At this time of year, when we Jews ritually enact the Genesis story of the binding of Isaac, and then go on to see ourselves during the Yom Kippur service (coming up Sunday night and Monday) as the world's eternal scapegoat, it is hard not to regard the recent rapprochement between Israel and two further Arab countries as something of a miracle, as well as bashert (serendipitous).
Much has been written about the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, in which our ancestor, Abraham, demonstrated his willingness to consecrate his beloved child to the service of G-d, a theme picked up by Christianity and Islam respectively but with a different interpretation.
In the Jewish tradition, we regard Rosh Hashana not actually as the Jewish New Year, but rather the 'Head of the Year' for everyone, irrespective of religious affiliation. Rosh Hashana is a celebration of the birthday of the entire world, the birth of Adam and Eve on the 1st of the Hebrew month of Tishri.
What I read into the story is the eternal truth that every child, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity and so on, is not the property of his or her parents, but is to be regarded as a gift and consecration to the one G-d. Adherents of other religions may have taken a different path on this, but in the Jewish faith the original story remains – the binding nature of the Akeda as an accord with G-d, open to all people. How mind-boggling is that?
The similarity in sound between the Hebrew Akeda (from the root akod) and the latinate 'accord', which in French popularly signals everyday agreement (d'accord) is striking. 'Shall we go out for dinner?' 'D'accord!' (don't forget the rule of 6 though!).
I first became aware of the residual importance of the Akeda within the entire gamut of Jewish life and exegesis through study of Hebrew poetry, and especially the poetry of two periods: the Golden Age of the Jews of Spain (900-1200 CE) and the more recent poetry emanating from the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel (mid 20th century onwards).
Starting in the mid 20th century, the Jewish people are commemorated in the poetry of the modern Hebrew language as both the eternal Isaac and the eternal scapegoat of the world. I shall come to the scapegoat designation of the Jews for the present new year of 5781 at the end of this article.
One of the most astounding and chutzpadik uses of such language in medieval Spanish Jewish thought was that of the first Biblical exegete of the Iberian Peninsula, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), who (uniquely) wrote only in Hebrew and deliberately eschewed his native Arabic in all his writing. This decision was taken in order to preserve the Hebrew language during the time of Muslim Almoravid and Almohade invasions from northern Africa on the one hand, and the onslaughts from the Christian crusades on the other.
In his introduction to his Commentary on the Torah, written in Lucca, northern Italy, in 1145, ibn Ezra states the following, the translation being taken from my book Deconstructing the Bible:
"In the name of the Great and Awesome G-d, I shall begin to expound the meaning of the Torah. I beseech Thee, oh G-d of my father, Abraham, Deal mercifully with Thy servant, Abraham. And let it come to pass that the opening of Thy words enlighten Thy servant, son of Thy servant, Meir. And from the salvation of Thy countenance let sustenance come To the son of Thy hand-maiden, he who is named ben Ezra. This is the Book of the straight path by the poet, Abraham, bound by cords of true grammar, To be deemed fit by the eyes of knowing judgment. And make happy all those who uphold it. Thus says Abraham the Spaniard, Who is mindful of the five paths taken by the Torah commentators."
I always believe that context is everything. So although I would draw the attention of the reader to the phrase emphasized in bold, it is also good to see the phrase in context. There is no doubt in my mind that ibn Ezra, caught between the two impossible worlds of Islam and Christianity drawing in on him, left Spain for northern Europe.
Only there could he, the great poet of Spain, devote the remainder of his life to teaching those of us who don't come from Spain (and haven't therefore been fortunate enough to imbibe her rich cultural and scientific Sephardi heritage) the rudiments of how to study the Torah text properly, being 'bound' by rules of grammar and 'for the sake of Heaven'.
What ibn Ezra is doing is stating that the Akeda story of accord with G-d is also relevant to his own time when incursions from Judaism's two daughter religions of Islam and Christianity may make us forget. And Judaism is nothing if not remembrance. So that is why ibn Ezra uses the bold language of the 'binding of Isaac' in order to make his point. He, ibn Ezra, is the patriarch Abraham, and the Torah is Abraham's son, the partiarch Isaac, to be lovingly consecrated to G-d.
Writing about the Abraham Accords, what sprang to mind is that two Arab countries whose religion is Islam have decided to pursue peace rather than continue to boycott the only Jewish State. Because at root we share the same G-d.
It goes without saying of course that this political achievement is a miracle in itself, given its extraordinary timing during the Covid situation from which we are all suffering. And this accord is not quite like the first two peace treaties with Egypt (March 26th 1979) and Jordan (October 26 1994), which had both actually been at war with the State of Israel and (with the assistance of much of the Western world) had constantly tried to wipe her out since her inception on May 14th 1948.
