Joel Cohen

Well, Abraham was the first ba’al teshuvah – wasn’t he?

The Patriarch Abraham is the first monotheist, recognized as such by the three great religions of the world. Still, many today – even staunch believers in his iconic status – continue to wonder about him. How, after all, would a true believer in God be willing, almost reflexively, to primitively sacrifice the son he loved simply because God told him to do so?

Even if Abraham didn’t immediately challenge God, if only inwardly, for demanding such a bizarre affirmation of fealty, why, one might ask, didn’t Abraham propose that God let him substitute himself on that altar (“Don’t you want me, not my son, to prove (is it?) allegiance to you”). Abraham, then, is the paradigm of “submission” (parenthetically, the actual meaning of Islam). Curiously, in Kierkegaard’s midrashic-like telling, Abraham, clearly recognizing the oddity of God’s demand, actually went so far as to falsely tell Isaac that sacrificing him was Abraham’s own idea – not God’s – lest the youthful Isaac lose faith in God. Abraham’s unquestioning conduct upon hearing God’s direction is all the more surprising given Abraham’s previously demonstrated willingness to challenge God when He had wanted to destroy all the people of Sodom.

“Tested” by God as he was, then, did Abraham pass this test? Or did he miserably fail? And, if he passed, as unanimously argued by such diverse sources as the rabbis interpreting the Bible, the Koran and the Danish existential philosopher Kierkegaard, what does it say that today’s most redoubtable believers surely, and gladly, would not “pass” the test as did Abraham. Indeed, they would likely argue that they wouldn’t even think one should want to pass it. What does this say about Abraham and who/what he was?

Some seek to “defend” Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son by saying that Abraham simply lived in a different time. Human sacrifice was de rigueur, totally acceptable – indeed virtually required of those who prayed to the idols. Human sacrifice was part of the regime and apparatus of idol worship. Indeed, to establish that he existed in a pagan culture, the rabbis employ the tradition-based midrash that Abraham destroyed his father’s idols along the path of his personal “conversion” to a belief in God. So, if Abraham personally rejected idolatry by destroying those gods, why would he accept the primordial convention of human sacrifice – this time to God?

To try to explain Abraham’s curious (read, questionable) willingness (“I am here, ready” – “hinani”) to yield to the most onerous act that could be demanded of him, one might best see him through the prism of the first b’al tshuvah in Judaism.

Neither Moses nor Jonah, for example, who came much later, accepted God’s demands so readily – they boldly resisted. But, they were from Hebrew families. They had forbearers. They and their parents had experienced God long before God demanded their obeisance. They presumably understood the sophisticated nuance of belief and ritual observance. They understood that some commands simply shouldn’t be taken literally.

Abraham was different. His father, an idol worshipper, hadn’t explained God’s ways to him, and what God might actually demand of him. Put simply, Terhah didn’t know God. Abraham, thus, wasn’t able to separate the wheat from the chaff. He couldn’t “divine” the difference between the civilized and the uncivilized. He lacked the capacity, the teachings or human experience to know when God might be asking too much – when it was time to tell God “no”.

Perhaps, God Himself fully expected that Abraham’s “better angels” would intercede at just the right moment, so that Abraham could resist blind fealty. I myself like to believe that the angel that cried out to stop Abraham from slaughtering Isaac, was one of those angels, internalized within Abraham.

So, was Abraham a fanatic? A zealot? Or was something else at stake? Some might argue that today’s b’al tshuvah, too, is sometimes too willing to do God’s (supposed) bidding. Or, more aptly, he is too willing to accept the bidding of those who sometimes purport to speak for God.

Indeed, some b’alai tshuvah conduct themselves as if challenging, or even momentarily questioning a particular observance regimen might show insubordination that God or his (self-appointed) spokesmen, might find irreverent. With no disrespect intended to either of them, was Abraham (and are some b’aali tshuvah today) handicapped by a reflexive naiveté over the sometimes-rigorous demands of observance?

The b’al tshuvah today is set out on a glorious path. While he or she may sometimes be overwhelmed by peer pressure, they do have the critical availability of “someone else to talk to”. Abraham didn’t. There was literally no one else in the world to interact with. Not even his wife Sarah – who, we’re told, died of a broken heart when she heard what he had been willing to do their son. Nor did he have his loyal servant Eliezer whom he left at the foot of Mount Moriah when he and Isaac ascended toward the altar. No one to talk him out of his single-minded zealotry. Abraham, perhaps, was simply a b’al tshuvah who lacked a sounding board.

We will never know if God was disappointed in Abraham’s kneejerk acquiescence and willingness to sacrifice his son. Still, God did ultimately release Abraham from the calling – giving him so many offspring including the b’al tshuvah of today who knows that God simply wouldn’t require him do the unthinkable. God taught all of us, through the medium of “the first b’al tshuvah”, the duty of exercising “reason” when a religious quandary is presented.

Never before have I seen Abraham as a b’al tshuvah – but it explains for me why he acted as he did. Was God pleased with Abraham? Would He have been pleased if Abraham carried out his plan to sacrifice Isaac? Maybe the answers to these questions present a test of one’s faith – irrespective of whether the answerer is a b’al tshuvah, or a believer who has travelled the “path” since birth.

At this special time of year when we celebrate the greatness of Abraham and how he did indeed pass God’s tests, we must always listen carefully to the better angels of our own nature. For they, more than anything else that God gave the world during the Week of Creation, are there to help steer us on the right course – whether those angels are to be found in a supernal choir in heaven, or rather deeply within ourselves.

Shana Tovah!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.