Hebraic civilization – Avraham

Abraham leaving home. Abraham arguably began human history. He certainly stood against the paganism of his time, and laid the foundation of Hebraic civilization.
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The key to understanding Hebraic civilization shows itself in parasha (weekly Torah portion) Lech-Lecha, which portrays the character of the first Jew.

Hebraic civilization: who is Avram/Avraham?

God says to Avram:

Go for yourself—away from your land, from your birthplace, and from the home of your father, to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).

Avram first presents as the archetype of selfhood, of individuality. But later his name changes: the letter Hei, representing God, adds to his name and Avram becomes Avraham. Whatever else his name means (of which, more later), Avraham becomes the personification of kindness—Hesed.

At first glance, there seems to be a tension between selfhood or self-concern and kindness, concern for others. But this is not so in Avraham, as Rabbi Matis Weinberg, who has plumbed many secular disciplines, will explain. Hesed-kindness

is a profound commitment to Life itself, a commitment that may lead to confrontation, conflict, and even war if such are required to assure Life’s definitive triumph. Hesed-Kindness: examine the word. Kind means “of one type”; the deepest kinship of all, a shared existence. [What makes Hesed-kindness possible, what makes mankind possible or gives all men a common source of existence is their creation in] the Image of God (Genesis1:27). What clearer statement of monotheism could be made in a word![1]

Now let us consider a unique soliloquy in which God explains why He feels so attached to Avraham:

I love him because he enjoins his children and household after him that they cherish the path of God; that they do charity and justice in order that God bring to Avraham what He promised (Genesis 18:17).

“Kindness” need not mean total self-denial

Rabbi Weinberg comments: “But surely ‘doing charity’ – the Hesed which became the hallmark of Avraham for all time – surely Hesed must by its very definition be driven by selflessness and altruism? Not at all.”

The man of Hesed cares for his own self … (Proverbs 11:17)

“Self-denial,” says Weinberg, “is not associated with Hesed. If anything, it is a hallmark of cruelty”:

The man of Hesed cares for his own self, and he who troubles his own flesh is cruel (Proverbs 11:17)

Rabbi Weinberg admits that what he has thus far said will appear “somewhat subversive” and “outrageous.”

Is the Torah seriously suggesting that Hesed is meant to be selfish? Is it possible that God would not have loved Avraham had he told his children to keep God’s ways “for the sake of Heaven” instead of “so that God can bring Avraham his blessings”? After all, the focus on acquiring “blessings” actually violates a primary element in service of God:

One should not say: I will perform the mitzvot of the Torah and study its wisdom so that I can obtain the blessings written therein …

Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva. 10:1

“Is it really possible,” asks Weinberg,

that Avraham would have failed his test had he insisted on meeting his challenges out of pure love instead of for himself”? If so there appears to be an awful contradiction here. For Avraham is held up as the model of service “for the sake of Heaven,” the paradigm of man motivated by pure love.

Love as the motive

As the Rambam says:

The one who serves out of love, will work at Torah and mitzvot and walk the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive whatever – neither from fear of harm nor to secure benefits; he simply does Truth because it is Truth. The benefits will follow in its wake – eventually…. This is the level of Avraham avinu [our father], to whom God referred as ‘My lover’ (Isaiah 41:8) because he did nothing unless out of love…. (ibid.)

Again Rabbi Weinberg:

I believe that we find all this confusing only because we make many culturally biased (and dangerous) assumptions regarding the nature of Hesed. The truth is that these two pictures of Avraham are not contradictory but fully complementary, and each is conceivable only and entirely in light of the other. This is the central teaching of the parasha and of the Avraham model, and only in grappling with its subtleties can we begin to understand what God wanted from Avraham, and what Avraham achieved.

Lech-Lecha describes the job one needs to do; Rambam describes the motivation for doing it. The motivation for Avraham’s service to both God and man was pure love. Its objective needed to be the consummation of Avraham’s own self. But such a motivation can exist only in light of such an objective, and such an objective can only be consummated through such a motivation: if you have not both, you can have neither.

Love comes from within

Here is where Judaism departs from both Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam praise selflessness and condemn selfishness. Self-sacrifice for the sake of God is the crowning achievement of the Christian saint and the Muslim martyr. Rabbi Weinberg sees, in Avraham’s Hesed, something far more profound, a love of God and man that affirms selfhood and therefore Life as the essence of Creation.

“Selflessness,” some preach, is a sine qua non of the kind of love expressed in Avraham’s Hesed and in his service for the sake of heaven. But in reality, selflessness precludes love. Love, as Rambam defines above, implies being “without ulterior motivation,” having no external concern whatsoever. “The one who serves out of love, will work at Torah and mitzvot and walk the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive whatever….”

The motivation must come from within. If I want to “get something out of it,” then clearly I am driven by something that exists outside myself, something ulterior. But the only thing that is not ulterior in any way, the only thing “internal,” is my own self. And therein lies the problem of selfish selflessness.

A person who does not experience his own self as significant, who finds personal existence meaningless, cannot possibly be moved by anything but “ulterior” motives. He is always trying to “get” something; and all the significance and meaning he manages to wheedle out of life is a lie, because it comes from outside his own life. The truly and completely selfish individual is the “selfless” individual; such a one must live on the selves of others in fearful predation. He uses God and other people to find what he cannot himself find within.”

“Selflessness” does not enhance lives, but ruins them

Rabbi Weinberg approaches his conclusion:

History (and for many, personal experience) makes this observation cruelly clear. Those who seek selfless dedication to others, whose objective is to save the world, who make love a religious goal—those have been more successful at mass-murder, terror, and pillage than any Mafia. Only those who are the “servants of God” have succeeded, and continue to succeed, in ruining the lives of countless millions in a sea of blood, tears and, at very least, personal misery.

