Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch
Landau, Yehezkel, Shofar
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." Even converts to Judaism, in his view, are expected to renounce their former cultural touchstones and assume the lonely destiny of the chosen, but isolated, covenant community.
It is not only spiritual impoverishment that results from such a narrow, self-referencing interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant. This worldview becomes self-injurious when opportunities for peaceful coexistence with past or present adversaries are forgone. Take the case of Hagar and Ishmael. Even though Ishmael is circumcised along with Abraham in Gen. 17, when Avram's name is changed and his destiny as the "father of many nations" is divinely revealed, this first-born son of the patriarch and his mother Hagar each receive only two passing references in Soloveitchik's entire book. Herein lies part of our problem and our challenge: Hagar is blessed by God, and her son's name conveys a special promise and destiny. Hagar s well (in Gen. 16: 14) is the place Isaac visited (v. 24:62) and where Isaac chose to live following Abraham's death and burial, with Ishmael joining him for the funeral. This sequence of events suggests that Isaac visited Hagar and Ishmael following their expulsion from the household (ch. 21) and after Sarah's death (ch. 23). Isaac plays the role of pro-active peacemaker within his own broken family. Soloveitchik, in contrast, portrays Isaac (p. 193) as a "cryptic figure" who "appears to react rather than act," especially when compared to Abraham or Jacob. The broader implication of a more inclusive reading, unlike Soloveitchik's partisan one, is that the painful rift between Sarah and Hagar, which colored the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael and extends to their descendants, is already healed in the pages of Genesis. Given the pessimistic picture of Jewish- Arab relations today, this alternative reading holds out hope for a more peaceful future, in which the two peoples can forge a shared destiny.
Although Soloveitchik does acknowledge the universalistic Noachide covenant, in particularistic terms he views berit as an exclusively Jewish privilege and blessing. The notion of other covenants sanctioned by God after Sinai is never considered in this book. On this point, of course, Soloveitchik shares the overwhelmingly prevalent view within Jewish tradition over many centuries. But we are in a new era of Jewish and human history, and it is incumbent upon Jewish thinkers to look anew at our tradition through the lens of our contemporary experience. This experience includes the reality of an increasingly interdependent world, a modernist sensibility that positively affirms cultural and religious diversity, and a profoundly tragic conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs over Eretz Yisrael.
Our children's welfare is at stake in how we interpret the tradition of our ancestors and sages. There are at least three entrenched attitudes about ourselves and our place in the world that we need to transform, going beyond Soloveitchik's partisan worldview:^rsi, exclusivist notions of "election" or "covenant" that perceive ourselves as uniquely favored by God and others as spiritually inferior; second, an essentialist interpretation of Jewish history that emphasizes alienation, victimhood, and conflict; and third, a vision of messianic redemption that anticipates Jewish "victory" and vindication. A Jewish theology of sacred history and consecrated land that articulates a belief in One God and multiple covenanted communities could help liberate us from the "narrow places" (metzarim) where we are trapped or enslaved by outmoded thinking. But we cannot do this alone; we need to work with Christians and Muslims as theological partners and "intertextual" readers of each other s scriptures. Such interreligious partnerships have political ramifications, as well. The Palestinians, as Muslims and Christians, have their own covenantal identities, their own sense of destiny, and their own deep loyalty to the same homeland. Until we Jews come to terms with that profound religious challenge, we will not be advancing the messianic redemption that we long and pray for. Instead, we will be creating ideological obstacles in the way of genuine shalom, which is a central, constitutive element of true messianic fulfillment and worthy of an Orthodox Jewish hekhsher.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch. Contributors: Landau, Yehezkel - Author. Journal title: Shofar. Volume: 28. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2010. Page number: 201+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.