Thursday, April 19, 2007

Abraham the Renovator: Polytheism as an Advanced Culture

Rabbi Soloveitchik has a quote where he says that he loves innovators, creative individuals, people who have a new sense of vision and forge new paths. He cites Abraham as an example. (If you know the source of the quote, please tell me. I can't find it, and I've spent too much time looking.)

I'm reading a fascinating book by Adin Steinsaltz called Biblical Images. Rabbi Steinsaltz provides us with quick sketches of biblical figures, allowing us insight into their characters and personalities. The book is very well-done, because it's clear, short and concise, and presumably of interest to people of all affiliations. His chapter on Abraham was particularly interesting, if only because it quite upsets my established idea of Abraham the Innovator. Steinsaltz explains:

    A rereading of the Bible text is enough to show that there is no mention of Abraham's role as a great prophet bringing to the world the belief in a single God.


    Monotheism is not a higher stage of some process of growth following on a lower stage of polytheism. Monotheism is itself primary and basic; it has been the dominant mode of worship from as far back as human memory goes. All the other modes of religious faith came after it, and not before. For this truth, the scriptural text itself, though it does not say so in precisely this fashion, is the chief evidence. And like Maimonides and other Jewish stages, modern scholarship, especially in the field of anthropology, tends to question whether polytheism, even in its primitive forms such as fetishism or voodoo, is not a degeneration of primary monotheistic cults (13).
Polytheism is described as follows. It is the development:

    from the unity to the multiplicity. In other words, from simple monotheism- the direct faith in something not specific or clearly oriented (which is perhaps like the faith of a child)- to a complex faith, derived from the endeavor to isolate certain things and subjects.
    Polytheism is thus a complicated and sophisticated system of worship springing from the need to establish a "rational" and direct contact with the Divine. Instead of trying to communicate with a basic supreme essence, polytheism believes in the possibility of usefulness of intermediaries, such as specific gods or a set of semidivine forces (15).
He then explains Abraham's role within this culture.

    This intellectual world of polytheistic religion- with all its sophistication and corruption- was the world in which the patriarch Abraham lived. He did not emerge from a pastoral world of wandering shepherds, uncouth and unlearned. He came from great cities, centers of culture and hubs of commerce. In these cities, there were banks and letters of credit, as in our own day, even if documents were written on bricks of clay. A world of elaborate civilization, already ancient and worldlywise in its own way: Ur of the Chaldees, Babylon, Egypt...It was a polytheistic, idolatrous urbanity, the height of an ancient culture, representing the most advanced ideas and the most refined concepts in science, art and philosophy.
    And in this world, the "modern" world of the ancient past, Abraham found himself believing in a single God. It was not a new discovery on his part; on the contrary, it was a reaffirmation of a very old truth, one that had almost been forgotten and was probably considered by his contemporaries as barbaric and primitive. Abraham was thus not an innovator but an ultraconservative, like someone belonging to a cult of ancient origin. On the other hand, Abraham did represent something very new: he was a prophet in that he called for a renewal of faith, a return (almost a repentance) to the divine Oneness. He tried to restore the faith of a distant past; but his contemporaries probably saw him as a crude and rather old-fashioned preacher (17).
That's a wonderful interpretation of Abraham. I have always liked the idea of Abraham as an Innovator, discovering God and forging a new path. But it is just as important if not more important to realize that someone who believes in the old ways, a Renovator, can be just as inspiring a figure. We may not always need to discover new things. Sometimes, we may simply have to cling to our supposedly foolish beliefs and ideas, even if they run quite counter to the contemporary, civilized society of the time. For sometimes, you see, those beliefs, even though they seem outdated, foolish and primitive- are true.


M.R. said...


Gil Student said...

I think that's the book for which he was put in cherem.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Rabbi Steinsaltz's take is certainly much closer to the Rihal's conception of Avraham's approach to monotheism than the Rambams, since Rmabam makes it very clear that Avraham's religious knowledge was based on perosnal intellectual inquiry and not on meorah. But perhaps the two approaches do not conflic with one another as much as I previously thought. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Dido jackie.

