Tag Archives: Abraham

The Rabbinization of Abraham

When Abraham heeded G-d’s order he was already fully proficient in what was to become known as Kabbalah. He had even authored a major Kabbalistic text – Sefer HaYetzira (the Book of Creative Formation). He was an acclaimed astrologer and conversant in the magic of the East. In his youth, Abraham had turned his back on the negative forces of tum’ah (spiritual blemish) and adopted the pathway of spiritual monotheism.

-from Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life (pp 19-20)
by Rabbi Laibl Wolf

You shall not practice divination or soothsaying.Leviticus 19:26 (JPS Tanakh)

The word “se’onenu” in the verse cited above (Lev 19:26) can be a derivation of the root onah (time season) or of the root ayin (eye). Consequently, two different prohibitions are based on this verse. One, quoted by Rashi on the verse, is the prohibition against “calculating times and hours.” It is forbidden to employ astrological (Rambam Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:8) calculations in order to determine when to engage in or refrain from a certain activity.

-Rabbi Doniel Neustadt
“Selected Halachos relating to Parshas Kedoshim”

I don’t always understand what I’m reading in the Jewish teachings, or at least I don’t always understand it well enough to agree with what is being taught. For instance, Rabbi Wolf plainly states in his book that Abraham was “an acclaimed astrologer” and yet Rabbi Neustadt, referencing Rashi and the Rambam, interprets Leviticus 19:26 as prohibiting the use of astrology. Furthermore, practicing various types of sorcery and magic is forbidden in Torah as described here:

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you. You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God. Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your God has not assigned the like. –Deuteronomy 18:10-14 (JPS Tanakh)

So where would Rabbi Wolf get the idea that Abraham was an accomplished astrologer and “conversant in the magic of the East?”

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that Kabbalah suggests many things that we can’t derive from the plain meaning of the Torah text. While proponents of Kabbalah believe that it has its origins as an oral tradition that predated Jesus and indeed, may have been practiced in some manner by Abraham and even by Noah and Adam, other Jewish scholars attribute the rise of Kabbalah to a much later time, with the writing of the Zohar (presumably by Moses de Lyon, although this is not firmly established) in the 13th century CE. Given the historical “uncertainty” about Kabbalistic teachings, not everything we read about figures such as Abraham in Kabbalah can be taken as completely factual.

The second is that Abraham lived in an age far earlier than Moses and the giving of the Torah at Sinai and he can’t be expected to have understood all of the prohibitions it contained (and thus, may have possibly practiced magic and astrology in his earlier days, although this is pure conjecture). Nevertheless, there is also a tradition in Judaism that says Abraham was certainly aware of everything in the Torah, even though it had yet to be written down.

The Talmud states that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all studied in the academies of Shem and Eber. The Talmud further proclaims that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah before it was given. How was this possible? The Kabbalists explain that they kept the Torah in its spiritual form, for it was only subsequently through Moses that the Torah instruction became manifest in the physical observance of Mitzvot.

-Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov
“The Key to Kabbalah”

But since this information takes us back to Kabbalah, we may tend to disregard it as a source of historical fact and relegate it to the status of almost legend.

But there are many observant Jews who consider everything I’ve just said about Abraham’s history as outlined in Kabbalah as absolutely true.

As a Christian who doesn’t have the benefit of a classical Jewish education, let alone a working knowledge of Kabbalah, how am I to interpret all this, as Rabbinic fiction or even fantasy? That seems a little harsh, but many of the statements about Abraham studying Torah in the House of Shem and practicing the magic of the East stretch credibility beyond the breaking point. Is it that I am just so ignorant of Jewish tradition and the Hebraic mindset that I am unable to grasp the deeper and hidden (Sod) meaning in Torah, or is there something else going on?

The process is evident even on the basis of a casual reading of Midrash Genesis Rabbah. The rabbinic ideal of “Talmud Torah” as the driving force in Jewish religious behavior is projected as a constant factor in the lives of the patriarchs: The children of the patriarchs study in the batei midrash of Shem and ‘Ever’ (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 63:10); Jacob strives to establish “a house of Talmud where he might teach Torah” in Egypt (Genesis Rabbah 95:3); Abraham was well versed in the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat without an ‘eruv’ (specifically an ‘eruv hazerot’ Bereshit Rabbah 49:2)…

-Isaiah Gafni
“Rabbinic Historiography and Representations of the Past” (pg 305)
The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature
Edited by Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee

In his essay, Gafni speaks of the Talmud’s “Rabbinization of the past”.

