Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch

Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch

by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, Reuven Ziegler

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KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
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Abraham's Journey Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch

By Joseph B. Soloveitchik KTAV Publishing House, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Toras Horav Foundation
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60280-004-5

Chapter One Abraham as Personality and Paradigm

Experiencing History

To write about Abraham today would appear to be a peculiar, if not absurd, undertaking. How can an ancient figure, enveloped in the fog of mystery and (in the opinion of today's cynical man) myth, fascinate the imagination and vision of modern scholars or preachers? They confront innumerable problems of enormous magnitude and force, and face situations which captivate their fantasy with both greatness and perplexing tragedy. Why should they investigate and probe a person who emerges from the unknown historic twilight, whose contours and features are blurred and almost imperceptible to the onlooker, while there is a world full of marvels, light, and charm that wink at and tantalize us? Why watch a bubble riding on the crest of a wave disappearing at the distant horizon, while a mighty tide rolls on toward us and breaks at our feet?

The historian will say that Abraham cannot be considered an archaeological reality, since, measured by the conventional standards of historical evidence, we cannot assert as a certainty that such a person lived and acted in the way the Bible describes. Many a Bible critic, Jew or gentile, casts serious doubt upon the authenticity of the narrative about this strange and unique man. No inscriptions or other pieces of documentary evidence have been discovered that mention even once the name of the patriarch. Perhaps Abraham is nothing but a myth, a legend, a vision of a tribe or a clan that assigned to its progenitor the role of God's fellow-companion and recorded out of this fantasy the dialogues and arguments, tribulations and joyous moments, of that imaginary figure.

As a matter of fact, this sort of skepticism regarding the biblico-historical accounts has, of late, lost much of its vigor and arrogance. Recent excavations and discoveries have confirmed many biblical accounts-not only in their general outlines but, more important, in their minute details, such as names of geographic places, travel routes, and cultic forms. Historians have begun to look upon the Bible as a book replete with historically true records. Excavations in the Negev have unearthed a rich civilization reminiscent of the biblical narratives concerning the economic and cultural surroundings in which Abraham lived and worked. In a word, the fury of the historian-the passionate seeker of truth-against the "Abraham myth" has abated. One will think twice nowadays before denying the existence of such a person.

To us, this problem is almost irrelevant. We need no evidence of the historical existence of our patriarch, just as there is no necessity for clear-cut logical evidence concerning the reality of God. The immediacy and aboriginal impact of our God-experience, cutting through all levels of existence and forming the very essence of our ontic awareness, does not require any other form of evidence and is not subject to logico-deductive or inductive verification. The latter is dependent upon a postulate-premise, whereas the God-experience is prior to cognitive activities of every kind, including the act of postulation. We may deal in a similar manner with the historical "proofs" of the existence of Abraham. As the architect and founder of our nation, Abraham left such an indelible imprint upon our unfolding historic destiny that he has been integrated into our historical consciousness; he is so singular a motif of our historical emergence that the whole paradoxical, complex experience of our charisma would be impossible if we denied the reality of the Abraham-personality. The narrative about his life is almost, to use a Kantian term, an apodictic truth, a constitutive category that activates our great historical experience and lends it meaning and worth. If we were to deny the truth of the Abraham story, our historic march would be a fathomless mystery, an insensate, cruel, absurd occurrence that prosecutes no goal and moves on toward nothingness, running down to its own doom. The great figure of our patriarch is indispensable because it suggests a meaning and an end that are within the grasp of historical realization. The axiological character of our historical process can be determined only in relation to the figure of Abraham. If Abraham were a myth, a legend, a beautiful but fantastic vision, then we would be faced with a tragic hoax and the ridicule of the centuries and millennia.

The old problem pertaining to the truthfulness of our categorical schemata was solved by Kant by means of the following idea. If our primary media and logical framework of cognition were a mere chimera, a figment of our vivid imagination with no relation to an objective order, then reality would remain an insoluble enigma, an inaccessible realm where no mind may dare to probe and explore. Since the whole cognitive gesture is dependent upon the categorical approach, its legitimacy is eo ipso ascertained. The same method is applicable to historical categories. Abraham is the prime historical idea, the basic category that introduces purposefulness and destiny-filled tenseness in our historical experience. Without it, we would forfeit the reasonableness or meta-rationality with which it is endowed.

