Renewed Aggadic Steps toward a Personal Theology of Progressive Halakha
"Israel is a chosen nation, God’s chosen nation, but the reason for its chosen-ness remains obscure. It does not succeed in following traditional norms of male heroism, nor does it become an exemplary nation with high moral and religious standards."
Ilana Pardes, “Imagining the Birth of Israel: National Metaphors in the Bible”
"A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path."
Tao Te Ching, translated by Thomas Cleary
A revealing moment takes place when Abraham our father accounts for himself before Avimelekh, king of Gerar. Abraham, let us recall, has instructed his wife to pretend that she is his sister, whereupon Avimelekh has claimed Sarah for himself, very nearly bringing about his own demise, as God reveals to Avimelekh in a scolding dream. Now, apprised of Sarah’s actual identity, Avimelekh, in indignation, understandably, demands of Abraham, What on earth were you thinking when you acted as you did? (Gen. 20:9-10)
Abraham’s fumbling for an answer opens a sudden window into our progenitor’s inner journey, and his soul. At first he seems to hem and haw: Well, she is my sister, in a sense, actually, if you look at the genealogy, in a certain way. (Come on, for shame, we want to say. You know what Avimelekh means. Stop dissembling and answer like a responsible human being for what you did.) And anyhow, Abraham continues, this all happened “when God caused me to wander from my father’s house...”
"....then I said to her, This shall be your loving-kindness (your chesed), which you shall do with me, in every place we go, say of me, He is my brother."
It happened “when God caused me to wander.” The strange, transitive verb, seeming to imply Abraham’s passivity, hit’u, can also be read as ‘caused me to err,’ ‘made me be to’eh’ – ‘wandering,’ and perhaps even ‘wrong’ (the tav and tet forms of the root are cognate and closely related in meaning) – in which case Abraham seems to be attempting an ultimate passing of the buck, and of the blame. It’s not my fault, so Abraham would have Avimelekh believe – God cast me on this un-trodden way, God called me out on this path that no person has walked before. Don’t blame me, I’m doing the best I can, considering. After all, God caused me to stake my life upon this commanded journey – which, by the way, from the religious perspective of everyone I meet, is errant – so I erred.
Talk about an error! “This shall be your chesed,” your godly attribute of caring, to be misguiding and dishonest? (It is chesed perhaps only in the strange sense of Leviticus 20:17, where the word connotes egregious impropriety, but that is hardly a redeeming parallel.) Scripture furnishes Abraham with no excuse, or none better than he finds for himself. God caused him to wander, and he erred.
How can we say that Abraham was made to wander, and all the more to err? Is this not Abraham to whom God gave clear direction? Did God not say to Abraham, definitively, ‘Lekh lekha,’ get up and go, and go exactly as I point you? How can Abraham call his journey ‘wandering,’ and how can he suggest that the God-commanded path might lead to erring? For that matter, and somewhat on the other hand, would Abraham be all that misguided if he did disavow responsibility for his own course, having chosen to submit to the divine imperative?
At first glace, the Aramaic interpretive translation, the targum of Abraham’s account, seems just as evasive and dissembling as the patriarch himself does in his excuses before Avimelekh. Targum Onkelos transforms Abraham’s words into: “And it came to pass when God caused the nations of the world to err, that God drew me close to his service.” This reworking of the verse reads, at first blush, as a pious retrenchment into national cliché. It seems, as well, to be a religious effort to exclude categorically any reading in which God might have caused our forefather to wander ethically and to err – ‘Goyim make mistakes, I don’t. I serve God,’ the targum wants our father Abraham to say.
What does it mean that Abraham was drawn close to God’s service? With Abraham our father, the relationship of humanity and God-as-lawgiver seems to arrive at a novel paradigm. It is a pathway seemingly born of out of a process of divine and human cosmic trial and error, which plays out through the first chapters of Genesis.
In the beginning, in the garden, there was only one law, one clear commandment, one tree, clearly indicated, from which alone not to eat, one single misstep, total and calamitous, the only available alternative. Torah as Law, then, was a yes-or-no proposition. We were in or we were out. Humankind naturally tending to be rebellious, or impudent, or curious, or bored, the single Law was broken, and we were banished from the simplicity of Eden – end of lawgiving experiment number one: Human beings are not to be unthinking yes-people. We will have discernment.
