The Lonely and Crowded Path of Monotheism
Most Jews have the feeling that Jews are different, to a greater or lesser extent, from the other peoples of the world. Jews have long had a sense of separation from the rest of the world, yet togetherness with each other. Most Jews will say, in response to the question of who was the first Jew, that it was Abraham. It then follows that in order to get a better sense of what makes Jews different from other people which is another way of asking what Jewish identity consists of that one needs to look at Abraham, and particularly as his career begins in this week’s parashah.
The Bible’s telling of Abraham’s journey raises more questions than answers. God tells Abraham (at that time still Abram) to leave his native land and go to a new one, where he will receive many blessings. (Genesis 12:1-2) There is no explanation of why God chose Abraham for that task. Maimonides, basing himself on midrashim, explains that Abraham, growing up in a pagan environment, went through a solitary, intellectual process in which he rediscovered the earlier human belief that there is one God alone. Abraham then proceeded to denounce and revolt against the prevailing paganism that had corrupted humanity’s original monotheism — and had to flee his homeland. This account upends the Biblical story by making Abraham not a passive recipient of God’s command but an active rebel in God’s cause. He does not just respond to God’s call; he issues a call for others to join him in his one-God cause, and they do. (Laws of Idol Worship, Chapter 1) Maimonides’ description of Abraham’s spiritual origins is worth noting because of its placement — in a law code, the Mishneh Torah. By placing his description of Abraham as the introduction to the laws prohibiting idolatry, and describing Abraham’s activities in the way he does, Maimonides accomplishes several goals at once. First, he instructs his readers about origins of their separate status from the pagans of the world. Second, pointing to Abraham as an active messenger of monotheism, he implies that Abraham’s descendants can and should follow that example. Third, he implies that in doing so, the Jewish people have a common cause with other monotheistic peoples.
The separation of Jews from other peoples is often experienced as a lonely and uncomfortable posture rather than a noble solitude. It is one of the ironies of history that the decline of paganism did not smooth the rough edges of separation, but rather made them sharper as Judaism faced the competing monotheisms of Christianity and Islam. The Jews of the Americas and Europe live in countries that are predominantly Christian. The Jews of Israel live in a region almost totally Muslim. For many centuries, because of historical reasons and power politics, Jews have left the active, outreaching portion of the Abraham legacy to Christians and Muslims. It is a legacy of joining people together in one’s cause rather than separating from them. It is worth exploring how Jews can reclaim this aspect of the Abraham legacy without giving up their distinct identity.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.