The Binding of Isaac, Akedat Yitzhak, continues to serve as a background for discussions of religion, politics, art and philosophy. This concise Biblical narrative, only 19 verses in length, has managed to set a model for thinking about obedience and sacrifice, secularism and politics, art and philosophy—and more.
In the recording below, Yael Feldman (Literary Criticism/Hebrew Studies, NYU), James Goodman (History/Writing, Rutgers), Jay Bernstein and I meet to discuss our different perspectives on the story.
You may not be aware that the beaver, this unlucky, little, cute rodent, has suffered a long history of oppression and exploitation. On the American continent, the beaver, a traditional source of clothing and food for native people, became soon after the arrival of the European colonizers a main object of trade in the increasingly flourishing fur trade industry. Beaver pelt even led the English and the French to a brutal commercial war that ended up with the depletion, over-exploitation and over-starvation of beavers. Nonetheless, beaver hats remained quite a fashionable piece of clothing from 1550 to 1850.
As usual, colonization and exploitation were accompanied by a symbolic misrecognition that has lasted up to the present day. You may remember, for example, Jodie Foster’s 2011 movie, The Beaver, where a hand puppet named… The Beaver (I know, sorry!) turns from a cute, friendly fetish helping the main character, Walter, to recover from his severe depression, into a sort of manipulating and cruel incubus taking over his entire life. But there have been many precedents of this cultural devaluation of beavers.
When Huizi the rationalist visited Zhuangzi to express his condolences for the recent passing of Zhuangzi’s wife, he was shocked to find the great Daoist sage sprawled on the ground happily beating out a rhythm on a tub and singing with gusto. Stop this scandal! Huizi demanded, outraged at his friend’s disregard of decorum.
Zhuangzi was unmoved. “You’re wrong,” he retorted. “When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else?”
“But,” he continued, “I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead.”