Between the expulsion from the garden and the Flood, there comes a time of utter lawlessness. God gives no Law, and a period of nightmarish anarchy ensues. With possibly a scant few notable exceptions – Enoch and his grandson Noah, who managed to ‘walk with God’ (and perhaps some people in the time of Enosh who started to ‘call out in the name of the Lord’) – the world fills up with unredeemable wickedness. So the whole establishment, minus Noah and family, is condemned – end of lawgiving experiment number two: Our world cannot endure without a foundation of instruction – in the most literal sense, a Torah. There must be a Law.
So the rainbow-covenant with Noah comes amid a small flurry of lawgiving, a few basic principals, the so-called ‘seven noahide precepts’ (Genesis, chapter 9). A few clear laws – and total unanimity. The whole world is of one accord, “one speech,” ‘devarim achadim,’ one single-minded purpose. Call it a time of towering, monolithic, self-affirming certainty. It is also a time of the ultimate in human pretension, arrogance, and overreaching. So sure in itself is humanity, with its God-given fundamentals, and no room to admit subjective understanding, that nobody sees an impediment to claiming the very heavens. This, apparently, is also not what God intends, and the unison is shattered – end of lawgiving experiment number three: There will be disparity of articulation. There must be varied interpretation.
How, then, will a godly path be established, as the divine calls out to the father of our people? Lekh lekha, God commands, make your way. ‘Go unto yourself,’ our tradition has long interpreted, and, we might add, in newer idiom, ‘come into your own.’ Or, as God also says to Abraham (in Genesis 17:1), ‘Walk before me and become blameless.’ Hithalekh – a reflexive verb, ‘walk yourself about’, make your own going when you go as a standard-bearer before me. You must chart a way toward righteousness, of yourself, and be... Heyeh, ‘be,’ but eternally in the future tense – which is to say, you must do the work of bringing your own self into the fullness of its being, ever striving toward a distant blamelessness, ahead.
What, by contrast, was the misdeed of Haran, Abraham’s brother, who died, as the midrashic narrative has it, in the same fiery furnace that Abraham survived? Haran waited to see who would be vindicated, Abraham or the fire-worshiping Nimrod. Abraham survived the test, proving the rightness of his choice to follow God. Haran, impressed by the miracle, immediately sided with Abraham, and so was cast into the same furnace after him, and Haran died, his innards scorched, according to the story – but why? What was wrong with wanting to follow the path of a great man? Not everyone can be an Abraham himself. Or is that so?
Haran’s fault seems to be that he seeks the answer and the truth entirely outside himself and in the ways of others, illustrious as those others may be. Haran does not look inward, Haran does not engage in the way commanded to our line with lekh lekha. Haran’s religious life, in the moment of decision, is not a true expression of his own inner self, nor even an effort in that direction. Haran dies of inauthenticity – not from a lack of adherence to external norms and signposts of correctness and piety, but from a failure to discover and articulate himself in his own choices.
Haran’s innards are burnt up in the furnace. He steps out of the kiln and falls dead before his father, Terah. Apparently his outer form survives. What is the midrash teaching us? It is teaching us that Haran has made himself into the mere shell of a man. What remains of him is only the outward semblance of a human being. He may make the motions of a man pursuing a path, but he is not a person truly seeking a way in the company of his own heart. The man who makes himself a gutless outward show of loyalty and righteous decision is immolated on the inside.
Is inward immolation all that bad? Later masters of our way, inward-seeking to be sure – Elazar Azikri, for instance, author of the hymn Yedid Nefesh, and also that greatest of modern Jewish mystics, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook – say, ‘In my heart I shall erect a temple for God’s splendid glory, and in that temple I shall place an altar fashioned for God’s radiance, and for eternal flame I shall take the fire of the akedah, of Abraham’s ultimate sacrifice, and for an offering I shall offer up my unique soul to God.’ I shall sacrifice my soul. I shall give my self entirely in a sacrificial response to the commanding voice of God. Is that not the self-justifying cry of everyone whose religious path is an obedience that purports devoutly to exclude the selfish cries of the subjective heart?
