Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Traveling with God

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Traveling with God

Article excerpt

Traveling with God ABRAHAM'S JOURNEY by JOSEPH B. SOLOVETTCHIK KTAV, 252 pages, $25

READERS OF WESTERN philosophy know Abraham mostly from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, a work that depicts the patriarch as the knight of faith willing to sacrifice his beloved Isaac while still believing in a divine promise of descendants. But the power of Kierkegaard's portrayal can obscure not only other aspects of Abraham in the biblical narrative, but also alternative approaches to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch-a collection culled from transcripts and oral presentations of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century-highlights a new and different Abraham. Rabbi Soloveitchik certainly emphasizes Abraham's belief in one God in a world dominated by polytheistic paganism and false belief. But the dominant theme in the book is Abraham's ethical excellence.

Having a posthumous collection of lectures given for different audiences and occasions and not built around the lecturer's own editorial decisions does not allow us to say that we now possess Rabbi Soloveitchik's definitive portrait of Abraham. It is still clear, however, that the theme of ethical excellence is a significant element of his conception, and this material inspires important new ways of thinking about the first patriarch and his ethical message.

Yes, Rabbi Soloveitchik's presentation contrasts with Kierkegaard's in emphasizing ethics more than faith. But it also contrasts with a rabbinic view that Abraham fully observed Jewish law as developed in later Jewish history. According to one midrash, Abraham adhered to all the rabbinic details of Sabbath observance. Soloveitchik, by contrast, for the most part limits his reading to what is implied by the biblical text. "Abraham did not have the system of mitzvot bein adam ^Makom, commandments regulating relations between man and God," he writes, "but he had an ethical system that had to be carried out and implemented."

This perspective doesn't stem from a liberal attempt to reduce all of religious life to ethics. Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik was the twentieth century's most eloquent defender of the autonomy of the Halakaha, the comprehensive legal code that guides the practice of the Orthodox community that he led. His HaLzkhic Man remains the classic modern statement of that worldview.

Rather, Rabbi Soloveitchik's stress on ethics emerges from a close reading of the biblical text and from sensitivity to the different frameworks that distinguish the period before Sinai from that after the law is given. The biblical Abraham provides hospitality to three travelers, prays on behalf of Sodom, and risks his life in battle to rescue his nephew from the four kings. His life embodies compassion and kindness.

The clash with paganism occurs on both theological and ethical levels. Abraham, Rabbi Soloveitchik says, "rebelled against paganism not only because he resented untruth and erroneous thinking but also for the sake of substituting an ethical life for an immoral one." Ancient paganism includes the horrors of human sacrifice as well as a conception of the gods that fails to identify divinity with moral grandeur. Abraham initiated a moral outlook of world-changing proportions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik's perceptive readings of verses bolster his depiction of a moral revolution accompanying a theological one. Abraham plants a tree in Beersheba and "calls there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world." This is where Rabbi Soloveitchik sees Abraham's dual message. The patriarch calls "in the name of the Lord," teaching the people of Mesopotamia about the one God who created and sustains the world. The phrase "God of the world" adds an ethical thrust, conveying that God cares about the world and expresses ongoing concern.

In the same vein, God declares that he chose Abraham because he knew that Abraham would "keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice. …

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