- In Search of a Feminist Reading of the Akedah
Being a feminist woman, or a womanly reader, means that every issue is a feminist issue, and there is a feminist perspective on every subject. Athalya Brenner, A Feminist Companion to Song of Songs1
Our horrified reaction to the traditional reading of the Akeda shocks us into awareness of our religious rejection of obedience to harmful decrees and "laws that are not good." In its stark horror and ambiguous statements, the story of the Akeda remains the central text in the formation of our spiritual consciousness. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, "Akeda: A View from the Bible"2
Searching for the Missing Matriarch
This is an essay about presence of absence. More specifically, it is about how feminist readers of the Bible can discern or conjure up the voices or values of women in the Bible in spite of or in light of their absence from the written page. The specific biblical episode in question is that of the Akedah (Gen. 22:1-19), the binding of Isaac, which, notwithstanding its status, in the words of Tikva Frymer-Kensky, as "the central text in the formation of our spiritual consciousness," continues to horrify and bewilder. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son; Abraham offers no emotional or ethical response to the command, but simply sets out with his son to do God's bidding. God, reconsidering, sends an angel to call off the test and then a ram as a replacement sacrifice. Can that possibly be the complete story? The Bible offers a text shot through with troubling holes. My feminist reading of this episode begins, then, with a response not to what is readily visible in the story, but to what is missing. [End Page 10]
In her introduction to the Feminist Companion to the Bible series, Athalya Brenner draws on the writing of critic Jonathan Culler to identify three levels or moments that define a feminist reading of a text. The first involves "a personal identification with and discussion of female literary characters." In the second moment, the reader identifies and opposes the ways in which a text has previously been read by a male-biased readership. In the third, s/he looks at the social and political values expressed not by previous readers, but by the text itself, exposing the androcentric values "that are found to condition a text, are expressed in it, and perpetuated by it."3
There are instances in which identifying (with) female characters and exposing the androcentric biases of the text or its former readership do not result in a useful or empowering feminist re-reading. If the text really "matters," as Frymer-Kensky suggests in relation to the Akedah story, one may need to go further than these three interpretive stages to identify a countertraditional text that resonates with one's feminist values, that provides one with a way to live with the text and encounter God within it. One may need to supply an additional interpretive moment, one that helps to reconstruct or reconfigure the text along different lines, to identify another paradigm. I have elected to quote Brenner here, not because I believe her taxonomy of feminist reading strategies proves exhaustive or all-encompassing, but because it provides a good place to begin. In the case of a feminist reading of the Akedah, the first interpretive moment—identification with and discussion of female literary characters—helps catalyze a hermeneutical process that eventually leads to the discovery of alternative voices.
Based on the chapters that precede Genesis 22, one would expect the major female character in this narrative to be the matriarch, Sarah. But if Chapter 21 begins with God's "remembering of Sarah"—her promised pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Isaac—the opening of Chapter 22 constitutes a forgetting. Abraham, Isaac, the servants, the angel of God, and the ram all appear in the ensuing verses, but Sarah, who loomed so large in the preceding chapter, in person, laughter, and speech, has now gone missing from the narrative.
I am not the first to respond to Sarah's disappearance from the text. The rabbis sensed it keenly and composed...