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

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Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch, by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2008. 224 pp. $25.00.

This volume on the biblical patriarch Abraham is the ninth in the MeOtzar HoRav series, faithfully edited by students of Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the revered leader of modern Orthodox Jewry in America. "The Rav," as he is commonly called, was a masterful Talmudist, a brilliant philosopher, and a legendary teacher. A group of Soloveitchik's students worked diligendy to produce this series from handwritten manuscripts and audiotapes of his lectures.

The volume is superbly edited, allowing a giant in modern Jewish thought to posthumously "speak" to a wider audience on fundamental issues of Jewish identity, history, and destiny. Rabbi Soloveitchik's perspective reflects the traditional view of Abraham as a paradigmatic role model for Jews everywhere and at any time. Jewish tradition sees the Genesis narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs as prototypical lessons for their descendants. The classic expression of this hermeneutical principle is that of Nachmanides, paraphrased as "ma'aseh avot siman la-banim" - the life events of our Biblical ancestors are "signs" or instructive precedents for later generations of Jews.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, as an ardent teacher and defender of hakkhah, does on occasion link a virtuous practice exemplified by Abraham to the normative system of mitzvot developed over centuries by Rabbinic sages. But the book is not a treatise on Jewish law; it is, instead, an extensive philosophical meditation on what it means to be Jewish, throughout history and in our time, in light of the Genesis stories and later commentaries. Some of Soloveitchik's philosophical and psychological categories are applicable to anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish. For example, Soloveitchik makes a vital distinction between goral (fate), what circumstances dictate, and yi'ud (destiny), a faith journey pursued through deliberate choice, often in opposition to societal norms and at great sacrifice. Abraham demonstrates heroic fidelity to his evolving destiny, serving as an iconoclastic pioneer who sets a spiritual and ethical example for his descendants. Lovingkindness (chesed) and hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) are character traits traditionally associated with Abraham, and Soloveitchik examines how they are exemplified in specific actions. This kind of ethical wisdom, contextualized for our time, is a practical resource for anyone seeking to live a faithful Jewish life.

What is more problematic, at least for this reviewer, is Soloveitchik's isolationist understanding of Jewish identity and his negative attitude toward the cultures and values of non-Jews. His spiritually segregationist stance, idealizing loneliness as a tragic Abrahamic virtue to be embraced by Jews, is evident in Soloveitchik's other writings, most famously Tfoe Lonely Man of Faith. His article "Confrontation," advocating humanitarian cooperation with non-Jews but opposing dialogue on spiritual or theological concerns, was written for the journal Tradition in the mid-1960s in response to Vatican II and the Catholic Church's radically new understanding of Judaism. For Rabbi Soloveitchik, or for any Jew of his generation who witnessed the horrors of the Shoah, such a tragic worldview is understandable. But it is also lamentable and should be challenged in our own time by a more pluralistic and less defensive stance toward non-Jews. For it is one thing - harsh fate/goral - when others force Jews into physical ghettos; but it is another - self-limiting destiny /yi'ud - when Jews create their own spiritual ghettos and deem them normative habitats in which to live, raise their children, and engage the rest of the world. For Soloveitchik (p. 181),"[t]he destiny of Avraham ha-Ivri, the lonely Abraham, has always accompanied the Jews. …