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A Rabbi-Mediator’s Meditations on The Binding of Isaac

“Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Gamliel said: On three things does the world endure: justice, truth and peace, as the verse states, ‘Truth and [judgments of] peace judge in your gates'” (Zechariah 8:16).


I don’t know about you, but I am so bothered by the story of the binding of Isaac that there are times when I would like to throw the baby out with the bath water and simply define myself as “a person with no religion.” It infuriates me that we continue to tell the story of our ancestors’ belief that the God they conceptualized was so horrible that he would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son. I understand that later generations have grappled with this and tried to explain away the problems of a good god testing his disciple like this, but I’m not sure why they expend the effort.

Nobody tries to bring us back to the days when we believed that the world was flat or when we believed that the Earth was at the center of the solar system. New truths replace old beliefs. Change is one of the only constants in the world. Maybe we read this Torah portion every year to remind ourselves how far we have come.

In Judaism, for the longest time, chronological proximity to Sinai, meant that if we can remember something, than it is true. On Passover, we tell the story of our exodus as if we were there because if we experienced it, than our memory remains as proof. Regarding Shabbat, we are commanded to keep and to remember the Shabbath day. There are many among us who believe that if we don’t learn the past we are doomed to repeat it.

Having reached fifty this year, I can say with little doubt that this is far from the truth, not because the past isn’t important, but because memory constantly changes the way we understand experience. I know that I remember my past differently as I confront the present.

I will give you one example. When I was fifteen, as a starry eyed Labor Zionist, I moved to Israel, “to build and be built.” I was smitten by the idea that the Jewish people were establishing a country in our ancient homeland, and I wanted to leave my mark on that process. I even went to agricultural boarding school to learn to farm with the hope of joining a kibbutz after army service.

When I look at this decision in hindsight, it is not necessarily with 20-20 vision, as the saying goes, because I understand my experiences differently in the light of my own experience. Yes, I was a Zionist, but my parents also got divorced. Being at home was difficult. I didn’t like my parents fighting. I didn’t like living with a mother who never expected to raise three children on her own, and I didn’t like having my time with my dad relegated to dinner once a week and a movie on the weekends. Today, I see my move to Israel in a different light. Today I look back at my past as a father who is divorced from the mother of his children. Now I believe that my fifteen-year-old self followed ancient Jewish wisdom and decided, “Mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazel, change your place and you change your luck.”

Interestingly, when I think about that saying, I am reminded that one of the rabbinic terms for God is Makom. With this in mind, “Mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazel,” becomes, “Change your God and you change your luck.” I have changed God’s many times in my life, and I am here to attest that this wisdom is wrong. Faith in anything, without a huge dose of skepticism, critical literacy, and the ability to laugh at yourself and not take the world too seriously, is like putting all your eggs in one basket – ON THE TITANIC. It doesn’t work. And faith isn’t the only egg basket out there. Positivism, the idea that there is an empirical, scientific method that can prove anything without doubt is also a god.

I am not an atheist because I cannot be sure that there is no god. I am not a believer because that would be putting all my eggs in one basket. And I try to be humble enough to except that there are things I will never fully comprehend. This is why the Aqeda story, the binding of Isaac, bothers me so badly. It asks us, by Abraham’s example, to put all our eggs in the basket that requires a huge leap of faith. And it does this at the greatest price possible.So why do our fathers and mothers insist on our retelling this story over an over again?

The answer may have to do with the word for test, which is the pivotal word in this episode. If the text didn’t include the Hebrew word “nesa,” than this would be just another episode in the relationship between God and Abraham. But the word “nes,” which is the root of nesa, like many words in Hebrew, has multiple and varied meanings, and I would like to propose that in this case, we are simply reading the inherited text incorrectly, that our ancestors hoped to teach us a different lesson.

In Hebrew, a “nes” is also a banner, something we wave to the world to capture attention, and I now understand what those before us wanted humanity to see that Abraham’s relationship with God is about the tension between an individual’s personal moral compass and the human longing for justice.

When I am not serving as a rabbi, I work as a mediator. In this capacity, much of my work is in the courthouse, a place where justice is served. People come to court hoping that a judge will tell them how the law applies to their case, but usually they are looking for fairness, not justice. Fairness and justice are not always the same.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. claims, “Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts.” This was probably true because the law was applied differently to blacks than it was to whites, but Reverend King also asked,


“How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”


I respectfully disagree with Dr. King, and it is a matter of semantics. I would like to suggest that the difference between “just law” and “unjust law” is rooted in an understanding of fairness, a subset of morality. Laws are the boundaries of tolerable behavior in a society. They are not always legislated in a fair way or seem fair. This may be why the Jewish tradition condemns the decrees of Antiochus in the Hanukah story. Clearly Judaism has a grievance with laws that prohibit the expression of our religion, but I am hopeful that our forebears also objected to the idea of law that was at the sole discretion of an individual.