But the two latest accords with the UAE and Bahrain are of a different quality, and appear to augur a new era for the Middle East, with beneficial repercussions all round.
My friend and neighbor, Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa of blessed memory, who died exactly four years ago, was invited to officiate at the 1994 signing of the Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan. He often talked about this signing moment with me. The event took place near Eilat, opposite to the mountains of Moab, where our greatest prophet, Moses, had died before being able to cross over into the Promised Land of Israel, and Rabbi Shear Yashuv himself had fought for the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Liberation against the Arabs.
At that time the Arabs were given material and military assistance by the British, with MI6 intervening behind the scenes, urging the Arabs to wipe out the Jewish entity before it could declare itself as a State. With the help of G-d, although the Old City was completely destroyed, the State of Israel was herself declared two days after news of the MI6 intervention reached the ears of Jewish leader of the Yishuv, David Ben Gurion, on 14 May 1948, when B-G became Israel's first Prime Minister. Luckily the tiny Jewish State has survived for 72 years, making history once again in the last few days and weeks against all the odds by remembering her promise to the Almighty to be bound by accords which proclaim His name to the world.
As a Jewish woman whose father was also, and miraculously I believe, appointed a judge in pre-war Poland, I can't help but also think at this moment of that tiny Jewish woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg of blessed memory, who was the first Jewish woman (and only the second woman) in American history to be appointed to the Supreme Court and who has just died before the onset of the New Year of 5781.
Ruth also recognized that Judaism and justice go together, stating her reasons for going into the law at a time when it was difficult for women, and especially Jewish women, to be accepted by law firms, let alone be appointed to the Supreme Court. The Chicago Tribune writes a fitting obituary about this American Jewish icon, in which her passion for justice, taken from the book of Deuteronomy, rings as true as it ever did.
President Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court in 1993. Barely one year later, he had helped to orchestrate the Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel.
But, and this is the nub of my article, when Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to officiate at the Peace Accord ceremony, which was taking place on Israel's southern border near Eilat on 26 October, as I describe in my book, he later told me the following:
"As I faced the mountains of Moab, which reminded me of the Prisoner of War Camp where I had been incarcerated by the Jordanians after they had destroyed the Old City of Jerusalem and taken some of us prisoner, I decided to recite Psalm 121 to the associated royalty, Presidents and other dignitaries.
"Because this would tell the world that much as the Jewish people appreciate people who want to make peace, we do not trust solely in peace treaties, or in flesh-and-blood leaders, but only in the Holy One, Blessed be He."
So while we may rejoice and marvel at the latest two countries in the area who have made positive overtures, it is also just as well to remember the words of Psalm 121, written by King David when he was surrounded by all his enemies, and wasn't sure where to look for help – surely the most common experience of Jews during our 2000 year-history:
"A song of ascents: I shall lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth."
Rabbi Cohen continued:
"I read the words in Hebrew and then in English, at which point tears began flowing down the cheeks of President Clinton, who knew the psalm well."
As we move towards Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, former President of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Marc Angel, another wonderful Sephardi thinker in the footsteps of Abraham ibn Ezra, has published this promise to the world, which he has asked me to disseminate further, and which I am happy to do here:
We are fully aware as a small people of 14 or 15 million people at most, in a world of 8 billion, that despite our huge contribution in every walk of life, now that we have our own country back of Israel back again we are even more hated than ever. And despite the pretensions of those who deny it, and thus seek to weaken the Jewish community, this hatred is very much the case here in the UK, which used to rule the world and now finds itself without either power or authority and is even struggling to keep afloat.
Every single institution to which one should be able to look up and respect in this country - the unions, the Labour Party, the schools, the media, yes even the Church, and – most of all – the universities have the stain of antisemitism in one way or another.
So, writing here as I am from the little bubble of exuberantly Orthodox and Zionist Jewish Broughton Park, Salford, and reaching the age when grandmas tend to sink back in the proverbial rocking chair and take up their knitting, I continue in my own tiny patch to write, comment and marvel on how the tiny religion of Judaism has thrown up geniuses of such different hues as Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, followed by Abraham ibn Ezra, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and many others.
All of these unique pioneers understood in their own times the contribution of the Jewish people onward and upward, and the supreme teaching of "justice justice will you pursue" i.e. justice tempered always with mercy.
That is our contribution to the world; that is what we shall continue to embody in our different walks of lives to the best of our given abilities and strengths. And this is what Abraham promised to G-d by binding his own son and consecrating him and all future offspring to G-d and to G-d's work on earth. And this is the meaning of the shofar, the horn of the ram which also features in the Akeda story, and which we were able to hear 100-fold around my own tiny area of Broughton Park last Sunday, ushering in the birthday of the world and the New Year of 5781 and the promise of the new.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.