Just Us – or Justice: a Comment on Wolfson’s Reading of Genesis 18

Dov Nelkin, The University of Virginia

I want to thank the members of the SSR for once again providing an engaging and fascinating topic for our consideration and considered conversation. This year, in particular, SSR brings together B’nei Avraham (the Children of Abraham) in a world not yet perfected but desperately in need of tikkun (repair). Let those of us who are brave enough to meet and sometimes even confront God in the text show no less courage in refuting those who would destroy in God’s name and in the name of God’s texts. Although I will not be at this year’s meeting, I would like to add a short note by way of commentary to a point raised by Elliot Wolfson in his intriguing and multi-layered discussion of Gen. 18. Wolfson writes:

The ethical demand for justice, which cannot be extracted from its theological underpinning, arises not out of the logical deduction of universal moral principles but out of commitment to a particular covenant community. The task of disseminating justice is the unique calling of the nation that traced its lineage back through Jacob and Isaac to Abraham. [see link for context].

Wolfson’s interpretation of this passage seems similar to that of Rashi (Solomon b. Isaac, b. 1040). Commenting on Gen 18:17 (s.v. ” Asher ani oseh, ” “What I am doing”), Rashi suggests that this consideration of Abraham’s moral sense is a function of God’s having named him “father of nations” and having promised him this land and all its peoples, so that God’s thought was, “Shall I destroy the children without telling their father, whom I love?” (Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, by contrast, interprets the same verse to refer to property, rather than familial, rights.) Rashi’s interpretation does not suggest, however, as does Wolfson, that all of ethics is bound to the relationship between God and a particular community. At most, we can read this passage as God’s showing to Abraham that the decision to destroy Sodom was not unjust, anticipating the rabbinic understanding of God’s response to Moses’ request that he be allowed to see God’s face. This explains the way God opens the conversation with Abraham: by telling him that Sodom is sinful and that God is now planning to assess the facts of the case and judge, “I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry, which has come to me . . .” (18:21). The question of ethical reasoning, whether from abstract principles or otherwise, doesn’t arise in the discussion from God’s side. We note that God’s decision regarding the destruction of Sodom does not change in fact or principle – God does not say, “I will not destroy if there are 10, now that you have argued so,” but, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”

There are many different ways to read Abraham’s dialogue with God, couched as it is in submissive language, and yet seemingly challenging God either to lower his standards for saving the wicked or to raise his estimation of the value of the righteous. We could understand this as Abraham’s hope for his own descendants, who will not all be righteous, but among whom a righteous core will always be found and who are all responsible for one another. Circumcision, and Wolfson has done an excellent job of showing how this is linked to education and prayer, is a guarantee that the future generations be immersed in the covenant before they can choose otherwise. The Israelite people’s response at Sinai of ” Na’aseh v’nishmah ” (literally, “we will do and will hear/obey,” Ex. 24:7), of doing before understanding, is enacted through the education of our children and incarnated in the ritual of circumcision. Nonetheless, Abraham looks to God for the hope that his descendants will be saved even when the majority sin.

However, if we do read this as a matter of ethics, we should return to the beginning of the section. God asks (rhetorically/reflexively) “Shall I hide what I am about to do” (” Hamachaseh asher ani oseh” Gen. 18:17) anticipating Abraham’s “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (18:25). In both cases the letter “heh,” used to indicate a question, expresses that the only possible answer is the contrary: God shall not hide his plan; God shall do justice. But I want to focus on the reason God gives for sharing the decision and reasoning with Abraham. God begins with the fact (God’s promise is as if it were accomplished) ” that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (18:18). However, this is not the reason, but a preamble. The reason follows in the next verse: “he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment ( tzedakah u’mishpat ).” The way of the Lord is here equated with justice.

God knows that Abraham will follow in the way of the Lord and teach his children to do the same. It is therefore imperative that God teach Abraham the meaning of the way of the Lord, by showing him that God has judged Sodom properly and not as despot. Perhaps ethics cannot be separated from its theological underpinning, as Wolfson notes, but there is a separate (or at least separable) standard by which God’s justice may be judged, even though the two will always cohere. Otherwise, how can we make sense of Abraham’s questioning, of his declaration, “far be it from you to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked” (18:25), which presupposes both that there is a separate (or separable) standard and that God’s justice will match that standard? Furthermore, Abraham does not make demands on God from the perspective of community or covenant. He makes no mention of any promise that God has made to Abraham or to any other person or to humanity as a whole. Rather, he appeals to Justice and to God’s role as Judge of the World and to the obvious wrongness of destroying the righteous with the wicked.

Wolfson may be right that the appeal is not to abstract principles, although there is room to argue that Justice is just such a principle. Perhaps this passage points to a form of virtue ethics, with its concern for habits (dispositions to act in a certain way) and character, and in which “justice” is understood not as a principle but in terms of how those who are just act, with the prime model here being God. God in turn anticipates creating more models of this virtue in the people of Abraham and his descendants. This explains God’s interest in Abraham’s descendants following “God’s way” and Abraham’s contention, which borders on a definitional assertion, that the Judge of the World must do justice (18:25). In a virtue ethics model, we would understand Abraham’s speech to be not by way of argument, but of fervent hope. He is not challenging God to act justly and in accord with God’s nature, but expressing his disbelief (and perhaps fear?) that God’s role as Judge allows for God to act otherwise than justly. This makes sense of the language of that passage, in which Abraham begins and ends the clause with ” Halilah lecha ” – “far be it from you” – an exclamation equivalent to “God forbid.” Also fitting is Abraham Ibn Ezra’s explanation of the term as equivalent to exclaiming “Impossible!”

Rashi (to 18:35, s.v. ” Halilah lecha ,” 1 st instance) brings in a midrashic interpretation of this exclamation that is also interesting from the perspective of virtue ethics, that halilah derives from hulin , meaning usual or ordinary. Abraham, per this account, is suggesting that if God destroys this population altogether, without separating out the righteous, people will say that such is God’s way, that it is God’s usual habit to destroy, as God did with the generation of the flood and with the generation of the tower. This returns us to God’s concern that Abraham (and his descendants and all the nations of the world who will be blessed through Abraham) properly understand God’s way.

Two final notes:

1) Although I do not agree with Wolfson’s suggestion that “without the assumption of an incarnate form, we cannot conceive of a judge,” support for the idea may be found in the opening of the dialogue with Abraham, where God says, “I will go down now, and see” (18:21, c.f. 11:7). Rashi, in terms that fit nicely with his (and my) explanation above, sees this as again modeling proper behavior (18:21 s.v. ” Areidah ” “I will go down”).

2) When Wolfson cites rabbinic sources to indicate that circumcision perfects, I think we should distinguish between the approach of the earlier Genesis Rabbah and the later Tanhuma. The latter, I think, agrees with Wolfson in making circumcision an earth-shatteringly significant act (but again, look at the source for its nuance). Genesis Rabbah, however, while supporting the idea that Abraham was perfected through the circumcision, compares Abraham to a woman standing before the king and asking if he sees any imperfection. The king replies that she is perfect except that the nail of her small finger is a little long and suggests that she clip it off. This form of perfecting is different from the Tanhuma or Wolfson, I think, and makes of milah a relatively minor thing. It is a perfecting that recognizes the prior development of Abraham and gives more credit to Abraham’s human initiative of seeking God.

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