to Ponder Number 95
When studying the life of Avraham, we often wonder what made him into the first Jew in all of history. Without any doubt he must be seen as the progenitor of all that Judaism had to offer throughout the ages. As such he laid the foundations of nearly all religious thinking in the west. Not only did Judaism give birth to two other world religions, Christianity and Islam, but it also became the foundation of several legal systems, the concept of justice and western morality. What was Avraham's secret?
Conventional thinking argues
that it is was Avraham who "discovered" God after mankind
had fallen prey to idol worship and that this was his main
contribution. This however cannot be the whole story. It is clear
that other individuals also recognized God as their Lord. So we read
that Avimelech, King of Gerar and Melchizedek king of Salem, believed
in God seemingly even before they met Avraham. (chapter 14)
It was Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel z.l.*, (1883-1946) former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who suggested that it was the replacement of only one word which made Avraham into the father of all western religions and justice. And it was this change which brought about a radical departure from conventional thinking for all future times.
When Adam meets his wife
Chava for the first time (after she has been formed from his rib),
he identifies her with the words: "This now is the bone of my
bones and the flesh of my flesh" (Bereshith 2.23)
During the following centuries we see that human beings continue to see themselves in terms of flesh. Even the Torah which originally had called man "nefesh chaya" a living being, (2:7) continues to describe man in terms of his flesh. This becomes very clear when we read the story about the flood of Noach.
"And God saw the earth and behold, it was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth." (6.12)
Only when Avraham enters the Biblical narrative, is man never again described as flesh. From this moment onwards he is called soul (nefesh). (See for example Bereshith 12:13)
This possibly means that Avraham's most important contribution was not so much the discovery of God but to teach mankind that the human being is not so much flesh as he/she is soul. And once the word flesh is replaced by the word "nefesh", the foundations of morality become possible and the concept of religion is able to undergo a radical change. No longer is its function to make man just aware of God's existence, but the driving force behind moral values. From this moment it taught the human being that since he has a soul he is a moral being and henceforth responsible for his deeds.
Remarkable is the fact that Avraham's personality must have been so inspiring that once he met a stranger, the latter automatically changed his language from physical to spiritual. Even the King of Sedom, far from being righteous, could no longer employ his old sensual expressions. When speaking to Avraham after the latter had rescued Lot, he says: "Give me the souls and take the goods for yourself" (13:21)
One has only to recall
the abominable practices associated with the old polytheistic cults
and Plato's criticism of the Greek religion ** because of the great
moral evils it bred, to realize that the relation of religion to morals
is by no means obvious. It was only in Judaism that the idea of the
inseparableness of religion and ethical living arose. And from there
this concept was taken over by Christianity, Islam and different legal
systems. It is only because man is seen in terms of soul that he is
asked to be ethical.
All this became part of western civilization once Avraham revolutionized the world by replacing the word flesh with soul.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
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