Why Abraham?

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I. Chosen and Non-Chosen

What does it mean to be a chosen people? Todd Gitlin and Liel Lebovitz explore this in their recent book, Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election. Their central thesis is that both Jews, as represented by Israel, and Americans view themselves as God’s chosen people. The result has been arrogant selfishness by the so-called chosen and resentment from the non-chosen.

Americans adopted an imperialist attitude toward Native Americans and Israel has taken a similar colonialist stance toward Palestinians. If only, the authors imply, these two peoples had never adopted this bigoted idea of chosenness then everyone would be friends. Instead, Israelis are guilty of causing Palestinian resentment in the same sinful way that American settlers caused Native Americans distress. The authors would have us believe that all enmity in the world is based on religious chauvinism. In a world without chosenness there is no ethnic strife nor territorial disputes. If Jews had never accepted this one concept then the Arabs would have welcomed them into the Middle East as equals. This is so implausible that it requires no response.

It also ignores the connection between Jews and the land of Israel. Even if we were not God’s firstborn son (Ex. 4:22), heirs to the most beautiful land (Dan. 11:16) which bestrides the world (Rashi, Gen. 45:9), we would still have a unique connection to the land of Israel. Our ancestors received the land from God and our history flourished within its borders. Had we been the least important of all peoples, we would still retain this God-given property as a national heirloom. Even the unloved stepchild sometimes receives a gift from his neglectful parent.

II. Why Avraham?

Early in the book, the authors explore the biblical meaning of chosenness. One question they ask is why Avraham was chosen. His divine call comes so suddenly, without any explanation of why he deserved this unique opportunity. In truth, though, the call is not entirely out of the blue. The preceding passage provides genealogies of ten generations, often bypassing the firstborn and listing only a younger son in order to lead to Avraham. Note also that previous generations gave birth at approximately the age of 30 while Terach, Avraham’s father, sired him at the highly symbolic age of 70 (cf. Cassutto on 11:26). We then learn that Avraham’s family apparently anticipated the divine command to leave Ur Kasdim!

Yet, the Torah does not reveal much about Avraham’s righteousness before God calls him. Midrashim fill in the blanks about Avraham’s prior rejection of idolatry, which this book’s authors reject as stories written centuries after the fact. They do not, however, point out the hints in later prophets (Josh. 24:2-3; Isa. 29:22). These midrashim also find mention in the Pseudepigraphic book of Jubilees (12:2-4, 17-18) and the ancient commentary of Philo (On Abraham, 68-70). They are so established that Abarbanel (12:1) abandons his attempt to arrive at a textual answer to this question and R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (Commentary to Gen., p. 205 – link – PDF) states that Moses’ generation must have had well-known oral traditions. But why were these stories omitted from the text?

Ramban (11:28) suggests that the Torah preferred to refrain from discussing the idolatrous beliefs that Avraham rejected. Nechama Leibowitz (New Studies in Bereshit, p. 119) rejects this as weak and instead proposes that “[t]he Torah was not interested in Abraham as the son of Terah or the subject of Nimrod, but only in his role as the ancestor of the Jewish people, and as the bearer of the Divine message.” I would suggest a different approach based on R. Jonathan Sacks’ explanation that Avraham acted in ways directly contrary to those of previous biblical characters (Covenant & Conversation: Genesis–The Book of Beginnings, pp. 67-68): “Unlike Adam, Abraham accepts personal responsibility… Unlike Cain, he accepts moral responsibility… In contrast to Noah he accepts collective responsibility… In contrast to the builders of Babel, he understands ontological responsibility… Abraham is a new human type: the person whose life is a response to the call of God.” The Torah, therefore, presented Avraham as a new era, a radical change from the past. The jarring break of “lekh lekha” serves as the literary starting point for a new human type (R. Sacks has a slightly different, homiletic approach on pp. 81-85 of his book).

