There’s an argument that Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac, or so a friend tells me; he has recently decided to become a rabbi and is playing over various interpretations he’s heard and elaborated on. This one he admits he only half believes: Just as Abraham pled with God to spare the handful of good men in Sodom, so should he have pled with Him to withdraw the impossible command. In not doing so, my friend says, he failed a test of his own autonomy, and, although God spared Isaac, the result was a broken bond of trust between father and child. Afterward Isaac went his own way in the world.
I admit I find it tempting to apply his insight to my own Abraham and Isaac drama. “For all its metaphysics, the story of the akedah is also a work of psychological realism,” as my friend says. Sure, there’s a larger historical purpose—to illustrate that the God of the Jews, unlike the other Middle Eastern pretenders, Moloch and Co., did not require an actual child sacrifice, merely the willingness, however anguished, to go that far. And yet the substitution of law for violence and cruelty—the foreskin rather than the whole thing, to take another instance—keeps a remembered trace of the violence that existed. We should be grateful that we do not sacrifice children. Still, law may always fall back into violence—or may become its own kind of violence.
Since his bar mitzvah, back in 1952, my father must have experienced something like this fall: He’d lost his trust in God, rather than his “faith” in God’s existence. Although he could talk the talk of scientific atheism, he probably felt something much closer to betrayal than liberation. That evolution, astronomy, and Jewish history itself seemed to show that God could not have existed did not really excuse Him for not existing. The Covenant had been broken for good. No surprises—but, as he told me, it was the Holocaust that really did it. The good news was that both sides of my family had been spared. And yet, for most others in our situation, such good fortune usually gave rise to the great postwar secular religion of American Jewish gratitude for liberal democracy, to the optimism and confidence found in the novels of Bellow and Philip Roth. For my father, on the other hand, our very luck became part of the case against God, a protest against history. Once my father fell out with God, he sought refuge in a cosmopolitan, European culture that had already ceased to exist when he began to dream about making it his home. What caring being could have permitted both such devastation and my father’s own delusion that a European bohemia could save him? There seemed a peculiar, personal quality to my father’s outrage when he spoke about not just the rottenness of the Germans and the Austrians; the weakness of the French; the stunned complicity of the Judenrat; the painful theodicy of the Hasidim, but also the failure of a whole idea of civilization.
While my father could be ambivalent or indifferent about most aspects of my Jewish education, when it came to the destruction of the Jews, he began early and stayed determined. I remember few of my parents’ arguments. But a big one erupted when, browsing the floor-level shelves, I discovered a three-volume German history of the Second World War, full of official Nazi photographs of everything from aerial bombardments to Zyklon B. I had no idea where my father had picked it up, but, in size alone, it was the most impressive book in our downstairs library. Of course I was initially drawn by the magnetic force of tanks, planes, flamethrowers—the real life paraphernalia that furnished my boyhood’s destructive fantasies. (Who even now understands the psychological pull of militarism?) When my mother found me leafing through these books one day, she ordered my father to hide them. At first he duly did so, on the top shelf of one of the dining room bookcases. A few weeks later, my mother caught me climbing the rickety wooden ladder she used as a shelf for plants. My father: “If he’s curious, he has a right to know the truth, and the truth can be terrible.” My mother: “If the truth looks like piled, burned-up bodies, I don’t want him to see it.”
The truth actually looked a good deal worse. In the end, my father offered to make a “selection”—the terrible irony of that word—and we sat down on the couch with the books. Later he made sure that I’d read one of the earliest and most comprehensive histories of the Holocaust, Lucy Dawidowicz’s War Against the Jews. There were the charts, with numbers before and after, but also the anecdotes, the strong narrative that revealed that the Nazis were always planning, yes, a war against the Jews. I read it in a weekend. It was hard to take God seriously after that. What world were we living in?
At this point, according to the conventions some novels have established (think of Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus), I should make some sort of joke, preferably at my own expense. Much of the last twenty years, at least, of Jewish culture has been spent trying to make our education in horror into a series of comic stereotypes. There are unintended hilarious (or should I say hysterical?) consequences of exposing tender, unformed Jewish minds to such truths. My father’s life, my life, ought to have been beautiful, but only in the movies, or in the eye of God. A little sweetness and light is called for, right? Must every document of civilization be a document of barbarism? And who wants to be cursed with the sense that every identification number could become a tattoo, that the efficient routines of modernity, from certain angles, cast vast shadows of mass, mechanical murder? What didn’t my family have to be grateful for? Plenty, as it turns out. So let me take us seriously, ever so unfashionably.
Pressed to come up with a one-word theological description for the oddly negative relationship to Judaism that comes if you approach the religion through the Holocaust, I’d settle on “gnostic.” My father’s god was either good but terminally weak, or a malevolent, tyrannical usurper of some other, better deity. A psychoanalyst might think of gnosticism as a split, a symptom of a rift unhealed by our consciousness: Most very young children will divide their parents into an absent good one and a present bad one, but sometimes, in broken or violent homes, the division endures past infancy, just as a jealous, jilted lover will feel his beloved has actually betrayed the best part of herself—the part that loved him. And yet in all these cases the split is oddly protective of the God, parent, or lover we’ve lost. The good parent might return, the beloved will come to her senses, the messiah will arrive.
And so, in our odd way, our family too kept a certain faith: We lit candles on Friday evenings, celebrated Passover—never too seriously or with too much zeal—to keep a tiny flicker of hope. In the broken world my father felt he inhabited, felt we all inhabited, that hope meant fidelity to the idea of the gap between the God we wanted and the one we had, the body he wanted and the one he’d been stuck with: fragile, diseased, powerless, and self-betraying.
It strikes me that this is a piece of self-description as much as anything else. Have I inherited these patterns of thought, or made them up and given them to my father to excuse myself? While writing all this, I somehow came to the conclusion that there’s no way my father wanted me bar mitzvahed, that he understood the ritual to be an impossible sacrifice on his part. My father would not make Abraham’s choice. And yet, to take the old story once more and put it on the plane of psychological realism, what choice did my father really have? The protective parent who would keep his child from harm and disappointment will inevitably fail. A parent must sacrifice his child so that the child may, eventually, become someone other than his child. It’s a minimal act of faith in the world, and it begins early, when we leave our children with babysitters, or in nursery school; it goes on when we send them off to college and then give them in marriage. So much can go wrong, can still go wrong. The stayed hand, the ram in the thicket, these are emblems of our luck, our hope that it will be alright. Of course, our children will never forgive us. And yet there is really no choice. What my friend didn’t say is that he also half believes that the akedah is a parable of necessity, not autonomy. If we defy the world for love of our children, our love itself—crazed, possessive, absolute—has gone wrong. My father was, I must often remind myself, already a sick man.
Marco Roth is a founding co-editor of n+1 magazine, and the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance.
Marco Roth is Tablet’s Book Critic at Large