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Where are the Revolutionaries?

Where are the Revolutionaries?

Would Abraham Recognize His Children?


A short while ago I went into a synagogue for the evening prayers. In middle of the service, I noticed one congregant behaving rudely to another. I was about to say something, when a man standing next to me whispered: "These two guys have been fighting as long as I am here. Don't get involved."

"No big thing," you may think. "People everywhere have their petty fights." But I couldn't just dismiss this away. A personal childhood experience would not allow me to. When I was around six years old, I vividly recall – in a type of frozen image, the type that results only from a childhood experience forever etched in our memories – a fistfight that took place in my local synagogue. I'll never forget my fright and horror watching these two big guys punching it out right in middle of the prayer services. When I asked my father what was going on, he simply waved it away and said "tzvai idioten" (two idiots)…

Radical discrepancies have contributed to much of today's cynicism and rejection of religious lifeYears later, I have heard far too many people telling me how similar distasteful experiences have turned them off from religion and religious institutions: Having witnessed profound inconsistencies between people's outward appearance (as devout individuals) and their actual behavior; having seen how a person can be obsessively committed to certain rituals and simultaneously be utterly unrefined and callous; how certain religious individuals are judgmental and condescending, playing "holier than thou," and in their own personal lives, beneath the surface, they can stoop to pettiness, greed and even… fistfights; how divisiveness and just plain primitive acrimony has permeated so many communities of faith; how children in religious homes are being hurt by selfish adults, no different than their counterparts in secular homes. All these radical discrepancies and contradictions have contributed to much of today's cynicism and rejection of religious life.

Obviously, this must be qualified by two important facts. The first is that this by no means is a blanket stereotype of religious individuals, many of whom are gentle, sensitive souls, people who continuously work on refining themselves precisely due to their beliefs. Some of the most noble, cultivated and spiritual humans on earth are people of faith. The second point is that a system should never be judged by any one or group of individuals. Religion establishes a particular standard for human virtue and justice. No person on this planet can live up to the highest standard; the committed life is one that always aspires to reach upward, while knowing our shortcomings and that there are always greater horizons to conquer. The fact that a few individuals may be hypocrites and behave in embarrassing ways does not reflect on the system as a whole, only on the reality that the system does not preclude foolish people making bad choices and behaving inappropriately or immaturely. No different than, say, a scientist falsifying data reflects on all scientists and all of science.

Yet, those few (or a bit more) individuals who glaringly behave contrary to the religious standard are sure able to give all of religion a black eye – and one that endures.

So at disturbing times like this, when corrupt religion and the ugliness of human nature rears its head, I for one like to take a trip – a journey that takes us back over three millennia to the birth of religion.

How would Abraham react if he entered a modern-day synagogue?What would the man who gave us monotheism and embraced a life of virtue, justice and kindness say about religion in our times? Would he even recognize it? How would Abraham react if he entered a modern-day synagogue? Would he readily join a board of trustees of one of our religious institutions, or become part of its faculty? And how would he respond to a synagogue brawl between his great-great-grandchildren?

Here is my speculation as to Abraham's attitude toward religious life today.

Let's begin with the brawl. If Abraham walked into a synagogue and saw the fight that I witnessed, I have no doubt that he would cry. He would have the same reaction to all the other inconsistencies mentioned above.

But the bigger question is whether he would even walk into a 21st century synagogue? Would he be comfortable there? And which exact synagogue would he choose?

Abraham would be quite disturbed by any house of G‑d that has been turned into a bureaucracy. I doubt that Abraham would be comfortable in any synagogue that did not welcome every individual equally, where every soul felt at home.

