Abraham the activist, who challenged God

What made Abraham stand out? Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg profiles the patriarch in an extract from his new book


I don’t like the word ‘bystander’,” a Holocaust scholar told me. “The fact is we’re all bystanders; we can’t help it.

The question is: are we passive or active standers-by?”

Abraham is definitely an active bystander. He refuses to stay silent when he learns of God’s plans to destroy Sodom, though well aware of its evil reputation.

He challenges God in the name of the very justice God purportedly upholds: “This profanes you,” he accuses God:

“Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18:25).

So he bargains: “If there are fifty righteous people in the city, will you still destroy it and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it?” (Genesis 18:24).

God concedes, continuing to yield as Abraham progressively brings the numbers down to ten.

Yet even as they argue, Abraham and God agree that these few decent people must be “within the city”. Since it’s perfectly clear that they’re in Sodom, the words must indicate something more than mere geography.

Abraham ibn Ezra explains: “Within the city means they show their fear of Heaven openly.”
Nehama Leibowitz develops his point: “The few can turn the scales and save the place if the righteous individuals are ‘within the city’, playing a prominent part in public life and exerting their influence in its many fields of activity.

"But if they merely exist, living in retirement and never venturing forth but pursuing their pious conduct unseen and unknown, they will, perhaps, save themselves, but will certainly not possess the spiritual merit capable of protecting the city.”

Yiddish has a phrase for good people who refuse to get involved: tzaddik im pelz, a righteous person in a fur coat. Society is not changed by types like that.

It would be unfair to call them indifferent; in the safety of their homes, they no doubt shun and condemn the ills of the world. But in public they remain silent.

They fail to live up to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of a religious person, someone who is “maladjusted; attuned to the agony of others; aware of God’s presence and of God’s needs… never satisfied… always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others”.

Heschel lived by his creed, standing shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement and in speaking out against the Vietnam War. Explaining what changed him from a contemplative scholar into an impassioned activist, he wrote that “indifference to evil is worse than evil itself”.

Abraham’s intervention in the fate of Sodom proved futile. Unable to find even ten righteous individuals within it, God destroyed the city. Next morning, Abraham watched the smoke rise from its remains.

Yet Abraham didn’t entirely fail. The Torah notes that at the end of their argument, “God went away” but Abraham “returned to his place” (18:33). It’s as if God is forced out of the ring while Abraham goes back upright to his corner. He can’t save Sodom, but he does hold God to account.

According to rabbinic tradition, that’s exactly what God wants from him, and from us. God instructs Abraham not just to “walk with Me” but to “walk before Me”. (17:1).

I made him my delegate in the world, a midrash has God say, precisely so that I should do nothing without his consent. His role was to command not just “his family and household” but even God “to practise righteousness and justice” (18:19).

As a further midrash explains, he’s like a servant whom, whenever they enter a dark alley, the king orders to walk in front and light the way.

In the ensuing centuries, whole communities and their rabbis frequently called upon heaven to bring down judgment on the heads of corrupt and cruel powers, including sometimes their own leaders.

They understood that the responsibility to engage lay not just with God but with us, even when the smoke was rising from the ruins.

Abraham is Avinu, “our father”, not just because of genealogy, but because he had the courage to speak out, even on behalf of a city he had little reason to like. He is Avram ha’Ivri, Abram the Hebrew, literally “the one on the other side”, the one who’s prepared to take issue, even when “all the world is on this side and he on the other”.

None of us is at liberty to “stand idly by the blood of our neighbour” (Leviticus 19:16). We’re required to involve ourselves in the concerns of our society; God’s reputation as just and compassionate depends on how we behave in God’s name.

Even if we believed in an omnipotent God ready to intercede in human affairs, we would still be obligated to take action.

But if, as in the account of the argument over Sodom, God “goes away” and does not, to all appearances, engage directly in worldly affairs but delegates matters to us, it is all the more imperative that we do as Timothy Snyder insists in his recent book, On Tyranny:

“Take responsibility for the face of the world: Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do . . . In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.
Stand out. Someone has to.”

Listening for God in Torah and Creation, Jonathan Wittenberg, Hatchette, £30, is out now

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