Religious traditions don’t have to be understood as a template for violence

JAMES CARROLL’S analysis of the symbolism of sacrifice in American history inspires further reflection ( “Good Friday and the Civil War,’’ Op-ed, April 2). While literalist understandings of Scripture may appear to invoke justification of “sacrificial atonement’’ in our culture, there are other interpretations that offer an alternative vision.

Judaism came to understand the story of Abraham’s intended offering of his son Isaac as a revolutionary protest against the widespread practice of child sacrifice in the ancient world. Contemporary Jewish commentators point to the text’s warning against parents sacrificing their children to their own passions.


The “God-willed deaths of Egypt’s firstborn’’ that Carroll links to the Passover story can also be understood in a very different way. The tradition of spilling wine from our cups at the Seder ceremony is a symbol that our joy at our own liberation from slavery is diminished by the suffering of any of God’s children, including our oppressors.

The tradition holds that God expressed deep sorrow over the deaths of the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites at the Red Sea, admonishing the angels: “How can you sing praises when my children are drowning?’’ Perhaps these insights can offer a corrective to the religious “undercurrents’’ that have contributed to our nation’s “quick readiness to shed blood.’’

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Rabbi Howard A. Berman


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