We experience our historical occurrence in a very peculiar manner. Historical time, in contrast to physical time, is not a mere form enveloping the cosmic process, but rather the historical event itself. It is inseparable from the happening, from the very acting and realizing. What occurs is a time event; what addresses itself to us is a time personality; what emerges is a living time. Hence, to experience a historical figure one must feel the heartbeat of time.

The Jewish historical community has a strange time awareness, one that is often baffling to strangers. Let me illustrate this with an episode that occurred during the Second World War. I received a letter from a Jewish physician in New York in which he enclosed a clipping from an Anglo-Jewish journal published somewhere in Great Britain. The physician, a good friend of mine, implored me in his letter to read the enclosed article and prepare an answer to the writer's attack on traditional Judaism. The author of the article related his experience in a camp in Great Britain where friendly aliens were interned. Among the internees there was a group of young yeshiva students, observant and devout. They paid attention not to current events but to old problems and occurrences that had transpired approximately nineteen hundred years before. They were engaged in an almost interminable discussion about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai's politics on behalf of Yavneh and its scholars. Partisan factions formed in the camp. Some approved of his wise policy of moderation; others disagreed and associated themselves with Rabbi Akiba's policy of political extremism, maintaining that Rabbi Yohanan had blundered by tacitly giving away Jerusalem.

The author of the article listened, pondered the themes that were discussed and that had aroused so much excitement, and asked a very pertinent question. How could young men whose very lives depended upon the outcome of the war live in a remote past and occupy themselves with worthless discussions about archaic events that had no relevance whatsoever as far as their present was concerned, at the same time that they were witnessing world-shaking events such as the invasion of North Africa by Allied troops and the conference of the Big Two in Casablanca to map out future plans for the war?

The conclusion he arrived at was obviously and unequivocally reminiscent of Toynbee's interpretation of Jewish history, wherein the living Jewish historical drama came to a stop with the rise of Christianity, when our people forfeited its political independence. There is no longer a growing, developing, destiny-conscious Jewish nation, but only a fossilized or mummified community that lives on in memories and thinks in retrospective terms. Using an almost vulgar pseudo-scientific idiom, the author of the article spoke of the frozen stream of the collective consciousness and the absence of continuity and creativity within it. I do not know whether he is still alive or has passed into eternity. But if he is still around, I would like to interview him about that article. Perhaps he has by now changed his opinion about the petrifaction of our historical process. Perhaps we are not as rigid and antiquated as we appear to be. The establishment of the State of Israel would certainly cast a different light upon the whole problem. Our fixity does not, perhaps, eliminate progress or ascent.

It appears to me that the answer to this question is simple enough, and it is to be found in the unique time awareness of our historic community. Our time experience is three-dimensional; past and future address themselves to us in the fleeting moment of the present. We live, of course, in the so-called present, but it can envelop us only if it is interlocked with the other two dimensions. The retrospective mood is one of the major motifs of our time apprehension, and so is the glance that we cast at the silent morrow, at the "not yet," at the expected and fervently desired or hated. Retrospection, in the sense of reliving and reincarnating, and anticipation, which gives rise to a new world, constitute the central motifs of our unique time experience. We see the distances separating the ages and millennia as not so pronounced as in general history.

Modern man has learned how to conquer relatively long stretches of space and geometric distance. Ancient man did not possess this skill. Yet man today has lost completely his memory and time awareness. He has shortened the distances in space but extended the lanes in the time continuum. He is not capable of this miraculous recessional into the centuries and of the bold and grand procession into unactualized and unlived time. He is isolated in the infinitesimal fraction of the now which is, in most cases, disconnected from the before and the after. Both realms are deserted by the pragmatic, utilitarian, hedone-seeking man of today, and they form a vast wasteland. Man wanders in the present, not daring to approach the gates of these mysterious kingdoms. He lacks continuity with both his progenitors and his descendants. Man forfeits his historical memory and his great vision, and in losing these two endowments he gives away his capacity for love and devotion, his normative awareness and his idealistic strivings. In the present, usefulness and pleasure reign supreme.

