by Joseph B. Soloveitchik
KTAV, 252 pages, $25
Readers of Western philosophy know Abraham mostly from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, a work that depicts the patriarch as the knight of faith willing to sacrifice his beloved Isaac while still believing in a divine promise of descendants. But the power of Kierkegaard’s portrayal can obscure not only other aspects of Abraham in the biblical narrative, but also alternative approaches to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch—a collection culled from transcripts and oral presentations of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century—highlights a new and different Abraham. Rabbi Soloveitchik certainly emphasizes Abraham’s belief in one God in a world dominated by polytheistic paganism and false belief. But the dominant theme in the book is Abraham’s ethical excellence.
Having a posthumous collection of lectures given for different audiences and occasions and not built around the lecturer’s own editorial decisions does not allow us to say that we now possess Rabbi Soloveitchik’s definitive portrait of Abraham. It is still clear, however, that the theme of ethical excellence is a significant element of his conception, and this material inspires important new ways of thinking about the first patriarch and his ethical message.
Yes, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s presentation contrasts with Kierkegaard’s in emphasizing ethics more than faith. But it also contrasts with a rabbinic view that Abraham fully observed Jewish law as developed in later Jewish history. According to one midrash, Abraham adhered to all the rabbinic details of Sabbath observance. Soloveitchik, by contrast, for the most part limits his reading to what is implied by the biblical text. “Abraham did not have the system of mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, commandments regulating relations between man and God,” he writes, “but he had an ethical system that had to be carried out and implemented.”
This perspective doesn’t stem from a liberal attempt to reduce all of religious life to ethics. Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik was the twentieth century’s most eloquent defender of the autonomy of the Halakaha, the comprehensive legal code that guides the practice of the Orthodox community that he led. His Halakhic Man remains the classic modern statement of that worldview.
Rather, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s stress on ethics emerges from a close reading of the biblical text and from sensitivity to the different frameworks that distinguish the period before Sinai from that after the law is given. The biblical Abraham provides hospitality to three travelers, prays on behalf of Sodom, and risks his life in battle to rescue his nephew from the four kings. His life embodies compassion and kindness.
The clash with paganism occurs on both theological and ethical levels. Abraham, Rabbi Soloveitchik says, “rebelled against paganism not only because he resented untruth and erroneous thinking but also for the sake of substituting an ethical life for an immoral one.” Ancient paganism includes the horrors of human sacrifice as well as a conception of the gods that fails to identify divinity with moral grandeur. Abraham initiated a moral outlook of world-changing proportions.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s perceptive readings of verses bolster his depiction of a moral revolution accompanying a theological one. Abraham plants a tree in Beersheba and “calls there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world.” This is where Rabbi Soloveitchik sees Abraham’s dual message. The patriarch calls “in the name of the Lord,” teaching the people of Mesopotamia about the one God who created and sustains the world. The phrase “God of the world” adds an ethical thrust, conveying that God cares about the world and expresses ongoing concern.
In the same vein, God declares that he chose Abraham because he knew that Abraham would “keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.” “Righteousness and justice,” Soloveitchik says, clearly relate to the interpersonal sphere. He suggests that “the way of the Lord” refers to the search for sanctity, which encompasses commandments between man and God. Thus Rabbi Soloveitchik establishes the centrality of ethics to the Abrahamic covenant even as he affirms that the covenant includes more than ethics.
Among the many facets of Abraham’s ethical behavior, hospitality stands out. Abraham practices hospitality toward a few wandering men. Abraham’s servant tests the hospitality of a young woman as a barometer of her suitability for Abraham’s son. Even Lot, Abraham’s nephew, learns something about taking in guests from his famous uncle.
Some philosophers downplay the worth of hospitality. Kant lists hospitality among other social graces such as affability, courtesy, and gentleness—traits that promote virtue but are not themselves virtues. For Kant, benevolence and gratitude represent far more important ethical expressions. Abraham’s Journey provides a fresh, contrasting perspective in which Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the unique significance of hospitality. In a striking argument, he asserts that charity reflects sympathy, not equality. Giving a handout to someone at the door does nothing to erase the social gap between the giver and the one to whom the handout is given; inviting that person in for a meal does.
“It is much easier to give someone money than to invite him under your own roof,” he writes. “If I invite him in, that means that no matter what his station in life, I am treating him with respect, as an equal.” In Soloveitchik’s view, hospitality evinces a higher ethical excellence than charity for yet another reason: “Other acts of charity are indicative of a good, sympathetic soul who shares in the suffering and pain of a fellow human being. Hospitality, however, requires patience and perseverance.