Perhaps that is why the Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal (a16th century Kabbalist) and the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chassidut) – as it was the custom of other sages and mystics – would recite certain prayers in the field on Shabbat eve. We read in the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah (Genesis 24:63), "Isaac went out to speak [pray] in the field." Isaac must have learned that from someone before him – none other than his father, Abraham.1 Some prayer is perhaps most conducive in the field, amongst nature, with no distractions from man-made structures and institutions. Even the structures where prayers should generally be held require windows that allow us to see and reach beyond the structure, to heaven. Abraham would be looking for the windows…

The Baal Shem Tov once ran out of a relatively empty synagogue, complaining that the place was too packed leaving him no room to pray. When his students wondered what he meant, the Baal Shem Tov explained: The Zohar says that love and awe are like the two wings of a bird that carry our soaring prayers to heaven. In this particular synagogue the prayers were being recited without any feeling at all, leaving them grounded, like trapped birds, unable to soar. The synagogue was therefore so packed with these "dead" prayers, leaving no room for the Baal Shem Tov…

Abraham would be looking for the windows – for the soaring prayers and the airborne spirits.

Abraham clearly would find it odd that some Jews today have become so parochial, and even divisiveAbraham was a pioneer of non-conformity. He defied his family and his entire society, rejecting their paganism and charting a new course that would change history forever. No doubt that Abraham, the father of individuality and non-conformity, would be quite shocked to see how the Divine path that he initiated – leaving behind all his comfort zones, and choosing for himself and his children a life of virtue and service – how religion has become so conformist today, often stifling the human spirit.

Abraham was a global thinker with a universal vision to lead people toward personal and collective redemption. He clearly would find it odd that some Jews today have become so parochial, and even divisive, focusing on their personal lives, and often forgetting that G‑d gave us a universal blueprint to improve the larger world. And like musical notes in one grand composition, we need each other to realize our individual aspirations.

Abraham did not seclude himself in study, prayer and Divine devotion. He opened his home to all, he "created" (inspired) souls in Haran, he made it his life's work to not only teach his children the path of righteousness and justice, but to inspire everyone he came in contact with. How, Abraham would surely wonder, did his confident and proactive attitude – as a driving force in human progress – become so defensive and tentative?

Abraham was a passionate, revolutionary soul who changed the world around him, instead of letting the world change him. What happened, Abraham would ask, that today so many people of faith lack passion and soul? Why are there so many mechanical people, who perform even mitzvot by rote? And why is it that religious people today are so affected by contemporary society (whether they know it or not) and the pursuit of money, that instead of them shaping the world, the world is shaping them? And where, oh where, are the revolutionaries?

But above all, Abraham would not retreat. He would not choose the easier path of protecting his "own skin" and give up on our generation. If Abraham prayed for the infidels of Sodom, he surely would do all he possibly could to help us free ourselves of our own lethargy.

Abraham would certainly find profound merit in us, his grandchildren. That despite all the persecutions and genocides, despite centuries of oppression, we, Abraham's progeny are still standing. Albeit, perhaps weak at times, perhaps inconsistent, perhaps devoid of passion – but still trying.

Just imagine how Abraham would turn over our world!But Abraham would not suffice with finding merit in our lives. He would engage us, challenge us, rouse and empower us – he would fire us up to cease acting like victims and take control of our lives and our destinies. He would imbue us with profound confidence (or better yet, ignite the confidence that lies dormant in our souls) to go out and change the environment in which we live.

Yes, indeed, just imagine how Abraham would turn over our world! The thought alone can make you shudder.

Interesting to envision how a man who lived over 3,700 years ago would react to our world and what he would do to improve our condition.

Then again, perhaps there is an Abraham here with us today. Perhaps that Abraham is inside of you and me…


Commentaries reconcile this with the law stating that one should pray in a structure – see Tosafot Berochos 34b. Zohar Beshalach 60a. Mogen Avraham Orach Chaim 90:6

© The Meaningful Life Center. Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the author of the best-selling Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe (William Morrow, 1995), and the founder and director of the Meaningful Life Center.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, MA February 11, 2010

the Messiah I wonder if anyone wonders how the world would change IF the Moshiach came. Meaning, a world in which there is no suffering, is not the world we know, and how would it be? The lion lying down with the lamb? The entire "order" as we know it, destroyed, meaning we live in a world of bipolatiry, cruel and crewel.

