How Did Abraham Discover God? The Rationalistic Approach
Why Did God Choose Abraham?
Nechama Leibowitz (of blessed memory) used to tell the following story. She was once invited to lecture at a seminar for officers in the IDF, and stipulated in advance that each of them must bring a full Tanakh to her class. As motivated soldiers they did just that. Then, when she came into the classroom, she immediately told them to open their books and find her the well-known story about young Abram smashing his father’s idols.
After letting them struggle for a few minutes to find the story, Nechama tried to stop them, but they insisted that they all knew it, and so it just had to be there somewhere in the Torah. After a couple more minutes she interrupted them yet again, but this time she told them that they were right: Even thought the story isn’t actually in the Torah, it should have been there! It just doesn’t seem to make sense, at the grand moment of “lekh lekha,” for God to suddenly turn to a 75 year old man about whom we know next to nothing (besides a few dry details about his family).
What the biblical narrative lacks is a statement about what kind of person Abram was andwhy God chose him. That gap becomes even more vivid when we compare Abram to the last great protagonist in the Torah, namely Noah, about whom we are famously told that he was “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Noah was chosen. But why Abram?
It is typical of midrash to make use of gaps in the Torah—large or small, real or imagined—as opportunities for teaching important lessons. In this case a good argument can be made that the gap is real and significant. The midrashic story of young Abram smashing his father’s idols is an attempt to explain why he was chosen, by portraying him as someone clever and inquisitive, a nonconformist devoted to the truth, who bravely confronted his family and society by vividly illustrating the foolishness of their idolatry.
The Illuminated Palace
There is also another lesser-known midrash that describes Abram’s youth, and manages at the same time to touch upon the most acute tensions within Jewish thought. From it we can learn some powerful lessons about dogma in Jewish philosophy, about the difference between medieval and modern thought, and about different ways to relate to God. This powerful midrashic passage is known as The Parable of the Illuminated Palace.
In order to get into the mood of the midrash that we are about to study, imagine a man, who lived centuries ago, and wanted to get from place to place. Perhaps he was traveling from his village to the capitol city of his province. If he was wealthy he might ride a horse or be carried in a wagon, but if not then he might have to walk, carrying his belongings on his back. Depending on the distance, such a journey by foot might have taken many days, traveling on a path through meadows and forest, and sleeping alongside the trail at night. The journey by day might be a solitary one, and for lack of anyone else with whom to talk, our traveler might speak his thoughts aloud to himself.
Let us further imagine that it is now close to the end of the third day of his journey, and he is both weary and lonely, but still wants to cover another short distance before the sun sets. Suddenly, above on a hill to his left, he notices a human-made structure. As he comes closer he sees that it is a fortified palace, and that it is both inhabited and well-maintained: As the day comes to a close, he sees light appear in one window after the next. Though as a stranger he has no expectation of being invited in to stay the night, he still feels a certain pleasure, even a sense of relief, at this unexpected sign of domestication and civilization. Speaking aloud to himself he remarks, “It would seem there is a master who attends to this palace.” And then to his surprise he hears the voice of the master inside, who, unseen to the traveler, peers out at him through the window and speaks: “Indeed, I am the master of the palace.”
Now let us read the parable as it actually appears in the midrash (Bereshit Rabba 39:1):
- And God said to Abram: Go, you, from your land…
- Rabbi Isaac opened (Psalms 45:11): Listen, daughter, and see, and turn your ear, and forget your people and your father’s house…
- Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a palace illuminated (birah doleqet).
- He said, “Will you say this palace has no governor (manhig)?”
- The master of the palace peeped out at him.
- He said to him, “I am the master of the palace.”
- Thus, because our father Abraham would say, “Will you say this world has no governor?”,
- the Holy One, blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him, “I am the Master of the world.”
- (Psalms 45:12): And the king will desire your beauty…—to beautify you in the world;
- because he is your master and bow down to him—that is, And God said to Abram…
Although the midrash addresses the first verse of Parashat Lekh Lekha, the verse with which Rabbi Isaac “opened” (2) is from Psalms, and its plain sense has nothing to do with Abraham. Rather, what is being described in psalm 45 is the power of the Davidic king, vividly illustrated through the fate of a foreign princess who is being delivered to him in a political marriage. Although the fact that she must leave her home and her family bears some obvious resemblance to Abraham in a general sense, it is the job of the listener to try to carefully cement the relationship between the parashah at hand from the Torah (1) and the verse from “left field” (2). This kind of riddle is a homiletic device, and the technical name for this kind of midrash is petichta (“opening”).
After his opening verse, Rabbi Isaac proceeds immediately with his parable (3-6) and its explanation (7-8): Abraham was a wanderer and a traveler throughout his entire life, and his first command from God began with the very word lekh, go. He sought the “governor” of the world and found Him. The palace in the parable represents the world, and its master is the Holy One, blessed be He, who “peeped out” at Abraham (heitzitz), meaning that He sees but is not seen.
