Abraham the Doubter

In this week’s reading from the Torah, we read of the end of Abraham’s life. What do we know about him? The Torah describes him as a pioneer, an adventurer who took a fantastic journey of discovery. Our tradition exalts and reveres Abraham as the spiritual father of the Jewish people. The Talmudic sages attribute to him a great depth of character and an inner strength that enabled him to withstand the pressure to conform. He is depicted as standing alone with great determination, upholding confidently his beliefs even if they were not popular or widely accepted.     He is called “Abraham the Hebrew” because the root of the word “Hebrew” means to stand apart from others, to be on the other side of where the crowd is headed. Abraham is deemed worthy of being God’s messenger in the world because he has an unquenchable faith.

And yet, there is plenty of evidence in the Torah that Abraham’s faith is not so solid. Soon after God appears to him and promises that he will be the father of a great and numerous nation, Abraham responds to God by saying, in essence, “What will you give me to prove that what you promise will happen?” What he wants is a child who will grow up to continue his story and champion his legacy. His need to have a child is understandable, but his request of God that he be given proof that the Divine promise will materialize is certainly evidence that Abraham’s faith needs to be reinforced in a tangible way.

In two instances, Abraham demonstrates that he ought to rely on himself rather than put his trust in God. He and Sarah travel to Egypt in search of food. Anticipating a meeting with the Pharaoh, Abraham tells Sarah that he is concerned that the Pharaoh will find his wife attractive and kill him in order to have her for himself (the same thing happens a while later with a King name Avimelech). One wonders why, if Abraham is so convinced that God will protect him, he must concoct a strategy based on a lie in order to save his life. True, Judaism encourages people to be self-sufficient and not rely on miracles. But Abraham doesn’t even seem to consider the idea that God will protect him from the Pharaoh or from Avimelech. What kind of faith is that?

Abraham seems to demonstrate faith in God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar on Mt. Moriyah. But a careful reading of the text convinces us that the whole episode distances Abraham from God. In Genesis 22:4, in the midst of the narrative known as the “Akeyda,” the “Binding of Isaac,” we read that after a journey of three days Abraham saw the place- the mountain where he would be asked to build an altar and sacrifice his son- “from afar.” The verse in Hebrew- Va-yar et ha-Makom mei-rachok– can be understood to mean that Abraham was distant from God (the word “ha-Makom” is often used to describe God, thus the verse could be translated as “he encountered God from a distance”). Rather than be seen as a story about testing or about protest, the Akeydah can be seen as a story about how our faith is not always sure or certain and how we often feel distant from God.

So who is the real Abraham? Is he the believer, the one who is certain that there is a God who loves and cares for him and who is showing him the way to go in the world? Or is he the doubter, the one who has a hunch about God but can’t be sure, the one who periodically expresses doubt that God will live up to all that He promises? Let me suggest that Abraham embodies both of these traits- he is both a believer and a doubter. At certain moments in his life, he is convinced that there is a God who will strengthen him and give him a direction to follow. And at other moments, the circumstances of his life lead him to doubt what he thought was true.

Such a person deserves to be known as the spiritual father of our people, for the tension between believing and doubting is one that we likely experience in our own spiritual lives. Rather than be confused or frustrated by our doubts about God, we might embrace them, knowing full well that we wouldn’t be the first to do so.

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The Meaning of Faith

At nearly every funeral at which I officiate, I recite these words, composed by Rabbi Alvin Fine, a rabbi in San Francisco who died in 1999:

“Birth is a beginning and death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity and youth to age;
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and, often, back again;
From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion and grief to understanding,
From fear to faith. From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead: We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage, made stage by stage…
To life everlasting.”

The poem captures for me the idea that life is a journey and that the obstacles we face can be overcome. Each pairing seems to resonate, but I’ve always been puzzled by the line that says that life is a journey “from fear to faith.” How does one journey from fear to a place of confidence, toward faith?

Faith is often elusive and hard to come by. When asked if we believe in God, we may have a ready answer but may find it hard to articulate what those beliefs are. And our faith is often challenged by events in the world that leave us bewildered and confused. We want to believe that the world is a good and decent place, that good people are rewarded with a good and honored life and that evil is either thwarted or punished. But what we see happening around us does not support that conclusion. We Jews may especially find it hard to believe in a world in which goodness triumphs, given what we’ve experienced in our history, especially in the middle of the 20th century.

The answer that Judaism offers us, I believe, is that our faith need be neither perfect nor complete. The door is open to us to question, to have doubts, to wonder, openly or privately, about how the world works and even whether or not God is watching over us and protecting us. We are encouraged to journey from fear of chaos, of the unknown, of terror and evil, toward an inclination to believe in the potential goodness of the world. Some have called such faith “mature,” a faith based not on fairy tale images of a God who rescues us whenever we are in trouble, but a faith based on a realistic view of the world and secured by an unshakable hope that it can be better.

