Tuesday, September 16, 2008

College Sophomore

The long Midrash on Avraham (Aggadah 8) is obviously intended very positively. It shows Avraham’s brilliance, courage, and faith in G!d. What more could we ask for in the founder of our people. But if we were to change the content so it was not so positively weighted, would we come to the same positive spin?

First he treats two very old people very badly,
”Woe to a man who is seventy, yet prostrates himself before this thing which was made only today.” and “May the breath of such a woman be blasted! To think that one so old prostrates herself before a god who is only one day old.”

Sure he was "right" but there is such a thing as respect for older people that is found in the tradition. When he sets the scene for his father but destroying his idols, he does the same thing. At that point, Avraham was introducing or reintroducing the concept, of monotheism into the world. Was the best and most moral way to do it, acting like a college sophomore?

It is so easy to treat other people as fools. We (definitely including me) do it all the time, yet is it the best way “to spread the gospel” (inappropriate metaphor?). There are other Midrashim about how many people Avraham and Sarah converted. Maybe Sarah’s influence improved his understanding and respect for others.


Daniel said...

I don't think the point is that idolators are foolish because they're old. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Abraham is making the opposite point, but I do think he's saying: Most people who've lived as long as you have attained wisdom over the years. If you believe that an idol a few days old has already attained more wisdom, then you must not be very wise at all.

David A.M. Wilensky said...

Howard, I don't think that I get your point. And I say that as a college sophomore.

jrwilheim said...

I am most intrigued by the following part of this aggadah, in which Abraham puts food and drink before the idols and they neither eat nor drink. He then recites the psalms.

Now, I know historicity is a game the Rabbis often did not play. But I have to wonder what the message is here of having Abraham recite the psalms not only before they were written, but before his acceptance/discovery/call-it-what-you-will of monotheism occurred--or rather, in the process of an event that leads to his discovery/acceptance.

My take on this is that the author of this verse is having Abraham somehow anticipate the great wisdom which will flow from his discovery.

Any thoughts?

(J.R. Wilheim, good friend of Mosh, writing from Moscow, Russia)

Howard said...

Not all college sophomores, but many, think they know more than everyone else and they often show it in their attitude. The term is basically a cliche and I used it as such.
My point is not about the older people but about how Avraham talks to them, very disrespectfully. He has figured out the answer to the mysteries of the world, and they are fools, to him, for not accepting his position. We, with great shoulders to stand on, have learned enough to feel he is right (atheists may not agree) and so give his impolite mode of arguing his case a pass.
Yehezkel Kaufmann in "The Religion of Israel" points out that the Rabbis paint a picture view of idolaters that made them seem very unsophisticated. Idolaters knew that statues were not gods but represented their true gods. Idolaters were not total fools but did have logic in their thought. Avraham's arguments against idolatry are based upon this Rabbinic spin. A knowledgable idolater would have been able to respond.

BZ said...

We've seen a few interesting examples of this, and not only from characters who are considered wise. For example, in 1:2:101, Cain quotes Psalm 139. What does it all mean? I'm not sure.

General Anna said...

I think it's characteristic of people who have had a great insight to feel that, in hindsight, all the signs were so clear-- and thus that everyone else who doesn't have the same insight is a doofus. I think Abraham is just flush with his new insight and impatient with anyone who doesn't get it.
The rabbis have a vested interest in presenting the religion of the people of Canaan in as simplistic and as negative a way as possible. In my conversations with Hindus, they have been very clear about the fact that they consider statues to be representations of their gods but not the gods themselves. I believe that ancient peoples were at least this sophisticated. It's just that the rabbis want to assure the reader of the superiority of monotheism.