Abraham: The Fanatic

(Washington Jewish Week, Parshat Vayera, 11/13/97)

By Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen

The probable etymology of the term "fan," (as in "Baltimore Orioles fan") is an shortened form of "fanatic." The expression is somewhat of an endearment, an innocent word, for folks who have a healthy or even mildly obsessive (or even downright obnoxious!) enthusiasm for a given team or sport. Seldom, however, is a devotee of a sport a true fanatic, even if they may become somewhat single minded, and borish. Tennis players may have colorful language, but they seldom take hostages.

What is a religious fanatic? An apt question for a rabbi and a proper subject for religious study. After all, if "sweet religion" is a good thing, can anybody conceivably get too much of it? And does the Torah tradition, which teaches us about scholars ready to go up in flames for their beliefs, ever tell us when to "lighten up?"

And can Judaism have any lasting value if we Jews are merely "fans" who, vicariously, watch a cantor and rabbi perform Friday Night religion like it was Monday Night Football? The couch potato gets little exercise. The pew potato gets little in the way of religious ecstasy.

Can Judaism survive, indeed, should it survive, if it is something between a religion and a hobby, something meant to entertain us and "uplift" us and "edify" us like another segment of "Masterpiece Theater"?

In our sidra, Abraham is a fanatic. And God teaches him how not to be.

God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, his "only" son Isaac. (Isaac, in effect, was now his only son; one can hardly blame Isaac's older brother Ishmael for keeping clear of the old man, when, in the previous chapter, Abraham willingly sent the boy and his mother Hagar into the desert to die, only to be saved by Divine intervention.) Abraham, founder of this new monotheism, was a fanatic. God said "do it" and Abraham was ready to "do it," no questions asked. He was prepared to haggle with God a bit to save strangers at Sodom, but with regard to his own son, Scripture tells us "And Abraham got up in the morning" bright and early without a hint of protest.

I am not suggesting that Abraham was without human feeling or compassion. On the contrary. He became overwhelmed by a sense of duty and, as a result, became somewhat of an automaton.

When he had bound Isaac on the altar and was about to sacrifice the lad, God calls out to him "Abraham! Abraham!" But why does God need to call out twice? Had Abraham ever hesitated to perform God's will enthusiastically? Did God doubt that Abraham--who had always been so obedient--would listen this time?

It is as if Abraham had been in a stupor. It is as if Abraham had been in a trance. How could God order the Patriarch to do such a terrible thing? It must have been like a terrible dream. Abraham is under a religious anesthesia which removes him from his normal self. No longer is Abraham a father or a husband, but an unquestioning extension of the Divine will. So God wakes him up and calls Abraham back to his human self.

God wants Abraham to be human. God wants us to be human. God does not want Abraham to forget his personal feelings. God wants the heart.

When religion causes us to forget that other people are created in the Divine image, we become fanatics. When we are prepared to sacrifice others on the altar of our beliefs, we become fanatics. When we use religion to make God small like ourselves, rather than trying to become big like God, we are fanatics.

"Spirituality" is not something separate from our lives as husbands, as wives, and as parents. If you want to embrace God, embrace the child. If you want to cleave to God, hold your spouse. God is telling us, as God told Abraham: wake up! Be human. That is what I created you to be.

And so Abraham grew. Big, like God.

May the children of Abraham learn well the words of Isaiah (11:9) "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my hold mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."

Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen is the Hillel Director of American University, Washington, DC.