Congregation Bene Emeth
November 5, 2011
Abraham: The First Jew?
Rabbi Joshua Garroway, Ph.D.
Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion
I would like to begin my remarks this evening with a somewhat scandalous question. I start in this manner because of my assumption that listeners who are shocked or disturbed by what they first hear from a speaker are more apt to pay attention to what he or she says afterwards. Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, famously, have cashed in on that aspect of human nature in the modern world, but great orators of the past, such as Cicero, and the great rabbinic sermonizers of antiquity, knew it all the same. When people ask: “Did he really just say that?” they tend to keep on listening—and they listen eagerly.
The question meant to shock you is this:
Can a woman be a Jew? That’s right: can a woman be a Jew? I am not asking whether a woman can be a rabbi, a subject of lively debate in certain sectors of the Jewish world. Nor am I asking whether a woman can wear a kippah, or read from the Torah, or count towards a minyan – other legal questions still in play in certain non-liberal Jewish settings. No, I am asking a more basic question: can a woman even be a Jew in the first place?
Now, let me put your minds at ease from the start. The answer is categorically “yes,” a woman can be a Jew. Indeed, there are millions of Jewish women in the world, some of whom are here tonight, and I have no intention of undermining that identity. What I will propose here this evening, however, is that the question—can a woman be a Jew?--is not as ridiculous as one might think. And to it we could add other questions which are equally provocative, and, I would suggest, no more preposterous: Can a person with a Jewish mother, but not a Jewish father, be a Jew? Can a person with a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother, be a Jew? Can a person without a Jewish mother or a Jewish father, that is, a convert, really be a Jew? Can an atheist, even a professed agnostic, really be a Jew? All of these questions, however disturbing or controversial, are, in my opinion, reasonable questions—reasonable enough, at least, that they have been asked and debated by Jews long before I raised them here tonight. The answer to all of them is “yes,” at least in my opinion, but I could name for you at least one
Jew, either presently living or from the past, who would answer “no” to each of these questions because the questions themselves are reasonable.
These questions are reasonable because of the nature of Jewish identity itself. Jewish identity, which is the main focus of my scholarship, is as we all know a notoriously contentious issue—especially in our own day. At present in the state of Israel, for instance, just who qualifies as a Jew, and how the state-endorsed orthodox rabbinate makes those decisions, are matters that affect the lives of many of us in the Reform Movement, not to mention Russian immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants, Karaites, Samaritans, and others. As an example, and to let you know that I have a personal stake in the matter, consider my own quirky dilemma: as the son of a mother converted by a rabbi ordained in the Reform movement, in Israel I am not considered a Jew when it comes to marriage, burial, or other religious rights, but I am a Jew insofar as the Law of return is concerned. Am I a really a Jew then? I certainly think so, but others apparently disagree.
And to show that such controversy is not restricted only to the state of Israel, consider the hairs on the back of your own necks—most of you I’m guessing—were I to proclaim publicly that Jews for Jesus, or messianic Jews, are in fact, as they claim, Jews and as such should be admitted to membership in this synagogue, called to the Torah, and so on. Many of us, I imagine, would contest that claim to Jewish identity. Are, then, messianic Jews Jews? In that case, I don’t think so, but they certainly think so and, again, it’s a matter of reasonable controversy.
As a historian of Jewish identity, I can assure you that what is happening today is nothing new. 25 centuries ago, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, “what makes a person a Jew” was a hotly contested matter, as Jews returning from the exile in Babylonia questioned the authenticity of Jews who had remained all the while in Jerusalem. And similar controversies, mutatis mutandis, ensconced Jewish communities 20 centuries ago, 15, 10, and 5 centuries ago, and 5 centuries from today claims to Jewish identity will still be a matter of vigorous contention.
The reason for that never-ending controversy is the simple fact that no single criterion for establishing Jewish identity has ever been established, which has applied to all places and in all times. A survey of Jewish history reveals that there has simply never been a single, necessary, and sufficient trait that eternally separates the Jew from the non-Jew. There is, in other words, no such thing as an essence of Jewishness, no irreducible core that unifies Jews in every time and place.
