In asserting the primacy of the patriarch Abraham, that is.
Somewhere in the asyndetic ramble of John Kasich’s long goodbye — his envoi to his renvoi — was a poignant recounting of a moment on the grueling campaign trail when he suddenly insisted that his staffers “get off their phones” and gaze out the windows of the Kasich for President bus. They were passing majestic snow-capped mountains and he enjoined them to behold the grandeur of God’s gifts to mankind.
In the past I was no devotee of Kasich’s Scriptural exegesis, as when he discovered Obamacare tucked neatly into his Bible. Still, his campaign this time did strike a resonant chord with its worshipful vibrato. I believe him when he professes to seek God’s purpose for his life.
Indeed, the most valuable exchange of this wacky primary season did not come on a debate stage but was conducted between Governor Kasich and a political soldier of fortune named Ezra Friedland.
During the days preceding the New York primary, Governor Kasich was the customer du jour who Friedland ferried to a synagogue to encounter some of the faithful. The Governor no doubt felt a tad awkward, so instead of addressing the crowd directly he triangulated between them and his tour guide. Some banter ensued, with Kasich fumbling to find a common language within the Judeo-Christian ethos. At one point, he turned to Friedland and asked, “So, Ezra, who do you think is the most important figure in the Bible?”
“Why, Moses of course!” Friedland replied.
“Oh, no,” Kasich countered. “You are forgetting Abraham!”
They went back and forth for awhile, with Friedland eventually conceding that Abraham had some significance, inasmuch as Jews mention him at the outset of each prayer. There the matter came to an uneasy rest.
Several Jewish publications, of varying degrees of religiosity, carried the story. Their main reaction was grousing about Kasich’s chutzpah in trying to school Jews on their own sacred texts and theology. But the fact is that Kasich was absolutely correct.
Moreover, the poignancy of the encounter inheres in the message God was sending to Friedland through the testimony of Kasich. Because the flaw in the worldview of Friedland and his ilk is their missing, or dismissing, the historical mission of Abraham.
Although Moses is the lawgiver, the principles of Jewish engagement with the societies and governments of host countries are the legacy of Abraham. In brief, if I may, I will offer a compendium of the sources, both Biblical and Talmudic, for this premise.
- Abraham arrived at the truth of monotheism on his own. As early as three years old, he intuited the existence of a Creator, recognizing that the Creator had goals in the world and that human behavior must be regulated accordingly. (Talmud Nedarim 32a, interpreting Genesis 26:4)
- Abraham was not satisfied to keep his conclusions to himself, but instead taught his insights to the broader society in a general way, as well as establishing an academy for more advanced study. He devoted himself to his students with fatherly love. The sophistication of his conclusions was such that his teachings could already be considered Torah. (Talmud Sanhedrin 99b, interpreting Genesis 12:5)
- At age 48, he withstood the pull of the international movement which built the Tower of Babel as a rebellion against God and spirituality. This fortitude was celebrated by King David when he began the very first Psalm, “Fortunate is the man who did not follow the counsels of the wicked.” (Talmud Avoda Zara 18b-19a, interpreting Psalms 1:1)
- By the age of 52, alongside wife Sarah who was 42, Abraham was teaching Torah to the world in such quantity and quality that the Earth was definitively transformed from a place of intellectual and moral chaos to a place of “Torah”, i.e. where Godly truth of life was available. (Talmud Avoda Zara 9a, interpreting Genesis 12:5)
- He was persecuted for his message, particularly his opposition to idolatry. This led to a showdown with Nimrod, King of the Ur/Babylon region, the leading tyrant of his time. Nimrod forced Abraham to enter some kind of furnace, which he miraculously survived. (Talmud Eruvin 53a, Talmud Pesachim 118a)
- This episode was an international sensation, sparking sharp debate between acceptance and skepticism. Later, when Abraham won a war which included some miraculous features, most of the skeptics came around. Still, his conflict with the king forced him to leave Ur for Aram. (Midrash to Genesis 14:10, quoted by Rashi)
- His influence on the Aramaic region (Syria and Mesopotamia) was so profound he was called the “Av” (Father) of Aram, hence the name Avram (Av-Aram) or Abram. This dedication to the moral welfare of his country eventually (at age 99) earned him the prophecy which renamed him from Abram to Abraham. The fuller name is based on Av-Hamon, Father of the Multitude of Nations. He was now becoming the spiritual father of all nations. (Talmud Brachos 13a, interpreting Chronicles I 1:27)
- His earliest prophecy came well before his renaming. The prophecy which awarded him the right to sire a nation of his own based in the land of Israel, may have come as early as age 70. (Alluded to in Talmud Megilla 9a, interpreting Exodus 12:40) This date is given credence in Christian texts.