If, indeed, we can assume that the contemporary rabbinic Judaism espoused by certain talmudic sages held up favorably when compared with earlier expressions of the faith, issues of past and present no longer suggest a one-directional regression from the glories of the past. With this in mind, we might better understand a well-documented phenomenon in rabbinic midrash, namely, the “rabbinization of the past.” (pg 304)

One way to establish and support an acceptance of Talmudic interpretation and judgment relative to Torah for post-Second Temple Judaism is to project the values and even the “reality” of Talmud (and later, Kabbalah) not only forward in time but backward. Peering at the Patriarchs through this lens, we can indeed “see” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob studying Torah and Talmud in the study house of Shem when by historical knowledge and a plain reading of the Torah, such events seem very unlikely to have actually taken place.

However, the Rabbis may have had other motivations besides cementing the validity of Talmud for the Jewish people as Gafni points out.

But while the practical observation of the Law by pre-Sinaitic figures predates the rabbis, the more thorough rabbinization of the past by endowing it with a more focused stress on uniquely post-Destruction religious and social categories was clearly the work of talmudic sages, emerging primarily in amoraic (and not tannaitic) literature. The rabbis may have been motivated, at least in part, by a wish to avoid a type of supersession imagery embraced by the Church. However, in fact they were, to a certain degree, doing precisely what the Fathers had done, namely, applying to the patriarchs a more spiritualized behavior in manifesting their Jewish identity. (pg 308)

I find it more than a little ironic that the “rabbinization” of the ancient men and women of the Torah, which Christianity criticizes with great zeal, was possibly motivated in part, by the Jewish need to defend itself against early Christian supersessionism.

Viewed through the eyes of Gafni’s study, we can read many of the Talmudic and Kabbalistic “histories” of the patriarchs and matriarchs as, not exactly fiction, but a “rabbinization” process designed in the early centuries of the Common Era, to preserve the Jewish people as a people, which was a requirement in the face of the exile from the Land of Israel and hostile persecution by the official Church of the Roman Empire.

So we can hardly blame the Rabbis (well, I can’t anyway) when we read something like this.

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Lord. –Genesis 25:22 (JPS Tanakh)

When she passed the academy of Shem and Ever, Jacob struggled to leave the womb, and when she passed a temple of idol worship, Esav fought to leave. – Rashi

It seems unlikely that a “Torah academy of Shem and Ever” really existed and even if somehow it did, that Jacob would struggle to escape his mother’s womb in order to study Torah (as an unborn child) there whenever she was near that place.

Strangely enough though, we have a sort of parallel in Christianity.

Miryam arose in those days and went quickly to the mountains, to a town of Yehudah. She entered the house of Zecharyah and blessed Elisheva. When Elisheva heard Miryam’s brachah, the child danced inside of her and Elisheva was filled with the Holy Spirit. –Luke 1:39-41 (DHE Gospels)

If the unborn John could dance in his mother’s womb at the sound of the blessing of Miryam (Mary) who was pregnant with Messiah and Savior, is this scripture a sort of “Christian rabbinization” of the Gospels or is it something more? If it is more, then what are we to make of the “rabbinization of the patriarchs?”

If we were prophets or people of vision, we would see what is important and what is not, what will bear fruits and what will remain barren.

But we are simple people in an age of confusion. Our lives are filled with uncertainties—anything could happen, we have no way of telling.

We cannot decide which mitzvah is important and which will bear fruit. Neither are we expected to make our decisions that way.

All that’s expected of us is to simply grab whatever G‑d sends our way, and do our very best at it. What will come of it? What is its purpose?

Only He needs to know.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The teachings of the Jewish masters are difficult for me to comprehend at times but then again, for the same reasons, so are the teachings of the Jewish writers of the Gospels.

Arguing with God

abrahams visitorsWhen G-d told Noah to build an ark before the world would be destroyed, Noah built an ark.

But when G-d told Abraham He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—cities corrupt and evil to the core—Abraham argued. He said, “Perhaps there are righteous people there! Will the Judge of All the Earth not do justice?”

