imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Was Yitzchak Avinu retarded?

28 November 2003

Some years ago, at a synagogue that shall remain nameless, I came across a surprising d’var Torah, attributed to a rabbi at Yeshiva University. It said that Isaac’s behavior and personality reminded the author of developmentally delayed adults he had worked with. The theory intrigued me on a number of levels.

First, it makes sense. The theory doesn’t match the hagiographic style of midrash that is so popular today, and it violates Maimonides’ principle that you need a Ph.D. in theology before God hands you a prophet’s license. But if you look at the plain text of the Torah, assuming that Isaac was retarded makes a pattern of his life story easier to understand.

Except for his prayer on Rebecca’s behalf and his blessings for his sons, Isaac relied on his memory of how his father behaved to solve every problem he encountered, and never sought to face any challenge that his father had not previously faced. When famine struck Canaan, Isaac wanted to go to Egypt, just as his father had done, and only changed his plan because God told him to. On meeting Avimelekh, Isaac passed his wife off as his sister, just as his father had done. To get Jacob safely away from Esau, Rebecca told Isaac that Jacob should marry a woman from outside Canaan, just as Jacob’s father had done. If this reliance on memory and trusted advisors was the best that Isaac could do, and God protected him from any circumstance that would have presented him with a challenge that could not be met in this way, then this pattern of behavior is less surprising, and the exceptions tell us even more about Isaac’s character and priorities.

This interpretation also lets us make sense of a perplexing midrash. It says that Sarah died when she heard that Isaac was about to be sacrificed, which would make him 37 years old at that time. (See Genesis 17:17, 21:5, and 23:1, and do the math.) As Ibn Ezra points out, if Isaac was an adult at the time of the Akeidah, then he, not his father, deserves the credit for the near-sacrifice — yet the text treats the event as Abraham’s test alone. If Isaac did not have the intellectual capacity to realize what his father was doing, this contradiction is resolved.

While this d’var Torah helped me see the life of Isaac in a refreshing and surprising way, it also reminded me of an issue in the American Orthodox community that is neither refreshing nor, alas, surprising. I cannot name the rabbi who wrote that document, nor recall all its details, because of the circumstances in which I saw it. Some other people in this synagogue were passing it around for the purpose of ridiculing its author. The rabbi, seeing what was going on, ordered them to stop circulating it, and opined that the person on the d’var Torah’s byline did not actually write it. These reactions, I fear, speak volumes about the distance between the attitudes of some contemporary “religious” people and the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.