And so, if we go back to the GARDEN retaining the knowledge from that TREE through our journeys, how will the world change? I guess we don't go there much in our heads, because we really don't think we need to bother with these questions.

I believe, in the question of peace, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, that we're going to do this together, and that divinity, and that drive, resides in us all, namely, to make the world a much much better place. And bet itself, means house.

I think we've got to get it Right and that this is a WEAVE we're doing, a profound garment, that is going to take us some place beautiful, but we do this, in concert.
L'chayim! Reply

Anonymous NYC, NY, USA February 10, 2010

Re: "Where Are The Revolutionaries?" Fabulous article and well-written! Reply

Anonymous Buffalo, ny February 6, 2010

So true I'm a Hispanic who is struggling with the fact of wanting to convert preciously by the facts that you have mentioned.But if you saw my family you would not think 2. And when people ask me what type of affiliation we belong to. I simply answer I'm a Jew, no more no less. And as i read, it broke my heart and gave me hope simultaneously. I'm struggling with how to raise my children and in which environment. I'm prying that Moshiah come. Reply

Anonymous Dhaka, Bangladesh January 28, 2010

Misahaps in synagogue Fine! Problem is in mind. Similarthings are happening elsewhere. Just change of mind and control it. Creat a common belief that a big mishap can be solve by sound behaviour and affection. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 27, 2010

midrash Thank you for you ongoing comments. And yes, there are metaphoric connects that do apply, meaning the actual smashing physically of idols is probably not what was meant.

I think within these stories, all of them, there is a profound learning curve, and so I would agree with these wise and wonderful commentaries.

I think, there is an overarching story, an arc so to speak, and that arc has everything to do with profound lessons we're all being taught about life, about compassion, and also about how G_d wishes to be loved and confronted.. A story that is deeply about love, compassion, support, tikkun olam. We have the opportunity and for us all, it's about that concerted effort, to move in concert, towards compassionate and wise behaviors, a temperance of judgment with love. And, there is no doubt, for me, that this symphony has a conductor! Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel January 27, 2010

To Stop A Fight From my experience in these matters I would prepare and then suddenly throw several buckets full of cold water (the colder the better) on both men.

The discomfort due to this usually stops the fight, after which the matter can be resolved by gentler arguement. Reply

Ilana Jerusalem January 26, 2010

Abraham smashed idols This story is not from the Torah. It is a Midrash. Midrashim do not need to be understood literally. We can take from them essential lessons and leave the parts that are, perhaps, imperfectly constructed.

In the Midrash, Abraham did not smash the idols to prevent someone from practicing his religion. He did it as part of a point he wanted to prove to his father -- that his father knew idol worship to be false.

It is also important to note that the pagan religion he was fighting against was not moral and a force for good. It advocated cynical worship of human power. The vandals outside your hypothetical synagogue, OTOH, are destroying purely to destroy what they hate. Some value systems really are better than others.

See Learning to Read Midrash by Simi Peters, for more on this Midrash. Reply

Tzvi Freeman January 26, 2010

Re: Unfortunately, Abraham would recognize this... Let's put things in context. Here's this dictator Nimrod who has the nation worshiping him. Here's the clergy that knows the truth, but hides it from the populace. "Keep them wallowing in ignorance. Keep them under control."

