Exploring Abraham the Hebrew

Exploring Abraham the Hebrew

By Eugen Schoenfeld

In the past few decades the term “Abrahamic religions” has appeared on the horizon. This term is a bit more inclusive than Judeo-Christianity, a previous expression used to enhance religious ecumenism or the tripartite division of American religion into Catholic, Protestant and Jew as proposed by Will Herberg.

This new phrase is an attempt to broaden religious inclusivity and propose that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are interrelated because they share a common denominator: Abraham, the founder of monotheism and a staunch advocate of the invisible G-d, to whom we must submit ourselves and to whom we should direct out prayers and our obedience.

Even President Barack Obama acquiesces to the legitimacy and validity of this view.

In a scene from Genesis depicted in a 12th century stone sculpture in Spain’s northern Catalunya, Abraham entertains three visitors who turn out to be angels.
In a scene from Genesis depicted in a 12th century stone sculpture in Spain’s northern Catalunya, Abraham entertains three visitors who turn out to be angels.

Of course, those advocating this view assume that the realization of the common root will, as though by magic, bring peace to religious combatants. On his recent visit to Israel, Obama proposed that its inhabitants should be able to agree to an interreligious peace — after all, the three religions share a common spiritual ancestor, Abraham.

Hence, Judaism, Christianity and Islam constitute a unity as Abrahamic religions.

But in my view, Christianity and Islam do not accept the teaching of Abraham on his perspective of G-d and interhuman relationships.

I would like to examine my personal view of Abraham Haivri — Abraham the Hebrew.

Who is this man Abraham whom we call our father? Was he a real person? Is he a real, historical figure or an existential legend like Job, who the sages declared should be an exemplar?

The rabbis propose that Job never existed and was not ever created. He merely is a symbolic figure, an ideal type created for heuristic purpose and therefore endowed with the ideal characteristics that we believe are necessary to understand the man-G-d relationship.

Is Abraham our Romulus and Remus, someone whom we designate as our ethnic pater familias?

Whether Abraham was real or merely a legend is immaterial. What is important is that Abraham became the Jewish ideal type.

He personifies the three dimensions that constitute the essence of being a Jew. Jews are an ethnic group and have national and historic identity, in addition to adhering to a belief in a monotheistic G-d in whom we place our trust. We as a people are committed to the moral dimension, founded in the belief of justice that proposes that all people must be given access to a chance for life and be free from human-caused pain.

The commitment to a moral dimension is exemplified in the following midrash.

When the Jews departed Egypt, non-Abraham descendants, who are referred to in the Talmud as a “mixed multitude,” also escaped Egyptian servitude and, it seems, intermingled with the Jews.

Our sages raised the following question: How can we differentiate between those who are the true descendants of Abraham and those from the mixed multitude?

The answer, the sages suggest, is that the true descendants of Abraham are seekers of peace. It seems to me that the most significant dimension of being a Jew is the moral dimension that is not an essential component of the other Abrahamic faiths.

The Ethnic Dimension

When the ship that carried Jonah, who tried to escape his duty to prophesize Nineveh’s doom, floundered in a storm, the captain of the vessel investigated the backgrounds of his passengers and crew to determine on whose account the gods caused the storm that threatened their lives.

He approached Jonah and asked who he was. Jonah replied: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear G-d.”

Jonah first responded that he was a Hebrew, then he declared his faith and fear of G-d.

Austrian artist Adi Holzer’s 1997 etching depicts Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.
Austrian artist Adi Holzer’s 1997 etching depicts Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.

In a similar manner, Abraham’s identity was given to us as being a Hebrew.

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. One of the Sodomite survivors, the Bible relates, “told Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham) the Hebrew.”

Of course, “haivri” (the Hebrew) could have meant that Abraham was considered a stranger who came from across the River Jordan rather than a true ethnic identity. Professor Robert Wolfe, for instance, proposed that the word Hebrew in Abraham’s case comes not from his ethnicity, but from Habiru, a nomadic people who lived in Egypt.

Notwithstanding Wolfe’s contention, I associate the word Hebrew with Abraham’s identity and consider the Hebrews as an ethnic group and a nation descending from Abraham Haivri. Regardless of why Abraham was called a Hebrew, what is significant to us 21st century Jews is that he started the golden chain that link by link rooted us into a nation and provided a perspective that gives meaning to our historical experiences.

For almost three millennia, we Jews, through the covenant of circumcision, have demonstrated out commitment to a moral perspective with which we govern our relationship with other men and with G-d.

Each father attests, when he circumcises his son, that he is tying his son to the historical continuity of the Hebrew identity that Abraham began.

Rashi, the 11th century biblical commentator, tells us that the maintenance of their Jewish identity in Egypt merited the Hebrew slaves’ redemption. To wit, they kept their modes of dressing, their language and their customs, guarding them from assimilation into the Egyptian majority.

The Faith Dimension

Perhaps no other story is as compelling as the Akedah, Abraham’s unquestioned willingness to sacrifice his son simply because G-d requested it. This willingness is taken as evidence of Abraham’s faith: He did what he assumed was G-d’s command.