To taste true love, to participate in Hesed’s love of pure existence, it is absolutely essential to be “The man of Hesed,” who “cares for his own self.” Because the only existence we directly know and experience and love is our own … Either Hesed is an expression of love for one’s own life or it is based on the worst of ulterior motives, a base and sinful attempt to steal significance.

Hesed of the nations is a sin (Proverbs 14:34). “… they do it only to establish their own significance” (Bava Batra, 10b).

Summarizing his illuminating commentary, Rabbi Weinberg writes:

Lech-Lecha inoculated Avraham and his nation against the ravages of selfish religiosity that destroys the service of God. Lech-Lecha protected those who embraced it from the hateful destructiveness to which such religion inevitably leads. Lech-Lecha created a tradition of Hesed based solely on love of life and safeguarded a people from the dangerous lie of selflessness which seeks to destroy all the meaning of Creation.

Hebraic civilization transcendent

Here we transcend Christianity, Islam, and the West. Hebraic civilization transcends altruism and egoism. Here we have a civilization based on Hesed, on a love of Life, on creativity, which is why even the Gentiles know the Jewish people as the most creative people in history.

Life is creativity (as Nietzsche understood). Thus, when the Torah says “God created man in His own image,” this means that just as God is creative in an infinite way, so man is creative in a finite way. This creativity involves a synthesis of reason and free will. By itself, reason is reducible to logic, which is passive. But since it coexists with free will, reason is also the organ of emphasis on novelty.[2]

As logic, reason sees that novelty must have as its background that which is perennial or unchanging, otherwise novelty will disappear in mere transience and lose all value. Reason in its fullness is therefore dialectical: it prompts man toward conservatism and creativity; it enables him to reconcile permanence and change; its function is to promote the Art of Life.[3] (It is in this light that we are to understand the relationship between the Written Torah, which is fixed, and the Oral Torah, which applies what is fixed to that which is changing.)

Actually, permanence and change together constitute a cosmological principle built into the very creation of the universe. The Big Bang represents the most fundamental change—from nothing to something. But with the Big Bang the laws of nature came to be, uniting change with permanence, reconciling, as it were, Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Reconciling permanence and change

The reconciliation of permanence and change is the secret of Jewish life and law, of Hebraic civilization. As any Talmud student knows, Jewish law exists to educate the individual, to challenge his mind, such that creativity, conviction, and voluntary obedience may follow. The aim of Torah education is to liberate man in such a way that he does freely what nature does blindly, both obeying the laws of God. A great German poet spoke Jewish wisdom when he wrote:

Dost thou seek the highest perfection?

Plants can teach thee.

What they are willy-nilly,

Thou canst be by thy own free will.[4]

Jewish law is an education in freedom. Because it reconciles permanence and change, its scope is unlimited. Hence, the jurisprudent Rabbi Isaac Breuer could maintain, without chauvinism, that Jewish law “is as comprehensive as any codification of the whole complex of private and public law of a living modern state can possibly be.”[5] Far from being obsolete, the Halacha has always been a living and creative system of law. As I have elsewhere written:

Like other legal systems, Jewish law has various branches, for example, civil and criminal law, public and administrative law. Extant Jewish legal knowledge includes 7,000 volumes or 300,000 instances of case law dealing primarily with the social and economic problems of Jewish communities dispersed throughout Europe and North Africa. Prior to the Emancipation in the eighteenth-century, these communities possessed juridical autonomy and creatively applied Jewish law to the most diverse social and economic conditions. The enormous body of case law resulting therefrom is being organized at various Israeli universities, and not merely for its historical interest, but for its potential relevance to contemporary problems.[6]

The National Institute of Judaic Law

Remarkably, Jewish legal experts in the United States have created a new institute that will educate jurists and others about Jewish law and promote the application of its teachings to contemporary legal disputes and other modern-day problems. President George W. Bush applauded this Institute as an important means of promoting “good character and strong values.” [The late] Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a letter to the institute, acknowledged that Jewish law is one of the “most highly developed systems.” One lawyer recently filed a brief to the Supreme Court based on the Talmud’s view of capital punishment.[7]

Here is a marvelous example of how Judaism has served the best interests of mankind. But this suggests itself in the name and deeds of the first Jew, Avraham, of whom the Torah says: “you shall be the father of a multitude of nations,” and “all the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendants (Genesis 16:17; 22:18).

God creates nations, and does not destroy them

Contrary to the god of Islam, who commands Muslims to destroy nationhood by placing all nations under the Sharia, the God of Israel is infinitely more liberal. He creates unique nations as well as unique individuals; and He wants each to pursue its own perfection in peace. This the nations can do only if they abide by the “genial orthodoxy” of the Seven Noahide Laws of Universal Morality. But God, in His infinite wisdom, saw that mankind would need something more.

And so He created an exemplary nation, Israel, and endowed this nation with a unique system of laws which has enabled the Jewish people to unite particularism and universalism. Only when this system of laws creatively re-establishes itself will Israel achieve its Final Redemption and present to mankind the example of a nation in which Freedom dwells with Righteousness, Equality with Excellence, Wealth with Beauty, the here and now with love of the Eternal.


[1] The following exposition derives from Matis Weinberg, Frameworks (Genesis) (Boston: Foundation for Jewish Publications, 1999), pp. 61-66.

[2] See Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1929), p. 20.

[3] Ibid., p. 4.

[4] See Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, I, 187. I have taken the liberty of substituting “highest perfection” for the “greatest.”

[5] Breuer, Concepts of Judaism, p. 31.

[6] Eidelberg, Jewish Statesmanship, p. 106.

[7] See The Jerusalem Post, November 10, 2002, p. 3.

 

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