Following the parable, Rabbi Isaac returns to the opening verses of his riddle (9-10): Abraham was personally commanded by God, whom he both sought and found, and was then rewarded for his obedience with the promise of a blessing so great that future peoples would wish Abraham’s fate upon themselves: “and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (i.e. they will be blessed in your name: “May you be like Abraham.”)
The lovely young woman in Psalms was also exhorted to obey her new king, but that in itself is not enough to identify her with the male Abraham. It takes a clever midrashic twist to cement their common identity: Rather than being desired by her new king for her beauty, he rather desires to proclaim her beauty to all (out of his great love for her).
That is Rabbi Isaac’s midrash, the Parable of the Illuminated Palace, at face value. In it we find a man who seeks God, and a God who responds to him. We find a God who commands and a man who obeys. God loved the man who sought Him, and then acted upon His love.
God as a Scientific Fact (Maimonides)
After reading this midrash, the average reader (and not just the modern reader) wants to know something more. “It would seem there is a master who attends to this palace,” says the man in the parable. Is the universe itself a testimony to God?
Such was the message of our midrash for Maimonides. In the first chapter of his “Hilkhot Avodah Zarah” (“Laws of Idolatry”) he describes Abraham as the hero of monotheism:
After this mighty one [Abraham] was weaned, he began to search for knowledge while he was yet young, reflecting day and night. And he wondered how the sphere could follow its path continually, if it had nothing to direct it [manhig]? And who makes it revolve (for it cannot rotate itself)?
He had no teacher, nor anyone to inform him, being deep inside Ur of the Chaldees among foolish idolaters. His father and mother and all the people were idolaters, and he would worship along with them; but his mind searched to gain understanding until he grasped the way of truth, knowing rightness through his correct understanding. He knew that there is one God, and He directs the sphere, and He created all, and in all of existence there is no God but He…
This short passage requires some unpacking. Just before it, at the very beginning of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, Maimonides outlined his famous explanation of how mankind devolved into idolatry. They began by seeking to honor the servants of the Great King—the luminaries in the heavens—but ultimately served them alone and forgot their Master, and they were further misled by the lies of idolatrous priests. Idolatry began as something foolish yet well-intentioned, and later developed into an ugly perversion of the truth and the source of great evil. In Maimonides’ historiography, those who knew the one God in the generations before Abraham were few and far between.
According to Maimonides, Abraham vanquished idolatry through the power of his mind, by considering the implications of the heavens and the way they function. What Maimonides’ presents here is the Aristotelian model of the universe, in which transparent spheres rotate around the earth, carrying the visible luminaries along with them. These spheres are composed of thick heavenly matter (there is no vacuum between them) and they rotate in geometric pathways. They are intelligent beings. Their endless movement is caused by an unlimited power, for if the power that moved them were to cease then they too would come to a stop. Here we have the medieval opposite of Newtonian physics: All movement ceases when the power causing it is exhausted.
Another difference between medieval and modern thought is the concept of infinity: Aristotle denied the possibility of an “actual” infinity. No object composed of matter can be infinite, no spacial dimension can be infinite, and furthermore the very chain of causality itself cannot be infinite. The movement and change we witness on earth is caused by the rotation of the spheres above, and that rotation must ultimately be the effect of one single ultimate cause, so that the chain of causality at any given point in time always has both a beginning (God) and an end (movement and change and life on earth). Since this chain of causality is finite, and can be apprehended at least in part, it became highly tempting for medieval philosophers to try to explain it as far as they could, and that included saying various things about God.
Since all physical things are finite, the unlimited power that eternally moves the spheres must be entirely incorporeal, lacking any aspect of physicality. This is a consequence of the medieval proof of God’s existence as the First Cause, with which Maimonides began his Mishneh Torah. For Maimonides, young Abraham proved the existence of God and the truth of monotheism by using medieval Aristotelian principles, long before Aristotle himself was born and well before the Middle Ages. Abraham proved in absolute fashion that there is indeed a governor (manhig) of the palace, properly understood as the First Cause of all movement and change, from the revolution of the spheres to life on earth.
Maimonides built his description of Abraham, as far as he could, out of biblical and midrashic materials. This is as good an illustration as any of a very important fact about medieval Jewish philosophy, namely that it is not just philosophy per se, but equally (and perhaps primarily) philosophical exegesis of the Bible and Chazal. Maimonides’ reading of our midrashic passage, and the way he uses it, reflect his intellectual position: The existence of a single incorporeal God is not a matter of belief or theory or guesswork, but a demonstrable scientific fact. In fact, its clear demonstration is the foundation of all true science.