It seems that Christianity and Islam claim attachment to Abraham because he stands as the ideal person of faith. G-d, according to the story, demanded that Abraham take his son Isaac to one of the mountains, which according to tradition is Mount Moriah, where he was to fulfill G-d’s wish for a sacrifice.

Because of his willingness to sacrifice his son on faith alone, Abraham became the ideal of a faithful person.

Jews have traditionally believed that Abraham’s unquestioned faith brought merit not only to him, but also to his progeny. On Rosh Hashanah in various ways we remind G-d to be merciful to us because we are his children.

Christianity, which proclaims that the principal road to salvation is faith alone, also sees Abraham as the epitome of the “faithful man” who earned salvation.

Abraham also became an archetype of the true Muslim, not only because he was the father of Ishmael and thus the father of the Arab people, but also because Abraham’s unquestioned faith led him to submit to G-d’s will, which is the central meaning of Islam.

Similarly, traditional Jews laud Abraham’s merits because of his faith. After all, hasn’t G-d declared that “because you were faithful, I shall make your descendants as many as the stars in heaven”?

I cannot accept this primitive view of G-d as a deity who needs and depends on our faith.
It is strange that G-d, who is sufficient unto himself, needs to be assured of his power and needs to test the faithfulness of his adherents so that He can prove to Himself (and sometime to others, as in the case of Job) that He is loved and trusted.

Blind adherence does not enhance G-d’s status; to the contrary, it diminishes it. Do we want to believe that, like man, G-d seeks to satisfy his ego? Such a view reflects an utter blasphemy.

G-d is the model we set for ourselves. If we believe that we were created in G-d’s image, then G-d’s demands become the model for our demands. If He demands total obedience and we acquiesce to this demand, we legitimate dictatorship, be it religious or secular.

Yes, we need faith — not as the means of proving anything to G-d, but as 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 future, and He gives it freely not for his sake, but for our sake.

To me, the Akedah does not represent G-d’s need to test our faith, especially through the sacrifice of children. In fact, I accept Isaiah’s view that G-d does not need or want any sacrifice. What G-d wants of us, Isaiah tells us: Be good not to G-d, but to each other. Have a dream of creating an idyllic world for your own sake.

What is the meaning of the Akedah? What does the story tell us?

It stands, I believe, for the demand to reject a common practice in Canaan: the worship of Molech, a cruel and unloving god demanding the flesh of children.

The Akedah should be taken as G-d’s message that he does not demand human sacrifice, especially of sons. Salvation and forgiveness result from our own belief in the transcendent, and it can never be achieved through human sacrifice — or holy wars

The Moral Dimension

The most important lesson the Abraham saga teaches is the importance of morality — specifically the moral teaching that we should govern ourselves in our interpersonal relationships and the moral duties we have to animals, the natural world and G-d.

This is part of the covenant that we undertook at Sinai, but earlier G-d tells Abraham that the foundation of monotheism lies in morality. The Torah relates that G-d, musing to 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.”

In the end, the future of human life is not determined through prayer and faith alone, but first and foremost by our relationships with one another and with the world in which we live.

G-d’s covenant with Abraham was extended to be between a people (Israel) and G-d.

Contracts and covenants are defined by a reciprocal relationship; that is, when G-d demands us to be moral, He in turn is assumed to be governed by the same morals.

Abraham’s stories indicate that he understood the reciprocal nature of the covenant and hence had the courage to challenge G-d’s plans for Sodom.

He questions G-d’s intent: “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?”

If we can challenge G-d, surely we can challenge our leaders. (A number of tales describe G-d being brought to a din-Torah.)

Abraham thus set the task that is unique to Jews: The prophets have the right and the duty to challenge those in power on their commitment to the principle of justice. The ancient prophets became the social critics of their time, as when Nathan challenged David’s injustice.

The prophets also challenged whether ruling powers observed the dictum to be their brothers’ keepers or simply acted for their own benefit.

While loving one’s neighbor is desirable, it is secondary to justice. Our sages told us in one midrash that when G-d created the world, he chose it to be founded on the principles of justice and mercy.

Micah and Isaiah explained that the three qualities G-d wants in individuals and society are to do justice, to love mercy and to show humility. This perspective, I propose, was the way of Abraham, who dared to challenge G-d, asking Him before He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah whether His judgments were based on the principles of justice?

Before we become enamored with this questionable term “Abrahamic religions,” we should consider what it means to be a member of such a religious group. 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 through either love or faith alone; it depends primarily on action based on justice.

I must apologize for my inadequate attempt to reduce such a complex issue as Abraham to the space of a newspaper article. My intent was not to teach, but to challenge.

When Rabbi Hillel was confronted by people who insisted that he define Judaism briefly, not to exceed the time one can stand on one foot, he quoted the Torah: “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I wish to end this article with the suggestion made by Hillel after he reduced the essence of the Torah to one sentence: Now go and study.

For additional insight on this subject, read Eugen Schoenfeld’s book “Faith and Conflict.”

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