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Introducing The Friday Review of Books

Liel Leibovitz’s weekly literary series

Liel Leibovitz
November 22, 2013

One of the central tragedies of our lives is that there are more books out there than we’d ever have time to read. But we’re not going gently into the good night: each Friday, Liel Leibovitz will be reviewing a title lost in the neverending book pile, robbed of well-merited
attention, or deserving of a second look.

Even in a book thick with audacious stories, the episode of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, unfolding in no more than 19 lines in Genesis, stands alone. So many and so daunting are the implications of a father following a heavenly command and ready to put his only son to the knife that thinkers across continents and centuries have returned to the story again and again, arguing with it and with each other, trying to make sense of the confluence of faith and terror which it represents.

James Goodman’s mother was not of them. “Every time she overheard me talking about it,” Goodman writes in But Where is the Lamb?, his masterful new book on the subject, “she would grab her head by the hair, as if she were trying to pull it out, and say, ‘Stop, stop. I hate that story. I can’t listen to another word.’”

Thankfully, Goodman never heeded his mother’s pleas, but he did retain more than a bit of her sense of awe. Even though he devotes most of his book to elegantly parsing the ideas of others—from the first century Jewish philosopher Philo to Søren Kierkegaard—Goodman’s own passion for the story is the engine that thrusts the story forward. He avoids the zealot’s categorical judgments as well as the pedant’s focus on minutia, and, being both a professor of history and the head of Rutgers University’s non-fiction writing program, makes use of both of his skills to deliver an account that is both meticulously informed and deeply engaging.

Noting, for example, the many discrepancies between the various biblical portraits of Abraham, Goodman argues that the men who shaped the Bible into its current shape, canonizing some stories and denying others prominence, could have easily had exercised editorial judgment and given us a more holistic, more streamlined patriarch. Instead, Goodman insightfully argues, they chose to revise. “They revised to elaborate, revised to elucidate, revised to answer questions, revised to interpret, revised to criticize, to accentuate, to update, to differentiate, and to explain,” Goodman writes, but they did so not out of disdain for tradition but out of a desire to keep it dynamic and alive.

But Where is the Lamb? offers many such insights. It is, as its subtitle—“Imagining the story of Abraham and Isaac”—suggests, the product first and foremost of a vast imagination, a mental space large enough to contain multitudes and welcoming enough to allow in influences from various cultures and disciplines. The central event it examines may have occurred thousands of years ago, but the questions it raises about the nature of authority, the intricate mechanisms of faith, and the limits of obedience have never been more relevant.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.