, if nothing else, forges a different perspective, and relations between parents and children are forever under revision, distorted and clarified by memory.
Each Sabbath afternoon my father would seek me out to study Talmud with him. By the time I was 8, I would be studying Talmud with him for four hours at a clip.
I would hear his footsteps coming up the stairs following his post-prandial Sabbath nap. “Yisrael,” he called to me. There was no escape. I ambled down the stairs like a lost lamb for our sessions. Even though I loved him as a son loves his father, and my nourishment was being in his presence and pleasing him, I didn’t like these sessions. They were too long, too intense; I felt both my father’s terribly urgent love for me and his pressing need for both of us to be inducted into God’s Hall of Fame as the swordbearers of his truth. It was too much for me, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, when he called, I went.
These moments were the most painful, but defining moments of my life: pleasing him by paying attention, winning his love, but at the same time displeasing, even violating myself. I had not yet developed any “real” feeling for anything sacred and wanted (and still do!) to be 8 years old. I wanted to play with my friends and do the “silly” things 8-year-olds do. It was an absolutely impossible task. I was bound (and bound myself) to the altar of the dining-room table in our Queens home. Two large volumes of the Talmud were open and my father would expound and explain to me what is a psik raisha, what is daver she’ano miskaven, what is a melacha sheaina tzrich l’gufa—all technical Talmudic terms involving the laws of labor on the Sabbath. Imagine, as a fair comparison, teaching the technicalities of nuclear physics to a young child for four hours straight!
I followed his every move and remembered his every utterance, even as I hated him and longed to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be alone with my own blessed, miserable thoughts, or playing with my brother and his Matchbox cars, not colonized by my father, God, or anyone else.
But like Isaac, I presented myself to my father, as if to say, “Here I am, Father. Hineni.” There are moments in time when parents, even (or especially) when saturated with love, are unstoppable. They will just keep coming for you until they get what they want. You want and need their love and approval so much, you will do anything, absolutely anything, to get it. In a sense, one brutalizes oneself for the sake of love even if no one is taking a strap to you. My mind consented to it—not only to him and the learning but to the whole package, the whole religion.
Love is not always pure or simple. It sometimes takes hostages.
As a psychotherapist, I have seen this many times: a person trapped in a marriage or relationship to which one cannot with a full heart say yes—or no. The love-hostage relationship is nearly impossible for an outsider to understand. Often, at the bottom of it all, it is driven by an unconscious promise that must be obeyed. Perhaps it is a promise one made to oneself or someone else long ago or maybe even to one’s god: I must keep this all going no matter what the price.
Even in my little-boy mind, I made an unconscious promise that I could scarcely keep: to take my father’s god as my own.
Freud said the appetite of the person always exceeds the ability of the object to satisfy it. And if you are going to try to satisfy someone, be prepared to fail because there is no limit to human hunger. It was no cakewalk to satisfy Dad (and presumably God) during our study sessions. Dad was in his element, shirt sleeves rolled up, a plate of pretzels in front of him with a glass of seltzer (or sometimes a beer, in a frosted mug). Quite frankly, he is a genius. In the intoxicated foam of a young father’s instruction to his little son, he was to fulfill his highest purpose as a father, as a Jewish father, his loftiest self. And he would not be thwarted! So I consented to be offered up as a sacrifice.
But ultimately, that is not what happened.
The demands of the Talmudic material to halt kup, to concentrate, by far outstripped my 8-year-old capacity to meet them. My mind wandered even as I tried to pay attention.
One time I could not take another word of Talmud. My father would explain to me the text and yet my mind wandered again. “Pay attention,” my father said, and yet again my mind would not cooperate. My father, under the heat of a bad-angel, saw this as intransigence and insubordination.
“Do you think I am here to bump my gums with you?” My father sounded like he was still in the Air Force, dressing down an enlisted man. I was bawling and my father screamed at supersonic levels, his face red, with (what seemed to me) murder in his eyes. I felt doomed to be flayed alive. I could not get him to see what was on the inside of me at all and I, of course, could not see him in anything but the most idealized terms.
Yet God had sent a messenger to save us both. It was my mother.
My mother had been a silent, steady witness to all of the Sabbath-afternoon goings on. She was nearly always in the living room in her favorite armchair, reading alternately both the Yiddish newspapers and improbably, Vogue, Redbook, and McCall’s.
Hearing the hubbub of screams and counter-screams, she ran into the room. “Chaim, you are out of your mind? The boy is only 8 years old—what are you doing to him?”
Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…
I remember feeling trapped at that moment. As much as I was in this painful love-vise with dad, I did not wish to be rescued. At 8, I made my decision to go along with the voice that my father “heard” from God. His God would be mine.
My father said sharply, “Stay out, Chana. It’s a man’s world! A man’s world!”
They had more words, there was some kind of standoff, but somehow, though I don’t remember this clearly, she got my father to stand down—to adjourn the study session—just this once.
A real split in ideology between mother and father can be one of the most difficult yet rich experiences for a child: Who is right, the mother or the father? This back-and-forth can go on inside people’s heads for a lifetime.
Mother was right, of course. My father was mired in a moment of great madness. He was in thrall and obeisance to unheard and unseen yet powerful voices. I, too, was definitely in a demonic place.
It is said that when people experience a trauma they hunger for an idealized situation—often an idealized family—that would have averted the catastrophe. For many years I imagined if only my mother’s protests had been stronger, then I might have been “saved” in a more-complete fashion. Perhaps I could have been liberated from the dangerous excesses than run between father and son.
But this may be a defense against the truth (which is traumatizing in itself). Even as I was a hostage, I absolutely did not want to be rescued from my father—not then, not now. I had promises to keep.
So reluctantly, with misgivings, I am sure, my mother went back to her place in the living room, but her protest was not for naught. Insufficient as it was, it registered with me, just not right then.
Slowly, in seeing that my mother stood up to my father, the idea took hold that there might be a place within a difficult love—a hostage love as often exists between a man and his god that exceeds the burdens of doctrine and dogma: a love where no one is martyred or sacrificed, a place where faith and love need not swindle each other. It was my mother’s protest that planted seeds for what would later become a career for me as a man of faith in psychoanalysis and literature.
Now when I listen to the Torah reading in synagogue, I think of my mother sitting in the armchair, but also running into the room. We listen to the story, but we also cry out. We (at the least) register our protest. We ask, “What is going on here?”
The story of Abraham and Isaac brings us into the dusk of love and faith when people cannot see so well, as sometimes happens between parents and children or between God and the people with whom he speaks. In such moments, God, just as he did with Abraham and Isaac, may send someone to save you from God.
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