We live in an era of punditry. Everyone has an interpretation of events, yet few of us stop to understand what actually might have happened. Interpretation occludes understanding, as tenuously grand conclusions occlude more modest insights that are built upon a firmer footing.
Similar critique might be applied to how many of us approach the founder of the Jewish people, Abraham. To venerate the origins of Judaism itself, we conclude at the outset that he was a moral superhero – all the while deemphasizing a personal life riddled with painful complexity. We would do well to reexamine his personal life, as it may shed new light on his public leadership role.
In his family, Abraham seems unnecessarily cruel, even at times vindictive. He abusively offers his wife Sarah to Pharaoh as a consort for financial gain. He fervently argues against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but does not so much as express surprise when God asks him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. He and Sarah suffer from infertility challenges, while he willingly accepts Sarah’s offer of her handmaid Hagar to be his lover and their surrogate. Then, when Hagar is pregnant, he allows Sarah to make life untenable such that Hagar runs away to the wilderness.
Abraham’s conduct seems entirely at odds with the tradition that he cofounded and the values that we profess as rabbinic Jews today. It might have even greater complexity than initially meets the eye.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25: 18), we learn that after Sarah dies, Abraham devotes himself to finding Isaac a suitable spouse. He dispatches a servant to bring back a worthy partner from Haran, where Abraham once lived. The servant returns with Rebecca – and enables Isaac to refocus on the life of his family.
Then, Abraham takes another wife named Keturah. The Midrashic commentary of Genesis Rabbah, affirmed later by the commentator Rashi, raises the possibility that Keturah is really another name for Hagar. Together, she and Abraham have six more children, fulfilling what may have been unrequited feelings and mending some of the brokenness of their earlier relationship.
Through this interpretation, we see a far more vulnerable, internally conflicted Abraham. He loved two women but only married one at a time. Perhaps he loved both sons, Isaac and Ishmael, but could only protect one at a time. He willed Isaac all of his property (Genesis 25:5), but made sure that his children with Hagar were well provided for while he was still alive (Genesis 25:6) and sent them to the East to be out of reach of the potentially rivalrous Isaac.
Abraham evinces a broken heart. He consorted with Hagar to fulfill the need for children, only to have fallen in love with her. He nonetheless fulfilled his obligations to Sarah as his spouse, only to mourn Hagar’s absence and Ishmael’s subordinate place in the family. Yet he remained emotionally entangled in the rivalry of the two people he loved and their children.
Perhaps the greatness of Abraham’s leadership lies in his ability to help establish an enduring people and religious tradition, even while his home life was filled with conflicted emotions and outright conflict. In overlooking his travails and ethical foibles, we overlook the remarkable goodness that he brought to the world, despite profound shortcomings. What an empowering, emboldening message to us that we can do profound good in the world, even with all of our human stumbles and the vicissitudes that we encounter in life.
Image entitled, Keturah, created by Peter Olsen, http://www.peterolsenart.com/
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.