The Murder of Isaac
Behold! It came to pass, after those things occurred, that Abraham was tested. And he and his only son, Isaac – whom, incidentally, he loved – set out towards the mountain range of Moriah. There, they built an altar and set up the branches, and Abraham shackled Isaac. And Abraham raised his arm – wholly ready to plunge the blade through his son’s throat to offer him as a sacrifice to G-d. Everyone knows the rest of the story; now is the part where the angel stops Abraham and says, effectively, “G-d was just testing you. Let Isaac live and have Jacob, etc.” But what if Abraham surprised us all by choosing to carry out the deed in spite of the interruption?
In playwright Motti Lerner’s world, the Biblical story unfolds with a murder-sacrifice, but Lerner’s tale maps the Biblical sacrifice across the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin (the Biblical Isaac’s namesake). Lerner was born in 1949 in Israel, and he lives in Ramat Hasharon (three miles north of Tel Aviv) with his wife and children. He is currently teaching a course about Israeli and Palestinian cinema and stage at Knox College in Illinois, and his play “Pangs of the Messiah” is slated to run in the Washington, DC area in 2007.
Lerner’s tale is gutsy in a way that reminds me a bit of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (although Lerner told me he was influenced instead by Peter Weiss’ play, “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade”).
Lerner’s plot surrounds a group of inmates at the Israeli Ministry of Defense rehabilitation centre for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases, who are conducting a play about the Rabin assassination. The plot of the play-within-a-play (a very Shakespearean ploy) meshes with reality, and the play ends with the character Yigal (portraying Yigal Amir) stealing a guard’s gun and actually murdering the character Binder, who is playing Rabin.
This collapsing of the Biblical sacrifice story of Isaac with the modern Zionist Isaac is, to an extent, a name-play. To Lerner, names play a role in Rabin’s murderer’s name, as well. Yigal Amir’s Hebrew name was also incidentally Yigal ben Geulah (literally “the redeemer, the son of redemption”). To Lerner, “In Hebrew it seems like a commandment, it seems that he must have internalized this eternal commitment” to bring the Messiah closer.
But to me, the play succeeds to the extent that it finds timelessness in the tale of the Biblical sacrifice. The image that Centerstage, in Baltimore, used to market the play is a particularly provocative one, which makes sense coming from a theater that calls itself “smart, bold, alive.” (Lerner confirmed that he had nothing to do with the image selection.)
The image is set to a deep red background, and it shows Abraham (dressed like a Chassid with streimal and beard) lifting his arm to kill Isaac, who lies inert at Abraham’s feet. Father and son are wrapped in white strips from head to toe, and they both look literally mummified. As if the image were not complicated enough, the mummy gauze turns out to be the parchment of a Torah scroll that doubles as the base of the altar upon which the sacrifice is occurring. The image is most successful for its ambiguity. On the one hand, the image is easily dismissed as a simple line drawing a cartoon. It seems to suggest that the mummified figures are long dead and buried, wholly irrelevant to any modern discussion. And yet the use of the Torah scroll, the streimal and modern garb, and the cartoon-like form seem to suggest that the narrative is quite relevant even today.
Although Lerner did not design the image, the script of the play also invokes the Biblical tale. In an absurdist scene, the murderer Yigal approaches Isaac (played by Binder) to inform Isaac that he has been commanded to kill him. Yigal says hello to Binder and the following ensues:
BINDER: (doesn’t recognize him) Hello.
YIGAL: I’m Yigal. Your murderer. (He plays with the gun.)
BINDER: (concerned) What do you say? My murderer? Are you sure?
YIGAL: No, I’m not. That’s why I’ve come to talk to you.
BINDER: To me?
YIGAL: Well after all, it’s your life.
BINDER: You want me to tell you whether or not to kill me?
This dialogue, in which the murderer-to-be introduces himself to the victim-to-be, could be lifted straight from Jarry, Beckett, or any of the other absurdist dramatists. But it is Binder’s response and the following words that link the tale of the Rabin assassination to the sacrifice on Moriah:
BINDER: (cautiously) So if you have been commanded to kill me in accordance with Jewish law, in accordance with all the prophecies and G-d’s will, then what’s the problem?
YIGAL: The problem is that the Lord moves in mysterious ways. And just as he tested Abraham with the sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, then perhaps he’s testing me with you. And don’t forget that you’re an Isaac, too
Yigal’s difficulty in knowing whether he is being tested when he believes that G-d commanded him to murder the prime minister is paramount to Lerner. Lerner sees part of the play’s role as addressing “the attempt to understand the murder, [which] has always been a challenge. I was not exploring Yigal Amir the real man. I was exploring an inmate in the asylum, whose name happens to be Yigal.” Lerner sees Yigal’s insecurity about whether he is being tested as a testament to Yigal’s depth of character.
This meditation of Lerner’s on criminology (the murderer’s desire to reach out to the prospective victim for reassurance) and sociology (how the characters become their roles in a play and real murder results) turn his art into a mixture of dramatics and science. The violence of the play-within-a-play recalls two important science experiments. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 cast 24 volunteer students in a bizarre experiment. The students were arbitrarily split up into two groups, the guards and the inmates. Over the course of the six days of the experiment (it was supposed to last two weeks, but was shut early for obvious reasons), the guards and inmates came to “believe” that they were guards and inmates, and the experiment ended, due to violence and abusiveness.
The other experiment, conducted in 1963 by Stanley Milgram, was titled, “Obedience to Authority.” The obedience experiment called for volunteers to flick switches to electrically shock an actor (unbeknownst to them) when he failed to answer questions correctly. Of course the experiment was rigged, so that the participants thought they were shocking the answerer, who in fact experienced no discomfort. The number of people – otherwise calm, gentle people – who inflicted what they thought were deadly levels of shocks is astounding.
In the tradition of these two experiments arise Lerner’s meditations on the sacrifice of Rabin superimposed upon the sacrifice of the Biblical Isaac. The play offers no practical answers to how murder or attempted murder, occurs. But Lerner isolates a fascinating moment where Yigal wonders if he is really hearing the voice of G-d and not perhaps his evil inclination. This is the same moment of insecurity that surfaces when Isaac asks his father, “Here are the fire and the trees, but where is the sacrifice?” Abraham’s heart must have sunk, as he evasively told Isaac, “G-d will show unto Himself the sacrifice, my son.”
That moment, where evil and death are at stake, leads people – even prophets – to question their mission. Like Pinkhas, they can choose to rush forward and do G-d’s word or they can flee like Jonah and shirk their mission. That insecurity is wholly human, and it plagues the true and false prophet alike. Lerner’s genius that casts him in the company of the best contemporary Jewish playwrights is his ability to meditate on this confusion, simultaneously telling the tale of the modern sacrifice of Isaac with the Biblical one.