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.