Reassessing the Supreme Test: Akeidat Yitshak in the Light of Today's Assessment Theories.
We all grew up taking tests and we knew how they worked. You listened in class, took notes, read materials, studied, stayed up late and crammed the night before, and at the end of the week, month, semester, or year you took a test to see how well you remembered and understood the material. The results showed up on a report card, in a school file, or on the desk of a college admissions officer. The material you learned formed the basis of the test--if not, indignant cries of "It's not fair. We didn't know it would be on the test!" would fill the classroom. And that was that.
At least that's how it looked to us as students. But educational theorists in the last decades have changed our perception of how tests work. In fact, the term "test" itself has become outmoded, as alternative assessment vehicles such as portfolios have become more popular. I use the term because of its clear connection to my larger topic.
Nowadays, teachers make a distinction between summative and formative assessment, with the former being the traditional testing, and the latter the usually more open-ended forms of assessment used throughout the learning process. Formative assessment is designed to keep both teacher and student aware of what has been learned and helps determine in which direction learning should continue. (See, for example, CHAPPUIS and CHAPPUIS 2008.)
In a related area, assessment theorists also discovered "washback effect" (occasionally called "backwash effect"), that is, the effect a test has on learning and teaching. (See BUCK 1988.) In its simplest and generally negative form, washback is what we used to call "teaching to the test:" the teacher knows that certain material or skills will be covered on a standardized test, so he or she teaches to produce good results. But the washback effect also can be beneficial both for the individual and society. (See BACHMAN and PALMER 1996.)
If, as theorists posit, testing can affect teachers, students, classrooms, schools, and society for good or for bad, the next step should be to create tests and other assessment tools that work for the benefit of all those concerned. For example, a three-year research project sponsored by the US Department of Education International Research and Studies Program used this concept of washback as a basis for their new assessment tool for learning language (ADAIR-HAUCK, GLISAN, KODA, et al. 2006, pp. 360-363).
Combining the concepts of formative assessment and washback on the micro level, teaching practice has been turning more towards using assessment consciously to direct learning; call it "teaching through" rather than "teaching to" the test.
Lorna Earl (2003) posits a threefold conception of assessment, picturing it as a pyramid that includes "assessment of learning, assessment for learning, and assessment as learning" [emphasis mine]. Assessment of learning is associated with summative assessment, testing that gives information that can lead to acceptance to an Ivy League university or rejection by a community college. By contrast, assessment for learning is the goal of formative assessment, testing conducted during the course of learning that provides information for the teacher about the learning, allowing for a positive washback effect and giving direction to enhance further learning.
Earl's third category, "assessment as learning," goes a step further. The students move to center stage, as they become "active, engaged, and critical assessors... Assessment as learning is the ultimate goal, where students are their own best assessors (EARL 2003, p. 25).
The act of assessment becomes a self-teaching tool for the student. As Earl points out, real education encourages the students to "ask reflective questions and consider a range of strategies for learning and acting... to realize that they don't understand something, and have ways of deciding what to do next" (EARL 2003, p. 25).
To sum up, today's view of assessment does not see testing as a static means of measuring academic achievement. Rather, assessment is viewed as a dynamic process, a back-and-forth movement between learning and testing, a process in which the test itself can become a vehicle for learning. In assessment as learning, the process of testing relates more to the tested than to the tester. Moreover, by definition the test doesn't "cover material" that has already been taught or test abilities that have already been acquired. If the goal of assessment is to teach something to a student, it has to be something that the student doesn't know yet. (1) The notion of assessment as learning connects to a constructivist view of what learning is:
If people learn by constructing their own understanding from their experiences, assessment is not only part of learning, it is the critical component that allows learners and teachers to check their understanding against the views of others, and against the collective wisdom of the culture as it has been recorded in the knowledge, theories, models, formulas, and stories that make up the curriculum and the disciplines. (EARL AND LEMAHIEU 1997, P. 162)
The theory of assessment as learning is generally applied to classroom situations; but the notion of testing as a way of checking and understanding "against the views of others" and against our own deeply held ideas can be expanded into our understanding of a classic Torah story. Akeidat Yitshak (the Binding of Isaac) is generally understood to be the story of the testing of Abraham's faith and his love of G-d. The most basic question that this understanding of the story arouses is why an omnipotent G-d has to test him at all. Surely G-d Who knows all realizes that Abraham will "pass" the test. But if we view the story as a kind of assessment as learning, the focus switches from the tester to the one being tested. We can study the story from a different perspective entirely, asking ourselves what exactly does the test teach Abraham?
