A Recent Address and Getting Abraham Right

Just the other day it came to light that a passage about Abraham in the recent address to the Knesset by Vice-President Pence was based on a very similar—but not identical—passage from former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ 2001 book, “Radical Then, Radical Now.” Pence’s dependence on Rabbi Sacks, not surprisingly, aroused a great deal of interest, but, unfortunately, in the process Rabbi Sacks has become the object of unfair and inaccurate criticism. In an article in the Times of Israel Rabbi Yoseif Bloch maintains that Rabbi Sacks went “a bridge too far” and that his portrait of Abraham is mistaken. Really?

In his book Rabbi Sacks describes Abraham as someone who “ruled no empire, commanded no great army, performed no miracles, and proclaimed no prophecy.” Let us examine these claims and Rabbi Bloch’s criticisms point by point and see who is mistaken..

“Ruled no Empire.” This is uncontroversial and undeniable and Rabbi Bloch does not take issue with it.

“Commanded no great army.” This is true.  In Genesis 14 Abraham mustered a fighting force of 318 men, but such a force, can, by no stretch of the imagination, be termed a great army. In Pence’s speech this was changed from “commanded no great army” to “commanded no armies,” which is clearly false.  But, surely, the responsibility for this presumably last-minute editorial change, the significance of which completely eluded both Pence’s speechwriter and Rabbi Bloch, cannot be laid at the feet of Rabbi Sacks.

“Performed no miracles.” Rabbi Bloch notes that God inflicted plagues on Pharaoh when he abducted Sarah and later remembered her and granted her a child when she was ninety. This is true but irrelevant, for it was God alone who wrought these miracles, and Abraham had no part in their performance.   Rabbi Sacks is implicitly here contrasting Abraham with Moses who was given signs by God to perform before Pharaoh, and who later played a major role in bringing down the plagues on Egypt and in the splitting of the Sea.  Rabbi Sacks may also have had in mind the contrast drawn by Nahmanides in his Commentary on Exodus 6:3 between the hidden miracles that God performed on behalf of the Patriarchs and the revealed miracles that began with God’s revelation to Moses.

“Proclaimed no prophecies.” Rabbi Bloch points out that in Genesis 20:7 Abraham is referred to as a prophet. Again, this is true but irrelevant, since Rabbi Sacks never denied that Abraham was a prophet. He states that Abraham “proclaimed no prophecies,” that is, he never brought any prophetic messages to others, something very different, and amply borne out by the biblical text. Rabbi Sacks is clearly basing himself on the discussion of Maimonides in the “Guide of the Perplexed” where in Guide 1:63  Maimonides states “That an individual should make a claim to prophecy on the ground that God has spoken to him and sent him on a mission was a thing never heard of prior to Moses.” And, then, as if directly addressing Rabbi Bloch’s misconception, Maimonides continues, “You should not be led into error …  by what is said in Scripture that God spoke to the Patriarchs.  For you do not find in their cases the kind of prophecy that would have made them call upon people and say ‘God has sent me to you.’” Rabbi Bloch refers to the numerous times that Scripture states that Abraham “called in the name of the Lord” (Gen. 12:8, 13:4, 21:33). But, as Maimonides explains in Guide 2:39, what is referred to in these verses is that Abraham “assembled the people and called them by way of teaching and instruction to adhere to the truth,” not by way of prophecy. Even had he sent out his message by e-mail—to pick up on Rabbi Bloch’s cheap jibe—it would still have not been a prophetic message, but more akin to rabbis nowadays sending out their sermons by email to their congregants.

Vice-President Pence, then, was on solid ground in relying on Rabbi Sacks’ eloquent description of Abraham (despite Pence’s unfortunate blooper caused by the deletion of the word “great”), since that description, as I have shown, has a firm basis both in the biblical text and in the views of its leading rabbinic interpreters. But should this be surprising? Does Rabbi Bloch really believe that Rabbi Sacks, who for many years, week in and week out, has written and published learned and insightful essays on the portion of the week, is unfamiliar with Genesis and the life of Abraham described therein???   Some humility on Rabbi Bloch’s part might have been in place and more caution before an unseemly rush to judgment.

About the Author
Lawrence Jay Kaplan is Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University.