Rabbinic Reflections: Iconoclastic questions

How would Hollywood tell the story? In its season opener, Saturday Night Live had a skit poking fun at the billionaire “space flights” of this past July through the lens of Star Trek. As a fan of sci-fi, that got me thinking about imaginative leaps, barrier-breaking ideas, and social commentary.

Abraham the idol smasher.

My favorite Bible story is an imaginative leap, not actually in the Bible, though it is in the Quran. In between the Jewish liturgical reading from Genesis read yesterday and this week’s portion, we jump from hearing about Abraham’s father’s life and death to God’s command to Abraham to leave for the Promised Land. “In between” is a space filled by midrash, a rabbinic interpretive exploration often offered in stories. It was in my late 20s that I learned that the story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop was a midrash rather than actual Bible verses. The story is such a great one that it is little wonder that I found it in many books of children’s Bible stories.

Like any great story, especially a sci-fi one, there is a big question being answered indirectly — are we alone in the universe? is there a better way to live? is the human spirit noble or base? The midrash about Abraham starts off asking: Why did God choose him?

Rabbi Hiyya, in particular, seems very interested in establishing God’s choice of Abraham as the opposite of grace; in Rabbi Hiyya’s midrash, Abraham earned God’s attention. What is more, Abraham earned it by asking questions, questions that uprooted his contemporary culture. He asks a middle-aged man why he would worship a day-old idol. When a woman gives him fine flour to offer to the idols, he pretends this biggest idol broke the others in an argument over which should get the flour first. His father asks if he really thinks the idols think, to which Abraham replies, “Do you hear yourself?”

In the story, Abraham is a literal iconoclast, breaking symbols that hold power in his society. Abraham asks those around him to look again at their practices and to think about what they mean to be doing. Abraham understands that there must be one God and tries to clear a path for others to acknowledge that they do, too. More than just being faithful himself, Abraham tries to get others to join him, perhaps “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” When God chooses Abraham to go to the Promised Land, Abraham has already had his Luke Skywalker / Paul Atriedes / Young Enterprise Crew coming-of-age experience. Abraham has proven he is a leader of others.

In our day of instant celebrity and failed leadership, we might do well to look for those asking tough questions about what we really mean to be doing for ourselves and our future. We might do well to look for stories of those whose actions unveil truths we know even as we behave falsely. And, if as it was even with the Book of Genesis, we do not find those stories, we should find them in between the lines and write them in the stars beyond the space that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin reached. A different midrash says Abraham found God by examining the stars in the night sky. We do not need to travel there physically to change life here. I do not need Hollywood to tell me that.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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