To demonstrate what I mean when I say that no single trait, no single belief, no single criterion qualifies as the essential attribute of the Jewish people, let us consider the man about whom we read in the Torah portions this time of year, Avraham Avinu, our forefather, Abraham. Often one hears that Abraham was the first Jew. That’s a contentious claim, of course, but for argument’s sake let us assume that Abraham is indeed the first Jew, and thus the Jew par excellence. What I’d like to examine for the next few minutes is just what about Abraham makes him the first Jew. Does he exhibit any characteristics that will be uniformly representative of all Jews who follow him?
In the first place, one might say that Abraham was a Jew because of something he did. What exactly did Abraham do that might have made him the quintessential Jew? Most importantly, Abraham forged a unique, eternal covenant with God, which God sealed into his flesh in the act of circumcision. Indeed, Genesis 17 makes it unmistakably clear that circumcision is the irreducible essence of the covenant between God and Abraham: ytiúyrIB. tazOæ God says to Abraham, rkz ta ~kl lwmh. This is my covenant, all your males shall be circumcised. Later God adds:
“Any uncircumcised male whose flesh is not circumcised will be cut off from his people because he has broken my covenant.” In other words, if you are not a circumcised male, at least according to the 17th chapter of Genesis, then you are not included in the covenant. Now, if inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant with God is what makes one a Jew, one might reasonably conclude that only circumcised men can be considered Jews. Hence, the scandalous question with which we began.
Now, most of us probably assume that it is preposterous to suppose that only circumcised men can be members of the Abrahamic covenant, and in that sense, Jews. Yet, there was at least one author in antiquity who believed just that, that the Abrahamic covenant was limited to circumcised men. The author of Jubilees, a Hebrew work of the second century BCE, insists in that work’s 15th chapter that the Abrahamic covenant is restricted not merely to circumcised men, but to men circumcised on the 8th day of life in accordance with the protocol established by God in Genesis. A boy circumcised just a day late, on the 9th day of life, is barred from the covenant.
Now that’s a rather extreme view, but the author of Jubilees was not alone in antiquity when it came to assuming that circumcision is the indispensable requirement for inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant. The great sages of the Talmud make the same assumption about the covenant. In a famous passage from tractate avodah zarah, the Talmud makes an astonishing claim that reveals just how deeply at least some rabbis fretted over the apparent exclusion of women from the covenant of Abraham. The statement comes amidst a discussion about who may perform a circumcision on an infant boy. According to the great sage, Rabbi Yochanan, any circumcised Jew person may perform the circumcision. Bizarre as it may seem, however, the category of “circumcised Jews” includes Jewish women. Jewish women are classified as k’man d’mehila damya, which is to say, as if circumcised. By dint of her birth, Rabbi Yochanan claims, it is as though a Jewish woman has a circumcised penis.
The same is true, by the way, for Jewish boys with hemophilia. Mercifully, the Talmud forbids circumcising an infant if two older brothers had died from the surgery. Assuming that the younger brother, too, will bleed to death, the boy is permitted to keep his foreskin. But such a foreskinned boy would be excluded from the Abrahamic covenant; so, just as Jewish women, the foreskinned boy is reckoned as though his foreskin is not there. It is all a legal fiction, of course: women don’t have penises, much less circumcised penises; and forskinned hemophiliacs are not circumcised by the looks of it. But the rabbis were compelled by the text in Genesis to conclude that membership in the covenant of Abraham requires a circumcised penis, and unwilling to exclude women and hemophiliacs from that covenant, they simply flouted reality: women and foreskinned men are in fact circumcised, they said, however contrived and ridiculous that assertion may seem. But the legal fiction highlights just how inadequate circumcision is as a definitive marker of Jewish identity. More than half the Jews in the world at any time do not even have penises to be circumcised.
Perhaps, then, what makes Abraham Jewish is not something he did – name
ly, seal a covenant with God in his flesh – but it was rather something Abraham thought or believed. Many of us learned as children what Jewish traditions have said about Abraham’s revolutionary religious intuition. Convinced of the orderliness present in our world, Abraham abandoned belief in the pantheon of Babylonian gods, destroyed his family’s idols, and devoted himself resolutely to God, the only God of the universe. Abraham, in other words, was a monotheist, a believer in a single personal God. So, perhaps we might say that monotheistic belief is the hallmark of Jewish identity?
