the first protestor

These are the words that I shared yesterday during my “closing conversation,” an opportunity each ordinee has to teach Torah to a group of faculty members.

I first started to dislike Avraham during my Bereshit class my Shanah Aleph year.

A couple of years before I started rabbinical school, I witnessed the devastation of my brother’s in-laws at the untimely death of their daughter. I felt helpless, and yet certain they would never be whole again. A parent who would kill his son in the guise of piety, I declared in a d’var Torah, can only be characterized as monstrous.

Shortly after answering Gd’s call, Avraham enriches himself in a new land, I argued one day in class, by unctuously convincing his wife to sleep with the pharaoh.

A few years later, Allan Lehmann pointed out to me that it’s not Avraham who originally leaves אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים; at the end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually his father who moves his family אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן. But it is Avraham who is credited for the pioneering journey.

Son, wife, and father: Avraham in some way betrays them all. Judy Klitsner argues, however, that this is just a feature of Avraham’s mission. Noting that his journey begins and ends with the words לֶךְ-לְךָ, she says: “Thus, Abraham is commanded to end his career as he began, as one who stands as perpetual ‘other’ to those around him. Arguably, Abraham was never destined to act as a model father, husband, or uncle [and I would add, or son]. He was to be a solitary living symbol, prefiguring the history of his offspring; a blessed nation with the potential to bring blessing to others, but dwelling alone.”

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my protest tallit (from Advah Designs)

The stakes for me in the characterization of Abraham are high. I am, after all, bat Avraham. I care about the patriarch(y). What use to me is the father of Judaism as dubiously venerated icon?

One of the unexpected discoveries in the writing of my Capstone, on מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, the mysterious priest-king of Gen. 14, has been the development of more compassion for this deeply flawed character of Avraham.

Genesis 14 contains the simultaneously quotidian and miraculous story of Avraham’s military victory in the “War of the Kings.” He goes to war to rescue the kidnapped Lot, whose fate he is alerted to by a refugee of war: וַיָּבֹא, הַפָּלִיט וַיַּגֵּד לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי.

As many have noticed, the characterization of Avraham as ha’ivri is odd, and indicative of the fact of a reworking of an external source into the Avraham cycle. The book of Genesis has been thus far the book of Abraham, so why does the narrative perspective here shift to portray Avraham as outsider?

For many mefarshim, this nomenclature is an indication not just of how he is viewed by others, but in fact of how he views himself — and perhaps how we are supposed to see him.

Thus far in eretz Cana’an, Avraham has been a solitary actor, separating from the little family he has left, and interacting only superficially with the land’s natives. His life has been and will be characterized by these separations: from Sarah, from Yitzchak and Yishmael, from Lot, from Hagar. Drawing on one of the meanings of the root ayin-bet-resh, in Bereshit Rabbah Rabbi Yehuda explains, “All the world was on one side, ever ehad, and [Avraham] was on the other.”

I often feel isolated in my life, in my choices, in my beliefs. I left my birthplace, physically, metaphorically, religiously. I live outside Texas, outside the expectations of my family, outside my religion of origin. And I would say to the extent that I am a frequent holder of minority opinions in “the land that God has shown me,” I am also an outsider in my religion of choice.

Sampson Rafael Hirsch frames Avraham’s position as ha’ivri in more modern terms: He says of Gen. 14:13, “Abraham had remained the Ivri. This term may be interpreted as ‘he who came from the other side of the river,’ or, as Rabbi Joshua explains, ‘the one who stands aside,’ the one who stands in opposition to the rest of the world, the first ‘protester,’ as it were.”

Now that’s someone I recognize and I understand.

This understanding has also been a source of reflection, as I think about the ways in which my protest, my opposition — much like Avraham’s — has been hurtful. Last night at T’ruah’s gala, board member Rabbi Les Bronstein shared Torah from Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l some of what he would have said in his address at the ordination of HUC’s New York rabbis on Monday night. Da lifnei mi atah omed, Rabbi Panken teaches, in these times doesn’t just mean, “Know before whom you stand.” It is also a call to know what you stand for. I would add — and to know who or what you stand against.

To stand in opposition, even out of moral principle, is a blessing and a curse, to use Abrahamic language.

Somewhere in my Capstone research, I ran across an argument that in retrospect seems so obvious but is one I hadn’t heard made so explicit before: The mythology of peoplehood of the Jews is one of the few that doesn’t attempt to establish its people as native to the land in which they live. The ancestors of Theban royalty in Greek mythology, for example, claimed to descend from warriors who sprang up from the dragon’s teeth sown by the hero Cadmus. They are literally autochthonous, from the ground itself, but we Jews are outsiders from the outset.

The sign of the completion of our liberation, at the end of the book of Shemot, the book of freedom, is not our settlement in the land — a feat we don’t achieve even by the end of Torah — but the completion of the mishkan, the welcoming of the presence of Gd among us. It matters less where we stand as such than where we stand in relation to Gd and community.

I came to Judaism because I became convinced that it, and the Gd I want to believe in, could handle my questions. Because it is the place I want to stand and from which I want to protest. In this sense, I am indeed proudly bat Avraham.

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