Gitlin and Lebovitz suggest that the Torah fails to explain for Avraham’s chosenness because the concept is intended to be inexplicable. Even more, it invites skepticism and rebellion whenever faith fails. This is an interesting exercise in homiletics but hardly a plausible biblical interpretation. Like the rest of their arguments, their ample eloquence and style cannot mask their ideas’ startling implausibility.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

24 comments

  1. I think there are further dimensions to what we learn about Avraham from his mini-story in the genealogy – specifically, that he married his niece Sarah (which is p’shat, for the record – yiskah means the same thing as Sarah) when she had no dowry and no prospects apart from marrying him, and that he stayed married to her when she was an ‘aqara. Though that could be what R. Sacks picked up on, based on your quote. I haven’t read his book, so I wouldn’t know.

    Regardless, it’s clear these fellows don’t know how to read, or perhaps they might have actually examined the mini-story there…

  2. The sfas emes regarding the midrash of a person seeing a house burning says that Avram wanted everyone to become riteous and there should be no ‘reshoim’ in the world. But God told him that is not the way he wants it. Instead he wanted the concept of Avram being the chosen people.

  3. There is plenty of ethnic strife in places where neither group considers themselves to be ‘chosen” so at least that part of the thesis is total bunkum.

  4. IIIRC, Tod Gitlin was a member of SDS in the late 1960s, who being unable to succeed in changing the world, found his place, like so many radicals of that time and place, as a tenured radical, where he could expound his theories on the minds of undergraduates without thinking of the consequences of the same. That IMO is the common denominator between his thinly disguised anti American and anti Israel complaint. The fact that Gitlin is a tenured professor illustrates one of the problems that supporters of Israel face in the academic world today.

  5. Rabbi David Fohrman in his series on Avraham (http://rabbifohrman.com/series.cfm?SerieID=15)argues that the sin of Adam, Chava, Kayyin, Noach and The Tower builders was a narcissistic obsession with their power to create. He relies on the midrash at the end of Noach and says that by marrying his neice Avraham was willing to use his power to create, not for the unselfish end of perpetuating his brother’s name and that’s what made him worthy of being chosen. I don’t think I am doing this arguement justice, I reccomend seeing it for yourself at the link above.

  6. R. Student,
    Thank you for the illuminating review and the excellent derashah refuting the thesis of the book being reviewed. I would just add, kitalmid ha’yoshev bakarka vidan lifnei rabbo, that the word “implausible” is too mild. Instead, the book should be termed as just plain “off-limits”, pursuant to R. Soloveitchik’s essay “Confrontation” prohibiting dialogue with theological ideas that are alien to Orthodox Judaism.
    If one wishes to criticize the policies of the State of Israel, there is room within the Jewish tradition to do so (e.g. subscribing to the position of R. Joel Teitelbaum in his Va’yo’el Mosheh.) Questioning the choseness of Klal Yisra’el, which is explicitly articulated by the Torah, is outside of the parameters of Orthodox Judaism and cannot be granted credence in a forum such as this one which is devoted to Torah study by Orthodox Jews.

  7. Re implausible: I try to be polite in book reviews.

  8. Good point – it’s a tricky paradox to balance. On the one hand, one wants to show respect to all human beings (and, even more so, to our beloved brethren, to all Jews). On the other hand, one needs to follow R. Soloveitchik’s pesak halakhah. Hopefully, the heterodox will repent and become Orthodox, thereby sparing us from the paradox.

  9. R. Soloveitchik’s essay was about *dialogue*, not monologues.

  10. Comparing the chosenness of the Jewish people to the self-proclaimed,Anglo-Saxon manifest destiny to conquer and subjugate North America is like comparing wine to vinegar.

  11. This is true. But I would add that the monologue itself must indicate total and unequivocal rejection of ideas that halakhically classify as apikorsut. [Otherwise, one has, in effect, created the same situation as “dialogue”, viz., a willingness to hear what the other person has to say, and a willingness to change one’s mind based on what the other person has to say, assuming the other person can bring persuasive proofs.] Hence the paradox emerges: how do we follow the Halakhah regarding the prohibition on interfaith dialogue, and at the same time be polite and friendly people in the spirit of “vi’ahavta lire’akha kamokha”. [The truth be told, Rashi to Deuteronomy 13:9 states that “vi’ahavta lire’akha kamokha” does not apply in the case of dealing with a “mesit umedi’ach la’avodat kokhavim”. But that’s when there’s a Sanhedrin adjudicating the case…]

  12. lawrence kaplan

    SAYING “SO IMPLAUSIBLE IT REQUIRES NO RESPONSE” SOUNDS PRETTY STRONG TO ME.