Idolatry, therefore, is no personal betrayal of God, but rather a philosophical error. It is a colossal error with terrible consequences, but an intellectual mistake at its core, nonetheless. The very same thing would be true for atheism according to Maimonides. If you think that there are many gods, or no God, or even if you are not quite sure, then you are first and foremost an ignoramus (besides being an idolater or a heretic). Ascribing this attitude to Abraham reflects Maimonides’ general conviction that Aristotelian science was not just “basically correct” in terms of its content; rather, the truths of Aristotelian science are an integral part of the Torah itself (and the key to its correct interpretation).
This is a crucial point. One of the great debates in medieval Jewish thought was whether or not it is right, or even possible, to “marry” the Torah to Greek wisdom. We all know that for a marriage to succeed, the two partners need to have something significant in common. If they are too dissimilar then there won’t be sufficient basis for a relationship. Differences can be healthy if they complement each other, but only if the relationship can still address basic needs and values.
Do the Torah and Greek wisdom share enough common ground to attempt a shiddukh? According to Maimonides they did. And the greatest single contribution of Aristotelian wisdom to their mutual relationship was its absolute proof of the existence of one God, an incorporeal intellect that is the ultimate cause for the revolution of the spheres.
That proof is the meaning, according to Maimonides, of the opening phrase of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God… (Exodus 20:2). Knowing that there is a God is a commandment according to Maimonides, but a person can only be commanded to do what he or she is capable of doing. In medieval science, to know that such a God exists was an established fact that any reasonably intelligent person could apprehend. Hence, according to Maimonides, the Torah literally commands us to apprehend it through the proper proof, as did Abraham long ago.
Nevertheless, there were also serious objections to the proposed marriage between the Torah and Greek wisdom. Medieval Aristotelianism posited a naturalistic reality: The Aristotelian God behaves according to its nature, eternally causing the universe to function in much the same way that a candle gives light or a tree casts a shadow on a sunny day. The Aristotelian God cares nothing for the world that it generates nor for the people in it; in fact, according to Aristotle, God has no awareness of individuals and their changing circumstances. In the same vein the world itself functions according to its nature eternally, and humans behave according to their own natures. Not one of the three great realms—God, the universe, and humanity—ever has any significant impact upon the others. In this eternally static reality, all three of them continue to behave as their natures dictate forever.
Can such a God be reconciled with the God of the Torah? Can an unchanging, naturalistic universe be reconciled with the world that the Torah describes? These are the fundamental problems that Maimonides dealt with in his philosophical writings. His personal views on the matter are unclear and sometimes contradictory. For this reason Maimonides’ “true” views have been debated continually for more than eight centuries—a debate which continues to this very day.
While the medieval science that Maimonides worked with seems archaic today, the basic problem he dealt with is still quite relevant. The idea of a naturalistic universe, a system of all encompassing physical causality with no room for any autonomous, purposeful expression of personal will (by God or man), is still at the root of the tension between the Torah and any form of human wisdom that operates in a manner meant to be objective and universally valid. The latter is best represented today by academia.
Is God Really a Scientific Fact?
How well does Maimonides’ interpretation of the Illuminated Palace reflect the midrash? What Abraham says, in the original Hebrew of the midrash, is “תאמר שהעולם הזה בלא מנהיג”. But how should that sentence be punctuated? In Maimonides’ view this was no question at all: Abraham was sure about God’s existence, because the scientific proof is absolutely conclusive. Therefore, what Abraham says in the midrash must actually be a kind of a statement, a rhetorical question punctuated with an exclamation point—not a real question. The midrash may be read this way if we assume that the traveler in the parable was already quite certain, even before the master of the palace replied to him. We also need to assume that the high point in the midrash is in Abraham’s discovery, not in God’s reply.
But is the “proof” in the midrash which led to the traveler’s realization really conclusive? Seeing light appear in one window after the next is a very likely indication that someone has personally ordained the lighting of lamps. But could there be a different explanation? Might not the spheres which carry the luminaries, once they are set in motion, rotate forever (recalling Newton)? Nowadays, in our world of electronic “Shabbat clocks” and digital programming, it is very easy to suggest that something else entirely might cause light to appear in the windows before dark. But even in the Middle Ages people were fully capable of realizing that, in principle, there might be an alternative explanation, even if they couldn’t supply an easy concrete example of what that alternative might be.
So might it be, contra Maimonides, that Abraham was asking a very real question in the midrash? Perhaps the traveler who represents Abraham wasn’t fully sure there was a master of the palace, until that person spoke to him personally? Perhaps it is not the traveler’s question, but rather the revelation of the master of the palace, which is the high point of the midrash?
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October 4, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Seth (Avi) Kadish teaches medieval Jewish philosophy, history and exegesis at Oranim Teacher’s College, and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Haifa in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, his M.A. in Bible and Jewish education from Yeshiva University, and his semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS. Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer and The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi.
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