Here again, however, we would run into difficulty. Were monotheism considered the essential attribute of the Jew, many of our beloved ancient forbears would hardly make the grade. To provide just one of what could be scores of examples, consider King David, perhaps the greatest of all biblical heroes, the king from whose loins many Jews still believe the messiah of Israel will emerge. David could not have been a monotheist inasmuch as several of the psalms he is reputed to have written betray unmistakably polytheistic sentiments.
Those of you hailing from conservative or orthodox backgrounds are no doubt familiar with the 29th Psalm, a psalm attributed to King David, which traditionally is recited on Sabbath mornings when the Torah is returned to the ark. Havu ladoshem benei elim, that psalm begins, “Give praise and strength to Adonai, O children of the gods.” Now, of course, no Jewish prayer book translates the verse thusly. One is more likely to find something like: “Give praise and strength to Adonai, O angelic beings,” or some other euphemistic expression that obscures the patently non-monotheistic sentiment in the Hebrew. Scholars of the Hebrew Bible know full well that this Psalm depicts the God of the Israelites, Adonai, in the same manner that contemporary literature represented the Canaanite god, Ba’al—as the king of the gods, like Zeus, who takes his seat in a heavenly counsel amongst the other gods. That is not monotheism. If monotheism is the standard by which Jewish identity is determined, then the author the 29th psalm, if it is King David himself, would not qualify as a Jew.
Of course, that’s only one side of the problem. Consider the alternative: Jews who believe not in many gods, but in no god at all! There may be some gathered here right now who admit to being agnostics or even atheists. Does that mean they are not Jews? And yet, polytheists and atheists would constitute only a part of the problem were we to make monotheism the defining characteristic of the Jew. There remains the precarious fact that, even among Jews who do believe, or have believed, in a single god, there are nearly as many descriptions of that god as there are Jews. The Jewish mystics, for example, describe God as a complex arrangement of ten discrete, interacting emanations of deity. Alternatively, the great 12th century Spanish philosopher Maimonides described God in Aristotelian terms, as the remote and transcendent mind that “thinks the thought that is itself.” In contrast to that, the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza conceived of god as coterminous with the universe. God, he would say, does not transcend the world; God is the world. And then there’s the 19th century German philosopher, Hermann Cohen, who would say that God is not a discrete being at all, but merely an idea, and idea of moral perfection that guarantees a moral universe. I could go on and
on, of course, choosing Jews from different centuries and from different lands, but such a list would only underscore what is already an obvious point: the monotheism of Abraham cannot be the standard by which Jewish identity is determined, since Jews have believed in many gods, no gods, and every type of single god one can imagine.
Perhaps, then, we need to change gears once more. Maybe it is not anything Abraham did that made him a Jew, or anything he thought that made him a Jew, but simply the fact that he was Abraham, the man through whom God chose to establish a covenanted family, the children of Abraham, the Israelites, the Jews. In other words, perhaps Abraham’s Jewishness was in his DNA, so to speak, a trait that would be passed down to his children, his children’s children, and his children’s children’s children, all the way down to us today, those whom George Washington famously dubbed “the stock of Abraham” when writing to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Perhaps Jewishness is inherited.
Indeed, were one to ask around today, that’s likely to be the standard for Jewishness heard mentioned most frequently: “A person is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish.” Unfortunately, the certitude with which that claim so often is asserted belies an avalanche of historical evidence to the contrary. Just look at Abraham’s own grandchildren. If we suppose that Sarah, as a co-founder of the covenant alongside Abraham, was the first Jewess, then her son Isaac would be a Jew. Fair enough; no problems so far. But Isaac’s wife, Rebekkah, did not have a Jewish mother, which would end the lineage of Jews only one generation after it began. Yet, even if we assume that Rebekkah, for whatever reason, was also a Jew, then her two children, Jacob and Esau, would also be Jews. Yet, Esau is by no estimation a Jew. In fact, he is the progenitor of an entirely different people, the Edomites, who centuries later would become mortal enemies of the Jews. The matrilineal principle fails to account for Jewishness within just two generations of Abraham himself. And, even if we were to say that the principle of inherited identity only kicked in, so to speak, in the third generation, with Jacob’s children, the Israelites, one would invariably be stymied by the fact that, from biblical times down to the rabbis, Jewish identity ran through fathers, not mothers. The matrilineal principle was in fact invented by the rabbis in the first few centuries of the common era, before which time one was deemed Jewish if his father was Jew. Now, of course, the Reform Movement has blended the two, deeming a person a Jew if either his mother or his father is Jewish, provided that he exhibits timely and appropriate acts of identification with the Jewish people. Thus, one cannot say that Jewish identity is in the blood because just whose blood is determinative has changed back and forth over the course of time. And that is not to mention the
many people over the course of history who, though born to a Jewish mother and father, chose to abandon their Jewish identity. Many, many Jews converted to Christianity in 15th century Spain, for example, or 19th century Germany, and yet we do not consider their descendants Jewish. Yet, if Jewish identity is truly in the blood, then converting out of that identity would be impossible. So, too, would converting into the Jewish people, a prospect that would de-legitimate the Jewishness of twenty centuries’ worth of converts to Judaism and their descendants.