The Rambam (see hilchos akum 1:1-4) agrees that polytheism is a corruption of the original belief: monotheism. HOWEVER, the Rambam posits that monotheism was totally forgotten by the time Avarahm came around, and Avaraham REDISCOVERED it. Thus, while he may not gave been an ORIGINATOR, he WAS, arguably, an innovator.

I wonder what Steinsalz's source is...

I didn't read "Bible Images", but I did read his Talmud Images. It's a quick read (took 3 hours), and gives a great grounding for anyone swimming in the sea of Talmud.

Chana said...


Rabbi Student,
I didn't even know he was in cherem! The book doesn't seem heretical or radical to me thus far; I guess I'll have to read up on the cherem.

No problem.


He cites the Rambam. I quoted it for you in the post, "And like Maimonides, and other Jewish sages..."

One way Steinsaltz overrides the idea of monotheism being forgotten until the time Abraham was around is as follows:

"One of the proofs offered by the Bible itself is the meeting with Melchizedek, King of Salem (Jerusalem), priest of the supreme God (Genesis 14: 18-20). This passage implies that Abraham has companions in his faith, that his religion is not his own private invention. Those companions were to be found scattered in isolated spots throughout the world, such as this small city on the way from one great center of culture on the Euphrates to another on the Nile."

That proof is pretty convincing for Steinsaltz' conclusion that Abraham was attempting a "cultural revolution in his time: he tried to revive what was considered an archaic remnant of a primitive religion, and to make it into a new system of faith."

Anonymous said...

mama mia!

i leave town for 4 days, and when i get back, the curious jew has exploded!! me thinks i'll have to play hooky for a few days and catch up on my reading (don't worry chana, i'll tell my profs. that it's all your fault. :)))

on to the substance:

I SAW that you quoted shteinzalts' quote from the Rambam.

But i still disagree with shteinzaltzs' premise that Avaraham KNEW about "malki tzedek melech sholem." YES, The Rambam explicitly writes that that there WERE a select few who held by the monotheistic belief (the Rambam writes that there were only four...Shem, Aiver, mesuchelach, and Noach)--HOWEVER, Avaraham WAS NOT AWARE of their existence, and came to the monotheistic belief OF HIS OWN ACCORD. (see the beginning of halacha gimel below "he didn't have a teacher and was sunk between the inane idolators" --a rough trans.)

אבל צור העולמים לא היה שום אדם שהיה מכירו ולא יודעו אלא יחידים בעולם כגון חנוך ומתושלח נח שם ועבר ועל דרך זה היה העולם הולך ומתגלגל עד שנולד עמודו של עולם והוא אברהם אבינו:

ג. כיון שנגמל איתן זה התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן והתחיל לחשוב ביום ובלילה והיה תמיה היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד ולא יהיה לו מנהיג ומי יסבב אותו כי אי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו ולא היה לו מלמד ולא מודיע דבר אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי כוכבים הטפשים ואביו ואמו וכל העם עובדי כוכבים והוא עובד עמהם ולבו משוטט ומבין עד שהשיג דרך האמת והבין קו הצדק מתבונתו הנכונה וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד והוא מנהיג הגלגל והוא ברא הכל ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו וידע שכל העולם טועים ודבר שגרם להם לטעות זה שעובדים את הכוכבים ואת הצורות עד שאבד האמת מדעתם ובן ארבעים שנה הכיר אברהם את בוראו כיון שהכיר וידע התחיל להשיב תשובות על בני אור כשדים ולערוך דין עמהם ולומר שאין זו דרך האמת שאתם הולכים בה ושיבר הצלמים והתחיל להודיע לעם שאין ראוי לעבוד אלא לאלוה העולם ולו ראוי להשתחוות ולהקריב ולנסך כדי שיכירוהו כל הברואים הבאים וראוי לאבד ולשבר כל הצורות כדי שלא יטעו בהן כל העם כמו אלו שהם מדמים שאין שם אלוה אלא אלו:

-thus, my question (or disagreement) still remains: where does shteinzaltz get the idea that Avaraham was merely renewing the faith, instead of rediscovering (for himself at least) the monotheistic belief???