Abraham felt a sense of ownership for the world in which he lived. If there was something wrong, it needed to be changed. Even if it had been decreed by the will of G-d.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Noah and Abraham”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I have to admit, I was a little disturbed by how Rabbi Freeman illustrates the difference between Noah and Abraham. It makes it seem like Abraham cared more for the world he lived in than Noah. Of course both Jewish and Christian commenators generally agree that it took Noah about 120 years to build the ark and that, during that period of time, Noah was trying to convince the people around him to repent of their wickedness (he wasn’t successful). So it’s not as if God told Noah that he was going to drown everyone and Noah immediately blew off humanity, only caring that he and his family would be saved.

Still, we have a tendency, no matter how much we are otherwise instructed (Matthew 7:1-6), to judge others. Once we become aware that a person has sinned, especially a type of sin we are personally offended by (maybe because it’s a type of sin we are particularly tempted by), we cut them loose from our “this person can be saved” list and let them sail away into the spiritual darkness.

No wonder the church is called the only army that shoots its own wounded.

OK, I’m probably being unfair to the church and I’m sure that there are many, many forgiving and compassionate Christians who have great love for even the most immoral of human beings. Apparently, the Rabbis teach the lesson of compassion and love for the sinner as well.

It is human nature to believe in one’s potential to destroy, but not his ability to repair. This is especially true regarding a person who transgressed a sin which is punishable by kareis (being cut off from his people). Naturally, the sinner figures that it no longer matters what he does since he has completely severed his soul from its source. The Ohr HaChaim, zt”l, explains that the error of this attitude from a verse brought on today’s daf. “Even a person who transgressed a sin punishable by kareis must never give up. This is the deeper meaning of the verse regarding leaving pe’ah in the corner of one’s field. ‘— When you reap the harvest of your land.’ This can also be understood to refer to one who violated a sin for which the punishment is kareis. Although he has uprooted his soul from its source, this does not mean that he has uprooted his soul completely. The verse continues: ‘— you shall not reap the entire corner of your field.’ Do not continue ripping out your neshama’s connection to God by transgressing further. Even one who has violated a sin punishable by kareis has only uprooted the connection forged by acting—or refraining to act—in a certain manner which caused the cut off. But his soul is definitely still connected.

“This is clear from the Arizal’s teaching about holiness. He explains that the nature of holiness is to leave an eternal trace wherever it was. We see that every mitzvah acts to strengthen one’s bond to God, regardless of his negative behavior. The Gemara explicitly writes that teshuvah helps even for kareis—or worse. This is why teshuvha reaches the throne of glory. One who does teshuvah renews the connection of his neshmaha which was hewn out from beneath the throne of glory.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Not Excised Completely”
Chullin 131

PleadExcept for the sentence of death, there was no worse consequence for a sin than to be cut off from your people (“kareis,” see examples in Genesis 17:14, Exodus 12:15, and Leviticus 23:29). There is debate on exactly what was supposed to happen if someone were worthy of kareis, but it is often thought to be some form of exile of the person from the community of Israel. It’s easy to read into this consequence a state of complete hopelessness and despair. If you are cut off from your people and from your God, what else is there? You have no place to go and there is no way back. Why continue living?

But the commentary on Chullin 131 doesn’t say there’s no hope. It does say that the person involved is in an extremely difficult and dire situation, but the “Gemara explicitly writes that teshuvah helps even for kareis—or worse. This is why teshuva reaches the throne of glory.” Even in the aftermath of the worst of all possible sins and failures, you are uprooted, but never completely cut off from God. Forgiveness is still possible. You can still turn back to Him.

The people in Noah’s time were given 120 years, as Noah built the ark, to become aware of the fatal judgment that was heading their way. They had time. They could have repented. They still chose not to. Abraham saw that God was going to destroy Sodom very soon and pleaded for whoever remained in there and who might repent and be saved (Genesis 18:16-33). In the following chapter of Genesis, you see the level of sin and depravity the inhabitants of Sodom exercised and it’s easy to imagine that the “outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous” (Genesis 18:20) that they deserved complete and absolute destruction. Yet, Abraham still argued with God.

That’s a rather novel concept for a Christian. We’re generally told that God is always right and we should never argue. This has gotten us through plenty of moral puzzles in the Bible, such as those times when God has ordered the Children of Israel to completely destroy an entire people group, down to the last man, woman, child, and farm animal, because their sin was so great. But not only does Abraham question God’s judgment (very politely, though), but so does Moses, when God wants to destroy the Israelites (Exodus 32:9-10). When Jacob wrestled with the angel and won (Genesis 32:22-32), an interpretation of the event is that he was having a “moral struggle” with God. These are pictures that support humanity interacting with God on the plane of righteousness, questioning God and thereby struggling, not with God’s perfect righteous judgement, but with our own understanding of right and wrong.

