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Why the ‘Binding of Isaac’ belongs in a Jewish children’s Bible

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Avi Katz's original sketch to illustrate the binding of Isaac in the "JPS Illustrated Children's Bible" was replaced by a less disturbing image.<br />
 (Avi Katz)

Avi Katz’s original sketch to illustrate the binding of Isaac in the “JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible” was replaced by a less disturbing image.
(Avi Katz)

The "JPS Illustrated Children's Bible" opted to run the Avi Katz illustration showing Abraham with his head bowed and knife sheathed, with Isaac trailing behind. (Avi Katz)

The “JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible” opted to run the Avi Katz illustration showing Abraham with his head bowed and knife sheathed, with Isaac trailing behind. (Avi Katz)

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PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — When I was growing up, no one told me the difference between the Torah and midrash. So, like many other Jews, I thought the Hebrew Bible included the legends of Lilith, Abraham smashing his father’s idols and Elijah’s visits to my seder table. It wasn’t until much later that I learned what was in and out of the sacred canon.

My chief aim in writing the “JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible” was to teach children this important distinction, to present the Hebrew Bible on its own terms, without interpretation or embellishment. I also wanted to reproduce the unique texture and rhythm of biblical language, using as my guide the 1985 JPS English Translation (NJPS), which itself tried to capture the idiomatic nuances of biblical Hebrew. 

The stories in my book are abridged but not improved or modernized. I want readers and listeners to appreciate the simple narrative style of the Bible: sentences anchored in active subjects and verbs, few adjectives or adverbs, only rare editorializing by the narrator. All the familiar techniques of good storytelling — suspense, dramatic irony, repetition, word play, stock characters, etc. — are present in these stories, but the specific ways that these techniques play out are unique to the Hebrew Bible.

So, too, are the names of people and places, of holy days and sacred acts. I made many judgment calls as I worked — about vocabulary, translation, editorial intervention, censorship and gendered language. I tried to be mindful of young readers’ reading level, cultural literacy and developmental maturity. But I also wanted to give children a feel for the special language that characterizes sacred texts.

I selected 53 stories to include in the book. My choices were guided mainly by my sense of what makes a good story for children. Some stories I excluded as being inappropriate for young readers, but I felt obliged to include a few troubling stories because they are pivotal to understanding the Jewish national story. 

Perhaps no Bible story is more troubling, especially to children, than “The Binding of Isaac,” which we read every Rosh Hashanah in synagogue. This brief story, recounted in 19 verses totaling 270 Hebrew words, has generated endless debate and commentary. My own version is not that different from the JPS translation, with a few key exceptions.

The language has been slightly simplified. More importantly, I’ve replaced the term “burnt offering,” repeated six times, with the less visceral “sacrifice.” (However, I don’t use this word in the title because Jews have always known this story as “akedat Yitzhak,” the binding of Isaac, not the sacrifice.) 

Similarly, Avi Katz replaced his original sketch for this story, depicting Abraham with knife upraised above his bound son with a less disturbing image: Abraham and Isaac ascending the mountain, the father with his head bowed and knife still sheathed, and the son following behind. Although the story and several others will no doubt challenge a young person’s sensibilities and sense of justice, I believe it’s good for children to begin struggling with these moral tensions, so vividly dramatized in our holiest book.     

The Torah emerged from a culture radically different from our own, so in fairness we cannot impose upon it our contemporary values. But to be fair to ourselves, we cannot simply sweep aside the contradictions between the Bible’s world and our own.

Rather than censor such difficult material, as has been done for centuries in children’s Bibles, I hope that parents, teachers and rabbis will talk with young readers about these stories and encourage them to continue wrestling with these difficult texts throughout their lives — with the help of classical rabbinic commentaries, modern scholarship, members of their communities and their own conscience. 

To this day, the Bible remains the cornerstone of Jewish culture, the home to which Jews return in every generation to connect to their past, their collective unconscious and their shared traditions. In the English language, too, the Bible  remains an essential source for literature and the performing arts, politics and protest. To understand Shakespeare, Robert Frost, popular music and today’s newspaper, you have to know the Bible.

It is, quite simply, the greatest story ever told.

(Ellen Frankel, author of the "JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible," most recently served as the CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society and is now the publisher’s editor emerita.)

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