Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

The college admissions scandal is child sacrifice

The 1603 painting “Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio depicts an angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac as an offering in the book of Genesis. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Every year on Rosh Hashanah morning, during theological prime time, we read this story.

It is the story of how God commanded Abraham to offer his beloved, long-awaited son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. At the very last minute, an angel intervenes, telling Abraham to withhold his hand and knife from his son. Isaac is spared — and with him, the rest of the Jewish people throughout history.

Jews call that story the akedah, the binding. It is the most read, most studied, most analyzed Jewish story of all time. It is a close second to the Crucifixion in the number of works of art that it has inspired.

The question is: Why does God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? And why, at the last minute, does God provide a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son?

Some scholars suggest that God wanted to “wean” Abraham away from the sacrifice of children — a practice far too common in the ancient world, especially among the Canaanites, Abraham’s neighbors.

We are still sacrificing our children.

This time, on the altars of academic achievement, class privilege, and parental ambition that borders on narcissism.

I am referring to the shocking college admissions scandal, in which federal prosecutors charged 50 people in a brazen scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford and other big name schools.

To quote the New York Times:

Thirty-three well-heeled parents were charged in the case, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, and prosecutors said there could be additional indictments to come.

Also implicated were top college athletic coaches, who were accused of accepting millions of dollars to help admit undeserving students to a wide variety of colleges, from the University of Texas at Austin to Wake Forest and Georgetown, by suggesting they were top athletes.

There is only one accurate word for this: idolatry.

  • It is an idolatry of the self, in which we believe that our ego needs are the most important thing in the world, surpassing even and especially ethics.
  • It is an idolatry of achievement, in which we believe that our children must measure up to some invisible standard that we have set for them, or that society has set up for them. And, again, ethics be damned.
  • It is an idolatry of wealth, in which we come to believe that we can buy anything we want, in order to maintain our place in the self-demanded rungs of society.

And, really — for what?

To quote the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis: our children must become nachas-producers.

“Listen” to him:

My parents programmed me for success, and my children will be programmed for success. It’s our oral unwritten constitution: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of success.” Not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of success.

Life is an endless race. Our children are born into a race for success, and parents want them to be on the fast track. The race is to the swift and we will see to it that our children finish first. So we push and pull. We have to “hurry up” the child. Whatever measure the school ordains we will obey, and we will have to have them do even more: more homework, more extra-curricular work, and more activities to impress college referees, more to “make it” to “get in.”

Again, the New York Times:

The charges also underscored how college admissions have become so cutthroat and competitive that some have sought to break the rules. The authorities say the parents of some of the nation’s wealthiest and most privileged students sought to buy spots for their children at top universities, not only cheating the system, but potentially cheating other hard-working students out of a chance at a college education.

Because, don’t you get it? This. Is. All. Coming. To. You.

Intellectualism? Forget about it. The joy of learning? Stop it. The idea that I can be a literate person, a person of broad passions and interests, who might just fall in love with ideas?

Some believe that. Most do not.

This is where my tradition calls on me, and on others, to become iconoclasts, to become cultural revolutionaries, to become Salmon Jews — to swim against the tide of contemporary culture.

It is to say this: The purpose of learning, the purpose of Torah itself, is simply this.

It is to internalize this prayer from the morning service, as found in the Reform prayerbook Mishkan T’filah:

O Adonai, our God,

let the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths,

and the mouths of Your people Israel,

so that we, our descendants and the descendants of all Your people Israel

may know You, by studying Torah for its own sake…

“For its own sake.” Get it? Not to become rich, and not to get presents at a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, and not to earn a degree.

You learn Torah because it is the way that you gain intimacy with the Holy One of Being.

What does this scandal teach us?

That we have consented in the coarsening of our culture.

We have created a culture in which the self’s demands are infinite, and are unreasonable, and the ego is a Baal, that requires regular sacrifices.

Yes, of our ethics. Yes, of our values. Yes, of our moral priorities.

And, yes — of our young people.

You think that we have moved that far from Abraham and the ancient Canaanites who offered their children in bloody sacrifice?

Guess again.

It’s only the names of the altars that are different.







