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Jewish World Review
Oct. 19, 2007
/ 7 Mar-Cheshvan 5768
Revolution through one word
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
When studying the life of Abraham, we often wonder what made him into the first Jew in all of history. Without any doubt he must be seen as the progenitor of all that Judaism had to offer throughout the ages. As such he laid the foundations of nearly all religious thinking in the west. Not only did Judaism give birth to two other world religions Christianity and Islam but it also became the foundation of several legal systems, the concept of justice and western morality. What was Abraham's secret?
Conventional thinking argues that it is was Abraham who "discovered" G-d after mankind had fallen prey to idol worship and that this was his main contribution. This however cannot be the whole story. It is clear that other individuals also recognized G-d as their Lord. So we read that Avimelech, King of Gerar and Melchizedek king of Salem, believed in G-d seemingly even before they met Abraham. (Genesis 14)
On top of that, belief in G-d alone does not automatically lead to the need for morality and justice.
It was Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1883-1946), former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who suggested that it was the replacement of only one word that made Abraham into the father of all western religions and justice. And it was this change which brought about a
radical departure from conventional thinking for all future times.
When Adam meets his wife Eve for the first time (after she has been formed from his rib), he identifies her with the words: "This now is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2.23).
This is a most remarkable statement since we would have anticipated that he would refer to her in spiritual rather than in physical terms. Somehow Adam was not able to see himself or his wife in terms of soul. This is even more startling when we realize they had not yet participated from the tree of knowledge and as such lived highly spiritual lives in the Garden of Eden.
During the following centuries we see that human beings continue to see themselves in terms of flesh. Even the Torah (Bible) which originally had called man "nefesh chaya" a living being, (2:7) continues to describe man in terms of his flesh. This becomes very clear when we read the story about the flood of Noah.
"And G-d saw the earth and behold, it was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth." (6.12)
Only when Abraham enters the Biblical narrative, is man never again described as flesh. From this moment onwards he is called soul (nefesh). (See, for example, Genesis 12:13)
This possibly means that Abraham's most important contribution was not so much the discovery of G-d but to teach mankind that the human being is not so much flesh as he/she is soul. And once the word flesh is replaced by the word nefesh, the foundations of morality become possible and the concept of religion is able to undergo a radical change. No longer is its function to make man just aware of G-d's existence, but the driving force behind moral values. From this moment it taught the human being that since he has a soul he is a moral being and henceforth responsible for his deeds.
Remarkable is the fact that Abraham's personality must have been so inspiring that once he met a stranger, the latter automatically changed his language from physical to spiritual. Even the King of Sodom, far from being righteous, could no longer employ his old sensual expressions. When speaking to Abraham after the latter had rescued Lot, he says: "Give me the souls and take the goods for yourself" (13:21)
One has only to recall the abominable practices associated with the old polytheistic cults and Plato's criticism of the Greek religion because of the great moral evils it bred, to realize that the relation of religion to morals is by no means obvious. It was only in Judaism that the idea of the inseparableness of religion and ethical living arose. And from there this concept was taken over by Christianity, Islam and different legal systems. It is only because man is seen in terms of soul that he is asked to be ethical.
Once that is established, values such as "kedusha" (holiness) and "tahara" (spiritual purity) become possible.
All this became part of western civilization once Abraham revolutionized the world by replacing the word flesh with soul.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. Comment by clicking here.
© 2007, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo