The Gods Are Bro­ken!: The Hid­den Lega­cy of Abraham

  • Review
By – April 4, 2013

Rab­bi Salkin sees the break­ing by Abra­ham of his father’s idols as a par­a­dig­mat­ic sto­ry that opens a main cur­rent of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and thought. Salkin notes that the father, Ter­aḥ, began a jour­ney but then (the­o­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing) set­tled pre­ma­ture­ly in a new place. Abraham’s action begins the con­tin­u­a­tion of the jour­ney into the kind of exil­ic exis­tence that has char­ac­ter­ized most of Jew­ish his­to­ry. Break­ing the stat­ues of the pagan deities iden­ti­fies Abra­ham to God as his wor­thy ves­sel for the peo­ple who will become Israel.

In tidy chap­ters and sub­chap­ters, and in a breezy, excit­ed style, the author explores all aspects of the mean­ing of bro­ken­ness as a Jew­ish iden­ti­fi­er. Like­wise, he explores the ten­sion of sta­sis and change. To break is to break away, to break con­ven­tion, and ulti­mate­ly to cre­ate anew. Salkin reminds us that idol­a­try does not require idols. Too strong a focus on rit­u­al for its own sake can become idol­a­trous. An obses­sion with halakha or insti­tu­tion build­ing (espe­cial­ly the mate­r­i­al build­ing) can shut us off from our spir­i­tu­al nature and journey.

Smooth­ly weav­ing togeth­er con­tem­po­rary schol­ar­ship, midrashic elab­o­ra­tions of scrip­ture, and med­i­ta­tion on the key sym­bols that evoke his cen­tral issue, Rab­bi Salkin pro­vides a map of Juda­ic mean­ing. By com­par­ing and con­trast­ing Abraham’s break­ing of his father’s idols with the break­ing of the first set of tablets by Moses, he opens up a inves­tiga­tive mode that has far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the world Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, both present and future.

Salkin writes, Healthy icon­o­clasm – shat­ter­ing the false gods of class, priv­i­lege, pow­er, rad­i­cal indi­vid­u­al­ism, and even the unfet­tered wor­ship of sci­ence – would bring togeth­er believ­ers of all faiths, allow­ing them to see beyond their cru­cial the­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences and retrieve, once again, the man­tle of their father, Abra­ham.” Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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