Unbinding Isaac The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought

About the Book

Unbinding Isaac takes readers on a trek of discovery to insight into the binding of Isaac story for our times. The early nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard viewed the biblical story as teaching of suspension of ethics for the sake of faith, and in the twentieth century Jewish thinkers developed this idea as a cornerstone of their religious worldview.  Koller examines and critiques Kierkegaard’s perspective—and later incarnations of it—on textual, religious, and ethical grounds.  He also explores the current of criticism of Abraham in Jewish thought, from ancient poems and midrashim to contemporary Israel narratives, as well as some of the many ways Jews have responded to the Akedah over the generations.

Finally, bringing together all these multiple strands of thought— along with modern knowledge of human sacrifice in the Phoenician world—Koller offers an original reading of the Akedah grounded in medieval Jewish philosophy and attuned to the modern world: The biblical God would like to want child sacrifice – because it is in fact a remarkable display of devotion – but more so does not want child sacrifice, because it would violate the child’s autonomy. Thus, the high point in the drama is not the binding of Isaac, but the moment when Abraham is told to release him. As Koller explains, the Torah does not allow child sacrifice, which, by contrast, some of Israel’s neighbors viewed as a religiously inspiring act, for a specific reason: the story teaches us that an authentically religious act cannot be done through the harm of another human being.

“[An] engaging and relevant book of impressive scholarly work on a critical biblical theme with ever-lingering vibrations and variations, interpretations and implications. . . . A well-prepared and helpful study and discussion guide is available at”—CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly

“An extraordinarily efficient and effective effort to call us to, and equip us for, a reading [of the Akedah] that is ‘both textually cohesive and ethically defensible.’ . . . Seeking that higher perception [of God’s will], Koller’s work so vitally teaches us, is a mission we can and must pursue, and pursue indefinitely.”—Tradition

“The first of Koller’s monographs that explicitly aims to engage a nonspecialist audience—yet without compromising intellectual rigor. Koller’s ability to write clearly and compellingly while commanding such diverse material is impressive.”—AJS Review

“[A] rich transhistorical study of the Akedah and its reception. . . . [A] trenchant critique of Akedah theology.”—Journal of Jewish Ethics

“One would have thought that centuries of dissecting twenty odd verses of Genesis from every perspective imaginable have exhausted their meaning. Yet Koller, with his erudite grasp of both biblical literature and the longue duree of the Jewish interpretive tradition, unbinds the akedah to reveal its philosophical and theological grandeur.”James A. Diamond, Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo

“Koller’s bold claim that ‘one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another’ stands alone as a textually-rooted, morally compelling vision for sincere faith in a modern world. Unbinding Isaac should be required reading for all of us seeking the voice of the ethical imperative in religious community.”Yehuda Kurtzer, president, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

“The book is a pleasure to read, but no less learned for that. There is great depth of learning on show here, but Koller manages somehow to wear that learning relatively lightly—an impressive feat.”Daniel Rynhold, professor of modern Jewish philosophy, Yeshiva University

“Aaron Koller leads his readers on a journey through a stunningly wide range of material—ancient, medieval, and modern; Jewish and Christian; Hasidic, misnagdic, and secular; some scholarly, some poetic, some dug up by archaeologists—without ever losing focus or clarity. Wearing his massive learning lightly, he helps readers learn from these sources even as he shows them how to critique them on ethical and intellectual levels. His own interpretation of this deeply (and troublingly) influential narrative is at once respectful of the biblical text and religiously sensitive.”Benjamin D. Sommer, professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages, the Jewish Theological Seminary and winner of the Goldstein-Goren Prize in Jewish Thought

Aaron J. Koller

Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His last book was Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014, and his next is Unbinding Isaac: The Akedah in Jewish Thought (forthcoming from JPS/University of Nebraska Press in 2020); he is also the author of numerous studies in Semitic philology. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.

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