In early 1937, my father, the cantor at Mannheim’s Liberale synagogue and a highly regarded Judaic and liturgical composer in Germany, wrote an oratorio entitled Akedah. It was to have its premiere in Stuttgart in the spring of 1938. Its text was based on both the biblical story of the binding of Isaac and on postbiblical literature related to the subject. In the oratorio’s libretto, there was an emphasis on Isaac as a symbol or metaphor for the entire people of Israel being persecuted as an “innocent sacrifice.” Everyone involved in the performance was concerned lest the Nazi party officials read the libretto too carefully and realize its contemporary significance. Indeed, the day before the dress rehearsal, a group of storm troopers entered the hall and confiscated all the scores and parts. We saved one piano score and one full score and brought these with us to the United States when we emigrated as a family. My father eventually rewrote nearly all the oratorios he had composed in Germany, but he died before he had a chance to revise this one.
When I was about to leave my professional positions in Dallas, in 1966, Temple Emanu-El, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and the Dallas Chamber Music Society commissioned me to write a work for performance in May 1967. I chose to use most of my father’s Akedah text and to base my own work on that seminal story. But I asked my friend Rabbi Albert Freelander—then in residence in London—to write an English libretto that would also be based on both biblical and postbiblical sources. It emerged in three parts. The first is devoted to the Call to Abraham and Abraham’s answer. It also includes the drama of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah, leaving their servants at the base camp and ascending to the top by themselves. The second part (featured in this recording) is based on Talmudic and Midrashic sources. Satan appears to both Abraham and Isaac to challenge the validity of Abraham’s commitment. To differentiate Satan from Abraham and Isaac in musical terms, I have written his part strictly according to twelve-tone serial technique. This greatly contrasts the music associated with Satan with that of the other two characters, giving it a jagged and angular contour. Isaac may be sung by a boy soprano or a young woman. Throughout this second part, the orchestra, with brass and percussion juxtaposed against the more mellow sounds of strings and woodwinds, mirrors the angular parameter as well as the calmer moments. The final part addressed the fact that though Isaac was spared, our own human proclivity to understand the word of God only conventionally, according to our own interpretations, will always lead to the sacrifice of our sons and daughters—until we try humbly to read God’s word in a broader context. This work nonetheless concludes on a very optimistic note.
Editor's Note by Neil W. Levin:
The term akeda (binding), or akedat yitzhak (the binding of Isaac [for sacrifice]) refers to the biblical incident (Genesis 22:1–19) wherein God tests Abraham’s faith by instructing him to prepare his son, Isaac, for ritual sacrifice. This story constitutes one of the central narratives in Judaism, both because it demonstrates Abraham’s worthiness to be the founder of the Israelite people—through his unquestioning faith in God and His wisdom—and because its conclusion serves as an unequivocal admonishment against the practice, under any circumstances, of human sacrifice. At the same time, the narrative also illustrates Isaac’s faith and devotion as the second Jewish patriarch. The akedat yitzhak is therefore frequently cited in the Hebrew liturgy. On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when this biblical portion is read, the sounding of the shofar—the ram’s horn—is also, among other things, a reminder of the ram that appeared out of the thicket for sacrifice in place of Isaac. Many commentaries and interpretations of this story throughout the centuries, including the Talmud, suggest that the divine request was only “to prepare Isaac for sacrifice” as a test—hence the binding—but not necessarily to go through with the deed.
Sung in English
But it was for Satan a source of distress
That the two walked off together in peace.
And he garbed himself in a wanderer’s dress
And stood at a byway along which their path lay!
And his whispers reached Abraham through the dark trees.
Whence, whence, whence your way, you two?
And why do you press on?
We journey onward so we may pray.
Why do you ask, and what is your concern?
To pray? How strange; With knife and firestone?
And why this heavy load? Why all that wood?
It is a far-off place to which we turn, where we will raise our hands in prayer.
We may well need it to prepare our food.
Ha! Ha!...Old man, you mock me there.
Look at me, look at me now.
Look and recall: was I not present when you thought you heard out of God’s own mouth that shattering word?
Take now your only son and offer him unto me.
Abraham! Abraham! Almost a hundred years have come and gone in which you flourished like a cedar, proud and tall.
And now you would destroy a young and tender soul?
For a dream of the night in the ban of dark night reduced to a murderer’s role.
Be silent! Be silent! I know you, I know your word.
Away from my side. The Holy One, Blessed be He, who was and who is, and who will be, in Him I confide!
Now Satan rushed over to the side of the lad in the form of a boy of the same age and said:
Whither so early along this way?
I go to study great teaching today.
‘Tis sweeter than honey, more precious than gold!
It is lovely to learn, but I have been told that death ends a lesson. Will you learn when you’re dead?
Can one learn when you’re dead?
I don’t understand.
Listen my boy! You are holding the hand of that old man there.
He would lead you astray! A fantastic dream has become his way.
An imagined God’s word has designed you his prey,
And you are doomed to be slaughtered in the course of this day!
Did you hear, O father?
How heavy a burden for your soul to bear,
How deep a grief for your whitened hair.
O son, death is so very close to you and me,
Ready to take us both. But it will be that God
Whose comfort has been my shield
Will comfort us both until we enter death’s field.
But the devil now screamed in the father’s face
What he glimpsed through the veil of mystery.
Do you think your actions God’s call will embrace?
A dirty sheep, a dirty sheep will your sacrifice be.
My son, one who has spent his days sowing lies,
May speak the truth once, but though he tries,
No one will hear his cries.
Here I am, my son.
Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?
God will provide the sheep for the offering, my son.
Thus did the two walk off together.
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Texts compiled by Hugo Chaim Adler, based on Genesis 22 and traditional teachings of the Midrash and Haggada.
English adaptation by Albert Friedlander.