Acts of charity take a few seconds. Once they have donated, people with wealth can return to their own cares. Hospitality, on the other hand, means caring for another person for an extended period, a lengthy visit. Writing a check represents a much less demanding act of kindness than feeding another person dinner and letting him sleep in one’s house.
Another trait of Abraham emerges from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s insight into a Talmudic passage. The rabbis derive from Genesis 13:3 that Abraham stayed at the same inns on his return journey from Egypt as he did on the way down to Egypt. Apparently, they mean to express an ethical value. But which one?
I had always thought that the value had to do with maintaining relationships, but Soloveitchik adds a powerful new element. Pharaoh presents Abraham with lavish gifts before the patriarch leaves Egypt. Abraham descends to Egypt as a member of one socioeconomic class; he departs having joined another. Presented with newfound wealth, many choose to alter their lifestyle, eating at fancier restaurants and staying at more expensive hotels: Econo Lodge on the way down to Egypt, but the Hilton on the return journey. Abraham remained unchanged by Pharaoh’s riches; the same inns served him in both directions.
Treatment of women is another relevant ethical issue for Rabbi Soloveitchik, who emphasizes the role of women in the patriarchal narrative. “Sarah in her own right was a major figure, as important as Abraham.” God changes the names of both Abraham and Sarah when he forms a new covenant in Genesis 17. Because the new covenantal role undertaken by Abraham depends on the joint efforts of a husband and wife, both Abraham and Sarah receive new names.
Soloveitchik also notes how Genesis 12 uses different terms to refer to our first matriarch. The earlier part of the story mentions Sarah by name. But once Abraham and Sarah enter Egypt, the Bible consistently describes her as “the woman.” Only when God steps in and brings plagues on Pharaoh’s house does her name reappear. Soloveitchik explains that the Egyptians saw Sarah as a pretty object of lust; for them, she was simply “the woman.” Abraham and God, by contrast, saw her for the outstanding human being she was. They interacted with a spiritual personality named Sarah.
A less famous female also makes an important contribution to the biblical narrative. The Bible reports the death of Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse. Because we know nothing about this Deborah, we wonder why the biblical account needs to take note of her passing. Soloveitchik reminds us that someone must have educated Rebecca in the ways of kindness and hospitality. Her brother, Laban, seems an unlikely source of ethical instruction, and it may very well have been her nurse who taught her about morality. If so, Deborah deserves recognition. As Soloveitchik writes, “Her death was a blow to Jacob and his family.”
The work’s insights into the nature of covenant once again relate to moral character. Soloveitchik notes development in the relationship between God and Abraham. In the earlier chapters of Genesis, God commands Abraham and promises him the land, but the word berit—covenant—does not appear. Only in later chapters does it make its appearance. A covenant involves mutuality, reciprocal obligations, and even friendship. At first, God merely commands Abraham; at a later date, he enters into a more mutual relationship with him.
God at first commands Abraham without introducing himself; eventually, however, he does introduce himself to Abraham. Commands do not depend on introductions; friendship does. A friend’s visit brings joy even when the friend remains silent. God, therefore, can visit Abraham without stating any explicit message. Early commentators offer numerous solutions to this textual conundrum, but Soloveitchik’s analysis provides a novel answer. Friendship may sometimes be more about presence than communication. Following his circumcision, Abraham was in pain, and the very presence of God comforted him.
Some religious thinkers might be wary of portraying the man–God relationship in terms of friendship. But Rabbi Soloveitchik is not deterred. He strives, of course, to maintain a balance between immanence and transcendence—between awe and fear on the one hand, and love on the other. At the same time, friendship is an important aspect of the relationship. The mutuality of a covenant points the way toward the component of friendship between humanity and God. Introducing elements of friendship and reciprocity means that a complete covenant with God depends somewhat on the same character traits that are crucial for interpersonal decency.
This volume also incorporates some of Soloveitchik’s favorite themes. Among them are the relationship between standing before God and joy, the significance of loneliness to religious experience, the balance between universalism and particularism, and the rejection of classical theodicy in favor of an active, aggressive response to evil. While these themes are important, the major contribution of this volume is its analysis of Abraham’s ethical orientation and the developing nature of his relationship with God. Thus Abraham does not suspend the ethical; he embodies it.
Yitzchak Blau is the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.