Avraham Finding Hashem and Spreading the Word

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Aggada Becomes Halachah: Avraham Finding Hashem and Spreading the Word

As I mentioned last time, this series examines places where Rambam lets Aggadah or Midrash—meaning, sections of Talmudic literature not obviously meant as prescriptive or focused on halachah—nonetheless shape his presentation of Torah law. Because I am not nearly the expert in Rambam I would wish, I found these by searching for the names of the Avot, the Patriarchs, in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. There might be many more examples than we’ll have a chance to see, but these are the ones I found.

One more brief reminder: Rambam started his Introduction to Chelek (well worth reading, if you have a chance; it’s the first place he lays out his Principles of Faith, and much more) by decrying both those who read Chazal literally and believe they meant it that way as well as those who read Chazal literally and therefore dismissed their views. He thought we were instead supposed to understand that Chazal sometimes spoke in metaphors and allegories, cloaking deep ideas in ways that only those ready for them would absorb.

(I have long been bothered by this idea, because it means that no one knows what Chazal meant; esotericism only works if there’s also an authoritative tradition of what the hints mean. Otherwise, everyone can be sure they know a different truth. For another time.)

Based on his view of Chazal’s words, I would have assumed that Rambam would treat many of the Midrashic stories about our Patriarchs as metaphors and allegories, yet he doesn’t, in ways that affect our halachic realities. Or so I aim to show by taking up some of those passages in Mishneh Torah.

Why I Call It Alien Worship, Not Idolatry

Rambam starts Laws of Alien Worship with what Prof. Twersky z”l called “A Brief History of Idolatry.” A digression for an apology. In writing that sentence, it’s clear that Prof. Twersky referred to avodah zarah as idolatry, as does almost everyone else, yet I have chosen not to.

I recognize the infelicity of my formulation, but do not yet have a better option; it started a couple of years ago, when it struck me that “idolatry” or “idol worship,” the usual ways of translating avodah zarah, misleads us into thinking the prohibition is only or primarily about worshipping physical objects as a representation, incarnation, or actualization of a god.

When, in fact, we are prohibited from worshipping anything other than Hashem, tangible or intangible, man-made or not. In addition, the Hebrew words avodah zarah say nothing about idols; they mean a strange, foreign, or alien worship. I chose alien, because strange or foreign seemed too narrow.

Worldwide Alien Worship Before Avraham

Rambam builds his history off several Talmudic or Midrashic claims; in doing so, he seems to “rule” that Jewish tradition assumes a certain version of how the history of human faith went. Whether or not we take it all as historical fact, Rambam seems to think this is how we should understand the genesis of our belief system. Let’s look at a few of his points.

In the second paragraph, where he lays out how false prophets led the world astray [an important theme in Rambam and Judaism, that false prophets can convince masses, even the majority; being convincing, then, is no guarantee of being right or truthful], he says that at one point, only individuals worshipped Hashem, like Chanoch, Metushelach, Shem, and Ever. That continued until Avraham was born, whom Rambam refers to as amudo shel olam, the pillar of the world.

That Chanoch worshipped Hashem is in the text of the Torah, and Metushelach isn’t a hard leap. But the reference to Shem and Ever seems to me based on the multiple comments in Chazal about their having a yeshiva, as it were, a place that those who believed in God could come and learn about what that means and how to act on it. We don’t know of many students, but Shem and Ever were clearly monotheists.

That means that he’s not claiming, as we often hear growing up, that Avraham founded or reintroduced monotheism. The Rabbinic sources Rambam chooses to accept as historically accurate tell us that that’s not true, that several monotheists were alive when Avraham was born (if you calculate from the listings of births and deaths in the Torah).

So what made Avraham special?

Avraham Finds His Way

Before we answer that, we should see Rambam’s portrayal of how he came to his monotheistic faith. In 1;3 of Laws of Alien Worship, Rambam writes that from the time that he was weaned, Avraham started thinking, day and night, about how the world kept spinning, certain it couldn’t be self-perpetuating, that there must be a force that gave it the energy to go [Not quite our topic, but Rambam here implicitly challenges modern scientists’ confidence that the laws of physics can explain the universe without resort to a God—what provides the energy that makes the world go? Rambam would have rejected the idea that the Big Bang supplied that energy, but even if it did, where did that come from?].

While thinking through these issues, Avraham was stuck in Ur Kasdim, among idolaters, worshipping with them (Rambam says) even as he searched for the truth. That’s an image that resonates with me, the idea that he was still doing that which he sensed was in error, even as he sought the truer path.

When he was forty, writes Rambam, he got there, realizing the world had to have a single Creator, Who keeps the universe going, and that there was no other power competitive with that Creator. The age of forty comes from a Rabbinic text Rambam incorporated where he didn’t have to.

Before we see that, I pause to point out that Rambam assumes a process of Avraham finding his way to belief in Hashem. It wasn’t like we learn it in elementary school, where over the course of a day he rejected the sun and moon as supreme powers and boom, monotheism. For Rambam, it took decades of intellectual wandering and struggle, from childhood to age forty.