PART TWO: THE BINDING OF ISAAC--THE TESTING AND TEACHING OF ABRAHAM
Traditional Biblical commentators agree that the testing of Abraham was not necessary to tell an omnipotent G-d something He by definition already knows. Or, in the language of today's assessment theorists, whatever the reason for this test, it was not the traditional summative test (assessment of learning) designed to give information to the testers. (2)
Why then was Abraham put through such an ordeal? Commentators have found a variety of reasons to explain G-d's testing of Abraham. (3) Abraham Ibn Ezra, for example, sees in the test an opportunity for G-d to give Abraham a reward. Nahmanides goes in this direction as well, focusing on how the test enhances Abraham's reward for his dedication to G-d by giving him the opportunity to transform potential into action. The akeidah allows Abraham to get reward not just for his "good heart," but for his "good deed" (in CHAVEL 1993, p. 126, translation mine).
From the perspective of reward and punishment, it is traditional to look at akeidat Yitshak on a national as well as an individual level, that is, in terms of reward for the descendants of Abraham and Isaac as well. This latter approach explains the centrality of the story of the akeidah in our daily prayers and is one of the reasons for reading it on Rosh Hashanah, when we ask G-d to grant us forgiveness and a good year in the merit of this test. (4)
Other commentators, including Maimonides, see in the testing of Abraham not so much an opportunity for Abraham and his offspring to receive reward but rather a chance to publicize Abraham's supreme love and fear of G-d. The story of the binding of Isaac begins with the words v'ha'Elokim nesah et Avraham, generally translated as "And G-d tested Abraham," but several commentators, notably Abarbanel, derive nesah from the root nes, meaning banner (among other things). These commentators see in the story of the akeidah a banner proclaiming faith, love, and fear of G-d to the people of Abraham's time and for all time. Ironically, although the linguistic basis of this approach negates the idea of a test, these commentators move toward contemporary ideas of assessment as a learning and teaching tool; though in this case the lesson is learned by those who hear of it and are inspired by it. Nahshoni's use of the words peulah hinukhit (a pedagogical act) in describing such commentaries points to the lesson inherent in this public revelation of Abraham's great love and faith (nAHSHONI 1981, p. 69).
Returning to Lorne's threefold model of assessment, then, we can read akeidat Yitshak as a variant of assessment of learning, a summative test of Abraham's faith focusing on the result of the test to the tested. Abraham and Isaac pass a test, and they (and their descendants) reap the rewards of a good result. Readings focusing on the inspiration Abraham's contemporaries and later generations have drawn from the test are analogous to Lorne's assessment for learning, though from this perspective information acquired through the test benefits neither the tester nor the tested, but others who learn from it. We might say that those who are inspired by the story benefit from a spiritual "washback effect" of the test.
But the most interesting outgrowth of applying a modern-day assessment model to akeidat Yitshak results when we look at this test from the perspective of assessment as learning. As we have seen, this form of assessment views testing as a means of teaching, and therefore requires that the person being tested had not fully learned the lesson before the test begins. Analyzing akeidat Yitshak from this perspective requires that we identify what Abraham didn't know as the test begins in order to understand what the experience of the test taught him. What lesson learned can guarantee a successful outcome to this searing story of assessment?
