A Great Name*

by Eliezer Segal

Genesis 12

1 Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

When God invited Abram to leave his home and embark on his new life mission, he promised him several things in order to make this venture into the unknown seem more attractive. Most of these promises can be easily understood. The prospect of becoming the progenitor of a great nation must have been particularly desirable for a man who was still childless. Similarly, the assurance that he would become a blessing for all humanity must have held a special appeal for a caring and compassionate person.

However, it is not so easy to understand why Abram would have been impressed by the promise that God would make his name great. The concern for fame and reputation is something we tend to associate with the vanities of Hollywood--a concern with shallow externals that does not seem appropriate for a profoundly spiritual personality like Abraham. Was he really interested in being an international celebrity or in achieving the adulation of the masses.

This question was discussed by one of the earliest known Biblical exegetes, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, who composed his discourses in Greek during the first century C.E. Philo concedes that, if a person has to choose between true virtue and a mere appearance, then there is no doubt that one must prefer the former-"there is no advantage whatever in seeming unless being has also been added long before." Nevertheless, the ideal situation is when the two can be combined; and this fortunate situation was offered to Abraham as an incentive for devoting his life to the service of God.  

It is not merely a matter of feeling satisfaction in the fact that your righteous deeds are being appreciated by others--though Philo sees nothing at all wrong with having such feelings. He goes on to argue that a favourable public image contributes substantially to the effectiveness of one's virtuous efforts.

For one thing, if good people are so indifferent to how they are being perceived by others that they allows their motives to be misrepresented and misunderstood, then they stand the risk of unnecessarily antagonizing  enemies who will be working against them. The provoking of frictions will ultimately prove counterproductive to the realization of our good intentions in the world.

In the real world, Philo observes, most people judge the worthiness of a cause by looking at its agents and representatives. If those representatives have unsavoury reputations--even if the notoriety is entirely unfounded--they bring their noble ideals into disrepute and make it difficult to recruit others to the cause. I am reminded of those scruffy American radicals and hippies who chose to "come clean for Gene" in 1968 in order to enhance the political respectability of their candidate among the broader electorate. Though we might be convinced that the concern for appearances is shallow and unjustified, we must recognize nonetheless that it is a reality, and take it into account when we try to deal with the public.  

In order to illustrate this point, Philo provides a remarkable example from his own community in Alexandria. He observes that some of his contemporaries interpret the laws of the Torah as symbolic representations of philosophical concepts, the understanding of which constitutes the ultimate objective of Judaism. Thus, the Sabbath was ordained in order to teach us that God created the universe, and that human beings are entitled to periodic rest from their labours. The various agricultural festivals were instituted in order to instill us with gratitude for God's generosity in providing for our needs. Circumcision symbolizes the supremacy of the intellect over physical pleasures. 

Thus far, there is nothing particularly remarkable in these attempts to give meaning to the rituals of the Torah. However. the Alexandrian Jews did not stop there. They took their reasoning to its extreme logical conclusion, and reasoned as follows: If the real purpose of the mitzvot is to instruct us in philosophical truths, then what need is there to observe them after they have done their job and we have learned the doctrines that they were designed to teach us? Basing themselves on this argument, they deduced that there was no longer any need to observe the commandments in their literal form once they had mastered their theoretical meanings.

Philo found this situation intolerable, but he was caught in something of a bind. After all, he was probably the most distinguished proponent of the allegorical method of reading Scripture, and his discourses are devoted almost entirely to the uncovering of philosophical themes in the stories and precepts of the Torah. Since he subscribed so enthusiastically to that premise, what grounds did he have for refuting those who used it for undermining the performance of the commandments?

It is in this context that Philo invokes the principal of "Good Name." He is ready to concede that the abandoning of observance might make sense if people lived in some sort of solitary, isolated ivory tower, completely removed from any social interactions, "as if they were mere souls unconnected to the body." In the real world, however, we have a responsibility to spread the divine teachings to the world. For that purpose alone, it is crucial that we project a respectable image. When a person offers to teach the community religious truth and morals, the average person who is lacking in philosophical sophistication will look first at the externals: Is this prospective teacher a pious, respectable Jew? And the respectability will be measured in terms of the conventional standards of appearance and performance of the mitzvot. This is the concern that Philo ascribes to the patriarch Abraham--who devoted himself not only to the attainment of abstract truth, but also to the "great name"--the image he presented to the outside world.

I would venture to suggest that most of us feel very uncomfortable with Philo's attitude. Even if we are willing to agree that the commandments are a means to a higher end, I doubt that anyone would be bold enough to insist that they could ever exhaust the full significance of its lessons. More fundamentally, there is something very unconvincing in Philo's facile assumption that the mind and the body operate on completely separate planes, and that Judaism can be reduced to a purely intellectual exercise.

A more realistic attitude is that of the author of the Sefer Ha-Hinnukh. He shares Philo's assumption that human perfection lies in the metaphysical knowledge of the divine, and that the life of Torah provides the conditions and guidelines for the successful pursuit of that goal. Nevertheless, he reminds repeatecly that the mind follows the body--that intellectual fulfilment cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Our minds and spirits cannot achieve real clarity unless we have disciplined our bodies, through the physical regimen of the commandments, to overcome temptations and distractions. Looked at from this perspective, it is unimaginable that we could ever arrive at a state where we can confidently declare that we have completely understood the content of a mitzvah and can move on to a higher level.

Quite the contrary, the life of Torah requires that we maintain a continuing integration of body, mind and spirit. In appreciating the importance of having a "great name," of making a favourable impression on society, Abraham was acknowledging that Torah is neither a philosophical theory nor a mechanical set of rituals. Rather, it is a way of life that is meant to be lived in physical bodies in a human society.

For this reason, our father Abraham was deemed worthy to bring his unique blessings to all the families of the earth


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, November 12, 2005.