Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Passover: So many questions!

Is there a Jewish tradition which teaches that the day Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac was the same day, centuries later, that the Passover occurred?

Yes, but, according to Jewish tradition, the day of the Passover had more ancient history than this. On this day, God created Adam. On this day, God called Abraham. On this day, God's angel arrested the hand of Abraham, about to slaughter Isaac.
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A section of my book Significant Moments is devoted to a fanciful reconstruction of the biblical tale of the near sacrifice of Isaac -- and "The Sacrifice of Isaac," a painting by Rembrandt.  By implication, I suppose, the section also relates in some way to the holiday of Passover with its latent allusions to child sacrifice.

I also see a remote connection between Thomas Eakins famous painting "The Gross Clinic" and Rembrandt's "Sacrifice of Isaac."  Both paintings have been interpreted by psychoanalytically-informed art scholars as relating to castration anxiety (and child sacrifice).


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I had been searching for an illustration for the jacket of the British edition of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware; I didn't want to leave the selection to chance but thought it important that I myself find an appropriate visual representation of the work's underlying theme. Two Rembrandt depictions of the sacrifice of Isaac—one in Leningrad, the other in Munich—came to mind. In both . . .
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
. . . the motifs of his dream-like vision are fixed; the same fragments of outward reality occur again and again in the stream of his fantasy; and . . .
Isaac Deutscher, Marc Chagall and the Jewish Imagination.
. . . the colors, as if prepared from bitumen, are generally dense and dark and only fitfully luminous—creating an unceasing viscous movement . . .
Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music.
. . . a single stream of fantasy that runs through all his pictures—a single dream dreamt and painted in an immense multitude of variations.
Isaac Deutscher, Marc Chagall and the Jewish Imagination.
The theme . . .
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven.
. . . Rembrandt’s . . .
Simon Schama, Rembrandt’s Eyes.
. . . theme remains throughout as an anchor to prevent fantasy from losing contact with the outer world, but it too dissolves into the memories, images, and feelings which underlie its simple reality. In this the theme is like the manifest dream—a simple, condensed sequence of images masking an infinity of latent dream thoughts.
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven.
The Artist . . .
Otto Rank, The Artist.
. . . described how he carried his thoughts with him for a long time before setting to work: “Then the working-out in breadth, length, and height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me . . .
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven quoting Beethoven.
. . . like a human form, . . .
Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
. . . as though cast in a single piece. . . . ”
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven quoting Beethoven.
The creation of . . .
Kim A. Woodbridge, Literary Sources of Frankenstein.
. . . the artist’s vision—
Henry James, The Ambassadors.
. . . is the ‘child’. It must, like human children, resemble the parents; and yet it must also be different, an individual in its own right.
Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation.
There is no way of knowing what Rembrandt wanted to convey . . .
Dan Levin, Spinoza.
. . . with his . . .
Otto Rank, Art and Artist.
. . . creations which sent me out into dangerous realms.
The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume 1 – 1931-1934.
The main thing about them is not that they wish to go "back," but that they wish to get—away. A little more strength, flight, courage, and artistic power, and they would want to rise—
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.
He refused to idealize the figures in his Biblical paintings; he suspected that those Old Testament Hebrews looked pretty much like the Jews of . . .
Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Reason Begins: From Rubens to Rembrandt.
. . . seventeenth-century . . .
Dan Levin, Spinoza.
. . . Amsterdam; he pictured them so, and in consequence they rise from myth or history into life.
Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Reason Begins: From Rubens to Rembrandt.
I had been struck by the fact that in both of the Rembrandt versions . . .
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
. . . of the binding of Isaac . . .
Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation.
. . . I already knew, Abraham is grasping his son's head with his left hand and raising a knife with his right; his eyes, however, are not resting on his son but are turned upward, as though he is asking God if he is carrying out His will correctly. At first I thought that this was Rembrandt's own interpretation and that there must be others, but I was unable to find any. In all the portrayals of this scene that I found, Abraham's face or entire torso is turned away from his son and directed upward. Only his hands are occupied with the sacrifice.
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
God asks him to prove his obedience by agreeing to give as a blood sacrifice his son Isaac. As soon as Abraham agrees, he is, of course, permitted to sacrifice, instead, an animal.
Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Clifford Odets: American Playwright.
An evocative scene.
Dan Levin, Spinoza.
If we could only invite Isaac into our group and hear his voice! How would he recall the events on Moriah?
Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation.
Who can say?
Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.
The main problem is that this is one of those stories that is meant to be used not religiously, but mystically. Mystics have a tendency to use outrageous symbols.
Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation.
I remember that when as a child I read the Midrash, I came across a story and a description of a scene which gripped my imagination.
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
It reminded me of . . .
Jack London, The Sea Wolf.
. . . the problem of . . .
Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena.
. . . . the Creator and His Creations;
Cynthia Ozick, The Impious Impatience of Job.
. . . the problem of . . .
Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena.
. . . visioning and revisioning, . . .
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, The Anatomy of Prejudices.
—and finally, . . .
Mark Twain, Roughing It.
. . . of all things! . . .
Zane Grey, The Spirit of the Border.
. . . the sacrifice of Isaac—
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
It was the story of Rabbi Meir, the great saint and sage, the pillar of Mosaic orthodoxy, and co-author of the Mishnah, who took lessons in theology from a heretic, Elisha ben Abiyuh, called Akher (The Stranger).
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
One day while . . .
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
. . . Rabbi Meir . . .
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
. . . was working . . .
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
. . . Akher . . .
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
. . . The Stranger . . .
Albert Camus, The Stranger.
. . . stood beside him, watching with engrossment. He was scratching out one . . .
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
. . . Word . . .
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust.
. . .after another . . .
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
. . . as the new formulations were sketched, trimmed, contoured, synthesized.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, The Anatomy of Prejudices.
The stranger said tranquilly:—
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
. . . Rabbi Meir, . . .
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
. . . ‘I would not like to be a . . .
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
. . . word.’
Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset.
‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘Because then you might scratch me out . . .
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
. . . as a sacrifice . . .
Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage.
. . . and blow me away.’
Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters.
That’s a curious association of ideas, is it not . . . ?
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby.
But how complex and dreamlike a tale!
Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Clifford Odets: American Playwright.
When, at what point in his life, did Isaac abandon religion for good and all? This was, of course, a gradual process. But there is no doubt that . . .
Tamara Deutscher, Introduction to Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
. . . this one . . .
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table.
. . . particular episode, highly dramatic, which appealed to Isaac's sense of the theatrical, sealed the final break. Here again, though only remotely, the personality of Isaac's father contributed something to his son's development.
Tamara Deutscher, Introduction to Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
As I looked at the pictures, I thought to myself, "The son, an adult at the peak of his manhood, is simply lying there, quietly . . .
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
. . . waiting for what would happen next.
Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution, 1825-1917.
In some of the versions he is . . .
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
. . . as . . .
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection.
. . . calm and obedient . . .
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
.
. . as an artist’s model;
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection.
. . . in only one is he in tears, but not in a single one is he rebellious."
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
There was enough in this scene to puzzle an orthodox Jewish child. Why, I wondered, did . . .
Isaac Deutscher, The non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
. . . none of the paintings
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
. . . depict . . .
Joseph Conrad, The Rescue.
. . . any questioning in Isaac's eyes, questions such as "Father, why do you want to kill me, why is my life worth nothing to you? Why won't you look at me, why won't you explain what is happening? How can you do this to me? I love you, I trusted you. Why won't you speak to me? What crime have I committed? What have I done to deserve this?"
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
From such a situation, one would think, a troubled and complex personality would be likely to emerge.
Dan Levin, Spinoza.
My heart, it seems, was with the heretic . . .
Isaac Deutscher, The non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
         . . . the rebel . . .
Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game quoted in K.R. Eissler, Talent and Genius.
When I was thirteen, or perhaps fourteen, I began to write a play about . . .
Isaac Deutscher, The non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
. . . what would happen if Isaac, instead of reaching for the knife, were to use every ounce of his strength to free his hands so that he could remove Abraham's hand from his face?
Alice Miller, The Untouched Key.
I could not find the answers, and did not get beyond the first act.
Isaac Deutscher, The non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays.
One word more:
H. Rider Haggard, Child of Storm.
When you think of me, think of Rembrandt—a little light and a great deal of darkness.
Sigmund Freud, as attributed by Martin S. Bergmann.

3 comments:

Gary Freedman said...

Biblical injunction demands that the rebellious son be smitten.

Some employers believe that employees who question authority should be terminated.

"It's all the same case!"

Gary Freedman said...

According to the late psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson every great work has as an underlying theme the artist's own psychological struggles in "birthing" his creation, whether it be a play, a painting, a piece of music, a poem or so forth.

Perhaps for Rembrandt and Eakins the manifest image of the child in the respective paintings discussed in this post represents the artists' feelings about creating these specific works of art.

That also applies to my book. The struggles of Isaac, Abraham, and God reflect my own feelings about writing Significant Moments. (Of course, my book is not a "great work of art" -- it's a plagiarized collection of quotations of an asymptomatic paranoid schizophrenic.

Gary Freedman said...

Notice the following neat symmetry:

Eakins painting "The Gross Clinic" may have been inspired in part by Rembrandt's "The Sacrifice of Isaac."

Eakins himself was "sacrificed" (fired) by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts because of his act of rebellion against the established norms of The Academy -- his use of nude models.

Why does Abraham obey God's command? Perhaps, to disobey would be an act of rebellion that would result in Abraham's own death.

"Fear of termination" is a powerful tool that the Employer uses to keep "employees" in line.