Abraham: What Did He Stand For?

Abraham: What Did He Stand For?


Recently, we gathered as families and friends to celebrate Passover. The seders of this festival begin with the Abraham saga: his migration from his home, G-d’s prophecy that his seed would be enslaved for 400 years in Egypt and that people’s redemption from slavery.

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

But who is this man that we call our father? Was he a real person, or is he merely a part of our existential legend, like Job, who the sages declared to be an exemplar?  Is Abraham our Romulus and Remus – someone who we designated as the exemplar of our ethnic pater familias?

Honestly, whether Abraham is a real figure in history or merely a legend is immaterial. What is important is that Abraham became the “ideal” Jew. He personifies (at least in my view) the three dimensions that constitute the essence of being a Jew.

The Ethnic Dimension

Indeed, Abraham is the first person to ever be identified with the word “Hebrew.”

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When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah were defeated in a battle and the victors looted the city, they also enslaved Lot, Abraham’s nephew who dwelled in Sodom. A survivor of the violence, the Bible relates, came and “told Abram [whose name was later changed to Abraham] the Hebrew” of the event.

Admittedly, some scholars contend that the word ha’ivri could have also meant that Abraham was a stranger who came from across the river Jordan rather than a “Hebrew.” For instance, Professor Robert Wolfe proposed that in Abraham’s case, the word “Hebrew” does not reflect an ethnic identity, but rather comes from Habiru, a nomadic people who lived in Egypt.

I, however, choose to associate the word “Hebrew” with a unique identity, as I consider the Hebrews as an ethnic group and a nation descending from Abraham Ha’Ivri. Of course, one’s acceptance of this Hebrew identity – that is, tying his link to that golden chain of ethnic identity –necessitates a willing declaration that is performed through the bris: When he circumcises his son, each father attests that with that act he ties his son to the historical continuity was started by Abraham.

As for the value in making this connection, noted 11th-century commentator Rashi tells us that the maintenance of the Jewish identity during the Egyptian enslavement merited the Hebrews’ redemption. To wit, they kept their modes of dressing, their language, and their customs, which kept them from assimilation into the Egyptian majority.

The Faith Dimension

Perhaps no other story has had as compelling affect as did the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac. According to the tale, G-d demanded Abraham take his son Isaac to sacrifice in the mountains of Moriah.

Abraham’s willingness to do so is taken as sure example of Abraham’s unquestioning faith. He did what he assumed was G-d’s command because it was just that: G-d’s command.

That story is, for Jews as well as Christians and Muslims, a reason to claim attachment to Abraham as the ideal “person of faith.” Jews have traditionally believed that Abraham’s unquestioned faith brought merit not only to him but also to his progenies; after all, He declared to Abraham afterwards: “…because you were faithful, I shall make your descendants as many as the stars in heaven.”

Meanwhile, Christianity – which proclaims that the principal road to salvation is faith alone – also sees Abraham as the epitome of the “faithful man,” as his faith brought him salvation. What’s more, Abraham became an archetype of the true Muslim, too, and not because he was the father of Ishmael, but because Abraham’s unquestioned faith led him to submit to G-d’s will which is a teaching of Islam (specifically, submission to Allah’s will).

Personally, I cannot accept the primitive view of G-d as a deity who needs and depends on our faith. To me, it is strange that G-d, who is sufficient unto himself, needs to be assured of his power and needs to test his faithful so that He can prove to himself (and sometimes to others, as in the case of Job) the love and faithfulness of his subjects.

I believe that when we define Him in this manner, we do not enhance G-d; to the contrary, we diminish Him. We endow Him with a quality that is detestable even among humans. Do we really want to believe that, like man, G-d seeks to satisfy his ego?

Yes, we need faith, but not as the means of proving anything to G-d. Rather, faith is the source of hope in hopeless times. We need to have trust that life has meaning, especially in times when nihilism seems to rule our point of view. We need to have faith in the existence of the transcendental force that gives us love and trust in the continuation of a future and He does it freely not for his sake bur for our sake.

Thus, to me the Akedah does not represent G-d’s need to test our faith, especially not through the sacrifice of children. In fact, I believe in the belief set forth by Isaiah: that G-d does not need nor does He want any sacrifice at all.

Of course, my opinion begs the question: What, then, is the Akedah? What does the story tell us?

In my eyes, it stands for the rejection of the common practice: the worship of Molech, the cruel and unloving god who demands the flesh of children. The Akedah should be taken as a warning of accepting any faith that advocates inhumanity in any form.

The Moral Dimension

To me, the most important lesson that the Abraham saga teaches is the importance of morality – not only in human inter-personal relationships, but also in the relationships that we have with animals and the natural world. This is a part of the covenant that we undertook at Sinai – in effect, the essence of Judaism – and was foretold by G-d to Abraham.

Foreshadowing the events still to come at Mt. Sinai, G-d basically tells Abraham that the foundation of monotheism lies in morality. The Torah relates that G-d, musing unto himself, said:

“For I have known him [Abraham] to the end that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice…”

For, in the end, the future of human life is not determined through prayer and faith alone, but first and foremost by our relationship with each other and with the world in which we live.

Jumping a few years into the future to the covenant, we see that it is founded on the principle of morality and, like all covenants (which are essentially contracts), it is defined by a reciprocal relationship. That is, if G-d demands us to be moral, we in turn can demand G-d also to be moral.

Abraham understood the reciprocal nature of man’s relationship with G-d, hence he had the courage to challenge Him with regard to his plans for Sodom. He questions God’s intent:

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”

Abraham thus set the path for our ancient prophets. They became the social critics of their time; it was their task to challenge those in power and judge whether they are moral. It was their task also to challenge the nation on whether we maintain the dictum to be our brother’s keepers.

Of course, while loving one’s neighbor is a desirable act, it is secondary to the principle of justice. Our sages told us in one of the midrashim that when G-d created the world, He chose it to be founded on the principles of justice and mercy. And did not Micah and Isaiah declare that three qualities that God wants in man are justice, mercy and humility?

This perspective, I propose, was the way of Abraham. He dared to challenge God: “Are your judgments based on the principles of justice?”

Following this reasoning, let me suggest that all those who seek to identify themselves with Abraham must first and foremost accept Abraham not as the man of unquestioned faith, but as the proponent of human morality based on justice. This world cannot survive neither by love and faith alone – it depends primarily on action based on justice.

Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor. For more on the thoughts expressed in this article, see his book, “Faith and Conflict.”


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