When Abraham defied ‘Tradition’

Amy Feder is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Temple Israel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Amy Feder

When I ask my Jewish congregants and friends what matters most to them about their Judaism, the responses frequently boil down to one word: tradition. I am Jewish because it feels familiar, because it’s what my grandparents would have wanted, because it’s what I’ve always been.  Because it’s tradition.  

There is something beautiful and ancient about this response.  We are commanded in the Torah to respect our parents and elders, we are reminded in Pirkei Avot that the teachings of our faith were passed through the generations of our ancestors, each Jewish act hearkens back to the chain of tradition.  

Yet for the story of the Jewish people to begin, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham must do the exact opposite.  He has to break with tradition, forget what his grandparents would have wanted, leave behind the familiar. God tells him that he must depart from his father’s house and everything he knows to go out into the unknown and seek his destiny there. The midrash steps in to clarify and comfort us with the understanding the Abraham was clearly in the right; if his father Terach was an idol maker, that was not a tradition Abraham could or should have followed.  Still, there’s an irony here; we Jews, great believers in and lovers of tradition, could only begin as a people if our founder broke with tradition himself.

Lech Lecha is a reminder that the value of Judaism is so much more than the fact that it has been passed through the generations.  For Abraham, and for us, the Jewish experience had to start with something novel and daring, with the willingness to see that there might be something even more out there than what our ancestors gave us.

The words lech lecha that God says to Abraham are enigmatic and difficult to translate — is God telling Abraham to go for himself, to go to himself, or something altogether different?  Regardless of your translation of the preposition, God’s command “to go” certainly includes the idea of “self”; Abraham’s journey will be personal.  So too, our Jewish journeys must be uniquely our own, perhaps based in part on the traditions of our parents, grandparents, and those who came before us, but also, we hope, so much more.  May we all hear the call of lech lecha, to go forth towards a Judaism that is meaningful, personal, and one that will inspire us individually and as a community each and every day.