We just marked the 13th anniversary of 9/11, a day of painful memory and solemn reflection for those who lost loved ones on that tragic day, and for our nation as well. Many are left wondering whether we have made progress since the day that terrorists expressed their hatred for America and western values by killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. Is faith in a world of goodness justified?

A well-known expression of faith is captured by the words of Ani Ma’amin, which we often sing when we commemorate Yom HaShoah: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if he should tarry, I will still believe.” Perfect faith? Is there such a thing? Can any of us justify having perfect faith that all will be well, that our good intentions and actions will be worthwhile and honored? Instead, I prefer to understand the phrase “perfect faith”—emunah sheleyma—as “wholehearted faith” (the word “sheleyma” is related to shalom, meaning whole). I believe with wholehearted faith in the goodness of the world. I hold this belief not because I have solid evidence that all evil acts will be punished, but because faith that the world can be a place of goodness keeps me focused on helping to build such a world. I believe, with wholehearted faith, that good people can triumph and create a world that pleases God.

May the victims of 9/11 rest in peace, and may we all have faith in the potential goodness of the world.

Planting the Seeds of Jewish Identity

Shortly into the story of Abraham, we encounter Judaism’s great patriarch as a military hero.  A war broke out when an alliance of four kings invaded the lands of five kings, and in the skirmish took as prisoner Lot, the nephew of Abraham.  When Abraham hears that his nephew has been taken prisoner, he marshals his troops and attacks at night, defeating the four kings, winning Lot’s release and, in the process, seizing the invaders’ possessions and taking additional prisoners.  Abraham returns home and delivers all that he had taken to the five kings.  The king of Sodom says to him, “Give me the prisoners and take the possessions for yourself.”  But Abraham refuses, saying that he doesn’t want to give the wrong impression that he grew wealthy because of the generosity of Sodom’s king rather than the beneficence of God.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, my mentor and teacher, understood the King of Sodom’s offer to Abraham as being similar to the unspoken offer made to America’s Jews: “Ten li ha-nefesh, v’har’chush kach lach…give me the souls and take the material goods for yourself.”  Jews came to this country accompanied not only by Jewish tradition and strong memories, but also with ambition, with the yearning to fit in, and with the desire for success measured not only in contentment but also in material wealth.  America offered Jews a bargain- give up your soul, your identity, your passionate commitment to a particular way of life, in exchange for acceptance and for the opportunity to live the American way of life.  To a great degree, we accepted the bargain.  We changed our names, and sometimes our appearances, gave up the ways of life that made us distinct and sometimes required us to be different from everyone else.

The Pew Research Center’s recently published survey of the state of American Jews is quite disturbing, revealing a population that is shrinking and less connected to organized religion.  One in five Jews considers themselves to have no religion at all.  Perhaps the most alarming results for our own movement are the statistics that show a continued decline in affiliation and identification with Conservative Judaism.  The study gives us much to ponder and analyze, and leaves questions for us to answer.  What might explain the drop in engagement with Judaism?  What are the factors that have led to disaffiliation from organized religion?  Could it be that we have accepted America’s bargain?  Perhaps the most important question is, what exactly is it that inspires and sustains engagement with Judaism and nurtures a strong Jewish identity?

A few chapters after the story about Abraham’s rescue of Lot, we read about the Covenant of Circumcision.  God requires Abraham, and all his male descendants, to bear a permanent, physical symbol of belonging to the covenant.  Abraham was circumcised at the age of 99, but future males who enter the covenant with God were to be circumcised at the age of eight days.  Clearly, the Torah promotes the idea that Jewish identity must be ingrained into a child beginning in infancy.  Conversion to Judaism has always been possible, but children are not supposed to have a choice in identity development.  An argument can be made that the best way to nurture any values system is to teach and model values starting at the beginning of life.  That does not mean that a person cannot begin to embrace a Jewish way of life past childhood.  But there is at least some wisdom in the Proverbs, where we read: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he gets older he will not depart from it.”

Yet beginning to develop identity and commitment to particular values even in childhood does not guarantee a lifetime of engagement with Judaism.  The seeds of Jewish identity may be planted in childhood but don’t always germinate or take root.  So the question of what promotes ongoing engagement with Judaism, and what factors encourage and sustain a strong Jewish identity, and a lifestyle that reflects an embrace of that identity, remains front and center.  Certainly, education and Jewish experiences in childhood, including experiences in the Land of Israel, must be considered as crucial to identity development.

The American Jewish community is facing a strong challenge.  Our response to that challenge must begin with dialogue and the exchange of ideas, and I invite your comments.