- Glory and Agony: Isaac's Sacrifice and National Narrative by Yael Feldman
Yael Feldman's book on the aqedah or the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) sheds new light on a time- and space-tested topos. Its main purpose is to expose the revisionary recurrence of this universal paradigm in modern Hebrew literary production. The study traces the nature of Israel's "haunted preoccupation" with this scene for over half a century, focusing on the function of this myth in the fashioning of a national identity. Feldman claims at the outset that Jewish nationalism was unable to invent a new, non-sacred language; thus the tension between the original narrative and its rewritten versions remains apparent in works of contemporary Israeli artists, though most of them are secular.
Reaching as far back as the beginning of the Twentieth century, to the then Palestine, Feldman examines the ways in which the concept of qorban (sacrifice), was dealt with in major literary texts and art works, faithfully representing the ideology of the times.
The first part of the book follows the evolvement of this concept in the decades preceding the declaration of Independence in 1948. The myth of heroism and sacrifice dominated the first two aliyot, or waves of immigration (1882-1918). Feldman points to the continuous use of martyrological terms within secular socialist Hebrew culture, which eventually gave way to the image of the aqedah. Beginning with Feierberg's novella Le'an? (1899), she discerns the sacrificial martial demands made on the protagonist by his father, whereas the son undergoes a crisis of faith heightened by a gender incongruity which stems from a collective rather than a personal psychology. Incapable of coming to terms with the masculine role in a new, modern world, the protagonist identifies with the passive victim position of Yiftha's (Jephthah's) daughter, an effeminate identification with passive historical Jewish martyrdom (qiddush hashem). By the second Aliyah, the notion of sacrifice changed the generational focus: from a demand made by the fathers of the sons to sacrifice oneself for God to a demand [End Page 344] made by the sons to sacrifice oneself for the salvation of the land, albeit at the cost of the sons' heightened guilt feelings towards the parents left behind.
The Jewish settlers of the first and second Aliyah were of Russian origin. The shift from a devotion to the people to an almost erotic devotion to the land is considered by Feldman a result of linguistic conditioning of both Russian and Hebrew languages: rodina, a Russian feminine noun for motherland that the pioneers had arrived with, coupled with moledet, its likewise feminine Hebrew equivalent, answered the settlers' emotional needs, motivating their heroism. Their readiness for personal sacrifice for the sake of the land was expressed in secular terms; Zionism thereby joined modern nationalistic discourse.
Feldman points to another language problem which influenced writers. The absence of lexical distinction between "victim" and "sacrifice" in Hebrew, both translations of the word qorban, is similar to the lack of distinction in the equivalent Russian word zhertva. Yet when Russian-speakers attribute this noun to human beings it is usually in the negative sense of "victim" rather than in a heroic context of self-sacrifice. Feldman thus explains the reluctance of Rachel Bluwstein, the major poetic voice of the second Aliyah, to consider her peers' heroic deeds in terms of victimhood. Rachel, the name by which this poet is generally known, also forcefully rejected Moshe Beilinson's qualification of her generation as qorbanot, or victims. Though Rachel must have been influenced by the rhetoric of sacrifice of her generation of immigrants, she later objected to a state of passive victimhood, differentiating it from heroic sacrifice, a distinction that became important to her successors.
Indeed, in Batya (1923), Zvi Shatz's novella, the word qorban is not used for the victim but rather for the need to kill. Feldman questions Shatz' use of images culled from Jewish martyrological tradition rather than familiar images of military heroism. The answer may lie precisely in his having...