On the Particular and the Universal

Steven Kepnes, Colgate University

Wolfson’s commentary on Genesis 18:1-8 puts into play dynamic philosophical tensions between God’s transcendence and immanence, and the universal and the particular. In doing so Wolfson admits that he is importing philosophical concepts that do not appear in the text, yet which are nevertheless called upon to allow us to explore more felicitously the myriad theological, philosophical, and ethical issues that the text has given rise to in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Thus Wolfson takes the theme of transcendence and immanence in Genesis 18 as an invitation to us to move back and forth between “immanent” scriptural reasoning and more abstract “transcendent” philosophical discourse. In what follows I will simply try to trace out and then put a tug here and there on the dynamics of transcendence and immanence, the universal and the particular, which Wolfson has set into motion. What I will want to underscore is Wolfson’s conclusion that the transcendent and the immanent, the universal and the particular, are not only connected in our monotheistic traditions but that maintaining these dynamic connections are keys to the ethical imperatives which stand at the heart of the three traditions.

Wolfson follows Rashi in suggesting that the immediate context for the appearance of God to Abraham in Genesis 18 is the brit or covenant that God makes with Abram in Genesis 17. The connection is clear because the same verb, vayera (appear, cause to be seen), is used in both cases. And with this word, we already have the dynamic of immanence, or following Wolfson, “incarnation,” because the transcendent unseen God of the universe is allowing himself to take a physical form and therefore “be seen” by a lowly particular human being.

Genesis 17 reads, in the JPS translation, “The Lord appeared to him and said to him. I am El Shaddai. Walk in my ways and be blameless. I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous . . . As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be a father of a multitude of nations” (17:1b, 2, 4). If we follow what Buber called the leitworte, or leading words, as the key to the text’s own immanental form of reasoning, the words “I, Me and You” (given often in Hebrew suffixes) jump out at us and call for interpretation. What these words suggest is that preliminary to the universal meaning of the Abrahamic covenant is a very personal and particular relationship between God and Abraham. Furthermore, the beginning of 17:4 “As for me” lets us know that the God of the universe has a “need” to enter into this covenant. “As for Me ” as if to say “for my sake as well as yours I make this brit .” This suggests that there is a degree of mutuality in the relationship and it tells us, furthermore, just how intimate the brit with Abraham and God is.

But the relationship does not end in the mysterious intimacy of God and Abraham; rather the personal brit between the two also has universal significance. This has been made clear earlier in Gen 12:4, where we learn that “through (or in) Abraham, all the families of the world will be blessed.” We can pause here and note the difference between the language of philosophical ethics that speaks of universals and agents and duties and the language of biblical ethics that speaks of names (Abram/Abraham), families, nations, covenants, and commands. The very language suggests that biblical ethics is tied to particularities. This language of particularities is manifest in how the blessing for all the families and nations is to be designated. It is not by a concept but by a sign, a simultaneous mark in the flesh, the circumcised penis, and a letter, the letter ” heh ” added to Abram’s name.

This simultaneous act is certainly overdetermined. The personal brit between God and Abraham, through which all nations are blessed, is marked on the most personal and intimate place on Abraham’s body and the most personal reference to his being – his name. God substitutes for the flesh of the foreskin a letter and this letter comes from his, God’s, own name, which he inserts into Abraham’s name! Furthermore, this sublimated sexual act results in a kind of spiritual procreation and abundance whereby a future of Abraham’s descendents in assured. For the brit is proclaimed a brit olam , an everlasting covenant. So to mark this a letter, a substitute for the flesh, is not only inserted into Abram’s name but the letters of the story are inscribed on a leather scroll and handed down and told from generation to generation. Thus, the covenant of circumcision is a sublimation of sexual desire into the letters of the Torah as the bridge to eternity and service to humanity.

Rashi suggests that the change of name from Abram to Abraham is a short code for the message that God wants to convey. Abraham is no longer to be simply “Av of Aram” (24:10), father of his native country of Aram, but “Av of hem, ” father of “them” plural, the many nations. Thereafter, Abraham must serve God through serving the cause of justice for all nations. So tsedek or justice is the meaning of “walking in the ways” (Gen. 17:1) of God. Thus Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18) provides a test to see if Abraham would speak for justice for not only an “other” people but for a despicable people to which Abraham was not related in the least.

But with all this, it is crucial that we understand that Abraham’s “universal” service – marked by the brit milah, the covenant of circumcision – does not cut him off from his responsibilities to his own family. The covenant of brit milah comes with the promise for a son, Isaac, to provide an heir for Abraham’s particular family. And Abraham is diligent to assure that when the child is ready to marry he returns to his place and family of origin in Aram to take a wife. So, as Wolfson suggests at the end of his remarks, “it is not sufficient to say that the universal comprehends the particular.” The universal ethical obligation to every individual and every family and nation comes, not out of a universal and abstract philosophical nowhere, but from particular persons molded by particular families and rituals and ethical traditions which safeguard and teach and inculcate “universal” ethical requirements to serve the cause of justice for all.

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