In 2009, and again in 2010, I taught a class on the Akeda (“Binding of Isaac”) in the arts and the humanities (syllabus). The story of the Akeda, from Genesis chapter 22, is one of the central narratives of western culture. For Jews, the Akeda became a central motif of the penitential season, during which the merit of Abraham’s faith and Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed is invoked to call upon God to forgive the people their sins and to save them in times of persecution and danger. For Christians, who often call this chapter the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” the Akeda became a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in which God sacrificed his only son for the salvation of humankind. For Muslims, the identity of the bound one became, in the post-Qur’anic period, Ishmael, the biblical founder of the Muslim people and religion. For secularists of all types, the Akeda became the embodiment of the conflict between the parental willingness to sacrifice children to various political and other causes, as well as the focus of the Oedipal conflict between father and son.

There are thousands of renderings of the Akeda in painting, sculpture, literature, drama, and poetry. Rembrandt tried his hand at this theme three times, in 16351645, and 1655. Marc Chagall painted it twice, in 1956 and 1966. Caravaggio’s two paintings of the Akeda, in 1598 and 1601, are so different that it is hard to believe that the same person did them. Modern Israeli culture in particular used the Akeda in literature and in art in a very wide range of interpretations. There are also musical renditions that include: Abramo ed Isacco (Josef Myslivecek, 1776); Five Canticles, Canticle II (Benjamin Britten, 1952); War Requiem (Benjamin Britten, 1961), which includes a poem on this theme by Wilfred Owen; Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan, 1965); Abraham and Isaac (Igor Stravinsky, 1962-63); Story of Isaac (Leonard Cohen, 1969); The Sacrifice of Isaac (Judith Eisenstein, 1972); Isaac and Abraham (Joan Baez, 1992); Genny 22 (Apologetix, 2000); Abraham (Sufjan Stevens, 2002); and Mr. Shiny Cadillacness Clutch, (2007), among many others. I am not an expert in any of these sources and would not have discovered them had it not been for my enterprising students who, being fluent in navigating the web, found them and brought them into class. (PowerPoint presentations by students, for private use only, are available upon request.)

To these examples above must be added Madonna’s “Isaac,” featured on Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) and in her celebrated world tour supporting the album. Two things made Madonna’s “Isaac” different from the other pieces examined in the context of the Akeda.

The first was the use of a popular Yemenite Jewish song as a chorus. The Yemenite song, “Im nin’alu daltei nadivim,” is based on a beautiful medieval mystical poem, written by the famed Yemenite kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shabazi in alternating Hebrew and Arabic verses. The first stanza (“If the gates of the leaders …”) became a popular song (“Im Nin’alu”); it was most famously recorded by famed Israeli singer Ofra Haza, first with the Shechunat Hatikva Workshop Theatre. That lovely performance, from 1978, has been viewed over 2.5 million times.

Those accustomed to hearing Hebrew will notice that Haza sings here in “Yemenite,” the Hebrew dialect used by Yemenite Jews. Haza recorded the song again in 1988—much later in her career, after she had become a famous singer—with a strong jazz beat. “Im Nin’alu” has been remixed and reissued many times since, even after Haza’s death in 2000, but I confess that I much prefer the earliest recording, which captures the popular Yemenite culture from which the poem and the song came.

Second, by the time Madonna performed “Isaac,” she had acquired the reputation of someone interested in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and so this piece might be seen as a commentary on the Akeda. Madonna’s “Isaac” begins with a Yemenite singer, Yitzhak Sinwani, blowing the shofar, then singing part of the first verse of the popular Yemenite song. The lyrics and dramatic sequence to Madonna’s “Isaac” are as follows:

Sound of shofar blowing

Im nin’alu daltei nadivim, daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu, lo nin’alu.
[“If the gates of the leaders are locked,
the gates of Heaven are not locked.”]

Sound of shofar

Im ninalu, im nin’alu, im nin’alu daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu.

El hai marom, El hai marömam, El hai marömam al kol karuvim
Kulam beruho ya’alu.
[“If the gates …
Living God, exalted above the cherubim –
They all rise with His spirit.”]

Figure in blue cape dancing in a cage; sand dunes; Madonna appears

Staring up into the heavens
In this hell that binds your hands.
Will you sacrifice your comfort?
Make your way in a foreign land?

