This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Tensions in the Tent *

In Jewish legend Abraham embodies the virtue of hospitality. The roots of this idea are contained in the Torah itself, in the story of how the aged patriarch and his wife jumped to welcome and care for of the three strangers who visited his tent. Although we later learn that these travelers were on missions from the Almighty, Abraham was unaware of that fact at the time, but that did not detract from the efforts that he insisted on investing on their behalf.

Our sages understood that hospitality, in addition to its own inherent virtue, also served as part of Abraham’s overarching mission of bringing humanity to the worship of the one true God. After the guests were well fed and ready to express their gratitude to their benefactor, the host would point out to them that he was not the ultimate source of their benefits, and that it would be more fitting if they were to direct their blessings to the creator of the universe.

A somewhat different version of this legend was cited by Rabbi Nachman Krochmal (RaNa”K, 1785-1840) of Galicia, one of the pioneering figures of modern Jewish philosophy and historiography. Entitled “a Moral Parable,” Krochmal’s story tells that Abraham was seated at the entrance to his tent at sunset when he caught sight of an aged traveler leaning on his staff. Abraham stood up and implored the wayfarer to spend the night before continuing on his journey. Only after repeated urging did he consent to come into the patriarch’s tent and accept a meal. At the end of the sumptuous repast, the guest was invited to offer up a blessing to the supreme Lord, creator of heaven and earth, who had provided for them from his goodness.

At this point the story takes an unconventional twist. The old traveler refused adamantly to acknowledge Abraham’s God, but insisted on blessing his own idol whom he had personally fashioned and upon whom he relied for his sustenance. Abraham was so indignant at this that he immediately tossed his guest out of the tent into the desert.

When Abraham reported this incident to God, the creator was not pleased. “I have suffered his transgressions now for one hundred and ninety-nine years, but I still continue to provide him with clothing and food in spite of his defiance of my spirit—and yet you, a lowly human steeped in sinfulness, have given up providing for him after a single night!” Abraham, realizing the error of his reaction, ran out to the wilderness to propitiate his guest and invite him back to his tent.

God responded to Abraham that he was pleased that the patriarch had now yielded to the divine will and behaved graciously toward the guest. As a result, he promised to uphold the covenant with Abraham’s descendants, to return them to their homeland after their exile, and to guide them as his people forever.

For all its similarities to themes from early Hebrew texts, Krochmal’s legend has no precise source in classical Jewish literature, especially when it comes to the character of the stubborn traveler who remained steadfastly loyal to his heathen deity. And in fact, Krochmal’s immediate source was not any standard rabbinic midrash, but a more recent authority: Benjamin Franklin. The spirit of religious toleration that emanates from the story is certainly consistent with the ideas championed by that great leader of modern enlightenment. One author reported that Franklin had invoked the legend while participating in a discussion in Paris about persecution and intolerance. In order to clinch his own liberal position, he asked for a Bible and proceeded to read the Abraham tale from what he dubbed as “Genesis Chapter 51.” After expressing some puzzlement at the unfamiliarity of some elements in Franklin’s quotation, the narrator of the exchange eventually realized that the book of Genesis contains only fifty chapters.

Now, Krochmal did not know English and it is to be assumed that his acquaintance with Franklin’s Abraham midrash came to him through the intermediary of a German biography of the American statesman. His enthusiasm for Franklin likely derived from one of his ideological heroes, Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow (1749-1826), a prominent advocate of educational reform and rationalism who is widely considered the “father of the Galician Enlightenment.” One of Lefin’s most influential works was a moralistic treatise titled “Ḥeshbon Ha-Nefesh [Accounting of the Soul]” first published in 1809. A central pillar of that work was the ethical system set out in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. “Franklin societies” sprouted up in various communities in which earnest young Jews strove to emulate the ideals set forth by the great American thinker.

But Franklin was not the real author of the Abraham legend either. At the very least he had encountered it in the writings of an earlier advocate of religious toleration, the seventeenth-century English cleric Jeremy Taylor who, in his Discourse on The Liberty of Prophesying, had cited a version of the story that he claimed to have found “in the Jews’ books.” Taylor was not considered a profound theologian, but his writings and homilies enjoyed considerable popularity for their literary charm and elegance. Franklin was accused by his critics of intentionally plagiarising from Taylor.

At any rate, neither was Jeremy Taylor the originator of our midrash. He found it in a work that was indeed, in some sense, one of the “Jews’ books”—yet another work advocating religious toleration, this one by a certain George Gentius who (in a mildly ironic role reversal) recommended Abraham’s behaviour as a model for Christian missionaries trying to convert Jews; they are more likely to succeed if they do not act as Abraham did at first, but rather if they learn to present a congenial and welcoming attitude.

Now Gentius’ citation of the Abraham story appeared, as part of his tribute to the tolerant city of Hamburg, in the introduction to his Latin translation of Rabbi Solomon Ibn Verga’s Hebrew chronicle of Jewish persecution, the Sheveṭ Yehuda; though the legend was not part of Ibn Verga’s work. Technically, then, the story was to be found in “Jews’ books,” though not in the parts that were written by the Jew (though Taylor is unlikely to have made that distinction).

In fact Gentius quoted the story in the name of “Sadus.” That reference was to the great thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’di Shirazi, one of whose works Gentius himself had translated into Latin.

The tale about Abraham and his heathen guest does actually appear in Sa’di’s “Bostan,” a collection of tales that exemplify desirable Muslim moral and religious virtues. Interestingly, the heathen is identified there as a “fire worshipper”—evidently a Zoroastrian, a detail that was included in Taylor’s version, but is missing from Franklin’s (that fact was of greater relevance to a Persian than to an American). Furthermore, in the earlier version, the old man was a hundred years of age, whereas Franklin for some reason doubled that. Sa’di’s tale does not contain the concluding discussion regarding God’s providential promises to Abraham’s children.

As with much early Islamic lore, it is not at all improbable that this legend drew from Jewish traditions that have not survived in their original forms. The wanderings and intersections of such traditions are always a fascinating topic of study.

In this case, it is especially fascinating to note how Abraham’s role as a paragon of hospitality and religious tolerance was shared by Muslim, Christian and Jewish authors over such a broad span of history and geography. Perhaps, after all, there is place for them all in the welcoming tent.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, October 26, 2012, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Chiel, Arthur A. “Benjamin Franklin, His Genesis Text.” Judaism 25, no. 3 (1976): 353–356.
    • Harris, Jay. Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age. New York: New York University Press, 1991.
    • Klausner, Joseph. “Mashal Musari Shel R’ Naḥman Krochmal.” Tarbiz 1, no. 1 (1929): 131–135.
    • Kohut, George Alexander. “Abraham’s Lesson in Tolerance.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 15, no. 1 (1902): 104–111.
    • Sinkoff, Nancy. Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.