The simple fact is that pedigree, like circumcision, like monotheistic belief, cannot suffice as the single criterion that determines Jewishness. There is no such thing as a Jewish essence.
That can be a disheartening proposition. If there is no Jewish essence -- no trait, no belief, no gene, no experience – that makes a Jew a Jew, then what is it that connects us as Jews? What links me as a Jew to you as a Jew, or us as Jews to another community of Jews convening for Shabbat this evening, or us as Jews to other communities of Jews in the past? So often we invoke ideas like l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation, or shalshelet kabbalah, the chain of tradition, or am Yisrael, the people of Israel, in a way that suggests there is some grand uniformity, some essence, that connects all Jews in different times and different places. That idea gives us comfort and strength, a sense of solidarity, of historical meaning, and purpose. From Abraham, to David, to the Maccabees, to the sages, to Rashi, to Herzl, to those who perished at Auschwitz: we are all connected somehow. We are all Jews. And yet, as we have seen, that notion of a Jewish essence, that there is indeed something that links us all together, is quite simply belied by historical evidence.
That is disheartening.
But it’s also encouraging, I think. For while the notion of a Jewish essence may provide a sense of solidarity and purpose, there are consequences to essentialism, consequences that we as progressive Jews appreciate full-well. An essence, by definition, cannot change. Were Jewish identity to have an essence, then we as Jews would lose the capacity to redefine it anew in every generation. Judaism would lose its capacity to change, to adapt, to progress into something that corresponds to the aspirations of new people in new times and new places. The rich variety of Jewish beliefs and expressions exhibited by the figures I mentioned above – Abraham, David, the Maccabees, the sages, Rashi and Herzl; not to mention Maimonides, Hermann Cohen, and Spinoza; or Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews – that collage of Jewish expression, which has no essence, would never have been possible.
Does that mean that we, as Jews, must resign ourselves to the fact that, without an essence, we are not connected l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation, in a shalshelet kabbalah that links us all as am Yisrael, the Jewish people? I would suggest not, and in closing I’d like to leave you with an image that reveals how a people without an essence can nevertheless understand themselves as an intimately connected people linked through time and space.
That image, to which I am indebted to my teacher, professor Michael Meyer, is a rope. Now, I am no rope-maker, but my understanding is that no single thread in a rope is as long as the rope itself. In a 10 foot rope, for example, no single thread is more than 2 or 3 feet long. A 2 foot thread connects to another 2 foot thread, which connects to another two foot thread in a different place, which connects to a three-foot thread, which connects to a one-foot thread, and so on and so forth until all these threads are twisted into a rope ten feet in length. But no single thread is connected to all other threads. Indeed, if the rope were constructed with such an “essential” thread, the rope would be weaker and its integrity compromised. The strength of the rope owes itself to the interconnectedness of all the non-essential threads.
In like manner we might imagine Jewish identity over time. There is no thread that extends from Abraham all the way down to us, a thread encompassing all Jews in all times and in all places. But that does not mean there is no rope extending from Abraham all the way down to us, a rope that includes all Jews in all times and all places, a rope in which different strands of thought, belief, ritual, appearance, ethnicity, and the like, have been twisted together into a single cord, whose singular strength and integrity has enabled it to endure from the time of Abraham until today.