The answer can be understood on both the micro and macro levels. Reading the story as assessment as learning, we find that Abraham learns from it to appreciate the true value of his son Isaac. The nation that calls both Abraham and Isaac father learns from it an essential characteristic of its identity today.
In the famous opening words of the test, G-d tells Abraham to take "your son, your only son, the son whom you love--Isaac" and offer him as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). Following the Talmud Sanhedrin 89b, Rashi famously explains this "build-up" towards Isaac's name by positing a conversation between G-d and Abraham. G-d says, "Take your son," and Abraham answers, "I have two sons." G-d says, "Take your only son," and Abraham answers, "Each son is an only son to his mother." G-d says, "Take the son whom you love," and Abraham answers, "I love them both."
Rashi sees in this conversation a way for G-d to break gently, so to speak, the news that the beloved son Isaac, the son on whom Abraham has placed his hopes, must be sacrificed. Had he heard immediately that Isaac was to be sacrificed, Abraham might have lost his mind. (5) G-d gives him the commandment by degrees in order to soften the blow. The clear implication of this reading is that Abraham can bear the terrible news better if he first thinks that it is Ishmael, and not Isaac, who will be sacrificed. In this reading, Abraham's declaration that he loves both these sons must be seen as not wholly accurate, since if he loves both, he would be just as disturbed at the thought of Ishmael's death as he would be if he heard immediately that it was Isaac who had been chosen to die.
But it is possible to read this "conversation" in a more straightforward, literal way. Abraham might be truly uncertain which son will be chosen. (6) Abraham loves both sons, and at this point sees in both a promise for generations. Although Abraham has already been told that Isaac will be the inheritor of his blessings and of G-d's covenant (Genesis 17:19), as the akeidah test begins Abraham seems not to have internalized the idea wholly. In a dramatic and stunning example of assessment as learning, the test that Abraham will undergo will teach him the value of Isaac and will make him internalize the fact that G-d's covenant with him would be transmitted through his younger son, Isaac, and not through his first-born son, Ishmael.
When Avram (as he was then called) was first promised progeny and great rewards, he complained that he had no child to inherit gifts (Genesis 15 2-15). Eventually, Sarai, childless after ten years in the land, gives Avram her handmaid, Hagar, who bears Avram a son.
We can imagine how for the next thirteen years Avram invests his faith in G-d's promise and his love as a father in this son, Ishmael. For thirteen years Avram sees this son as the inheritor of the promised rewards and blessings. The relationship between Sarai and Hagar was certainly not simple, (7) but nevertheless, there is no reason to think that Avram wouldn't love and cherish and respect this child and see him as the wondrous fulfillment of G-d's promise.
When Avram was 99 years old, though, G-d appears once again to him and tells him that he will now be known as Avraham (Abraham). G-d reaffirms his promise to give Abraham numerous descendants, to forge an unbreakable covenant with them, and to give them the land as an eternal inheritance. G-d commands these descendants to circumcise their sons when they are eight days old as a sign of the covenant, and then commands that Sarai change her name to Sarah (Genesis 17:1-14).
On hearing this, perhaps Abraham senses that something is about to change. Ishmael did not receive the sign of the covenant at eight days, and why was Sarai but not Hagar commanded to change her name? Abraham doesn't have to wait long to have it spelled out to him. G-d tells him clearly that Sarah will be blessed with a son and she will be the mother of the nation. Abraham reacts with laughter, presumably laughter of joy, at the idea that a man of one hundred and a woman of ninety will have a child, but his first thought is of Ishmael: "Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!" (Genesis 17:18). Nahmanides comments that Abraham indeed thought until now that he would have only one inheritor, so he assumed that if Isaac was to inherit, then Ishmael might die. Rashi sees in Abraham's exclamation a prayer that Ishmael might live in fear and awe of G-d. In any case, almost immediately after the joyous laughter at the news of another son, Abraham has to face the possible death and certain disinheritance of his beloved first son.