Notice that in none of these examples is Abraham, Jacob, or Moses chastised or punished by God for their “effrontery” toward Him. I don’t think this means we can be casual in our relationship with God, but I do think we’re expected to be more than passive spectators in history and in life. If we can be considered “junior partners” with God in repairing the world, can we also not be involved, to some small degree, in the struggle to determine right and wrong and how justice shall be acted out in the world around us?

As people of faith, our sense of right and wrong is shaped by the Bible and how we understand its message. If some part of the Bible seems to be immoral by modern Christian or Jewish standards (or modern societal standards), what are we to do? Are we to blindly accept that the Bible is a static document with only one, static interpretation across time? Maybe we are expected to do what Jacob did and to “wrestle” with God and the text, struggling to take the underlying principles of what we are being taught and somehow apply them to a world that is far, far apart from the world in which the Bible was written.

ForgivenessThe more we develop as religious people, the more we must realize that we don’t have all the answers. The Bible doesn’t provide canned and complete responses for every possible moral and practical question. Like Abraham, we sometimes have to stand up and ask God if He really means something the way it’s written in the Bible or if there is some other alternate available. This is a very uncomfortable thing to do because we have to question matters of right and wrong in the world around us and in ourselves, rather than be satisfied that we’re right and “the other guy” is a hopeless sinner.

The next time you think the Bible is telling you to judge someone and that they deserve to be cut off from all civilized humanity or even to die for something they’ve done, or because of the person they are, it might be one of those times when you should be arguing with God (or perhaps yourself). That soul you are so willing to cut off may not be entirely uprooted from God and instead of casting it away, you may want to consider trying to replant it in more fertile soil.

For God loved the world with an abundant love, to the extent that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him will not perish, but will rather live eternal life. –John 3:16 (DHE Gospels)

The Gift of the Postdiluvian King

This week’s reading tells the story of Noah, the father of all humanity. We learn that G-d spoke to him and his children, directing them to follow seven laws for just and moral lives. Most religions say that they offer an exclusive path, but our Talmud teaches that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come.” Maimonides says that this applies to anyone who accepts upon him or herself to observe the Seven Commandments given to Noah.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

“But flesh, when its soul is with its blood, you shall not eat it… He who spills the blood of man, by man shall his blood be spilled, for in the Image of G-d did He create man.”Genesis 8:4,6

Where was God when the descendants of Noah needed salvation? Christians believe we are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ and Jews believe they merit a place in the world to come by obeying the 613 mitzvot (OK, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s “salvation” in a nutshell). But what about the time before the birth of Christ and before Moses at Sinai? We know that people were aware of God. Certainly Noah was a “righteous man; he was blameless in his age” and he “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9) and certainly God spoke to Abraham when He said, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1), but what allowed a person to have a relationship with God, particularly in Postdiluvial times?

We see hints that the people in those days were aware of “Torah” requirements. Even Noah was commanded of “every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not clean, two, a male and its mate”, telling us that well before Sinai, clean and unclean animals were an understood concept. We don’t see God going through an extensive set of explanations telling Noah the difference between these two general types of creatures, so he must have already known about this. We even know that when Abel offered his sacrifice to God (Genesis 4:3-4), it was a clean animal appropriate for sacrifice.

The commentaries in the Stone Edition of the Chumash make significant reference to the kosher vs. non-kosher animals such as in this example:

Genesis 6:19 “Two of each.” As the following verse explains, these animals were to be one male and one female, so that the species could be replenished after the Flood. In the case of the kosher species that could be used for offerings, Noah was later commanded to bring seven pairs (7:2), so that he could bring offerings of gratitude and commitment after returning to dry land.

The Chumash commentary for Genesis 8:20-21 even refers the reader to Leviticus for details on the sacrificial offerings, their names, and terminology, again suggesting that Noah would have had to possess some of this information in order to give a proper sacrifice to God after the Flood. Yet man, at that time, was not to divide animals into kosher and non-kosher for eating, as illustrated in Genesis 9:3:

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.

