The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu Tentative Thoughts Toward a Jewish Religious Renaissance

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 8 september 2017

Part 1 and 2 of a 5-part essay.

Ideology and Philosophy


In the last decade there have been many upheavals in Israel that no one would ever have imagined and that may be affecting Diaspora Jewry as well. In fact, the situation of the Jewish people throughout the world is undergoing fundamental changes. It is unclear where Israel and the Middle East are heading, and it will take some time before a more peaceful era will emerge. Still, we must look beyond this. We must prepare Israel and its citizens for the time when it will become crucial to make decisions about their identity and their connection to Judaism. While that connection is currently ambivalent, to say the least, it will one day become a matter of such importance that the refusal to address it will no longer be an option. Not only will it be decisive as far as the spiritual condition of Israel is concerned, but it will actually determine whether the State of Israel will continue to exist. Much of the turmoil taking place at this moment in history is due to Israel’s lack of Jewish spiritual direction and imagination. It will soon become evident that the physical survival of the State of Israel will one day become so dependent on Judaism that it will be necessary to convey the great teachings of this tradition to the Jewish people in a completely different light.

This is true not only in the State of Israel but elsewhere as well. Major changes are required to guarantee that Judaism once again becomes the Jews' raison d’etre. If this is not actualized, the Diaspora Jewish community will further disintegrate and, in the years to come, will no longer be able to survive as an important force in world Jewry. This may ultimately lead to a change in American policy toward Israel, which could have far-reaching consequences. We must therefore prepare ourselves now. (The David Cardozo Academy is primarily dedicated to meet these very challenges.)

The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu

There are two schools of thought in Judaism, two types of batei midrash: the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu. Although both of them are integral parts of Judaism, the difference between them is critical.

Maimonides states (1) that Avraham Avinu started a movement of emunah (deep religious faith). While Maimonides sees Avraham’s discovery of God as the result of philosophical contemplation, other interpretations reflect the view that it is not a purely intellectual discovery, but rather the direct result of an existential encounter with God. What Avraham discovered is not so much that God exists but that “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance” (2).

This discovery effected a major transformation in Avraham's personality. It infused him with a great amount of wonder for all existence and deep concern for the well-being of humankind. This was not just a matter of the mind but also of the heart. As such, Avraham became the driving force behind a movement that turned the world on its head; an irresistible movement of which emunah and chesed (kindness) became the central pillars. Emunah filtered through Avraham’s very being and initiated him into a previously unknown world. The long-term effect of this transformation becomes clear when we remind ourselves of Rashi’s comment that Avraham was able to “convert” many of his contemporaries (3). Why was he so successful in doing so? Was it because of his great intellect? Surely, this must have played a role, but there is little doubt that it was mainly due to the type of person he had become. Those who are positively affected by God do not just add another dimension to their personality but become totally different people, while still maintaining their individuality. Consequently, such people are able to connect with others in ways that are not available to those who do not share that positive experience of God.

Confronted by Avraham's unique character, the world around him stood re-created, trembling in a new light, radiating a fresh spectrum of colors.

Not Textbooks but Textpeople

Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed: "What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople" (4). The difference between a student and a disciple is that a student studies the text while a disciple studies the teacher. It is midot tovot (exalted characteristics), integrity, and sensitivity that are the essential qualities necessary to successfully teach a religious tradition. This is the grundnorm (foundation) on which the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu stands: to teach in order to inspire a re-awakening and transformation of the soul. It is here that we find the roots of Judaism in their most central form. We must therefore understand that Judaism began as an existential movement in which all that humankind does, thinks, feels, and says is touched by the spirit of God.

Incubation Time, Judaism’s non-Halachic Start

Judaism was not originally a halachic tradition, as we know it today. It took hundreds of years before the Sinai revelation, with all its halachic implications, could take place and have any impact, and before Halacha could become possible. Much had to happen prior to such an exalted moment. Halacha had to grow out of the Abrahamic experience. It was only then that the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu became possible. This is the bet midrash of halachic discussion and decision-making. But such a bet midrash must first be grounded in the existential emunah-orientation of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu.

There had to be a period of incubation during which concepts of emunah would take shape and the spiritual foundations of Judaism could develop. The magnificent Jewish traditional weltanschauung (worldview) had to mature and find its way through actual faith experiences before it could become a halachic way of living. Thus, the Sinai revelation can only be seen as the result of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, which found its solidification in the halachic foundation of Sinai. It is there that the faith experiences of the earliest generations, starting with Avraham, were transposed into a practical, spiritual way of living.

