What happened before God told Avram “Lech Lecha: Leave, go out from your country and your family and from the house of your ancestors into the land I will show you….”. The text before has given us the genealogy so that we know that Terach was the father of Avram, Nahor and Haran. That Haran had died young in Ur Kasdim, leaving a son, Lot, and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah. That Avram and Nahor had married: Avram married Sarai and Nahor had married Milcah his niece. Sarai was childless, (Milcah we know from later in the book had eight sons (Gen 22))
Terach took Avram his son, and Lot his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law; and they left Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; they came to a place rather confusingly called Haran, and they stayed there, and Terach died there.
Why had Terach left Ur Kasdim? Why did he not take all of his family with him? We cannot know, and the question sits tantalisingly as we read the genealogy that details the ten generations after Noah who himself is the tenth generation from Adam. Had God spoken to Terach and told him to leave? Was there some family issue? Maybe this is why we are told of Sarai’s infertility here, a condition which is all the more painful when we later find that her sister in law was producing son after son? Maybe after the death of one of his three sons he just had to leave and start again, taking the surviving grandchild with him, away from the place his father had died in so as to give him a better start. Maybe something happened and he had to leave the area with his less rooted and established descendants. But what? And whatever it was, why did Nahor and Milcah stay?
The book of Joshua gives us the peg on which the midrash can hang a back story: “Joshua said to all the people, thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel. Your ancestors dwelled in old times beyond the River, even Terach the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed and gave him Isaac”. (Joshua 24:2).
So the catalyst for Terach leaving with Avram, Sarai and Lot may have been something to with idolatry:- either that it was an established family practise that God needed to get them away from (presupposing that God had chosen Terach and Avram for the covenant) or that the family did something that challenged the idolatrous practise in Ur Kasdim, and so needed to leave to save their lives.
Hence we have the stories (found in Genesis Rabbah 38.13), of a young Abraham, having destroyed the idols in his father’s shop, telling his father that a woman had wanted to make an offering to the idols, but that the idols had argued over which one should eat first, and one idol had taken a stick and smashed the others. Terach’s response that they are only statues with no understanding elicits Abraham’s stinging rebuke to his father – “why are you worshiping them then”?
It is a powerful story, and often mistakenly found in books of bible stories as if of the same status, but it is really an indicator of the rabbinic dislike of idolatry rather than a likely explanation for why this branch of the family left their land and travelled south (in stages) towards Canaan.
Much of Judaism, from bible onwards, can be read as a polemic against idolatry and for the one-ness of the divinity. There is a constant suspicion of foreign influencers who will bring in the foreign practises of ‘avodah zarah’ (strange worship). What is very clear is that the battle was a continuing one, from which we can see that while worshiping YHVH/Adonai was something that the Israelites were well able to do, worshiping ONLY YHVH/Adonai was much harder. The prevalence of the rightness of having a multiplicity of gods for a multiplicity of purposes was deeply rooted in the psyche of the ancient world, and the Israelites were no exception. And this has remained true today. While we may look at the statues of Greek or Roman gods in the museums of the world and feel no resonance with them, we are not so different from the people who worshiped them sincerely. We too fall into the habit of not being true to the One God, we idolise all sorts of people or ways of being, or objects. We idolise ‘celebrities’ be they in the popular entertainment industry or writers/artists/scientists. We idolise the marketplace, or money and the people who own it. We idolise the products of the fashion industry, fantasise about unlikely and unrealistic situations, really believe that if we were thinner or prettier or more powerful in some way our life would be transformed. Sometimes we make a fetish of political positions, be they left wing or right wing, and we idolise religious leaders too – and that is possibly the most dangerous of all.
I have watched with mounting horror as a Jewish idolisation of Judaism – or at least of a particular interpretation of Judaism – has grown exponentially in my lifetime. It has become something not to help us to survive and to grow and to create security and goodness in the world, but a way of living to be fetishized and followed in cumulative minutiae. Somehow the texts and traditions have become distorted by increasingly narrow and strict interpretations that have managed to cloak themselves in the language of authenticity and normative usage. Somehow there is an idolisation of certain rabbinic leaders, who are treated as more than human, given powers that no rabbinic tradition would authorise or approve, a fetishisation that does not even disappear when they di e- indeed the death is not recognised in some way, the rabbi elevated instead to a kind of Elijah figure or even a messianic figure. Somehow the chumrah (the extra stringency that the very pious took on for themselves) has become the norm in many Jewish communities. And yet the more usual (and I would say authentic) Jewish tradition fights against this tendency, with, for example, the words of R. Isaac recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) “do you think that what the Torah prohibits is not sufficient for you, that you take upon yourselves additional prohibitions?” Or the Babylonian Talmud discussing the Nazirite (Nazir 19a) which says “if the one who deprived himself only of wine is called a sinner then how much more so someone who deprives himself of all things”.
The word “orthodox” was brought into Judaism as a response to the “Progressive” or Reform Judaism that developed as a result of the enlightenment. The idea that Judaism has an orthodoxy is essentially an idea from outside of Judaism. It has always been a tradition that recorded debates rather than the results of debates, ideas to steer rather than rulings to stifle. In the ‘orthodox world’ today there are a multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings, activities, beliefs, which shelter under the title of ‘orthodox Judaism’ merely to differentiate itself from a different and more open multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings activities and beliefs sheltering under the rather less powerful ‘non-orthodox’ label. Indeed so diverse has orthodox Judaism grown, that the umbrella term is no longer enough. Now we have ‘ultra orthodox’, ‘hassidic’, ‘observant’, ‘traditional’ ,’modern orthodox’…. Each of which sees itself as the true and sometimes the only heir to Judaism. And each of which is vying for authority and authenticity by multiplying rulings, prohibitions designed to keep adherents away from the modern world, and concentrating power in the hands of the leadership.
Now I am not saying that we progressive Jews don’t also fall prey to idolatry – we tend to idolise social justice and tikkun olam over prayer, ritual and a deep relationship with God. We tend to fetishize universalism at the cost of a particular Jewish identity and lifestyle. Our Jewishness tends towards the culture and cuisine of our people and less towards studying and adopting its texts and scholarship. We all have a problem with idolatry – in that way we are just like our ancestors from biblical times onwards. So we need to return to the beginning. Lech Lecha – go, leave behind the lazy habits and the comfortable assumptions and following what others do, and go back to finding what God wants from us. Don’t leave that journey for others to tell you about, don’t fall into the common culture of everyone else, worshiping what we know to be false. Break the idols we have become dependent upon and leave them behind.