Lekh Lekha (Individual & Community)
For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_10_20_archive.html/, as well as 2006_10_20_archive.html, October 2007, November 2008 and October 2009.
Was Abraham a “Lonely Man of Faith”?
In this week’s parashah, we turn from the archetypal events of the earliest history of humankind to the figure of Abraham: Avraham Avinu, the Father of the Jewish people, the man who “discovered” and taught the truth of the One God. Abraham the iconoclast, the independent thinker, the original “Minority of One”—the paradigm of the lone individual insisting on his own truth against the entire world. A well-known midrash says that he is called Avraham ha-Ivri, “Abraham the Hebrew,” because ”the entire world was on one side (‘ever), and he was on the other.” Abraham, whom Kierkegaard called the “Knight of Faith”; or, as some would prefer, “The Lonely Man of Faith” (but see on that below).
Two well-known midrashim stress this point: In one, Abraham is depicted observing the world and all that goes on within it, reflecting say and night on what it all means and whether there is a ruler, some central being behind it all this—until God calls out to him and says, “I am the master of the castle.” In the second, Abraham chooses a unique way to dramatize to his father the futility of idols: one day, while “minding the store,” he smashes all the idols but one, in whose hand he places a heavy stick, and tells his father that the idols had a fight and the big one smashed all the others. His father objects that the idols have no power of movement or action—and suddenly realizes that he has been caught in a clever reductio ad absurdum.
In brief, Abraham, is a classic example of the individual who thinks his own thoughts; who refuses to accept conventional answers, but is constantly striving for truth, thinking and contemplating until he finds an answer that makes sense. In a way, he is an archetype of the modern hero, the uncompromising individualist—be it the scientist who persists relentlessly in his quest for a solution to the problems that intrigue him, the creative artist who follows his own muse, the strong, independent--minded philosopher, or the creative genius in any field, who brings something new to the world by drawing deeply upon his own inner resources.
The individual genius plays a major role in the biographies of Jewish religious heroes. The halakhah is ambivalent in its treatment of the great scholar who dissents from a ruling of the Sanhedrin, the highest halakhic authority: is he culpable of disobedience, or is he a hero to be admired? There is a constant tension between authority and autonomy, between adherence to tradition and creative insight. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai named two of his disciples as greatest of all (Avot 2.11-12): R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a “well-calked cistern” who remembered everything he’d ever heard, was a living repository of the Oral tradition, but offhand contributed little original insight of his own; and R. Eleazar b. Arakh, who was a “a constantly flowing spring,” a source of constant creativity and new insight. Which of these—often known as “Sinai” and “the uprooter of mountains”—is greater? Both are celebrated, but there is no final decision between the two.
But there is another element in Abraham’s life as well: the wish for continuity, to establish a family, a community: children, grandchildren, and distant descendants who would inherit his blessing and continue in his path. Thus, this week’s parashah open with the promise that he shall become a great nation; a bit further on, we are told that his seed shall as numerous as the stars in heaven or the sand by the sea. Two covenantal chapters in Lekh lekha center upon this theme. In Brit bein ba-Betarim, the covenant made “between the pieces” (i.e., of sacrificial animals; Genesis 15), he complains that “there is none to inherit me but my servant, the Damascene Eliezer”—and God responds with bounteous promises—of the Land, of being a great nation, of abundance. In Chapter 17, a covenant is made—Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision—whose sign is the organ of male generation, symbolically pointing to the importance of procreation and continuity. Thus, alongside Abraham the unique individual, the “Lover of God,” we find Abraham who looks into the future in terms of peoplehood and community.
Digression: There seems to be a popular misconception abroad that Rav Soloveitchik, in his major essay The Lonely Man of Faith, celebrates “loneliness.” True, he begins the essay by describing his own loneliness: both the loneliness inherent in the religious life, properly understood, and the double loneliness of the religious man in the modern world, with its utilitarian emphasis on pragmatism and worldly success. But the dialectic thrust of the essay is that “Adam the Second,” existential man, who is aware both of his ontic loneliness and his need for communion, ultimately meets others humans in community, and it is only through the covenantal community—with its communion of mitzvah, of Torah study, of prayer—that he relates to God.