If you should ask me to name the halakhic category that expresses this peculiar time-experience, I would point at the concept of masorah or kabbalah. These two words designate something unique that cannot be equated with the popular word "tradition." Masorah signifies not only formal transmission of knowledge, mores, laws, and a way of life. It implies an awareness of the togetherness of centuries and millennia, of the unity of time within one experience. The masorah community is not limited to an aggregate of contemporaries. It is all-inclusive, encompassing past and future, generations that departed life thousands of years ago and those that have not yet been born. It is a community within which the past does not fade away but rather moves into the present, blending with the immediate and direct. In this community, personalities communicate throughout the ages; minds that are thousands of years apart address themselves to each other; heartbeats merge into the historic sound. There is not only transmission of knowledge but also a pouring out of the soul and reincarnation of the master in the person of the disciple.

A Book of Symbols

In his prologue to the Book of Exodus-in some volumes printed as the epilogue to Genesis-Nahmanides (Ramban) writes,

Scripture has concluded the Book of Genesis, which is Sefer ha-Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, pertaining to the emergence of the world and also the emergence of every creature ... and the happenings or experiences of the patriarchs, which are ke-inyan yetzirah le-zar'am, like an act of creation regarding their progeny, as all their experiences are symbols or paradigms-patterns which allude to and anticipate whatever the future holds in store for them. And after Scripture finished the story of creation, it began another book pertaining to the implementation of those allusions and those symbols.

The translation of the symbol into reality, into historical fact, is the Book of Exodus. According to Nahmanides, Exodus tells the same story as Genesis. The latter tells it in symbols; the actors in the drama are three individuals on the stage of history. In Exodus, the actors are a group rather than the three individuals.

Genesis, therefore, should be interpreted on two levels. First of all, it is the story of three concrete individuals and their children, their happy and sad experiences. However, Genesis is not only the story of three individuals; it is also the history of a great people. The three individuals personify the destiny of the people. Abraham is not only the biological father of the people; he is also its spiritual father. He paves the way for our people. His life is a paradigm and a symbol of the future. We speak about Avraham ha-perati, the individual Abraham. But at the same time he is also what the homiletical sages later called Avraham ha-kelali, the universal Abraham. He predicted the historical march toward eternity of the covenantal community chosen by God.

Hazal already were aware of the strange parallelism between the lives of the patriarchs and the historical drama of our people. As the Midrash says, "Kol mah she-ira [le-Avraham] ira le-vanav, Whatever happened to [Abraham] happened to his children" (Midrash Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 9, paraphrased by Nahmanides, Gen. 12:6). Similarly, "Tzei u-khevosh et haderekh lifnei vanekha, Go and pave the way before your children" (Gen. Rabbah 40:6, quoted by Nahmanides, Gen. 12:10). Yet no commentator before Nahmanides exploited these statements as he did. Nahmanides organized them into a philosophy of history: Jewish history is basically the history of the patriarchs. In other words, the lives of the patriarchs contain a blueprint of the Jewish historical process. Nahmanides was not satisfied with a theory of historical paradigms or allusions; he was the father of the idea that Jewish history was predetermined by the activities of the patriarchs.

The question that arises from this is a simple one. By introducing an a priori symbolic etiology into Jewish history, Nahmanides seems to have abandoned historical freedom and replaced it with rigid determinism. Every event in Jewish history has been unalterably fixed by paradigmatic action on the part of our ancestors. They acted out a priori the major events in our history and laid down rules projecting the patterns of its historical dynamics. Once the divine decree has been translated into metaphorical action, it cannot be changed. The whole of Jewish history turns into a mechanical affair over which human beings have no control. The just ones could not have influenced the course of events that pulled the nation toward the brink of catastrophe, and contrarily, the wicked were unable to accelerate or increase the horrors of hurban, destruction. Everything was already acted out and unalterably decided upon. Our ancestors long ago lived these events as historical realities.

What historical role, then, was assigned to the Children of Israel throughout the generations? Were they no longer free to shape their own destiny, to determine their own history? Was acting like marionettes all that was left to them, unable to control their own acts and driven involuntarily to historical doom, hurban and exile? The prophets exhorted the people, preached to them, and urged them to mend their ways to placate God's wrath and be saved from destruction and catastrophe. The people were apparently free to invite distress and tragedy or, vice versa, to triumph and live under the Almighty's protection. Judged from the standpoint of Nahmanidean determinism, the Jew could never have escaped the bitter experiences of disaster and hurban, since these tragic events were symbolically produced on the historical stage at the time of our patriarchs and thus were predestined as inevitable.


Excerpted from Abraham's Journey by Joseph B. Soloveitchik Copyright © 2008 by Toras Horav Foundation. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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