Abraham: A Man for All Seasons
Abraham is revered by the major monotheistic religions. In Judaism, what he went through is constantly being re-examined to provide us with an example we should follow. Ma’aseh Avot Siman LeBanim — the acts of the fathers are guides for the children. This is why I am fascinated by the contradictions and inconsistencies in Abraham’s life and character. He reaches the very pinnacle of interaction with God. Yet he struggles with doubt, insecurity, and ambivalence.
He alone is described in the Torah as “believing in God,” but the way the word is used in the Torah is very different to its current theological usage. The biblical Hebrew word emunah is not to be translated as “belief.” Rather it is a conviction — confidence based on trust. It’s an emotional phenomenon rather than an abstract intellectual one. Abraham was prepared to follow a divine instruction to leave his homeland for a strange country with the promise that all would be good. But it did not turn out to be as good as promised. It was wracked with famine, and he had to leave it for the breadbasket of the Nile. He found himself at the mercy of an Egyptian tyrant. He almost sacrificed his wife for his own survival. When he returned to Canaan, his family was split by jealousy and competition.
Abraham’s bond with his nephew Lot was also fraught. He was magnanimous in giving Lot the choice of what land to take. But did he warn him of the moral dangers of Sodom? Furthermore, Sarah was barren. She suggested a sort of surrogacy, but then Abraham had to deal with the tensions between Sarah and Hagar, and indeed their children. He was torn. He needed God’s instructions to act. Clearly, he cared for Hagar and Ishmael. Although it seems strange that he sent them away with minimum provisions.
Throughout all his troubles, God appeared to Abraham several times. God also reaffirmed His covenant twice. Once over the land, and the second time in the obligation to circumcise Abraham and his family. Perhaps pain is an inevitable feature of our relationship with God.
And yet we find no evidence that Abraham remonstrated with God over his personal problems. Perhaps he understood that Divine Promises were serpentine and would take hundreds of years to materialize (as indeed God told him in a vision describing 400 years of slavery). Perhaps he did not complain because he understood that there was always good and bad. After all, he did achieve success in so many other areas. His camp and followers had grown to such an extent that he could find 318 young men there to fight for him.
For all his passion, Abraham was neither a recluse living behind the walls of a ghetto nor a narrow-minded fanatic. He dealt with everyone — Canaanite, Egyptian, Philistine — regardless of their ethics or religion. He recognized in Malchizedek another great spiritual mind and even gave him tithes according to one version. Other opinions are that Malchizedek gave him tithes — which only reinforces the legitimacy of multiple and contradictory interpretations of Torah texts.
I always wondered why Abraham was able to challenge God over the destruction of Sodom and could ask God directly whether the Master of the Universe should not be just. Yet when Abraham believed that God had told him to sacrifice Isaac, he was unable to ask whether that was just. It seems that Abraham believed God had commanded him to carry this out as an act of devotion. It is such an awesome narrative.
The Torah itself says it was only a test; God never intended or wanted human sacrifice. But Abraham was willing to do anything for God. And God had to teach Abraham that there are limits to religious devotion. Some simply see this episode as a way of impressing upon us not to be like the surrounding pagans who did indeed practice child sacrifice.
I know that in some circles, Abraham is painted as perfect as you can get. But the text gives us a very different picture. For many people, religion is a matter of providing security, certainties, answers, and a way of belonging to a specific group of people. For others, it is a commitment and a challenge. The commitment is to a set of ideals and a view of the world that includes the spiritual, and to a calendar and a set of rules that reinforces identity and reiterates an awareness of the supernatural. All of these are tools to help us cope with life rather than giving us a straitjacket of forced obedience. Many of us were brought up, and still are, to think this way. But this narrative implies that nothing should prevent us from asking, struggling, and going through periods of uncertainty, ambivalence, and even alienation.
All these features are to be found in the biblical Abraham. It is reassuring to realize that however great a figure Abraham was, his human limitations were not glossed over. And in that, I see the greatness of Torah. “The Torah was not given to angels.” Neither does it expect us to be angels, either.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.