G-d's response here is revealing. When Abraham pleads for Ishmael's life, G-d repeats that the inheritance will go to Isaac, "But Sarah, your wife, will bear you a son... and I will uphold my covenant with him..." (Genesis 17:19). The conjunction "but" is strange here. Rashi suggests that it strengthens the truth of the statement, but the Or Ha'Hayim sees in it a rebuke to Abraham for being content to bequeath the inheritance to Hagar's son, Ishmael. G-d repeats that Sarah will bear Abraham a son and states categorically that the covenant will be upheld through him. He then tells Abraham that He will "hear him" in relation to Ishmael, which the Or Ha'Hayim takes to mean that Ishmael will repent for his sins. The revelation concludes with another repetition of the crucial fact that "I will establish My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear" (Genesis 17:21).
Abraham has already proven his faith in G-d and His commandments. He is truly a great man. Yet, at this point, he does not seem wholly to have accepted G-d's will in rejecting Ishmael. So G-d sends the message again that Sarah will give birth to a son through the three angels who visit Abraham after his circumcision (Genesis: 18:10).
And then--years after the birth of Isaac--the akeidah itself. The Torah text is sparing about what exactly happened during the threeday journey to Mount Moriah. (8) The repetition of "and the two went together" (Genesis 22:6-8) as they walk to the place of sacrifice underlines the unfolding connection between Abraham and Isaac. Through this test Abraham is learning something new. Ironically, just when Abraham bonds most strongly with Isaac, at last accepting his unique status as inheritor, he must obey the command of G-d to kill him. What might have been painful before becomes close to impossible and totally incomprehensible.
And then--when Isaac is bound on the altar beneath his father's knife--G-d tells Abraham that he has "passed the test." First G-d and then an angel tell Abraham that he has proven himself by not holding back "your son, your only son." Through the test, Abraham has learned what he had to know: the unique status of Isaac. There is now no more question of Ishmael sharing the title of inheritor of the covenant.
The other "lesson" learned through the test is perhaps more relevant to our own era than to earlier ones. Abraham is willing to sacrifice what is most precious to him, his beloved son, his inheritor, his life's work, G-d's promise for the future. Isaac is ready to sacrifice his life. Our tradition extols them, and the willingness to sacrifice one's life is clearly central to our identity as Jews, a thread that runs through our history. But over and above the value of sacrifice, we learn from the end of the test that the ultimate value is life. When G-d stays Abraham's hand, He teaches him and his descendants that as much as we might exalt the willingness to sacrifice for Him, our strongest value is life. This lesson, learned through Abraham's test, becomes part of the DNA of the Jewish people for all time.
The words of the Torah are timeless, but they also carry a message for every time, every era. In the times of Abraham, it was prevalent to sacrifice children to Molokh (see Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2-5). In our times there are those who claim to be descendants of Ishmael who idealize murderous martyrdom. I believe that G-d sends us wisdom to understand a message for our time, and that this wisdom might come from contemporary secular knowledge. Of course it's simplistic to suggest that new pedagogic theories have arisen in order to enable us to read new interpretations of a classic Torah story. We continue the midrashic tradition of referring to Isaac as the quintessential act of sacrifice (Esther Rabbah, Ptihta). Every Jew who has given his or her life for G-d is an extension of the original willingness to sacrifice and be sacrificed, and the merit of sacrifice is a dominant theme in our prayers. Applying contemporary assessment theory deepens our understanding of Abraham's sacrifice, as he shows himself willing to lose a son at the moment when he has in a sense just found him, at the moment when he has finally internalized, by the act of being tested, that this is the son who is meant to be his rightful heir. Moreover, by applying a secular pedagogic theory developed millennia after this formative story in Jewish history occurred, we can understand, through the test, that for the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, life, not death, is the ultimate value.