Was Abraham Xenophobic?—or: What Does “Jewish” Mean?
At the beginning of this week the Israeli government (the equivalent of the US cabinet) approved a bill, which must now be sent to the Knesset for voting, requiring non-Jews who wish to be naturalized as citizens, not only to swear allegiance to the state and its laws (a requirement of many democracies), but also loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
We shall bracket the question of what is meant by “Jewish” in this context. Of Jewry? Of Judaism? Of “Jewishness”? There are those who fear that this is a way of introducing a theocratic reading of Zionism through the back door, so to speak. If so, this is a sad commentary on the failure of Zionism to inculcate the notion of Jewish peoplehood in a new generation that knew not the creative ideological ferment of its early years.
The law seemed intended to weed out Arabs—for example, young men from the West Bank who wish to marry Israeli Arab women—who may not identify with the Jewish character of the state, or at least to make them feel uneasy. The bill was widely criticized, not only by the doctrinaire “Left,” but by many others, as serving no positive practical function, as well as being insulting to Arab applicants if not racist, and harmful to Israel’s image in the world. Interestingly, among its opponents were such old-line Likud leaders, adherents of the classical Jabotinsky liberal-humanist tradition of the Zionist Right, such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and Moshe Arens. One might add that this law seems part of a recent tendency towards introducing laws or procedures of a hyper-nationalist, discriminatory, or jingoistic nature. More than a few people find the mood on the part of many on the country as reminiscent of the “bad old days” of McCarthyism in America.
I found myself asking the question: Is such xenophobia warranted by Jewish tradition? Or, in terms of this week’s parashah: Was Avraham Avinu xenophobic? What may we infer about his attitude towards “non-Jews” from these chapters?
In Genesis 14, we find Avraham’s decisive involvement in the mini-war of the four kings against the five—a war in which he need not to have gotten involved, but did so purely to save his nephew Lot, and perhaps because he was outraged by the gratuitous aggression of Amraphel et al. Upon his return, he is greeted and blessed in glowing terms by Melchizedek, king of Shalem, whom the Torah paints in positive terms, In Chapter 18, most famously, we find his impassioned plea to God on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom: “If there are 50 — 45 — 40 — 30 —20 — 10 righteous people in the city, will you still destroy them?!” Zaddikim in this context clearly means “decent people,” not “friends of/potential political allies of Abraham/Am Yisrael.”
What about the two similar incidents involving his wife Sarah, in which he tells Gentile kings that she is his sister to avoid being killed (Gen 12:10-20; 20), thereby exposing her to their sexual advances and worse! Without going into these difficult passages, it is clear that his attitude was based, not on their being non-Jews, but on a realistic evaluation of the circumstances. As he tells Abimelech, “For I thought there is no fear of God in this place” (20:10-11). Abraham practiced the principle expressed in pithy firm in the Rabbinic adage, כבדהו וחשדהו — meaning, “Honor him, but suspect him.” That is, human relations with strangers must be based upon human dignity and honor, and even love of one’s fellow—but tempered with a healthy dose of realism, and the possibility that the other, until shown otherwise, may be dangerous.
It is interesting to note Rambam’s portrayal of Abraham’s religious mission, in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah Ch. 1, where he is shown as spreading the message of the one God to whomever he could speak with and persuade. Abraham’s journey to the land of Canaan is seen as a traveling revival movement, if one may speak thus. But what is also interesting is that the Rambam emphasizes here, not the ethnic or particularistic dimension of Jewish identity, but the religious message: that Abraham made his children and grandchildren into teachers, charged with spreading the tidings after him!
To return to our own situation: my own vision of Zionism, that in which I was educated in my youth movement days, is of a movement of a Jewish national renascence that is deeply rooted in humanist and ethical ideals. If one believes in the divine nature of the Torah, on must believe that Judaism represents that which is best and most noble and ethical in the universal human sphere. (Incidentally, this was also Herzl’s ideal, e.g., in Altneuland, albeit without the religious basis.