- The first prophecy to Abraham recorded in the Bible with an explicit date was the command to leave Haran (Aram) for Israel. This came at age 75. He headed to Israel, taking his close students along, and set up camp upon arrival. He built centers (“altars”) for monotheistic worship at several locations around the country, where he resumed his preaching and teaching among the local population. (Genesis 12:1-9)
- He earned prophecy by first attaining the maximum appreciation of Creation and awareness of God which can be achieved through observation and intellect. This is comparable to a man who admired the work of an artist to such an extent that the artist felt obliged to introduce himself. (Midrash to Genesis 12:1)
- His message to the world was so powerful, so passionate, and so demonstrably true that henceforth God held all humanity responsible for maintaining the standard set by this prophet. (Talmud Bava Kamma 92a, Makos 9b)
- The honorific God gave Abraham, “Father of the Multitude of Nations,” includes six roles: a patriarchal figure, a chosen individual, a beloved personality, a majestic leader, a moral model and a trustworthy caretaker. The last is especially significant, because it assures the nations they can rely on Abraham’s message throughout history. (Talmud Shabbos 105a)
- Once he settled in the Philistine region of Israel, Abraham set up a luxury hotel with FREE accommodations for travelers. The only requirement was that the beneficiaries express thanks to God for the food. (Talmud Sotah 10a,10b, interpreting Genesis 21:33)
- Although he lived among the Philistines for some years, and signed a compact with them, Abraham modeled a prudent lifestyle which included avoidance of social or recreational gatherings where conventions were mocked. This lifestyle of choosing wholesome companions is admired by King David. (Talmud Avoda Zara 18b-19a, interpreting Psalms 1:1)
- Abraham’s battle against the Four Kings was undertaken to promote justice over tyranny and is the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Who came from the East to awaken justice?” (Talmud Taanis 21a, interpreting Isaiah 41:2; see also commentary of Rashi to the verse in Isaiah, and Midrash Rabbah to Genesis 14:15)
- Abraham’s battle to free enslaved nations from the Four Kings earned him the title of “The Stalwart of Citizenship.” (Talmud Bava Basra 15a, interpreting Psalms 89:1)
- The eternal freedom that the Jewish People achieved in the Exodus from Egypt was the fulfillment of God’s prophecy to Abraham. It was important to make sure that the exact text of the promise was realized, with prosperity accompanying liberty. (Talmud Brachos 9b, interpreting Genesis 15:14 and Exodus 11:2)
- When the Jews were to be exiled from Israel for the first time as a nation (900 years later), they were sent to Babylon first, to return to the place where Abraham began his odyssey. (Talmud Pesachim 87b, Tosefta Bava Kamma 7:2, commentary of Rashi to Ecclesiastes 12:6,7)
- The Jews were given a prophecy when they left Israel for the Babylonian Exile. This explained how to interact with the governments of host countries. “So says God… to those I have exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon… You should seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you, and pray on its behalf to God, because when it is at peace you will have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:4,7)
- This formed the basis for Jews respecting their host governments, and working to promote their welfare. (Rashi to Talmud Avos 3:2)
- Foremost among Jews serving the government of Babylon was Daniel, who was spotted by Nebuchadnezzar for moral stamina and superior wisdom. (Daniel Chapter 1)
- When Daniel prayed for assistance, he cited the merit of his forefather Abraham, who had taught the world that God was the Master and King. (Talmud Brachos 7b, interpreting Daniel 9:17)
- King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, a descendant of Nimrod (Talmud Pesachim 94a,b), forced his citizens to serve idols and threw three recalcitrant Jews — comrades of Daniel — into the furnace for refusing. They were saved by a miracle explicitly identified as an extension or reprise of Abraham’s experience (Talmud Pesachim 118a)
- When the men explained to Nebuchadnezzar why they would not comply with his directive, they explained that Jews respect the government as long as it does not try to countermand God’s instruction in the Bible. (Commentary of Rashi to Ecclesiastes 8:2)
- God promised Abraham that although all three Patriarchs will be named at the outset of the prayer, it will be “sealed” by Abraham alone. (Talmud Pesachim 117b, interpreting Genesis 12:2) This is taken by many commentaries to be an allusion to the end of history, when Abraham alone will provide the main role model.
To sum up, the path to proper Jewish behavior as citizens of non-Jewish countries proceeds on a direct line from Abraham’s role as a teacher of morality to the world. Kasich was spot on, Friedlander was dead wrong. The Jew in exile must learn to channel Abraham, to be a good citizen, to be a role model of moral and ethical behavior, and to push back against the corrupt forces within society. Now, at the end of history, that obligation is critical. The religious Jew cannot bemoan the decadence of society if he lacks the courage and conviction to promote his wares in its marketplace of ideas.
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