Then I ask: Why was your particular soul created if only for you to slit its throat on the altar that is law set in stone? What was Abraham’s true sacrifice? His own discerning heart? His son? I say that Abraham is our father because what he gave God, entirely and without reservation, and even to a fault, was his own soul – yes, indeed – but not in self-effacement. Abraham gave his erring, wandering, often wise and sometimes stupid soul, truly and entirely, to listening for the divine voice, wherever he could find it. Abraham gave himself – authentically, distinctively, unmistakably, Abraham. He gave his life entirely to responding, in action, to the utmost limits of his human ability to make out what God wanted. It was a path of the highest stakes, no doubt about it. There were any number of near-complete catastrophes, and errors, not to mention wanderings. (If you must justify every patriarch’s treatment of his wife, for instance, we have little to talk about.) Yet, buffeted and befuddled as Abraham may sometimes have been, he soldiered on, trying with all his heart to the very end – and so must we.
Halakha, as we have come to call our centuries-long and multi-tracked endeavor of way-making, should be a matter of trying to walk that Abrahamic walk. Here I do not speak of halakha in the sense of some fixed, authoritative record of what our forbears have decided, or failed to decide – nobody should walk step-for-step in Abraham’s footprints, or in anyone else’s. I mean halakha as the creative project of seeking right ways and of working to practice them – halakha the process, not halakha the reified code. Especially with its pretensions to the definite article, “The Halakha,” a stone-faced and very nearly idol-like construction, and a dubious one to boot, has been the blunt point of so many arguments, and has hurt so many, that it may be hard even to hear what I mean by halakha the searching way. I mean the distinctive and dynamic course of each way-seeking and way-making Jewish soul, Jewish family, Jewish community.
What is your halakha? Do you know that you have one – that you inscribe it in every moment of your life? What will it be? How much is it a practice of following the clear decisions of others? How much is your halakha a matter of staying supple in practice? Does it irk you to have the word halakha associated with you at all, because of connotations of the definite and of authority? I make a case for the term halakha because, to my own Jewish ears, the words “post-halakhic Judaism” ring as the words “post-dharmic Buddhism” might strike a creative Buddhist. The very essence of our religious and spiritual Jewish tradition is searching out and making and enacting paths – and why should we jettison the best term for that trail-blazing, just because in some quarters the word halakha has ossified into a brittle, stony cudgel and a few have claimed sole rights to it? Nobody else, ultimately, can make your halakha, nobody else, regardless of that person’s pretensions and your own submission, is ultimately responsible for your path. You are not to be like Haran, remember?
We will all make mistakes – you, too. Sorry, but Abraham did, so I am quite certain that we will as well. Mistakes are particularly disturbing in the realm of the most holy, not least because, like Abraham, it is so difficult for us to know when we are making them and so easy for us to feel that we are not. In fact, the history of halakha, for those who care to study the long and rich annals of the discipline, has very often been a story of discerning and correcting mistakes. Any one sage may choose a moment to propound some corrective measure in the name of God – and then life moves on, and so does halakha, and even our ways of thinking about halakha move on, and about Torah, and about structures of authority.
Not for nothing, perhaps, is the traditional term for definitively determined law halakha pesukah. ‘Versified law,’ we might translate, but also ‘walking stopped,’ or even, ‘striding broken.’ Perhaps that sense is the reason the talmudic tradition, in its truest heart of hearts, does not really desire conclusions though it delights in endlessly seeking them. There is something broken about answers settled upon, try to stamp them as we may with divine imprimatur. We are living creatures, we are made to move, we might say, lehithalekh.
That is what Abraham means, perhaps, when he says all of this happened, when God caused me to wander. People round about may choose their self-assured and stony absolutes. (Perhaps we should read that as the error of the nations to which the targum points.) As for us, the seed of Abraham, God has called us, calls us still, and God wakes us to new life every morning, and the divine call drives us on, and, responding, we search, and with all our hearts, our sometimes erring hearts, we go, we cause ourselves to walk, we make our ways, and live.