We see that certain parts of the “Torah knowledge” available to both the antediluvian and postdiluvian peoples was later applied specifically to the Children of Israel as part of the Torah, but what about the rest of humanity? Ten generations followed Noah before the birth of Abram (Abraham). The Bible glosses over the details of the lives of these people, but we presume at least some of them continued their worship of and devotion to Hashem. Also, during the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there were members of their households who were not Hebrews yet who learned of the God of Noah and turned their hearts to Him. What about the Egyptian members of Joseph’s house when he was a viceroy of Pharaoh, King of Egypt (see Torah Portions Miketz and Vayiggash)? Perhaps Joseph taught some of them about the God of his father Jacob. Most assuredly, he taught his Egyptian wife and sons.

Unlike most other religions, Judaism does not declare that they are the only path to righteousness, well not exactly anyway. Rabbi Yaakov Menken has this to say.

Unlike the other religions of the world, Judaism does not believe that everyone must become a Jew in order to approach G-d or earn a place in the World to Come. When King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he asked of G-d that He hear the prayers of all who pray towards that Temple: “Also a gentile who is not of your people Israel, but will come from a distant land for Your Name’s sake… and will come and pray toward this Temple, may You hear in Heaven Your dwelling-place, and do according to all that gentile calls out to You…” [I Kings 8:41-43]

MosesIt is the subject of much debate as to whether or not there were “Noahides” or Ger Toshav among the Hebrew people between the days of Noah and Moses, but it is more than possible that they existed. Abraham sent his most trusted (non-Hebrew) servant to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:1-9) and Rabbinic commentary identifies this man as a Noahide. If this servant had not been righteous before God, how could he have risen to such a high position in Abraham’s household and why would Abraham have trusted him to find a suitable wife for Isaac? We even see the Bible’s first recorded personal prayer uttered by this man.

He made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’-let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” –Genesis 24:11-14

From a Christian point of view, there are apparent “gaps” in God’s plan of salvation for mankind. Discussions of hypothetical situations occasionally occur in Bible studies, such as what would have happened to a person before the birth of Christ who otherwise was “good” but had no way to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior? Perhaps God answered that question when He spoke to Moses in Genesis 9:1-17, which is the basis for today’s Noahide Laws.

I recently investigated the concept of the Ger Toshav as a possible “interface” between Christians and Jews but only hit a brick wall. Observant Jews do not consider Christians to be “righteous Gentiles” if, for no other reason, than they believe we worship a man as a God and indeed, worship three Gods rather than the One. However, the Ger Toshav may have enjoyed a life of righteousness that included a relationship with the God of Adam and Noah, perhaps into the time of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. –Matthew 8:8-11

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. –Acts 10:1-2

As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. –Acts 17:10-12

The covenant of Christ allows we who are not Jewish to enter into a deep and abiding relationship with the God of all Creation that, in its holiness, is on par with the people of the Mosaic covenant (Galatians 3:26-29) so we non-Jews can go beyond the boundaries of the Noahide. Yet, the Acts 15 letter issued by the Jerusalem council, in some ways, mirrors the laws of Noah. Becoming disciples of the Master does not remove the obligation of a Christian to shun worship of idols, murder, theft, blasphemy, and sexual immorality. The Noahide prohibition to not eat the limb of a living animal may seem strange, but we also would find such as act abhorrent. Creating a court system is an act of establishing justice and as Christians, being just and merciful should not seem odd.

Shofar as sunriseIf the Messianic covenant has not removed or replaced the Noahide covenant but instead, has enhanced it and greatly expanded our access to God, how can we say that the covenant of the Messiah has replaced the Mosaic covenant for the Jews? The Noahide covenant paints a rainbow-colored portrait of God’s love of and provision for all of humanity from the days of the Flood up until the current age. He never abandoned the vast throng of mankind from Noah to Jesus but gave them a gift of Himself, even into the times of Abraham, Moses, and David. For the past 2,000 years, we have had Jesus to turn to for an even greater relationship with God.

But as I just said, if we can learn one lesson for the Gentiles in the story of Noah, including that there is no conflict between Noahide and Messianic covenants, then perhaps we can also learn that no conflict exists between the Mosaic laws and the teachings of the Messiah. Moses and Jesus are not enemies and in fact, for a Jew, what they illuminate goes hand in hand, just as the teachings of Noah and Jesus do for the Gentile.