Were the Avot Perfect? -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 28, 2011

Last week I wrote a blog post on another blog in which I suggested Abraham had on some level  failed the test of bringing his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.  That instead of bringing him perhaps the more ethical response would have been to protect the innocent child even in the face of the Divine command to sacrifice him.   It seemed more in keeping with the teachings of the the God of the Bible who abhors injustice and loves mercy.   Here is the post: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/civil-religion/hyim-shafner/

I received several responses from individuals of various religions who found my suggestion that Abraham failed, to say the least, highly objectionable.   Many asked how I could suggest that a better decision would have been for Abraham to refuse to kill his son when the bible and so many religious traditions clearly see this as Abraham’s greatest moment of faith and religious success.

To these concerns I would answer that Judaism, my tradition, has a particularly unique view of the Bible, that multiple interpretations, even when in contradiction with each other can be simultaneously true.   There are several levels on which the bible is understood in Jewish tradition, from that of the plain meaning of the text to more mystical levels, and several in between.  On the level of the text’s plain meaning perhaps there are fewer legitimate interpretations but when it comes to deeper levels, especially those of the Midrash, the narrative and homiletically level, we have many examples from Jewish tradition in which we are presented with ancient interpretations which are contradictory, yet simultaneously seen as valid.   Thus it can be true that while on one level Abraham indeed performed an act of great faith, on another level he failed to care for his weak child and caused his wife’s death of shock.

Another criticism some had of the suggestion that Abraham failed his final test was the supposition that the righteous individuals in the Bible are perfectly righteous.   How could I have the audacity to suggest that the people upon whom many religions are founded, were flawed?

There is a very long Jewish tradition of not seeing our ancestors as perfect.   For instance the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that Jacob was fooled by his wife Leah as punishment for fooling his brother Esau when he surreptitiously took the first born blessing from him, or ancient Rabbis who suggest that the Jewish people were punished much latter in the time of Queen Esther for what Jacob did to his brother, showing in effect, that what he did was wrong.  Some ancient Jewish commentaries even understand that the Jewish people had to go down to Egypt into slavery as a punishment for Abraham putting his wife in danger in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, when he told Pharaoh, in an attempt to save himself from harm, that Sara was not his wife but his sister.  And on and on.

I would suggest that, seeing the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs as righteous, but none the less flawed, -rather than threaten theological soundness of religious life, actually strengthens and deepens it.  If our founders and mentors are perfect, and thus like Gods, then who are we to learn from them? To model our lives after them?   But if they are human, and flawed, like us but none the less paradigms of constant religious striving, self reflection, and spiritual work.  Men such as King David, about whom the prophet Natan in the Biblical book of Samuel says “You are the (sinful) man,” who sinned and yet repented and rose above his sin to a better and more holy place, only then can they truly be our spiritual mentors.

Were our Avot and Imahot (ancestors) perfect? Did they keep the whole Torah? –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 15, 2010

Often we limit the Torah. We project our own ideas onto it –what we already identify with, ideas we think the Torah should be teaching us. Sometimes we feel the Torah cannot defend itself or be of value as it is, thus we fashion seatbelts for it that, I think, ultimately detract from it.


One example is how we see our Avot and Imahot.  (I won’t even go into the Artscroll illustrations of the Avot wearing schtriemlach.)  Instead of taking the Torah at its word, we remake the p’shat (textual meaning) of the Torah into descriptions of the Avot as perfect tzadikim (righteous people).  In fact, it often seems that a majority of the stories the Torah chooses to tell us of the Avot in Breishit are just the opposite- stories which depict midot that we would not consider refined.


I am not saying the Avot did not make the right decisions in the situations they were presented with; in some instances they perhaps had little choice but to choose the lesser of two evils.   I am saying that we should take care in claiming they were perfect, indeed the Torah, for its own reasons, which no doubt are right, did not choose to paint pictures of our Avot as perfect, but rather as sometimes lacking in midot.


A second important point- I am not denying that if read on a halachic/lomdishe level or on a kabalistic level, the actions of our ancestors cannot be justified- they can.   I am asking the question of whether the Avot as presented to us in the p’shat (and the Torah must be readable on its p’shat  level) are perfect.   Some obvious examples: Sarah throws her son out of the house for playing/laughing, Yosef’s brothers plot to kill him because they are jealous of him, as the Torah clearly states.  Yaakov and Rivka lie to Yitzchak, their blind father/husband.   Noach, the only person called a tzadik in Breishit, turns to drunkenness immediately after being saved from the flood,  etc.   (There is one interesting exception to this trend which is Yosef.  After he grows up, he attributes everything to God, puts God at the center always, and humbly puts himself in check in order to give to others.)


The notion that our ancestors were righteous and kept the whole Torah is taken as p’shat by our day school-educated children.  After all, if they are our examples, how could they be anything but superhuman tzadikim?  The idea that they may not be seems, instead of rendering our Avot more accessible as role models for us,  to deeply threaten people’s faith.


The Torah has many faces and many understandings and to see the Torah as black and white, to say it has one explanation, is to remake it in our image instead of letting it teach us.  Torah is holy and Divine and can protect itself.   It does not have to fit neatly into the theological molds we make for it within our religious comfort zones.  Instead , we must let the Torah challenge us to think outside the box.  Perhaps our Avot were not perfect and there is much to learn from this.


There are actually conflicting notions in Chazal (our rabbis, may their memory be for a blessing) in regard to the question of whether our ancestors kept the Torah.


שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה ל

מגיד דבריו ליעקב חקיו ומשפטיו לישראל לא עשה כן לכל גוי אלא למי ליעקב שבחרו מכל העובדי כוכבים ולא נתן להם אלא מקצת נתן לאדם ו’ מצות, הוסיף לנח אחת, לאברהם ח’, ליעקב ט’, אבל לישראל נתן להם הכל


According to this opinion in the above Midrash, Noah kept seven mitzvot, Avraham eight, and Yaakov nine.  That’s it.


Here we see the radical opposite Midrash brought in the Talmud.


תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כח עמוד ב

אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר +בראשית כו+ עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו’. אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב: ואימא שבע מצות! – הא איכא נמי מילה. – ואימא שבע מצות ומילה! – אמר ליה: אם כן מצותי ותורתי למה לי? אמר (רב) +מסורת הש”ס: [רבא]+ ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי – אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.


According this piece of Talmud, Avraham kept not only the written Torah but the oral tradition and even rabbinic fences such as Eruv Tavshilin, a rabbinic commandment that was put in place to allow cooking on Yom Tov for Shabbat, which according to most, is probably only a rabbinic limitation itself.


But how are we to understand this opinion that our Avot kept the Torah, when indeed it was not yet given?


The Nitivot Shalom explains how we can understand the Midrashic idea that our ancestors kept Torah, even if it was not commanded to them, as follows (Hakdamah 3):

“With regard to all things we must ask not only is this permitted or forbidden by law but is it “Good in God’s eyes.”  Even if there is no clear source in the Torah from which to infer what is good or bad in the eyes of God, the human soul can teach us the truth of it.

It is in this way that we can understand that which the Midrash says, that Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.  For if it was not yet given, how did Avraham know it?  One could say he knew it through Ruach haKodesh, the Holy Spirit, but in truth he knew it through the meaning of, “You shall do what is good and right in the eyes of God.”

This means we must do what brings us close to God.   How do we know what that is (if one does not have the Torah as Abraham did not, or if it is not all written in the Torah)?  The human soul can teach us how.  The soul within us that is a true part of God above can sense what is good and right in God’s eyes, and, conversely, what will make us distant from God.  This is how Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.”


The Nitivot Shalom here is saying that through the human soul and conscience, we can intuit what is good and right in the eyes of God.   This is how Avraham understood the Torah and by extension, since we all have a Divine soul, so can we.   We must not only keep the laws but go beyond the letter of the law to do what is good and right, with the holy, though perhaps less than perfect Avot as our guides.

Did Abraham Fail his Final Test? By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 12, 2010

Over Rosh Hashanah I thought a lot about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, since the story is so central to Rosh Hashanah. The most important questions that are asked about  the Akedah are what gave Abraham the right to offer his child without asking Sara,  since Isaac is her child also? As the Talmud tells us there are 3 partners in everyone’s creation –  a father, a mother and God.

Second,  why did Abraham not speak up to protect the innocent as he did in the case of Sodom, where God made clear that he expects it of Avrohom as He says, “Avrohom is the one who will teach justice and mercy to his children”.

And third,  what are we to do with the depiction of God at the Akedah that so contrasts with the God of the Torah who does not want us to hurt the innocent but protect them?  Why is Abraham praised for his willingness to obey God instead of protecting the innocent and weak?   Wouldn’t that be a better way of showing one’s love and fear of God?

Many classic answers are given but none that do not generate many more questions.   For instance, some sages claim Abraham somehow knew both promises would come to be, that Isaac would be his seed and that he would also have to offer him up.  Or in another version,  that God did not tell Abraham to kill his child,  only to bring him up as an offering, but of course in either case, it is no test.  Or,  that God’s word trumps all, but then we are left with the questions we asked above and indeed we know (from the story of  Sodom earlier in the parsha) that Abraham is not someone who believes that God can
not be questioned.

Every 5 or 10 years it is reported in the news papers that someone sacrifices their child because of a command from God.  Usually we chalk these up to insanity, but every few years one runs across such a story in which the father indeed is not crazy and never was, yet kills the child at  what he believes is God’s command.   For Jews, after the giving of the torah, halacha trumps God’s command, so an observant Jew would not be permitted to sacrifice their child or commit any other sin even if they were sure it was the command of God. However, it does beg the question of Abraham who knew from the story of Cain and Abel that killing was forbidden.

In addition as some of the anthropological writers ask, what does it mean to live in a world in which a large portion of the world’s inhabitants, Christians and Muslims, both see a story of sacrificing one’s child for God as foundational?

I concluded that none of the apologetic paths were satisfactory and that the real test was for Abraham to confront God as he did at  Sodom, thus teaching his children “righteousness and justice”  and ultimately to say “no” to God.  Perhaps, on some level in the narrative of the Akedah,  Abraham failed the test.   I would suggest this is why God never speaks to Abraham after commanding him to take Isaac as a burnt offering.  In the end of the story an emissary angel speaks to Abraham  – but where is God?  Why  doesn’t God  just speak directly to Abraham?

Indeed midrash after midrash depicts just such a counter narrative, Abraham crying, the angles crying and arguing with God and ultimately,  Sara’s cries when she hears of the Akedah that according to the midrash are the source of the shofar’s sound.

Perhaps if we begin to see the Akedah as a test in which the right answer is to protect an innocent child rather than sacrifice him in obedience to God, our world might be a bit different, perhaps for the better.