  13. >“SAYING “SO IMPLAUSIBLE IT REQUIRES NO RESPONSE” SOUNDS PRETTY STRONG TO ME.”

    If Jews didn’t believe they were chosen ‘then the Arabs would have welcomed them into the Middle East as equals’ — you don’t find that notion to be implausible beyond reasonableness?

    The issue here is evidently not the historical record, but the authors’ existential belief that the concept of chosenness is itself bad.

  14. STBO you’re missing the point. Prof. Kaplan is responding to Shalom Spira.

  15. prof. Kaplan

    As difficult as it certainly is be to contain one’s self in certain situations such as this, please don’t shout.

  16. “The authors would have us believe that all enmity in the world is based on religious chauvinism. In a world without chosenness there is no ethnic strife nor territorial disputes.”

    There certainly would be much less strife and disputes.

  17. “Instead, the book should be termed as just plain “off-limits”, pursuant to R. Soloveitchik’s essay “Confrontation” prohibiting dialogue with theological ideas that are alien to Orthodox Judaism”

    Exactly what the parameters of dialogue means to the Rav would be an interesting subject for experts of 20th century Rabbinics. IMHO-the Rav added specific written guidelines to the RCA about prohibited and permitted activities-there is a history of what the Rav allowed or didn’t in the close to 2 decades of his remaining active life. There is certainly ample record of what close students did or did not do in the 60s and 70s while the Rav was clearly in control and head of the RCA Halachik Commission.
    I have my own suspicions as to why that record is not currently being examined as to see what the Rav meant by “dialogue”

  18. Lawrence Kaplan

    Moshe: I hit the Caps Lock key by mistake, and by the time I realized it I had typed almost the entire comment. I was too lazy to retype it.

    Jon: Thanks of the clarifciation. It’s frightening to think that I was misunderstood so badly by STBO because he did not realize that I was replying to R. Spira. Of course, I fully agree with Gil’s criticism of the book, and I think he got just the right tone.

  19. What? How does a land bestride the world?

    More importantly… What? I think a step is missing. The only thing I can tell about the book from this review is that it proposes that God’s selection of Abraham is “inexplicable”, but does not deny the selection. This is described, at least in the blog comments, as heretical. Why? The commentators cited are all struggling with the seeming inexplicability of the selection. I suppose each believes that he or she has explained the selection, but the plethora of explanations points to a text whose motives seem obscure (a term I’ll use instead of inexplicable for fear of the cherem). Isn’t a little modesty called for in seeking to explain God’s actions? Is conceding that you can’t understand God’s behavior “off-limits”?

    P.S. If we’re throwing heresy around, are we all now agreed that Cassuto is kosher enough for a “cf. Cassuto”?

  20. Michael Gordan: Rashi quotes the Sages who say that the land of Israel is taller than all the other lands.

    While the book is unquestionably heretical, in that it explicitly speaks from a very non-traditional point of view, you are correct that those aspects are not mentioned in this review.

    I cf. all sorts of heretical and non-Jewish books. That doesn’t make them less heretical.

  21. Prof Kaplan,

    I apparently didn’t read the comments preceding yours carefully enough! So yes I agree that R. Gil’s phrasing indicates a pretty strong rejection of the book authors’ thesis.

    And cf. R. Spira: how else is one to indicate rejection of an unsound idea except by reviewing it? I don’t think responding to this book (and the contemporary cultural/academic trends that inform it) falls into the same context at all as the fashionable ’50-’60s interfaith dialogue that the Rav forbade.

  22. There’s a short piece written by the authors at Tablet here: http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/45656/chosen/

  23. “our history flourished within its”

    It took almost 2600 years from around churban bayit rishon to a few years ago for Israel to be the home of more Jews than any other country in the world. It is not the ideal place for Jews to live but most of our history we have notthrived in Israel.

  24. “In a world without chosenness there is no ethnic strife nor territorial disputes.”

    Not so ridiculous-paganism is more tolerant than monotheism-you have your god I have my god .

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