Why Jewish Tradition Associates the Biblical Forefathers with the Values They Struggled Most to Uphold

Dec. 14 2022

In kabbalistic thought, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are associated, respectively, with the divine attributes of lovingkindness, strength, and truth. The prooftext for these correspondences, which eventually became commonplace, is Micah 7:20, which begins (addressing God), “You will give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness to Abraham.” But, Ben Greenfield notes, Genesis shows Jacob as practicing deceit: first by disguising himself as his brother Esau to take his blessing, and then by outmaneuvering his avaricious father-in-law Laban. Passivity, even weakness—rather than strength—seem to characterize Isaac. And Abraham does at times display kindness, but:

Abraham’s full story is not at all defined by “kindness” and often runs directly counter to it. How is Avraham the epitome of lovingkindness in raising the blade over his bound son? Where is the lovingkindness in allowing Sarah to torment the lowly maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16:6) or in exiling Hagar and her young child Ishmael into the blazing desert (Genesis 21:14)? . . . The Abraham we know from the actual Torah exemplifies any number of virtues, but lovingkindness is not particularly high on that list.

Greenfield seeks a solution to this paradox by taking a closer look at one of the earliest texts to make these associations, an addendum to the Zohar known as the Zohar Ḥadash (“new Zohar”), first published in the 16th century:

Nothing in the Zohar Ḥadash indicates that the forefathers own, master, or are themselves the source of these virtues. Rather, it asserts that each patriarch “knew God through the looking glass” of these virtues. The virtue is located outside them and is central to their experience, but it is not necessarily something that they themselves embody. As such, it is reasonable to understand this kabbalistic thread as stating that the forefathers repeatedly confront their respective attribute: sometimes exhibiting it, sometimes challenged by it, constantly weighing if and how to bring that virtue into the world.

Perhaps to “know God through the looking glass” of a virtue means to struggle with that virtue. It is possible that Zohar Ḥadash’s intention in this passage is to highlight Jacob’s tendency toward guile (Genesis 27:35 and 34:13) and Isaac’s frequent positions of impotence. This “struggle” read is bolstered by the Zohar Ḥadash’s biblical prooftext of Micah 7:20, a verse that speaks of Jacob and Abraham lacking their respective attributes and which appears in a passage about Jewish spiritual failure.

Indeed, virtues like kindness, strength, and truth cannot possibly be embodied completely by any mortal being.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Abraham, Genesis, Hebrew Bible, Kabbalah, Micah


Why President Biden Needs Prime Minister Netanyahu as Much as Netanyahu Needs Biden

Sept. 28 2023

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since the former’s inauguration. Since then, Haim Katz, Israel’s tourism minister, became the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia publicly, and Washington announced that it will include the Jewish state in its visa-waiver program. Richard Kemp, writing shortly after last week’s meeting, comments:

Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday, however, was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes. But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the state of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign-policy success among a sea of abject failures.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro-forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of appearances, [a nuclear program and military support] are what they really want. The Saudis’ under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.

Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two-state solution.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship