Approaching the Avot

Emily Shapiro

I have always been intrigued by the characters in the Tanakh, especially those in the stories of Bereshit. I was attracted to the striking dissonance between the actual text, in which the characters are often portrayed as flawed or weak, and the tradition, in which the same characters are popularly perceived as great heroes and saints. As a baalat teshuvah, I was reassured by the knowledge that one could err and still be loved and great. When I began teaching, in a one year post-high school program, I created courses which reflected my personal image of the Biblical characters. Although the study of these characters proved to be exciting for both pupil and teacher, I began to question my presentation. I began to wonder how we are meant to approach and perceive the actions and personalities of the avot. On the one hand, I did not want my students to view Bereshit as an “ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family” (Burton Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics [New York, 1996]: 9). I wanted to instill respect and love for the characters. I began to question my original understanding that “the men and women of Genesis are very much like you and me – lusting for pleasure and power, dealing with sibling rivalry, and learning from trial and error…” N. Rosenblatt and J. Horowitz, Wrestling with Angels [New York, 1995]: xviii). Avraham, Yizchak, and Yaakov were not just “like you and me.” God spoke to them, performed miracles for them, and promised them to be the founders of our great nation. On the other hand, I wanted my students to read the text literally and objectively. I wanted them to relate to and learn from the characters’ accomplishment and defeats. I believed that there was value in encouraging my students to use their own lives to illuminate the text.

This conflict encouraged me to look back at traditional sources. My impression was, as David Berger has written, “that the genuine Jewish fundamentalists would not easily shed their inhibitions about criticizing the patriarchs.” However, as I began to research the different approaches to the avot, from the midrash until modern times, I discovered that the interpreters based their depictions of the avot on many religious, educational, and societal factors. Their interpretations reflected what they assumed to be the spiritual and intellectual stage of their particular audience. The world of the patriarchs was not permanently fixed but varied with the context of society. As Marshall Fishwick has written, “Style in heroes, as in everything else, changes.”

There are two conflicting trends in the midrashic literature. On the one hand, the style of the midrash is contrastive. The “good guys” are really good and the “bad guys” are really bad on both an individual and national level. For example, James Kugel writes, “while Jacob was made out to be altogether virtuous and studious, Esau’s image was likewise modified by early interpreters, if anything, in an even more radical fashion. He became utterly wicked, a crafty, bloodthirsty embodiment of evil.” Jacob also came to symbolize holy Israel and Esau corrupt Rome. These basic contrasts conveyed the superiority of the individual tzadik and the people of Israel on a whole. On the other hand, in many places the midrash does not hesitate to offer harsh criticism against the Biblical characters, even the avot. In some of these cases, the midrash is suggesting a theodicy to explain the evils that befell an individual or the nation. In other cases, the midrash is reassuring the masses about the power of repentance.

Dov Raffel writes that it is commonly believed that “…in the middle ages, the Biblical characters are solidified and their images are much more one-sided, either all good or all bad, than that which is found in chazal.” It is true that many medieval commentators attempted to glorify the avot even if they need to rationalize the apparent sins or flaws attributed to them in the text. French commentators like Rashi, Rashbam, Ri Kra, and Bchor Shor may have been inclined to do so for polemical reasons. However, these commentators and other medievals, according to Nechama Leibovitz have also taken “great liberty in the criticism of the biblical characters, and these [the characters] include the greatest and most revered leaders of our nation. All of their actions are scrupulously criticized.” The primary example is of course the famous Ramban (Genesis 12:10 and 16:6) who comments: “Abraham sinned a great sin” and “Sarah our mother sinned.”

Finally, in the modern period, the morality of the avot continues to be debated. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Berlin, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and Nechama Leibovitz are all examples of modern scholars who developed the Biblical characters in order to relay his/her respective societal, psychological, philosophical, or educational message. However, others like the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Kotler, and Rabbi Shach rejected these approaches as radical and blasphemous interpretations of the text.

From the above research I attained a comfort level of “yesh al mi lesmoch.” I could continue to approach the avot, as Does Adin Steinzaltz, as “Biblical-historical characters and also archetypal figures in some way relevant to the inner life of the modern society and politics as well.” However, I still wanted to examine the needs of my particular audience. I wanted to evaluate how the intellectual and religious maturity of the students in the one year programs effected their perception of the avot. I devised a questionnaire and mock lesson to test the student response in three different such programs (Midreshet Moriah, Midrehet Lindenbaum, and Sharfmans). The hashkafot and intellectual expectations of the institutions seemed to have some effect on the students’ attitudes to criticizing the avot.

However, in each institution I found that the students had reached a moral, religious, and intellectual level at which a critical analysis of the avot was appropriate and even necessary. First, there is value in allowing the students to question the behavior of the characters from an educational perspective as Nechama Leibovitch explains “any class which asks no questions, raises no problems, does not demand of the teacher an explanation, nor interrupts the study with a stormy and emotional ‘can this be?’, but passes over silently - is a bad sign.” Second, analysis of their behavior, even when critical, can provide stimulating material for moral and religious education. Examples of such are provided in the full paper. “The course of reading-including whether to judge or extend sympathy to a character – allows readers to ‘practice’ their reactions to people and situations in a way which affects their conscious moral judgements in daily life…having the reader judge the character often has a didactic function, because it is 'only a step on the way to having the reader judge himself…in his everyday life’” (Stuart Lasine, “Judicial Narratives and the Ethics of Reading” in Hebrew Studies 30 [1989]: 55).

In focusing on the biblical figure and his/her confrontations, we are allowing the student to grapple with several critical philosophical and theological issues that may trouble him/her. Finally, a complete analysis of the lives of the avot, can provide meaningful explanations for the patterns which exist in their individual lives and which are also reflected in our national existence and consciousness.

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