I’ve been corresponding the last few days with one of my more traditional Jewish brethren. In particular, we have been discussing the Akedat Yitzchak, the Bindings of Isaac, as described in Genesis 22. Here is part of my response, which I thought might be useful to others looking into this strange episode in the Scriptures.
Again, let us refer to the rabbis:
"Remember unto us, Hashem our G-d, the covenant, the loving-kindness and the oath which you swore to Avraham our father on Mount Moriah. May the binding with which Avraham our father bound his son Yitzchak on the altar appear before you, how he overcame his compassion in order to do your will with a perfect heart." (From the Mussaf service on the 2nd Day of Yom Teruah) Said R. Abbahu, “Why do we blow a ram’s horn? Said the holy one, blessed be he, ‘Blow a ram’s horn before me so that I will remember in your favor the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and will credit [that act] to you, as though you bound yourselves [before me, willing to offer yourselves as a sacrifice].’” (b. Rosh Hashanah 16a)
The Lord will see this ‘akedah to forgive Israel every year and rescue them from trouble; so that it will be said, “On this day” in all coming generations, “on the mountain of the Lord is seen” the ashes of Yitzchak heaped up and serving for atonement. (Rashi)
[S]o when Yitzchak’s children come to do sin and bad deeds, remind them of the binding of Yitzchak and rise from the throne of judgment and sit down on the throne of mercy." When? "In the seventh month." (VaYikra 23:24)
In the future God, will resurrect the dead because of the merit of Yitzchak, who sanctified himself on the altar, as it is written, "To hear the cry of the bounded one." (Pesiktah DeRav Kehanah)
As My Jewish Learning points out, "But in traditional Jewish thought, the Akedah is used as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom; the Jewish people are ready at all times to give up life itself for the sake of the sanctification of the divine name (Kiddush Ha-Shem)."
Interestingly, there is are numerous midrashim that state that Isaac really did die, only to be resurrected:
Rabbi Yehudah said: Once the knife reached Yitzchak’s throat, his soul fled. When God spoke from between the two Keruvim and said, "Do not raise your hand to the boy!" the soul returned to his body. He untied him and he stood on his feet, [then] Yitzchak knew that the resurrection of the dead was insured by the Torah, that in the future all the dead will be resurrected. Then he opened up and said, “Blessed are You, God, Who resurrects the dead.” (Pirkay DeRabbi Eliezer, ch. 31)
See here for an interesting study of the resurrection motifs in the Akedat Yitzchak.
The point is that there’s a lot more going on here than a simple repudiation of human sacrifice, and the rabbis know it. The anti-missionary reflex response to the claims of Yeshua shreds several centuries of rabbinnic wisdom and makes an ocean into a puddle in its zeal to reject the Man from Nazareth.
The kind of human sacrifice that the Tanakh rejects is the unwilling sacrifice of innocent men, women, and children to the pagan demons. However, the Tanakh and all of Judaism has always recognized the tzedakah inherant in one laying down one’s own life to save another and the laying down of one’s one life or even the lives of one’s own children to Sanctify the Name (i.e., to let them be slain rather than turn from the True God).
You admit that the sacrifices of Israel were vicarious for the offerer–but since there have not been sacrifices for two thousand years, who or what do we have to take the place of we who have sinned against a Holy God?
Many Jews try to sweep this problem under the rug, but the fact that it remains a problem is demonstrated in the tradition of some Orthodox Jews to "sacrifice" a chicken on Yom Kippur with the prayer, ""This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This fowl shall meet death, but I shall enjoy a long, happy life."
So let’s take all of the above together:
1) Sin requires atonement by vicarious sacrifice–this pattern was established all the way back in Eden and is recognized by Jews who slay a chicken on Yom Kippur in memory of the sacrifice of the Temple. 2) Only an innocent can be a vicarious sacrifice for a sinner; that is why animals, which cannot sin, were used.
3) Judaism has always recognized that there is some manner of atonement in Isaac’s sacrifice, even ascribing to it a resurrection.
4) Judaism has always recognized the virtue of a righteous man dying to save another.
5) Moreover, Judaism has always recognized that a righteous man can stand in the gap to turn away the wrath of a Holy God from those who have sinned against Him, as when Moses interceded for Israel after the golden calf.
Ergo, Judaism as taught by the ancient rabbis–rather than the shallow, reactionary Judaism of the anti-missionaries–would not have a problem with a truly righteous, even completely innocent man who laid down his own life to intercede for the guilty so that they could be reconciled to the Holy One–and in fact finds its prototype for such a sacrifice in the Akedat Yitzchak.
The only problem is, where would one find such a man? Even Moses sinned before God. Even the Patriarchs did. There was never a Davidic King without sin–except one. And this righteous Man of the line of David, by accepting the rejection and shame of His people, even the shame of crucifixion, stood in the gap for you and me so that a fallen world could be reconciled to HaDin.
I do not want you, or any Jew, to become a Christian. I do look forward to the day, however, when all Israel looks on the One whom we pierced, a fount of forgiveness is opened to all our people, and the Sh’khinah returns to the place where the Eternal One has set His Reputation forever.