If you transgress a law, you are subject to punishment, regardless of the source of that law. If your behavior is unfair or immoral, the consequences are different.  There may be fair and unfair laws, but the system of laws is what modern society calls justice. Law regulates legal behavior. Morality may regulate human behavior, but it is subjective because its source is human, and societies vary. Even if you believe that the source of morality is divine, you don’t have God here to tell you that your understandings of her morality are correct, thus all our human interpretations of God are subjective.

In this country, we determined that our laws regarding matrimony were unfair, as they excluded a large segment of our society, same sex couples, who wanted to legalize their union but were not permitted by law. This past year, our nation rectified this situation through the judiciary. According to Chief Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” This is an instance in which the Supreme Court helped align the law of land to make it fair, as the vast majority of Americas understand fairness.

What Dr. King was referring to was also fairness. Prohibition is a perfect example. The 18th Amendment to our Constitution prohibited the manufacture and consumption of alcohol and the 21st Amendment reversed the 18th amendment. Both are laws, but the issue of alcohol consumption was understood as a moral issue. The intention behind its prohibition was an attempt to legislate morality. The same can be said for sodomy laws. They are the application of some people’s morality to everyone through law. Regarding same sex marriage, Kim Davis’s refusal to grant wedding licenses in Kentucky is a perfect example of morals in conflict with law.

The Abraham story is the quintessential example of this conflict. The relationship between God, representing morality for our forebears, and Abraham starts when Abraham lives in a place where there is no centralized code of ethics. In Genesis Rabbah, one of the earliest collections of midrash, Jewish legend, we learn that even Abraham’s father bought into the system that perpetuated worship of idols. When the God character says to Abraham, leave that place and leave your family, and come to the place that I will show you, he is saying that there needs to be some kind of boundary to morality. What is fair has to have some semblance of universality. You can’t just worship man-made idols because there is no humility in that and because if everything goes, if morality is only relative, than the world is unsustainable.

However, when God, traditional Judaism’s source of all morality, is willing to sacrifice the good people of Sodom to punish the evildoers, Abraham says “no!” He questions how his source of fairness can act unfairly. He puts down his chips and proclaims moral boundaries of his own. This is not an example of chutzpah, as my teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, describes it. It is an example of individual morality and the personal sense of fairness. Kim Davis the Kentucky County Clerk who refused do her job and acknowledge gay marriages, however you may feel about her, drew a moral boundary around her behavior, not a legal one. She went to jail because of the justice system. She refused to give wedding licenses to same sex couples because of her sense of what is right.

The stories of Abraham and Sarah, especially the story of the binding of Isaac, may serve as a test for those who want to declare the superiority of divine morality, as they want it to be, over legal justice, but in the real world, justice and people’s sense of fairness, a subset of morality, can be at odds. This is where my work as a mediator comes in.

Before a plaintiff can seek a judgment, a judge may ask him to seek peace in mediation. In mediation, everyone brings his or her own morality along with personal values, needs and interests. The tension in mediation is between peace and justice, not morality and justice. To achieve peace, parties to a dispute become partners in an agreement. To achieve justice, they allow an outsider to determine for them how the law applies to their case.

I have a friend who is a domestic relations judge in Wisconsin who says to litigants getting a divorce, “Do I know either of you? Do I know where you work? How you parent? Do I know anything about your children?” When they answer, “no,” he asks, “Then why do you want me to make decisions about things that will have such a big impact on your lives?

Mediation exists because many disputes require durable resolutions that only partners in peace can accomplish. Justice exists to help litigants who cannot agree. This tension is best illustrated by our rabbis in Genesis Rabbah, where we learn that “If you seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek strict justice, there will be no world…You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure.  (Genesis Rabbah 39:6)

While I cannot use memory to confirm that our ancestors asked us to read the story of the Aqeda, the binding of Isaac, to affirm my conviction that these stories are there to serve as a banner, “nes,” to remind us of the tension between Justice and morality, I can attest that in my world, in this time, this tension is very present and powerful, and I hope that our people will continue to see it as a constructive discourse and not a choice between one system or the other. We need legal justice, we need morality and sometimes we need to conceptualize a common source of morality to help us find a resolution to our complex problems, still, it is always better if we can do it on our own.


David Steiner

David J. Steiner is a Chicago based doctor of education who came to the rabbinate via his experience running Jewish schools and came to mediation via his experiences in the Jewish community. He will soon complete his ordination with the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and serves as rabbi… MORE >

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