Three or Forty?

Ra’avad glosses this paragraph twice; the first says that “there is an Aggadah that says it was three.” Brief comments lend themselves to multiple interpretations which may not have been the author’s intent, but in this case, I hear Ra’avad’s “there is an Aggadah” as saying, “this isn’t a big deal because it’s Aggadah, but if you care, I think tradition says Avraham was three.”

The simplest place to find that idea is Nedarim 32a, where R. Ami bar Abba notes that Hashem tells Yitzchak that various blessings will come to him and his descendants ekev that Avraham hearkened to Hashem. Ekev isn’t such a common word; the Torah’s decision to use that word told R. Ami bar Abba that it was meant also for its numerological value, 172; Avraham lived for 175 years, and ekev (172) of them, he was obeying Hashem. Meaning he found Hashem when he was three.

When the Age of Torah Began

That doesn’t fit another Talmudic text (let alone that we have to believe that a three year old would come up with monotheism on his own), because Avodah Zarah 9a records Tanna de-bei Eliyahu as dividing world history into three two thousand year periods, the second of which is Torah. The two thousand years of Torah couldn’t have started at Sinai, since it hadn’t been that long from Sinai to then.

Instead, the Gemara says it was the moment the Torah describes at the beginning of Lech Lecha, when Avraham and Sarah leave Charan, and take with them “the souls they made” there. Apparently, the two thousand years of Torah started with the spread of Torah ideas, not Avraham and Sarah’s adhering to Torah ideas (that could be one difference between Avraham and earlier monotheists, as we’ll discuss).

The Gemara says he was fifty-two when that happened. That, too, raises problems, as Tosafot note there: The verse just before this one says explicitly that Avraham was seventy-five when he left Charan, so how does the Gemara say he was fifty-two? Tosafot answers that Avraham left Charan twice, a tradition bolstered by the view that he was seventy at theBerit bein HaBetarim (that’s to resolve yet another complication of reconciling verses, one of which says that the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years, when Hashem told Avraham his descendants would live in a land that wasn’t theirs for 400 years, as Rashi points out several times in his commentary on the Torah).

Avraham could have left Charan at 52, lived in Israel until at least seventy, and then gone back to Charan (for unknown reasons), only to leave again at 75, when Hashem told him. That suggests a great deal about the course of Avraham’s life and spiritual development; in addition, it reads the beginning of Lech Lecha as switching within the space of a verse between Avraham’s two leavings of Charan. But we’ll leave that, too, for another time.

Avraham’s Religious Development

It does serve as background for a comment of Maharsha’s to Nedarim. He says that R. Ami bar Abba meant only that Avraham began to recognize his Creator at the age of three, but the age of Torah did not begin until he was fifty-two, when he had already begun bringing others to recognize Hashem.

Maharsha had clearly read our Rambam, although he doesn’t reference it, and may not have read it as I am suggesting Rambam intended it. He does show us two Talmudic sources that would help Rambam place the beginning of Avraham’s search at a young age and continue on to a fuller realization.

Rambam’s “weaned” might have been his reading of three years old in the Gemara; even if physical weaning happens at a younger age, Rambam might have meant it as intellectual weaning, when he started to think on his own, but at a very young age. By age forty, his worldview crystallized into monotheism and all its ramifications.

Maharsha could be adding that between forty and fifty-two, Avraham (and Sarah, who was ten years younger than him, but presumably learned from her husband) began gathering adherents to this view of the world (as we’ll discuss next time), whom they took with them when they left for Charan.

Forty or Forty-Eight?

Where did that closing age come from? Bereshit Rabbah Toledot 64, where R. Yochanan and R. Chanina agree that Avraham was forty-eight when he recognized his Creator, and Resh Lakish says he was three, citing the same verse as R. Ami bar Abba does in Nedarim. As Kessef Mishneh points out, Rambam’s version of the Midrash apparently had the number forty, not forty-eight.

Avraham’s Journey as a Paradigm

There’s too much more in that paragraph of Rambam to deal with here, so we’ll leave it for next time. Already, though, Rambam has shown us his acceptance of passages in Gemara (and of Midrash Rabbah) that we could have imagined treating purely allegorically.

Stubborn readers might argue that he really meant it allegorically, that the point of sharing this version of Avraham’s life story was to make a point to us about the need to delve deeply into belief in God, to realize that it takes the greatest of us years and years to get there, and to therefore see what a delicate and pressing task it is to cultivate full and proper faith in our Creator.

All of which I think is true. Is why, as far as I can tell, Rambam included this material in an halachic work. He was ruling that carrying this story with us is part of being full Jews, accepting that we descend (biologically and, we can hope and strive, intellectually and in terms of our characters) from a man who lived this process to come to his understanding of fundamental truths of the world.

Another example of Aggada that Rambam accepted and incorporated in his picture of the world.

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