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EMMY LEAH STARK ZITTER, PHD
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DR. EMMY LEAH ZITTER is a senior lecturer at Shaanan College and Michlalah-Jerusalem College and English Department Head at Michlalah-Jerusalem College. Her academic specialty is American literature. Recently, she has been examining the intersection between secular and Jewish knowledge and has published a study on the influence of Benjamin Franklin on Rabbi Menahem Mendel Levin's classic work of mussar, Heshbon Ha'Nefesh.
Dr Zitter is mother and grandmother to a growing family living in Israel. In her spare time she writes a monthly column for Mishpacha Magazine.
Dr. Zitter's mother, Mrs. Rose Stark, was an Auschwitz survivor who lost her parents, young husband, infant son, and three married sisters and their families in one night in 1944. This background makes the topic of this essay, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac, a very personal one. The tension between the centrality of sacrifice in our tradition, on the one hand, and the emphasis on continuing life, on the other, is fundamental to her identity. Dr. Zitter views with awe and love the insistence on continuing life that her mother, rebuilder of a Jewish family, exemplified. This essay is dedicated to the whole family, those who were murdered and those who survived in the sanctification of G-d's Name.
(1.) While my essay takes a theoretical approach of assessment as learning, the concept has been applied in classroom practice as well. For example, Gupta (2016) describes using assessment as learning in performance-based assessment in science teaching. Using short assessment vehicles, peer collaboration, and a self-orientated guide, pupils learn the theory and practice of a chemical reaction as they work individually and in groups on a lab experiment, monitoring their progress and errors all through as part of the learning process. Ciobanu (2014) uses a Strength and Targets profile after math assignments for pupils to progress through self-assessments.
(2.) Jacob Licht devotes a monograph to the question of nisayon (testing) in biblical texts and in the Apocrypha. (He includes the book of Job. Although the word nisayon does not appear in Job, the element of testing is clear from the onset of this book.) Generally, Licht sees an element of what I've called "assessment of learning" in the many tests of the Bible. He states that G-d is allowing a choice to the one who is tested and is waiting, so to speak, to see what the person will do (LICHT 1973, pp. 16-17). This is clearly problematic in light of a belief in G-d's omniscience. Licht sees the common thread in the many tests he identifies in Scripture as the difficulty of the challenge to the one who is tested.
While a full discussion of the many allusions to nisayon in the Bible is beyond the scope of this essay, it is interesting to note that in one case at least the idea that the testing is a learning process is apparent. In Deuteronomy 8:2-4, after Moses says that G-d tested the Jews "to know what is in your heart," he adds, "that He would make you know." This implies that a lesson was learned from the test itself.
(3.) For a fuller overview of commentators' approach to the testing of Abraham, see Nahshoni (1961), pp. 68-73.
(4.) This point is developed in C. Jachter, Halacha file: The Keriat HaTorah of Rosh Hashana, http://www.koltorah.org/ravj/14-1%20The%20Keriat%20Hatorah%20of%20Rosh%20Hashana.htm (accessed Aug. 7, 2017).
(5.) Following Genesis Rabbah 65, Rashi suggests another reason for G-d's drawing out this opening command, stating that Abraham received extra reward for each and every word. This suggests, perhaps, the extra pain that Abraham felt as the command underlined the extent of his sacrifice.
(6.) Interestingly, Rashi's "conversation" takes place before Abraham knows that G-d is asking him to sacrifice his son, making the reading of the conversation as somehow protecting Abraham from the horror of the command even more problematic.
(7.) Samet (2002) gives an interesting reading of the ethical and legal questions involved in Sarai's treatment of Hagar when the concubine did not treat her mistress properly. According to the Hammurabic law of the time, Sarai was entitled to return Hagar to her status as handmaid because of her disrespectful attitude, and the words spoken by G-d's angel to Hagar fully condone Sarai's behavior.
(8.) Nehamah Leibowitz cites Eric Auerbach's Mimesis in explaining how the lack of detail creates the "silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent" and suggests that this lack of detail allowed for the multiplicity of midrashic details (AUERBACH 1953, pp. 8-10; LEIBOWITZ 1976).