Monday, September 15, 2008

Radical Awe vs. Righteous Indignation

The aggadot in this section answer the question "Why Abraham? What was so special about him?" As a reader of the Biblical text, I cannot help but be struck by the suddeness with which Avram bursts upon the scene and, after only six verses of introduction, becomes the protagonist of so many chapters. All of these aggadot relate to this question, but the opposition between the solutions provided by aggadot #5 and #7 seems particularly stark.

I was struck by the extent to which Aggadah #5 describes the spiritual searching of the 3-year old Abraham (I will refer to him as Abraham and not Avram because the aggadah calls him Abraham) as something natural and totally rational. His conclusion that a higher power exists is based only on his observation that in nature, no power reigns supreme. This aggadah seems to postulate a kind of religious "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny;" that human society itself, in its embrace of monotheism, went through a drawn-out version of the thought process that took Avram only 24 hours. Avram here is symbolic of (or a harbinger of) the change in religious focus that happened throughout human history. This version of why Avram was exceptional comes at the end of an aggadah in which Terah demonstrates his cleverness against Nimrod, so throughout this section, rationality and faith (Terah's faith in his ability to save his own son, for example) make a happy couple. By the way, what's up with the similarities between this one and the Gospel of Matthew? (See ch. 1-2 for similar stars, messengers from the east, prophecies to the king, attempted slaughter of the innocents) Is it just the conventions of Near Eastern mythology in evidence, or something more?

While in aggadah #5, Abraham’s realization about God is triggered by his radical amazement at the wonders of creation, in #7, his recognition is of a more depressing ilk. Aggadah #7 presents the world as a house ablaze (presumably with sin) and the best God can do is assure us that She’s not an absentee landlord? When I first studied this aggadah several years ago, it struck me as a challenging and scary acknowledgement of God’s (self-imposed) limitations on intervening to control the corruption in the world. However, upon re-reading it in the context of these other aggadot that deal with our central question—what in Abraham’s perception of the world allowed him to see God?—I decided that it was more of a statement about how Abraham saw his surroundings. While everyone else in his society was relaxing in comfortable oblivion, Abraham saw the world’s true (and terrifying) state. It is Abraham’s righteous indignation—“Who’s in charge here, and how did he let it all get so out of hand?”—that leads God to seek him out and give him insight.
Aggadot #5 and #7 present us with two different models for religious vision and leadership: that motivated by radical awe, and that motivated by righteous indignation. Let’s track throughout the upcoming chapters how these models play out in our texts.


Howard said...

But the insight shared by G!d, "I am the Owner" doesn't respond to the indignation. Why doesn't Abraham remain indignant at G!d?

General Anna said...

Isn't that indignation at God what motivates Abraham to pursue God, to follow God to Canaan, to argue with God about Sodom and Gomorrah? I would argue that Abraham's righteous indignation pops up again a few times in the story.

Richard Friedman said...

Is it clear that the house is ablaze? The Hebrew says "doleket," and the footnote says "m'irah banerot sheb'tochah" -- shedding light through the candles that are in it." It sounds more as though Avraham sees the lights on in the palace, and thinks that, if the lights are on, someone must be in charge.

Interestingly, the commentaries on the source (Gen. R. 39:1) diverge. The commentary attributed to Rashi says that Avraham saw the sun and the moon and the stars "m'irin" -- casting light. On the other hand, the commentary of Maharzu (Ze'ev Wolf Einhorn) says that Avraham saw the palace "nisr'fa" (burning up) and wondered whether the master had left, and the commentaries of R' David Luria and Ya'akov Moshe Hellin Ashkenazi (Y'dei Moshe) agree.

Binyamin said...

"By the way, what's up with the similarities between this one and the Gospel of Matthew?"

Both Rabbis and the writers of the Christian Gospels used texts from the Tanak to create their expanded stories. This is especially true of the Jesus birth stories. The specific reference to the "Star of the East" is found in Balaam's prophecy at Num. 24:17.