11/03/2006

Why God Chose Abraham

As mentioned previously, various Midrashim and commentators attempt to fill in the details of Abram’s life before he receives God’s message. I would like to focus on one particular theme that has been variously interpreted. I refer, of course, to the furnace story. I would like to compare the way that this story is addressed in Bereishit Rabbah, Rashi, Ramban, and Rambam. The difference between their treatments is astounding and highly instructive as to how each perceived Abraham’s greatness and contribution. The common theme is the 'smashing of the idols', literally or figuratively. Before moving further, I'll point out one definition:

i·con·o·clast (ī-kŏn'ə-klăst')
n.

  1. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.
  2. One who destroys sacred religious images.

[French iconoclaste, from Medieval Greek eikonoklastēs, smasher of religious images : eikono-, icono- + Greek -klastēs, breaker (from Greek klān, klas-, to break).]

I. Midrash Rabbah: Abraham the Skeptic

The image of Abraham smashing the idols, in the Midrash *(Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, is not an act of zeal or rage. Abraham talks to people, questions them, challenges their assumptions. We shatters the idols in order to better challenge people’s assumptions. Throughout the Midrash, we never see Abram arguing for God, only against paganism. And he doesn’t really argue per se. He questions. He drives people crazy with his incessant, mocking questions. Ultimately, he is sentenced to die in the fire that he ‘doesn’t believe in’. Until that point in the midrash, and even beyond, there is NO MENTION of his belief in God. It’s not that the midrash holds that he didn’t know God or about God beforehand, but it seemingly was not part of his educational repertoire.

Many have noted the similarities between the midrashic story of Abraham and the story of Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who were miraculously saved from death by fire after refusing to worship a foreign god. However, there’s another well-known story that parallels this midrash even more closely – the story of Socrates. Those who know the story will immediately notice the similar contours – the sentencing of a troublemaker, an iconoclast, who questions the very foundations of the power structure and is therefore perceived as a threat to the stability of the society. The difference is in the outcome of the story; Socrates was not miraculously saved from the hemlock.

II. Rashi: Abraham the Zealot

Rashi (11:28) makes very short shrift of the midrashic narrative. Gone are the pedagogic elements. In the Midrash, Abram destroys all of the idols but one, in order to present people with the absurd scenario that it destroyed all of its peers. It is to show people the inconsistency of their faith. Rashi skips those elements, and doesn’t even leave the one idol standing. The verb he uses to describe Abram’s vandalism is she-katat. The verb root ‘ktt’ is generally reserved by Chaza”l to describe what happens to pagan paraphernalia that we are commanded to annihilate, or for all movable property belonging to a ‘ir ha-nidachat’. It connotes an act of destruction for the sake of getting rid of something undesirable (as in ‘and they will beat – ve-kitetu - their swords into plowshares’). Rashi seems to be indicating that Abraham was acting out of a motivation to destroy icons for its own sake, at least the ones in his own home, motivated by a Godly zeal to root out evil.

This contrasts mightily with the tone of the Midrash as it appears in Bereishit Rabbah. Bet we’re not done yet.

III. Ramban: Abraham the Man of Faith

For Ramban (11:28 and 12:8), all Abraham wanted to do was have the freedom to worship as he pleased and to express what he really believed. Canaan became, for him, the ‘land of the free’, where he could finally speak publicly about his faith. Back in Ur, he was persecuted for his faith, to the point that he needed a miraculous salvation, either overtly or covertly. The king feared that Abraham would weaken the faith of his countrymen, and therefore resolved to rid himself of Abraham after confiscating his property. One can’t help but notice the similarities between Abraham and the Ramban himself. Working with the same material, Ramban articulates yet another vision of what Abraham was like in his early years.

IV: Rambam: Abraham the Philosopher

If Bereishit Rabbah has Abraham as Socrates, then Rambam (Hil. Avodah Zarah 1:3) presents him as Socrates combines Aristotle. An intellectual giant (amongst pagan imbeciles), constantly contemplating the cosmos from a very young age, and a complete autodidact, he reaches philosophical conclusions about the universe and its causes. He sees the physical forms attributed to the gods as the greatest obstacle to faith in the One True God, Creator, Prime Cause, and therefore advocates for the destruction of those forms. This gets him in trouble, etc. etc. Abraham’s goal is to announce the truth that will set people’s minds free. He doesn’t have questions, like BR’s Abraham; he’s got answers.

The truly amazing thing about this is the degree to which we all tend to see in our heroes the values that we ourselves admire. The Torah itself doesn’t tell us why Abram was chosen. As we rush in to fill in the details, the story is inevitably colored by our own experience and our own milieu. In that way, Abraham remains a hero to all. It doesn’t stop here, either. I’m particularly drawn to R’ Tzadok’s view of Abraham as having discovered God within himself (based on the midrash that Abraham’s two kidneys became Rabbis and would teach him Torah) and developed his own intuitions to accord with that internal Godliness. Today, we hear much talk of Avraham as a ‘Ba’al Teshuvah’. The point is, we can all find a hero in Abraham, even though we might think differently about what was so heroic. Perhaps that’s why the Torah left Abraham’s early years out – so that anyone on the lonely path toward God can find companionship in our sacred narratives.

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