First, a disclaimer – I want to push a book by a good friend. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is an astute observer of all things that connect holiness and daily life. He is a scholar and a storyteller – in near equal measure – who gets right to the point in matters of what it is to be a Jew and a human being and a citizen today. No less a figure than Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College Steinberg Emeritus Professor of Human Relations, Rabbi William Cutter, says of Jeff Salkin that “he is unique in his ability to address the essential, the primary, the central concerns of life, and not become distracted by the periphery.” And, many share the insight of his longtime friend from rabbinical school, Rabbi Robert Goldstein of Andover, Massachusetts, who once told me that “Jeffrey is the brightest star of our generation, and the smartest observer and critic of contemporary social issues through the Jewish lens.”
Wow! So, go ahead and order the book: The Gods are Broken: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), and read it as both a primer on Jewish ideas of holiness and iconoclasm and a meditation on the primary character from our shared biblical religions. Abraham, the one who, by his faith, shuns idols.
Writer Cynthia Ozick deftly summarizes what it is to be a Jew: “A Jew is someone who shuns idols, who least of all would wish to become, like Terah, the father of Abraham, the maker of idols.” (Victor H. Strandberg, Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick, 1994).
But where do we get this idea? Not in the Bible, says Rabbi Salkin. “Try to find it there, as generations of Jewish children have done, and you will be disappointed. That tale ‘should’ be somewhere around Genesis 11:26… But the story is not in its expected place in the Torah narrative. It is a post-biblical midrash – perhaps one of the most famous midrashim in the world.”
And what is a midrash? Rabbi Salkin reaches again for the right words from another writer: “Midrash is that literary place ‘where exegesis turns into literature and comes to possess its own language and voice’” (David Stern, “Midrash and the Language of Exegesis” in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, Midrash and Literature, 1986).
Christians often experience a kind of holy envy regarding midrash. We admire the flexibility and imagination of the practice, yet we (at least I) often remain overly careful not to seem to make the text say things not said. Yet, I think Jeffrey Salkin’s ability to reveal central, primary concerns protects against such misreading, and renders the biblical story with a new luster and greater utility. Such a practice is worth our envy, indeed!
In his first paragraph in The Gods Are Broken, Salkin tells of an interchange he had with an elder in a past congregation:
“At a certain point in the conversation, he told me about the few unhappy years of his Jewish education. ‘It couldn’t have all been bad,’ I suggested. ‘Is there any lesson, in particular, that you remember?’
Without a moment of hesitation, he responded: ‘Of course. I remember the first sentence we learned to recite in Hebrew.’
‘What was it?’ I asked.
He closed his eyes, and he reached back in his mind to a memory that was more than seventy years old: ‘Avraham lo he’emin bap’silim’ (Abraham did not believe in the idols). That was, essentially, all that he remembered from his Jewish education. No texts, no stories, no other prayers.”
He is not alone.
We in the Diocese of Southern Ohio are “making connection” between biblical foundations and faith formation all the time. We are trying to know our common story, as we have put it in recent years, in order to live in newness of life in the God of Abraham, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We seek experiences that will be remembered long into our faith journey, and equally urgently into the faith journeys of our children, and our children’s children. Yet, what will we remember unto the seventieth year? Will we remember to shatter idols, like Abraham did? Will we so associate ourselves with our Jewish roots (and the promise of the Prophets) that we really will seek freedom from “Egyptian” idolatry and security and orderliness, resting only in the grace, mercy, and peace of God? Will we remember that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and, therefore, making us ambassadors for reconciliation?
This is the way the midrash tells the story: God chose Abram because Abram did not believe in idols. When his father, Terah, left his lucrative idol-making shop in Ur and put his young son in charge over the shop for a brief while, the boy took a stick and shattered all the idols in the shop, putting the stick in the hands of the largest idol.
Rabbi Salkin continues the midrash in these words:
“When Terah returned from his journey, he found his merchandise in pieces on the floor. ‘What happened,’ he demanded to know.
‘Oh father, it was terrible,’ his son said. ‘The small idols got hungry and they started fighting for food, and finally the large idol got angry and he broke them into pieces.’
‘Idols don’t get hungry,’ said Terah. ‘They don’t get angry, they don’t speak – they’re just idols.’
Upon hearing this, his son smiled and said: ‘Oh, father, if only your ears could hear what your mouth is saying. Why, then, do you worship them?’”
Here’s a story that can be (and truly is) remembered for a lifetime … Abraham did not believe in the idols. Now, with God’s help, we are moved to write new, memorable midrashim on freedom and reconciliation, trusting in a peace that passes all understanding.
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The Rev. Dick Burnett serves as rector at Trinity, Columbus.