Thursday, November 12, 2015

Toldot, Blindness and Faith

One of the central questions about our forefather Isaac’s life is what he sees. Is he truly blind or does he prefer to close his eyes to reality? His life is framed by the Torah’s words: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27)

It is an important question for our own lives as well. Author Margaret Heffernan writes:
Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. (Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril)
The Torah concurs. This week we read that Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob rather than his rightful heir Esau. His wife Rebekah conspires with Jacob, cooking Isaac’s favorite dish and urging Jacob to ask for the first-born’s blessing. Jacob approaches his father and lies. He says, “I am Esau your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” Isaac asks some more questions. He has some wine and eats Rebekah’s brisket. (Ok, maybe it wasn't brisket.) One wonders: does Isaac not recognize the taste of his beloved wife’s cooking?

The story mirrors an earlier tale. The questions sound familiar. In the Akedah, as Isaac and Abraham are walking towards Mount Moriah, Isaac asks, “Father! Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham responds, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering my son.” (Genesis 22) Does Abraham also lie? Does he instead believe, as later transpires, that God will stay his hand at the final moment?

More importantly what does Isaac believe? Does he choose not to see the truth; does he choose blindness over embracing the zealotry of his father? Heffernan reiterates: “So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial.” The ancient rabbis do not embrace such an interpretation. They cannot. They see Isaac instead as a willing participant. Moreover they calculate that Isaac is 37 years old at the time of the Akedah. In their view Isaac and Abraham embrace God’s demand as one. The Torah states: “And the two walked together as one.” Their devotion is unified. One harrowing rabbinic legend even goes so far as to suggest that Isaac pleads, “Father, please bind me to the altar so that I do not spoil the sacrifice.”

And yet we live in a time of religious extremism, when parents appear to embrace the sacrifice of children on their faith’s altar. I do not know how else to see what we repeatedly view on the news. The command to Abraham becomes horrifying when read through the lens of contemporary events. We want to shout, “Isaac, open your eyes! Find a different path!”

How can we walk a different road? How does one continue to find meaning and healing in faith when confronted by such horrors? When does devotion become zealotry? I am left wondering, again and again. I continue asking. I embrace questioning. I choose to welcome uncertainties.

Heffernan continues:
It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia.
When we retreat from seeing, when we find comfort in the like-minded and are assuaged by conforming arguments, the scales begin to tip away from a reasoned faith. When we turn from a religious devotion that is at home with questions to one that is only filled with certainties we begin to walk towards fanaticism. Then piety too easily becomes zealotry and faith is transformed into something harrowing.

Perhaps there remains an answer to be uncovered. It emerges in the opening of eyes. It is awakened by seeing.

There is a solution for a world beset by religious monstrosities. It is discovered in the very same pages that give rise to the questions and even, I hesitantly add, the horrors. The Torah responds:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw…” (Genesis 22)

This is what God desires all along: to lift up our eyes and see for ourselves. Things are only certain when we choose blindness over seeing.

Truth is only beheld when we become one with uncertainty.


I would like to thank Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for this post's inspiration. Take an extra 15 minutes to watch Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk.

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