Religion in the ancient world--and throughout most of history--was exactly that: A way of justifying the power of the ruling class and keeping the masses in their place. Abraham was the first to stand up and rebel against that status quo. We're supposed to be continuing the job. Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL January 26, 2010

Breaking Idols (to Camarillo) Avraham avinu had to break the idols of his father's workshop to try to open the eyes and minds of his fellow man to G-d. Those today who smash menorahs and paint foul symbols & epithets are trying to close the minds of men and turn them from G-d.
Come to our little shul (Chabad SP) and see a group of people of various backgrounds working together to bring G-d closer and Moshiach. May Avraham find some pride in all the little shuls just like ours. Reply

Ruth Housman marshfield hills, ma January 26, 2010

the smashing of idols Your comment is very interesting. I had never thought about it quite this way, but yes, he did destroy the property of others and denigrated their ways of worship. It would be classified as a crime. I was just watching Cool Hand Luke and the movie starts with Luke's cutting the tops off meters in a fit of rage. The ringing words of this powerful movie are: What we have here, is a failure to communicate.

Since God runs the universe, then it was God powering Abraham through story to do this. The worship of idols was one stage within the journey, life. And part of "the story" leading us toward one God. And in deep ways, these idols represented gods but the notion of folding it all into ONE was the meaning behind meaning.

We can interpret text on different levels, and this makes it so exciting to dialogue as you have done. Your comment is really interesting and worthy of "midrash".
Thank you for stimulating my thinking! Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA January 25, 2010

Unfortunately, Abraham would recognize this... Abraham smashed the idols that he knew to be the property of someone else, and that the pagans needed to practice their religion, and that his father needed for his livelihood. This is the first recorded case of someone destroying someone else property to prevent a third person from practicing his or her religion and probably the first recorded case of vandalism motivated by religion in general. Today, it would be classified as a hate crime.

Abraham might not recognize us if he was inside a shul, but if he was outside and saw anti-semetic teenagers spraypainting swastickas or breaking menorahs, he might recognize a little bit of himself in them.

Someone please convince me that I am wrong. I do not like thinking this, but that alone does not make it untrue. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA January 25, 2010

Abraham In Lating, abrir is to open, and abra is related, as in an opening. Of course we have the notion of bracha or man of holiness in his name as well, And more.

Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees and his vision was that of One G_d. Today we have people who bear his name, and we have people whose names are redolent of these Biblical stories, or have meaning that is, beautiful, when you look up, the meaning of a name.

I believe we are actualizing the potential of the letters themselves, and the Kabalistic concept that meditation on the letters does produce deep understanding of Creation is absolutely true.

I see that Abraham is among us. I see that Sarah, that Naomi, that Ruth, that all these characters who made up a panoply of stories that are Biblical and beyond are here, now.

All mitzvot, great or small are equal.
To worship is to recognize the immanence, the awe, within it all and that the garden without is also, within. Cultivate your garden with love. Honor all life. We are One. Reply

Anonymous Largo, fl January 25, 2010

two men fighting I do not know what i would do, but there are other points raised. What I object to-and think is plain wrong-and I see this mostly amongst the "religious" and "observant" and their children. They wear tsitsis, and put on teffin daily-yet in services talk when someone has Yartzheit. They hold loud conversations and tell jokes; their children 9teens and pre-teens alike) do the same, or read-novels;short stories; essays; other books-not prayer books. To me, a shul is (during when servies are being held) to pray/reflect, not socialize-time enough for that before/after. And the little/younger children- they run wild, and their parents ignore this. Again, mostly those whose little boys wear tsitses, whose parents are sure t keep ksher and complain about those who do not, etc. I am non observant, but at least, keep quiet whenever someone has Yartzheit (except to respnd, when appropriate), and confine my socialization to after the services. (Not boasting, but the way I was taught, as a kid Reply

Xeno77777 Saint Petersburg, Florioda, USA January 25, 2010

Fighting in House of Worship, Call the Police, two men are disturbing the peace are the problem of the law. Use one's Cell Phone. Tell the Dispatcher to send enough Police to tajke down Two big violent men. If two men act like they are in a Bar, treat them like they are in a Bar! Reply

Kate Pomroy Dultuh, MN, USA January 25, 2010

Fighting during a prayer service For too long we have collectively sat back and neither said nor reacted to such rude public behavior. I think it is time we take a united stand and simply say this will no longer happen in the presence of God. Reply