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Chorus with images of dancer and eagle, the singers, sand dunes

Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin’alu, im nin’alu
Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin’alu, im nin’alu
Mmmm mmm mmm.

Madonna sings

Remember, remember.
Never forget.
All of your life has all been a test.
You will find the gate that’s open
Even though your spirit’s broken.

Open up my heart.
Cause my lips to speak.
Bring the heavens and the stars
Down to earth for me.

Chorus; the woman in cage reaches out; the cage lifts up

El hai, El hai, Marom, marömam al kol karuvim
Kulam beruho ya’alu.

Madonna liberates the caged woman

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Chorus; woman dances in freedom; Madonna dances with male dancers

Madonna’s interpretation thus interweaves the themes of liberation and of life as a test together with Shabazi’s mystical poem in its incarnation as a modern, popular Israeli song. The themes of bound hands, liberation, and life as a test with an open gate, are references to the Akeda, though it is a loose, very modern interpretation of the Akeda, not unlike other secular interpretations: redemptive but without direct allusion to the story of Genesis 22. It is an amazing palimpsest of texts.

How Easy it is to Be Completely Wrong

Alas, none of the above turns out to be true. Shalom Shabazi’s poem, beautiful as it is in its bilingualism and its poetic and mystical subtlety, is a wedding poem, not an Akeda poem. The song it gave rise to also has nothing to do with the Akeda. One can, however, easily trace the musical development from Ofra Haza’s initial recording to her later recordings and to the version used in Madonna’s “Isaac.” Madonna’s lyrics and dramatic imagery, redemptive though they are, have nothing to do with the binding of Isaac—even the title, “Isaac,” has nothing to do with the Akeda, as Madonna herself noted:

It’s named after Yitzhak Sinwani, who’s singing in Yemenite on the track. I couldn’t think of a title for the song. So I called it “Isaac” [the English translation of “Yitzhak”]. It’s interesting how their minds work, those naughty rabbis…. [Yitzhak] is an old friend of mine. He’s never made a record. He comes from generations of beautiful singers. Stuart and I asked him to come into the studio one day. We said, “We’re just going to record you. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it.” He’s flawless. One take, no bad notes. He doesn’t even need a microphone. We took one of the songs he did and I said to Stuart, “Let’s sample these bits. We’ll create a chorus and then I’ll write lyrics around it.” That’s how we constructed it.1Madonna’s reference to “naughty rabbis” is drawn from criticism expressed in the Israeli press that the song was blasphemous because it associated the name of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the great 16h century kabbalist, with Madonna’s work. The press reports are very distorted: Yitzhak Luria is not the author of the poem, his name is not spelled “Lurier,” “blasphemy” would have been the wrong word, etc. Still, Madonna vigorously denied that any “blasphemy” was intended.

The piece was named after the singer Yitzhak Sinwani, who had gone to study, and then teach, at the Kabbalah Institute in Los Angeles and London. Madonna met him there, heard him sing some traditional Yemenite songs, and invited him to record for her. According to one report, itself a partial translation of a long interview with Sinwani in Yediot Aharonot: “… she said that when Sinwani sang her the song for the first time, she was overwhelmed with emotions and started to cry, even though she couldn’t understand a word. ‘After he translated the lyrics for me,’ she said, ‘I cried even more.’”

So, Madonna’s “Isaac” would be one of many of Madonna’s performances that carry a prosocial message. Indeed, the Confessions on a Dance Floor tour opened with a performance of Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” which she sang while “hanging” from a cross, in front of projected images and text intended to draw attention to the millions of children being orphaned by AIDS in Malawi and other African countries. (This produced, as one can imagine, great criticism from serious theological circles; personally, as a theologian of long standing, albeit not in a Christian tradition, I feel that the number captured well the message of the figure of Jesus.)

How did we get from Madonna’s “Isaac” to the Madonna’s Akeda in the first place? Credit must be given to Zach Thompson and Mary Ruf, the students who uncovered the link, because in their original presentation, they did specifically draw attention to the possible naming of the piece after the singer. But enthusiasm for the juxtaposition of a mystical Yemenite song and a modern interpretation of the Akeda swept the other young scholars in the class off their feet. To tell the truth, I too, a scholar and professor of quite some experience, was also swept off my feet and began to talk about “Madonna’s Akeda.”

“Scholars, beware of your words lest you be found guilty” (Mishna, “Avot” 1:11).