About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil. – CS Lewis.

  • This scandal has laid bare the truth of our society: that s/he with the most money wins. We were taught to believe that America is an equal opportunity nation, and that people can come here from anywhere, pick themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed. As the wealth gap has increased due to the lowering of taxation on the upper income brackets, and as Supreme Court cases like “Citizens United” have opened the floodgates to unlimited dark money in politics, we can no longer pretend that the country we once believed in exists any longer. It doesn’t. That country is dead. This is now government of, by, and for the rich.The poor and former members of the middle class can fend for themselves – or watch Fox News in order to be distracted into focusing on their prejudices instead of the fact that the overlords they keep electing are picking their pockets clean and giving it all to the rich.

  • Studies show that it isn’t the institution you attend that determines a person’s success BUT what they put into their education that matters. So there is plenty of hope for those students and their parents that can’t buy their way into a “prestigious” institution!

    AND we need to help them realize this.

  • the question is, where do our children learn morals? Schools generally don’t teach them, other than “don’t cheat on tests and don’t plagiarize”. Parents, at least in my neck of the woods, bring their children to church only sporadically, if at all, choosing instead to bring them to soccer or skating. I am afraid they are watching us. They see our president’s total lack of morals. They see the cheating scandal described above. They see justice doled out to the highest bidder. They see athletes getting paid hundreds of millions by using HGH and maybe getting slapped on the wrist for it. We legalize gambling, drugs and weapons to make more money. Our government opens up the regulations on pollution because they were making it hard for polluting companies to make money. And on and on. Elagabalus is right. America is dead. Her soul is dead, if she ever had one. And we’re all too busy on our smartphones to care.

  • Rational, I wonder if you would consider reading Dennis Prager’s Rational Bible: Exodus, or watching the documentary “Exodus: Patterns of Evidence”? I ask particularly about the book because of the irony of your name and the title (ironic because you are on opposite sides of the argument).

    These myths you keep going on about are thought to be untrue based on one misunderstood word (“Rameses” – the city the Israelites lived near). As for Abraham, scholars have used the Bible to determine the exact location of his home city. No, there is nothing there that says “Abraham lived here”. Have you ever asked why the Jews held onto their God when every other ancient religion has folded its tent? Only Hinduism, which was never conquered, and Buddhism, which doesn’t have a god, survive from BC times.

  • You are wrong Dave that we are all too busy….I don’t have a smartphone. I comment on these pages and I write essays for the Religious Tolerance organization website. You can find the essays at then click on the New Essays or Visitors Essays tab/s and scroll down to find one with my name. I make the time to do this because I think it is important to discuss these issues and to present an Atheist’s view of them.

    You are right children learn by watching others. AND you are right schools have been prevented from teaching morals/ethics/good behavior in schools usually by Christians who ONLY want a Christian perspective taught. All schools should be teaching, age appropriately of course, concepts of honesty, good civil behavior, ethics as they get older. AND you are right alot of people get away with their bad behavior with only a slap on the wrist. AND they will keep doing so as long as folk like you think there is no hope to make a change.

  • We wouldn’t be prosecuting Moms and Dads who happen to own family companies, who groom the sons and daughters to take them over and run them, and who then leave the financial value and life advantage of those companies to the sons and daughters via inheritance. We don’t call it improper if such heirs somehow bypass the dedicated career employees who merely worked their way up to some level (but not the top level) in those companies. But those parents gifted their kids hundreds of thousands of dollars (or millions and up) to make sure those kids had a similar leg up on life, or head start, or “advantage” (or whatever you want to call it) over everyone else struggling in mere meritocracy, didn’t they? Is leaving someone a company markedly different from trying to buy someone admission to a pedigree?

    I’m not excusing the various players in the subject scandal, but we might want to consider that we can really have a fit about some kinds of parental pushing and largess while at the same time ignoring or even BRAGGING on some other kinds as being the desirable “American Way”. In the old days, income. gift and estate taxes were seen by society as appropriate brakes or lids on letting heirs leapfrog everybody else—–but, oops, not lately.

