Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi, legal mediator, advocate

Avraham and Us

Abraham Welcomes Guests (Rembrandt van Rijn)
Abraham Welcomes Guests (Rembrandt van Rijn)

Many years ago, Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver wrote Images of Moses, an  exploration of how Moshe was described by different generations of Jews. The Alexandrian thinker, Philo, imagined him as a Hellenic sage. The teachers of the Talmud saw Moshe as a scholar and rabbi in the yeshivah. Christians criticised him for emphasising law rather than love. Maimonides portrayed Moshe as a philosopher-lawgiver. Kabbalists considered him to be a highly evolved mystic. Early modern Jews conceived of Moses as being steeped in two cultures. Zionists regarded Moshe as a nation-builder.

The same variety can be seen in how Avraham was understood by different religious traditions and political perspectives. We find multiple images of Avraham in Genesis.

  • The family man who leaves his family of origin to follow a call-summons from the One God.
  • The husband who endangers his beloved Sarah in a deceptive scheme, creating a family pattern that continues for generations.
  • The conciliator who offers his nephew Lot the choice of land to settle.
  • The warrior who goes to battle to rescue Lot and refuses to accept any of the spoils of victory.
  • The partner in Covenant with God who hopes for a child to continue his legacy.
  • The gracious host who exemplifies hesed by asking God to wait while he attends to three unknown guests.
  • The advocate of justice who bargains with God to save the innocent residents of Sodom, a city lacking hesed.
  • The father of Yishma’el who must listen to Sarah and banish Hagar and her son.
  • The leader who establishes peace with Avimelekh of Gerar-Gaza.
  • The devoted father who loves Yitzhak, the son born to Sarah.
  • The father who accepts – without argument – God’s command to bring that beloved son as an offering-up.   

Let me pose two questions:

  • which image of Avraham would we want for a contemporary leader?
  • which image guides our personal Jewish quest?

What Avraham qualities would you want carried on by the current leader of Israel?  Should he negotiate to build a future peace with “the cousins” or be a pragmatic dealmaker with the rulers of the Emirates and Bahrain? Should he welcome Arab citizens who live within the tent of the State of Israel, or push away the Arab child to protect the interests of the child who carries the covenant of the Jews?

These questions in relation to Israel apply in different ways to all national leaders who have difficult decisions as a result of the Coronavirus. Would your Avraham sacrifice economic growth to protect the health of the country? What about Americans? What should they seek for presidential leadership: a disrupter or a comforter?

On a more personal level, which Avraham should guide your religious quest? Although Avraham was pre-Sinai, two 20th century Jewish theologians looked to him as a model for Jewish spirituality.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the great Orthodox teacher, saw the Akeidah as the paradigm for Jewish life. We should accept halakhah, even when we struggle against some of its strictures. Devotion to God entails submission to Divine demands — even when you don’t feel like it. Observe Shabbat although it may create work or family challenges. Daven daily; make yourself a vessel to follow Jewish law, not seek to control or change it.

In contrast, Rabbi David Hartman saw the model for Jewish religious life in the discussion of Avraham with God over the fate of S’dom. Wrestle with God. There are ethical ideals that antedate Sinai. Struggle with Jewish practices that may not reflect ethical ideals. Don’t simply walk away and don’t simply go along. Take on Jewish responsibility to teach our children and household the way of the Eternal, to preserve justice and righteousness.

Classical Judaism was more attracted to the Avraham who sacrificed for God. That more clearly reflected their world of suffering and struggle. “Remember on our behalf, Eternal our God the covenant and the love and the oath that you swore to Abraham our father on Mt. Moriah. Let it appear before you, this Akedah, that Abraham bound Isaac his son on the altar, suppressing personal compassion to do your will. So too, let your compassion suppress your displeasure with us.”

In contrast, modern Jews gravitate to the Avraham who challenged the Divine, an image that aligns more with our own  self-portrait. This poem by Raya Harnik offers the voice of a woman whose son was killed in Lebanon.

I will not sacrifice

My first born

Not I

At night, God and I

Are calculating who gets what

I know

I am grateful

But not my son

And not

As a sacrifice

How open is your thinking? How capacious is your heart? Is it possible to hold more  than two conceptions of Avraham? Can leaders can be more than a one dimensional sound-bite? Can you live with your own inner contradictions?

We live in a time of challenging Jewish paths. They can be illumined by the personal example of Avraham. Which path is yours?

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, after having served for 26 years as the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch previously served Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University, and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.
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