Unbinding Isaac


Unbinding Isaac

The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought

Aaron Koller

264 pages
3 illustrations, 2 indexes

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July 2020


$40.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

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July 2020


$40.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

July 2020


$40.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

Unbinding Isaac takes readers on a trek of discovery for our times into the binding of Isaac story. Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard viewed the story as teaching suspension of ethics for the sake of faith, and subsequent Jewish thinkers developed this idea as a cornerstone of their religious worldview. Aaron Koller examines and critiques Kierkegaard’s perspective—and later incarnations of it—on textual, religious, and ethical grounds. He also explores the current of criticism of Abraham in Jewish thought, from ancient poems and midrashim to contemporary Israel narratives, as well as Jewish responses to the Akedah over the generations.

Finally, bringing together these multiple strands of thought—along with modern knowledge of human sacrifice in the Phoenician world—Koller offers an original reading of the Akedah. The biblical God would like to want child sacrifice—because it is in fact a remarkable display of devotion—but more than that, he does not want child sacrifice because it would violate the child’s autonomy. Thus, the high point in the drama is not the binding of Isaac but the moment when Abraham is told to release him. The Torah does not allow child sacrifice, though by contrast, some of Israel’s neighbors viewed it as a religiously inspiring act. The binding of Isaac teaches us that an authentically religious act cannot be done through the harm of another human being.

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Author Bio

Aaron Koller is a professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College. He is author of The Ancient Hebrew Semantic Field of Cutting Tools and Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought as well as numerous studies in Semitic philology. Koller has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.



"[A} provocative study."—Publishers Weekly

"Unbinding Isaac is a lucid thesis-driven tour of some of the most important interpretations of the Akedah."—Abraham Socher, Jewish Review of Books

“One would have thought that centuries of dissecting twenty-odd verses of Genesis from every perspective imaginable have exhausted their meaning. Yet Koller, with his erudite grasp of both biblical literature and the longue durée of the Jewish interpretive tradition, unbinds the Akedah to reveal its philosophical and theological grandeur. As he unravels it, he wrests it from the grip of the dominant and dangerous interpretation that faith justifies violence and redirects our attention to the message that resounds in Gods’ warning to Abraham: ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy!’”—James A. Diamond, Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo

“Koller’s bold claim that ‘one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another’ stands alone as a textually rooted, morally compelling vision for sincere faith in a modern world that too often finds form in false fundamentalisms. Unbinding Isaac should be required reading for all of us seeking the voice of the ethical imperative in religious community.”—Yehuda Kurtzer, president, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

“The book is a pleasure to read, but no less learned for that. There is great depth of learning on show here, but Koller manages somehow to wear that learning relatively lightly—an impressive feat.”—Daniel Rynhold, professor of modern Jewish philosophy, Yeshiva University

“Aaron Koller leads his readers on a journey through a stunningly wide range of material—ancient, medieval, and modern; Jewish and Christian; Hasidic, Misnagdic, and secular; some scholarly, some poetic, some dug up by archaeologists—without ever losing focus or clarity. Wearing his massive learning lightly, he helps readers learn from these sources even as he shows them how to critique them on ethical and intellectual levels. His own interpretation of this deeply (and troublingly) influential narrative is at once respectful of the biblical text and religiously sensitive.”—Benjamin D. Sommer, professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages, Jewish Theological Seminary, and winner of the Goldstein-Goren Prize for Best Jewish Thought

“Amid countless commentaries on the Akedah, Aaron Koller’s powerful, gracefully written work is brilliant, refreshing, and new. Harvesting generations of scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, and Jewish thought, medieval and modern, he deftly inlays their voices in their own times and places as they speak to us. His reading of the Akedah is timeless and urgently timely. Respectfully critiquing prevailing interpretations, he daringly proposed that the Akedah teaches ethics not as a submission to the holy but as the deepest teaching of theology.”—Yehudah Mirsky, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University and author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution

“The story of the Akedah in Genesis 22 raised doubts and confusion in ancient times. How and why did God command Abraham to slaughter his son? What is the relationship between this story and the practice of child sacrifice that was common in the biblical period, in Israel and in some of the neighboring people?. . .
     Most of the time, scholars who have dealt with this text did so from one perspective, depending on their area of expertise: biblical scholarship, the study of antiquity, the study of medieval Jewish thought, or scholarship on modern philosophy.
     The impressive book by Aaron Koller is unique in that it combines all of the perspectives mentioned above in a single package. In this way, the story of the Akedah is newly illuminated in a particularly exciting and convincing way.”—Israel Knohl, Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
How to Use This Book
Introduction: The Challenge and the Power of the Story
1. Jewish Experiences of the Akedah
2. Kierkegaard
3. Jewish Parallels from the Century of Kierkegaard
4. Jewish Followers from the Twentieth Century
5. Criticizing Kierkegaard
6. On Child Sacrifice
7. Maimonides and the Complexity of the Divine Will
8. Rejecting Child Sacrifice
Conclusion: The Demands of God and People
Source Acknowledgments

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