  • The Abraham sacrifice story lends credence that Abraham is a myth as no merciful god would subject anyone to this idiocy. The link to the reference that I gave as evidence that Abraham is a myth is no longer active. Below is the guts of the evidence taken prior to the web page inactivity. The evidence given blends well with rational thinking. You might want to get a copy of the ”Etz Hayim” if you have not yet perused it .

    New York Times origin:

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly

    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far
    as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the wallsof Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem
    into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was
    later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions — the product of findings by archaeologists digging in
    Israel and its environs over the last 25 years — have gained wide acceptance
    among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these
    ideas or to discuss them with the laity — until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million
    Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and
    commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz
    Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that
    incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and
    the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it
    represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious
    mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true ”is more or less settled and
    understood among most Conservative rabbis,” observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at
    Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ”Etz Hayim.” But some
    congregants, he said, ”may not like the stark airing of it.” Last Passover,
    in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said
    that ”virtually every modern archaeologist” agrees ”that the way the Bible
    describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.”
    The rabbi offered what he called a ”LITANY OF DISILLUSION”’
    about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological
    lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said,
    archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ”found no trace of the tribes of
    Israel — not one shard of pottery.”

    ”When I grew up in Brooklyn, congregants were not sophisticated about
    anything,” said Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of ”When Bad Things Happen
    to Good People” and a co-editor of the new book. ”Today, they are very
    sophisticated and well read about psychology, literature and history, but they
    are locked in a childish version of the Bible.”

  • Let me see. Unqualified people illegally taking spots from the applicants who put in the time and effort to qualify legally. This seems familiar. Any help?

  • Unlike every last greedy Republican pol, Nancy Pelosi joins the ranks of notable wealthy people like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who believe that people in their income bracket should be paying higher taxes. Unlike Buffett and Gates, Pelosi is in a position to actually do something about it. Try again.

  • Right. So it’s not the money that bothers you, it’s the fact that they want to keep the money they earned.

  • Yes, that’s right. I’d like to see the top marginal tax rate restored to Eisenhower levels of 90% but I’d settle for what they were when St. Ronnie the Fake started stealing from the poor to give to the rich, which was at 70%.

  • I think the difference is that theycan do what they wish regarding their own property and their own kids, but not with the property of other people, run by a different set of rules, and not their own kids.

  • That’s a ridiculous cop-out that willfully and shamelessly ignores the fact that we live in a shared society that relies on infrastructure and services that must be paid for out the public kitty, i.e. taxation. I also believe that the very rich have gotten way too rich, just as they had before the Great Depression when the robber barons were running away with all the loot. It was only after the Depression that Congress decided it was time for the rich to pay up in order to balance the playing field and strengthen the middle class. That’s when they raised the top marginal tax rate to 90%. Further, I believe that a strong middle class, such as we had during the immediate aftermath of WWII, benefits everyone, including rich people, a view that is shared by people like Warren Buffett. That’s why.

  • I agree that the Jeff bezos’ of the world have plenty of money.
    That being said, they built the company and earned the money.
    No one cares about the guy that invests everything they have into a business (only to lose it all) – they only care when he’s successful.
    Your wealth distribution scheme is just plain envy and jealousy.
    As for buffet; the guy that hasn’t built anything; or pelosi for that matter – it’s easy to say take more when you’ve traded off the backs of others your whole life.
    A good liberal like you should be looking to crucify people like pelosi and buffet.

  • That view depends mostly on whether we think a business is exclusively the property of shareholders or whether we believe any business is partly the property of stakeholders.

  • Well spoken, El………..there has been a tremendous shift in how evangelicals and OTHER some-time Christians view morality…in the case of Donnie Boy and his Crime Family, they just look at the big DIRTY-BLONDE wig !

  • Then you must not be an atheist if you like critical thinking. If you like to think critically then think critically about atheism.

  • You never understood the Abraham/Isaac story, apparently. It was a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice that was to be the outcome of the faith-process that Abraham was the beginning of. It was God’s way of conveying to Abraham (and through him, to the rest of us) what the sending of the Messiah (His own son) in order to die, meant to HIM: “THIS is what I’m doing for YOU – and the rest of humanity.” It provided a context for appreciation from God’s point of view.