Alive in the world of unanswerable questions


“I didn’t think he’d do it.

“I really didn’t think he would.

“I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendents as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky. You said: through Isaac you’d make my name great. I have kept my word. Don’t you go back on yours.”

James Goodman begins his book, “But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac” (Schocken, 2013), by imagining Abraham’s thoughts after hearing God’s command to slay his son Isaac. The story, known in Jewish tradition as Akedah Yitzhak (The Binding of Isaac), is told in Genesis 22:1-19 and is read year after year in synagogues throughout the world on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  

Goodman argues that we Jews are a “revisioning” people; but though we continue to revise, we do not erase. To put it another way, though we are a people who cherish the art and the craft of commentary, who celebrate what the rabbis call “davar acher, another explanation,” we simultaneously remain loyal to the original text. And so it is with our people’s treatment of the Binding of Isaac, “the long and protean life of 19 lines of ancient literature;” we guard every word – indeed every syllable, every letter – even as we wrestle with varying and often self-contradictory explanations of the story’s multiple meanings. 

“But Where Is the Lamb?” guides us through well over 2,000 years of interpreting Genesis, Chapter 22. The author outlines the differing approaches to the Akedah taken by such significant ancient and Medieval Jewish personalities as Josephus, Philo, Rashi and Maimonides. He brings us into the 20th century by showing the reader how Israeli poets like Chaim Guri and Yehuda Amichai weave the Binding of Isaac into their work. 

Nor does Goodman limit his discussion to Jewish interpreters of the Binding of Isaac; he includes a variety of Christian and Muslim commentators on the story as well. He offers an especially challenging chapter on the 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, whose “Fear and Trembling” presents a mind-bending portrait of Abraham as the Knight of Faith.

Though “But Where Is the Lamb?” contains elements of what might be called an “objective” and rather scholarly account (32 pages of endnotes) of the history of akedah interpretation, the book is, at same time, highly subjective and delightfully idiosyncratic. Goodman makes clear that his “attention is fixed on the rewriting and revision of one short story” (Genesis 22:1-19).  Nevertheless, for century after century this one short story has remained fluid and radically unfixed in meaning: “…neither the author nor his editors nor his first readers got to say what the words meant once and for all.”

While Goodman presents the reader with a rich potpourri of interpretations of the Akedah, he is not afraid to address his own preoccupations:

“I’d be happy to think that in every generation there have been some who have acknowledged the mystery, strangeness, even inhumanness of Abraham’s silence.”

It seems to me that here, Abraham’s silence is a reflection of the silence of the author, the teller of the story, the silence that is the very genius of Biblical narrative. As Goodman points out, the “ancient Hebrew writers [have] harnessed the awesome literary power of the unseen and the unsaid.”

For five decades I have been living with the many unanswerable questions raised within those 19 lines in Genesis, Chapter 22: What kind of God would order a father to murder his son?  What kind of father would raise his knife to slay his son in blind obedience to what he perceives to be a Divine Voice?

What kind of son – if we assume, as did many of the ancient rabbis, that Isaac is a grown man in his 30s – would remain supine and passive, a willing partner, an accomplice in the murderous act of his apparently deranged father? 

To move out of the orbit of Jewish tradition into the fiery intensity of Kierkegaard’s dark and oppressive question: Are there times when the truly religious person is forced to choose between obedience to God and obedience to one’s own moral conscience?  In the Akedah Abraham faces an impossible choice.

Speaking more generally, Judaism cannot provide me with definitive answers to my most urgent questions: Why have I been born only to be destined to die? Why are so many decent, loving individuals condemned to lives of constant sorrow and suffering? On the other hand, why do so many despicable people literally get away with murder?  The questions are endless, the answers never to be found.

Nevertheless, at its deepest level, Judaism does provide me with a structure of texts and rituals that enable me to live with courage and dignity in this world of unanswerable questions. Indeed, it is these very questions that infuse me with vitality; it is the power of these unanswerable questions that keep me alert and alive.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG, rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington, can be contacted at