Lech Lecha – In God’s Name
In his newest book discussing religion and violence (in the form of religious war and terrorism) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings up a theme common to his writings. Humans are, at the same time, both gracious and competitive, giving and unforgiving, compassionate and ruthless. It all depends on context. In the space of a group with which one identifies – in the “us” group – we are cooperative and tend to see the best in people. Toward those outside one’s affiliation – the “them” group – we are more judgmental and unaccepting.
This dualism is manifest in racism, nationalism, religion – any division which places people in different camps of identity. Human nature is to circle the wagons, to exercise kindness and cooperation within one’s identity group while baring our teeth and acting defensively toward those outside the group.
In religion there is a strong tendency toward dualism. We find black and white, right and wrong, to be more relatable than grey. As such, if my religion is right, that means your religion is wrong. The Crusades, Jihad, all types of religious wars, reflect this idea of dualism. It is the forces of good against the forces of evil – and my side always represents the good.
Theology itself is subject to dualism. People have always struggled to understand how good and evil can stem from the same source. We like to portray the god in which we believe as a good god, a compassionate god. How then do we deal with suffering, injustice and wickedness in our world? How do we reconcile our belief that God is the source of everything, including what we see as bad, when we also insist on God being only good?
There are many different ways of dealing with this, some within the bounds of our traditional beliefs and some outside the pale of our faith. One simple way to deal with this, which was the common belief of civilization in the time of Abraham, was dualism. There is a simple answer to why evil exists in the world – there are evil forces as well as good forces. We simply don’t attribute evil to God, we attribute it to other gods, to demons, to Satan etc. This division is at the core of paganism, or polytheism. The god of life is not the same as the “angel” of death; the god of fire is different from the powers of water. There is a god of war and a god of love, a god of fertility and a god of storms. In pagan legends these gods are often at war with one another, and that reflects the chaos of the world, with some prospering and other suffering tragedies, while sometimes a combination of success and failure occur at the same time. This is how people dealt with these questions, reconciling the conflict of good and bad by attributing them to different forces.
Into such a world Abraham was born. A deep thinker, as portrayed by the Midrash, Abraham used his intelligence and understanding of the world to probe the authenticity of these beliefs. His research of nature discovered a common and unified force governing everything in the world. He found that everything in existence shared a common DNA and bore a common stamp, reflecting the work of a single architect. Abraham’s thinking was radical. His PHD thesis was rejected by every school of religious studies, but Abraham was convinced of his theories. He believed that there is one force governing everything, both good and evil, prosperity and privation. He rejected the concept of dualism as primitive. But the world was not prepared for the sophistication Abraham was teaching. Aside from the individuals he persuaded, his society remained adamantly pagan, resisting such fundamental change to their philosophies of theology.
If I were god I would be delighted with Abraham. Finally someone understood the truth of the world and was not afraid to embrace the challenge of both good and evil existing as part of one organic unit. Abraham would indeed become the father of monotheism as we know it, with the major world religions forming from basis of his discovery and teachings.
But humans are fickle and God had to test whether Abraham’s beliefs would stand up to the trials of life. In the tensions between freedom and equality I may lean toward one over the other until circumstances play against that side. If I am frustrated that my prosperity is hindered by strong regulations promoting equality I might be converted over to freedom at the expense of equality. If my fortunes turn and I struggle to earn a living in my free society I might find myself advocating again for equality over freedom. Only a true believer will advocate consistently for one regardless of personal circumstances. Abraham’s beliefs were tested again and again. Would he, while suffering from privation and misfortune, remain convinced that everything is ruled by One?
Our sages teach that Abraham faced ten great trials. Having no children Abraham had to ignore the instinct of making offerings to the god of fertility, to which civilization attributed such powers. In the famous Midrashic story of the furnace Abraham did not give any credibility to a god of fire for saving his skin. Abraham did not turn to a god of war to assist him in defeating to mighty alliance of the four powerful kings, and he did not appeal to a separate god of mercy to spare the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In every instance Abraham remained faithful to his conviction of the one God. In every instance he overcame the instinct of resorting to a dualistic belief, remaining a sophisticated thinker despite the challenges.