We can call these moments “root experiences” (a term used by Jewish philosopher Emile Fackenheim), since they had to become epoch-making events, making inroads in the Jewish people's subconscious and laying the foundations for Halacha to be used when the time would come for its revelation. These experiences would permit a glimpse of the sphere in which an unrestricted power, the root of Halacha, is at work. They needed, in some way, to destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary. Above all, the enduring amazement of these moments is most crucial. It must make every natural explanation deepen the wonder of the experience. No knowledge or cognitive understanding should weaken the ability of the moment to astonish.

Aggada and Halacha

It is crucial to comprehend that halachic Judaism can survive only if it is constantly reviewed and consciously connected to Avraham Avinu’s Bet Midrash, a challenge that has become a major problem in today’s Jewish religious community. In order to understand this, we must take notice of the relationship between the worlds of Halacha and Aggada, the latter of which consists of non-halachic teachings of the Jewish tradition as found in the Talmud and Midrash. What is the difference between these two components of the Jewish tradition?

Halacha can inform people how to behave in any particular situation, but it cannot provide insight into the quality of their behavior, or convey a sense of spiritual change as a result of the performance of Halacha. Aggada is there to allow entry of the unseen into the visible world; to go beyond the realms of the definable, perceivable, and demonstrable. It helps us begin to comprehend the infinite through the use of finite acts. It is a religious metaphor that enables us to form mental images of the indescribable (5). It thaws the frozen world of Halacha and reveals the divine flow behind it.

It is here that we understand the crucial importance of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, through which the entire aggadic world was created and from which it draws its spirit. While Halacha is explained as the system of codes and regulations that govern life, the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu enables a person to formulate a weltanschauung, giving them the ability to function on an existential and philosophical level, rather than solely on a concrete one. Although Halacha is quite flexible in its very nature, the world of Aggada deals with a person's entire situation, which transcends the inherent limitations of every legal system. The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, as represented by the world of Aggada, ensures that Judaism remains fresh. It is very different from theology or catechisms that are found in other religions, in which the truth, through the introduction of dogma, has once and for all been finalized.

Aggada results from the existential struggles of the great people of faith, in which matters are tested, discussed, thought over, and reformulated, with the knowledge that no final conclusions have ever been or could ever be reached. After all, the early Sages of Israel realized that any effort to do so would fail because creeds and dogmas can only be indications of poor attempts to convey what could not be adequately expressed. To argue that there are definite fundamentals of faith is to undermine authentic religious faith. Similarly, people may argue that musical notes are the fundamentals of music. They are not – they are only directions for the musician to follow, showing the way, but never das ding an sich (the thing unto itself). Dogmas can never become walls; they can only function as windows into a world beyond definitions.

The Problem of Pan-Halacha

It is here that we encounter a major crisis in today’s Judaism. Over the years, the distance between Aggada and Halacha – the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu and the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu – has been growing, and we are now encountering an independent halachic world that has turned its back on the world of Avraham Avinu, thereby showing signs of disintegration. This is evident by the fact that nearly everything has become a halachic issue, a type of pan-Halacha. Today’s Judaism has become overly halacha-ized, rejecting nearly any dimension in which the human spirit requires more than just a practical response to its problems and challenges. It has finalized faith positions.

For Halacha to remain healthy and authentic, it must draw its essence from of the world of faith, as represented by Aggada and beyond. Specifically, it is crucial that in the case of religious belief, matters should remain fluid and not become static. The quest for God needs to be open-ended so that the human soul has the opportunity to find its way through trial and discovery. The very fact that today we encounter a serious endeavor to see Halacha as the only expression of Judaism, and that some halachic authorities constantly attempt to bring the hashkafa (religious philosophy) of Judaism back to finalized dogmas, is a clear indication that those very authorities try to Halacha-ize issues of faith. But doing so robs Judaism of its vital flowing life force. We need to understand that Halacha is the practical upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of living while remaining in theological suspense. That is the only way to prevent Judaism from turning into a religion that either becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamism can only come about when Jewish beliefs consist of a fluid liquid that Halacha then transforms into a solid substance. Halacha needs to chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to cool off entirely. Jewish beliefs are like arrows, flying in all directions, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bowstring; Halacha, on the other hand, is straight and unswerving.

The fact that solving this problem is not considered crucial to the future of Judaism is more than worrisome. Even a plant that continues to survive after its roots are cut will eventually wither and die.

We do not suggest dismantling the Judaism of Halacha. Such a move would be suicidal. But we maintain that allowing Judaism to develop into a dry legal system, in which the spirit takes a back seat, will result in rigidity to such an extent that its very purpose will be completely undermined.

To be continued …

(1) Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1-3.

(2) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (NY: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 92.

(3) Bereishit 12:5.

(4) A. J. Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (NY: Crossroad, 1983) p.

(5) See Chaim Nachman Bialik, "Halacha va'Aggada", in Divrei Sifrut (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1964) p. 55; see, also, Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955) chs. 32 and 33.

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