In the early 1950s, Benjamin Britten wrote a stunning piece of music, Canticles II: Abraham and Isaac, featuring three performers: a pianist, a tenor and an alto. Find a recording. Trust me.
When God speaks (or sings, in this case), the tenor and alto chant together in a haunting, dissonant recitation. When Abraham or Isaac speak, tenor and alto sing separately in character.
I sang it many years ago as a music student and, except for an occasional Christological reference of the 15th century text (which I felt free to amend), I always found it a moving and poignant work of art.
Britten interprets the ancient text of the Binding of Isaac in the way I do when I read it without rabbinic commentary. Isaac is an adolescent, 13 perhaps, inquisitive, but loyal to his father’s terrifying intent.
There are many theories about Isaac’s age at the binding. A classic and authoritative rabbinic tradition views Isaac as an adult, 37 years old. Since he was born when Sarah was 90 and many believe that news of his close call led to her death at 127, the math isn’t that difficult, even for someone who had a hard time getting through pre-calculus in high school.
One reason that the older age is preferred is that it gives Isaac more credit for being willing to sacrifice himself to God without resistance. It’s a test of faith both for father and son, which they pass with flying colors. Abraham must be urged quite insistently to put the knife down before he’s convinced that “This was just a test of the Emergency I-Will-Do-Anything-For-God Broadcasting System.” And Isaac, at 37, is a willing sacrifice.
But the controversy about the binding is often based on modern morality and expectation. Child sacrifice in the ancient world was not unheard of. In fact, in many cultures, it was expected: a mitzvah if you will.
Children are resilient. Most, thank God, are not subject to near-slaughter by a parent. They survive untrained parents whose acts sometimes build them up and other times tear them down.
The binding of Isaac is an annual reminder to those of us who have the awesome responsibility of parenting that every act we take or omit regarding our children is a form of support or sacrifice – sometimes both. Do we help them with their homework or let them figure it out themselves? Do we pay for private school, give them the diversity of experience of a public institution or homeschool them? Do we run a strict discipline around the house, or allow for laissez faire until things get out of hand?
There isn’t a parent who hasn’t debated (and often regretted) their answers to these questions and a thousand others. Getting them all right is difficult if not impossible. Somehow, under the best of circumstances, these kids survive the slings and arrows of our incompetencies to confront the world another day; at their best, they thrive, sometimes as a result of bouncing back from our less successful initiatives.
So, as much as I respect the rabbinic tradition’s desire to give Isaac full adult credit for stretching his neck out in faith, this year I’m brought back to the musical intuition and insight of Britten. Abraham is a man tortured with a difficult assignment, appropriate for his time, but out of sync with his soul. Isaac is a young man whose voice has not changed, inquisitive, fearful but ultimately loyal to his father and the Voice he follows. And God is presented as the male/female Voice of dissonant synchronicity, the inner urging of our conscience weighing in on the best choices for our children.
We will continue to do the best we can.
Only time will tell.
(Cantor David Lipp is a spiritual leader of Adath Jeshurun.)