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The Unbinding of Isaac

A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22


Stephen J. Stern

In The Unbinding of Isaac, Stephen J. Stern upends traditional understandings of this controversial narrative through a phenomenological midrash or interpretation of Genesis 22 from the Dialogic and Jewish philosophies of Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and, most notably, Emmanuel Levinas. With great originality, Dr. Stern intersects Jewish studies, Biblical studies, and philosophy in a literary/midrashic style that challenges traditional Western philosophical epistemology. Through the biblical narrative of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca, Dr. Stern explains that Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas Judaically exercise and offer an alternative epistemic orientation to the study of ethics than that of traditional Western or Hellenic-Christian philosophy. The Unbinding of Isaac makes the works of these three thinkers accessible to those outside philosophy and Jewish studies while also introducing readers to the playfulness of how Jewish tradition midrashically addresses the Bible.


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Chapter IV: The Unbinding of Isaac 59


Chapter IV The Unbinding of Isaac Face as mortality, mortality of the other beyond his appearing; nakedness more naked, so to speak, than that which unveiling of truth exposes; beyond the visibil- ity of the phenomenon, a victims abandonment. But in that very precariousness, the ‘Thou shalt not kill’ that is also the meaning of the face; in that directness of exposure, the proclamation–before any verbal sign of a right that peremptorily calls upon my responsibility for the other… —Emmanuel Levinas magine a father taking his son’s life for his own ends. The blade is raised. The son silently calls for help. The mother cannot be found. There is no human witness to his misery or his life. How does one show the father how to bear witness to his son when he cannot even see or hear his son? This is the problem for God with Abraham. God is trying to teach Abraham to take responsibility for his son, Isaac. Abraham is not the only student, however. God is also teaching Isaac that he is not only responsible for Abraham but additionally for building something new out of Abraham’s traditions. This is the purpose of God’s test. “God put Abraham to the test. [God] said to him, Abraham, and he an- swered, ‘Here I am.’ [God] said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which...

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