Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, 2008, 224 pages
This is the ninth of so-far eleven posthumous writings assembled, edited, and published by The Toras Horav Foundation based on writings collected from various sources by the famed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993). This volume contains ten essays that focus on different events in Abraham’s life that are mentioned in the book of Genesis, such as the first time that God speaks to Abraham when he was seventy five years old and instructed him to leave his homeland; the war that Abraham waged against four kingdoms to save his nephew Lot; and the covenant that God made with him after he obeyed God’s command to circumcise himself and the males in his household.
Rabbi Soloveitchik recognizes that the biblical book Genesis gives few facts about the patriarch (page 19). However, he feels that Jews should learn from Abraham’s behavior. So he fleshes out the biblical lacuna with imaginative descriptions and events that are contained in Midrashim and his own ideas about what may have happened. His goal is not to clarify what scripture is teaching about Abraham, but to tweak the text to reveal what he, Rabbi Soloveitchik, thinks are the best qualities of human beings and the ideas that he considers the true theology of Judaism, such as modesty, loving kindness, and standing firm for Jewish values to the extent of being willing “to be alienated from the rest of society” (page xiii). In short, this book, as most writings in this series of eleven books, is sermonic. Thus, for example, while the Bible does not say so, Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies “four basic differences between Abraham’s searching and the searching in which other children engage” (45). Abraham was persistent, he searched continuously without letup, he searched for reality not fantasy, and “searched not only for theory, noesis, but for a practical way of life” (46). Rabbi Soloveitchik describes Abraham as “lonely,” “a maverick,” “a trouble-maker,” who was mocked for his behavior (82-84), even though scripture does not say this. He writes that one of the reasons Abraham traveled to Egypt during a famine in Canaan was to persuade “Pharaoh that polytheism and idolatry were wrong … (but) he failed completely in his undertaking in Egypt” (105). When Abraham went to Egypt he was extremely poor and was enormously wealthy when he left, but he “was modest and did not display his wealth” (122). Why was Abraham’s nephew Lot taken captive by the four kingdoms requiring Abraham to rescue him? Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Lot, like Jews throughout their long history, have always been blamed for problems that nations have; they have always been scapegoats (128). None of these ideas and events are mentioned in scripture.
Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches in this sermonic manner because he felt that “the Bible is not a book of stories but a book of a great spiritual message and a way of life” (17), the Bible “speaks of events that are still taking place before our eyes” (18). His goal is to reveal his understandings of these lessons.
When reading his teachings, readers need to keep in mind that Rabbi Soloveitchik, as he reminds readers in virtually all of these books, was influenced in his youth by mysticism, and so his worldview is mystic in nature. His heroes are not rationalists such as Maimonides, but mystics “such as the Ari, the Vilna Gaon, and the Besht” (32).
Thus, Rabbi Soloveitchik feels that God wants humans to surrender themselves totally to God (69). He notes that Abraham never sacrificed an animal to God – he built altars but never killed animals on them – except in Genesis 22 when he sacrificed a ram in place of his son Isaac. He writes that God “rejected animal sacrifices” (71). He wants human sacrifices.
This is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s chief teaching. He repeats it frequently in virtually all his books. What does God require of people? God wants people to accept his command, as Abraham did when he obeyed God’s command that he leave his homeland and, later, that he sacrifice his son Isaac, and do so without question, with “not a single complaint.” He requires a person to suspend “his logical as well as his moral judgment…his own humanity and [be] ready to do the very thing he hated most.” It means acting as a naïve child “capable of absolute, unconditional surrender to the point of giving up one’s humanity, one’s conscience.” It insists that a person not ask if the command “makes sense.” It demands, as the Protestant thinker Soren Kierkegaard taught, “just one transformation, on metamorphosis, namely, from adult into child” (all these quotes are from 190). Although the rabbi does not say this, since Judaism is what the rabbis say it is, not what is literally in the Torah, Rabbi Soloveitchik is requiring Jews to obey their rabbis without question.
Yet, although he feels that God requires humans to submit themselves totally to God, Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasizes that God does not want them to practice an ascetic way of life. “Judaism, as is well known, has enjoined man to share with God in the works of creation, to involve himself fully in the cosmic occurrence” (79) “God wills man to probe, to explore the wide reaches of human existential experience, to deepen his self-awareness and world-awareness” (80) and improve himself and society.
God helps people do this, Rabbi Soloveitchik states. While prophecy does not exist today, “a spark of ru’ach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration) is to be found in Jewish souls. God addresses Himself to the Jew, calls him from within, and awaits an answer” (32, 33). This is the divine guidance that Abraham had. It is the same intuitive flashes that all people have; they only need to listen.
Whether we agree with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s religious views or not, it is interesting to know the ideas that a wide group of Orthodox rabbis have accepted as true Judaism because they were expounded by this famous rabbi, their teacher.