September 25, 2003
Finding a Kindred Spirit in a Patriarch
"The Discovery of God: Abraham and The Birth of Monotheism" by David Klinghoffer (Doubleday, $26).
David Klinghoffer's biography of the patriarch Abraham rides on a new wave of interest in the Bible, and a growing sense of the Abrahamic heritage that Christians, Jews and Muslims share.
Many books on biblical subjects have recently been published. In addition to Kinghoffer's "The Discovery of God," there is Norman Podhoretz's "The Prophets" (Free Press), Bruce Feiler's "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (HarperCollins) and James Kugel's "The God of Old" (Free Press). Also, forthcoming is Leon Kass' "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis" (Free Press). Literary analyses of the Bible have long been with us, but undoubtedly the current trend has also been influenced by the ascendancy of the Religious Right in American politics, and the high visibility of Bible study in the White House.
Klinghoffer, however, has written his biography of Abraham out of a deeply felt personal affinity. As a convert born to a non-Jewish mother but adopted by Jewish parents -- he discusses his spiritual odyssey in "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey To Jewish Orthodoxy"(Free Press, 1999) -- Klinghoffer sees himself as the spiritual son of Abraham in a very immediate way. He feels they both grew up in a spiritual vacuum.
"In [Abraham's] case, it was the decaying roots of Mesopotamian paganism," Klinghoffer explains in an interview. "In my case, it was secular liberalism," which was found to be spiritually dissatisfying.
Klinghoffer had to reach out beyond his milieu as Abraham went beyond his father, Terach. Perhaps, as a consequence of his personal history, there is much in his Jewish piety that finds common ground with a Christian evangelical approach. He has no problem in depicting Abraham as an evangelist and missionary, a description that might make many Jews cringe.
At the same time, his personal history has made him particularly sensitive to the religious psyche, as he traces Abraham's awakening to God. Abraham emerges not unlike the contemporary Klinghoffer, with a strong moral sense, as when he bargains with God for the righteous of Sodom, but he is also beset by much self-doubt.
There are no archaeological inscriptions relating to Abraham, or scientific proofs of his existence. Klinghoffer uses the shards of information about the ancient Middle East to piece together the context in which Abraham lived, advancing the theory that Abraham was born at a time of upheaval, a window of opportunity for new views to emerge. Sumerian civilization was in decline. Amorite nomads had swept over Sumer, and it is surmised that Abraham's ancestors were among these Amorites, who were eventually integrated into Sumerian civilization.
As far as the Abraham story itself, the biblical style is very spare in the information it presents. There are also repetitions and excisions, typos and poor literary structures. Klinghoffer is hypercritical of the secular scholars who attribute this to the fact that the Bible is a composite of various texts from different times, which a redactor pieced together. He proposes instead the traditional view that the Bible was divinely given, and encoded in the Bible are interpretations of the biblical stories, later collected in what is called Midrash. They flesh out the cryptic dialogue of the Bible, and expand upon the context in which events are happening.
It is from the Midrash that we learn that Abraham faced 10 tests. Nimrod, who represents the ruling class of Mesopotamia at the time, throws him into a fiery furnace when he refuses to accept paganism -- and God himself rescues Abraham. Klinghoffer explains that until that time, his recognition of God was an intellectual one. But once God saved him, Abraham's faith becomes grounded in an actual relationship.
Sensitive to the vagaries of the religious psyche, Klinghoffer traces the relationship of Abraham and God through all its vicissitudes: Abraham's willingness to follow God's command to leave his homeland for the unknown territory of Canaan; God's promise that he will create a nation from him; the influence of the Egyptian Hagar upon Abraham. The stakes are high.
According to Klinghoffer, Abraham's pilgrimage "was all about either losing or securing the future of his monotheism."
That is why the final and tenth test, the Akedah (Binding of Isaac), answering God's call to sacrifice his son Isaac, is so incomprehensible.
Abraham had stood up to many challenges, but according to the Midrash, he is plagued by self-doubt, that he has not sufficiently expressed his love of God. It gives lie to the view that the religious person lives in the smug certainty of his belief system.
Through the Akedah, God wants to teach Abraham about himself.
"Abraham did not know what the course of his emotions would be ... his inner response," Klinghoffer writes. "To slay Isaac would mean rendering his whole life's work absurd.... Also, it would nullify the virtue of chesed (kindness) for which he was known."
Nevertheless, the Akedah was necessary, according to Klinghoffer, to demonstrate to Abraham his dedication to God.
Klinghoffer is insistent that Abraham was a historical figure. And yet it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with his literal approach to Midrash. At times, he uses the Midrash as a springboard to a deeper understanding of Abraham and monotheism. But he often relates to Midrash as literal reality, rather than symbolic or dreamlike, the "Unconscious of the Bible," as the biblical interpreter and teacher, Dr. Aviva Zornberg has suggested.
Klinghoffer is not a fundamentalist. But he uses Midrash in a fundamentalist manner. He is a personable writer, with a large range of voices: biblical interpreter, religious psychologist, commentator on contemporary culture. A former editor of the right-wing journal, The National Review, and educational director of "Toward Tradition," an educational movement of Jews allied with Christians, he is very much aware of Abraham, not only as the founder of the Jewish people, but as the prophet of a monotheism from which Christianity and Islam emerged. Unfortunately, there has been much sibling rivalry among the heirs of Abraham, with the Jews, the original people of Abraham, particularly suffering Christian persecution. Klinghoffer feels that in recent years, this has begun to change. There is greater rapprochement, at least among Jews and Christians, as many Christians support Israel, returning to the basic biblical story.
At a time when the conflict with Islam is particularly felt, he holds out the ecumenical hope that someday all the heirs of the Abrahamic heritage, including Islam, will be able to live in peace, and the "household of Abraham can become a paradigm of mutual understanding."
Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic writing about social, cultural and religious issues. She's a columnist for Hadassah Magazine and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Report.