The eighteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis is a key external document for our case. In a significant and explicitly thematized sense, this chapter from Genesis documents the beginning of Torah itself taken in its etymological sense.1 When God divulged to Abraham His impending plans to devastate the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, His faithful servant latter did not put his hand on his mouth and silently sit on an ash-heap in tormented by a desire to say something. ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ admits Abraham without hesitation, to be sure, yet—and should this yet not make our heads spin at as fast, if not faster, than Kierkegaard’s head spun during his virtiginous fascination with what takes place four chapters later in Genesis on the road to Mount Moriah?—‘I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord.’ (Gen. 18:27) Is there even any humility in Abraham’s recognition of himself as ‘but dust and ashes,’ as if it might have occurred to him, even for a moment, that he might be otherwise? Is any feat of resignation required for the recognition? And yet Abraham takes it upon himself to speak.
Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt Thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt Thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ (vv. 23-25)
Has the earth ever heard a louder protest against its Maker? Or a protest made in stronger terms? The rambunctiousness of the locution that Abraham lets slip (unintentionally?) from his mouth while making his protest, moreover, is almost impossible to capture in translation (‘That be far from Thee …’). Ḥalilah lekha …, says Abraham, at the beginning of his sentence and then a second time as the sentence’s exclamation mark, ḥalilah lekha! Literally: ‘A profanity for You …!’2 The locution strains the nerves of the translator. One wonders why the ‘author’ of the text did not resort to some euphamistic device like the one used by Satan in Job 1:11, ‘But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will bless Thee to thy face.’ After all, if there is one word, one adjective, in the whole lexicon of the Holy Tongue that is magnetically repulsed to the polar opposite of the adjective most proper to God, to the Holy One, blessed be He, it is the adjective that is the root of this word ḥalilah, namely ḥol, profane. Whence does Abraham muster such ḥutzpah? And we must careful not to draw parallels too quickly with Aeschylean tragedy. Prometheus is also known to have challenged Zeus, it is true, but Prometheus himself is no mere mortal composed of dust and ashes, and Zeus is a god in a manner that has dire little to do with comic justice; Prometheus’s whole complaint is that ‘Zeus maintains justice according to his private measure’.3 The justice of God, by contradistinction, is hardly supposed to be a subjective, idiosyncratic, fickle standard of some wanton divinity playing with this or that human life in the way that boys play with flies, plucking off their wings and squishing them for sport. God’s justice is supposed to be an objective standard for all the earth, and for all eternity,4 a standard established by the One who set Himself up as the earth’s Judge to begin with. In the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, we might say something like: As part of the great introverted self-contraction (tzimtzum) that God first underwent in His own person before, and in order to, create the world, God, in His unfathomable humility,’5 established a universal standard of justice to which He Himself, for the sake of universality and general cogency, would be beholden. In the Lurianic system, especially as developed by R. Israel Sarug, the revelation of the Divine attribute of judgement (din) as the boundary-setting principle of cosmogony is an expression of the innermost Divine ‘pleasure.’6 The constricted, finite, definite world of justice is where the Infinite can enjoy the company of the finite, even if only the pleasure of disagreement, which at least amounts to intercourse between the Infinite and the finite even if the relationship is having its bad day. It is the common little world of justice in which Abraham can be God’s ‘lover.’7 Wiesel, as we see, refers to this in his article as ‘the laws of the Torah which, according to our sages, are equally binding on the Lord.’ In short, the entire protest of Abraham against God’s plans to transform Sodom into an broad brimstone crematorium is arranged as an appeal to God Himself as the protest’s own supreme authority, its one and only authority, God’s own justice, Divine Justice itself, being the precondition, transcendentally speaking, of the very possibility of this protest.
But protest is something that enjoys the protection of Divine Justice as the precondition of its own righteousness only to the extent that it itself actualizes this righteousness. The very authoritativeness of the divine authority depends—not as such, but in so far as it is the grounds for the human protest—on how the protest is carried out, namely with how much ‘faithfulness.’ And here the English language (i.e a Gospel language) becomes a stumbling block to a proper appreciation of the Rebbe’s account of how ‘faithfulness’ operates within the dynamics of protest. The word ‘faith,’ like the word ‘belief,’ not only fail to translate the Hebrew word emunah into English. These words actually actively interfere with the transfer. ‘Faith’ poses a particularly meddlesome obstruction with its suggestiveness (especially aggravated since Kierkegaard) of some type of extraordinary leap or somersault in the air so free of precedent and so absolutely original that there is no ground to speak of from which the impossible acrobatic maneuver can be said to have been made. Faith is an ovular phenomenon, a frustrated solipsism desperately trying to burst out of its egg; a desire to be born, to give birth to one’s world, to beget one’s own parents. Emunah, on the other hand, is a relationship; a relationship to someone parental. When one’s emunah is said to be ‘weak,’ this means the relationship is breaking up. But even if it could be broken beyond all repair, it would thereby not cease to be a relationship. In order to stress this relational character of emunah, a translation like ‘trust’ may therefore be more expedient here.8 Alternatively, to intimate its terra firma aspect, the ground on which it stands up and from which it steps forth or fails to step forth or stand up on, we may also translate emunah as ‘confidence.’ Usually, it is to reason that a gravity is attributed, an escape from the pull of which is then attributed to faith. But emunah makes a claim to no less gravity than does reason, perhaps even to much more gravity, albeit of a different type. Thus, where ‘faith’ refers to an altitude one might well fear of never reaching, the anxiety proper to emunah is one of not being able to return to once familiar ground. As the Rebbe says of the ‘faithful Jew until 1940, who was born in the 20th century and who was knowledgeable about Jewish history’: for this Jew, ‘the essential issue that there are those who permanently stand over us to destroy us is … for him nothing new. In any event, Hitler could not touch his confidence [emunah] in the Master of the Universe. Only he whose trust was weak even prior to that, and who sought a “foundation” for his rejection of the Master of the Universe, found such a foundation, as it were, in the Hitler era.’9 With these translations at hand, we thus pick up at the point where we interrupted the Rebbe’s critique. It is in this segment of the epistle that the key transcendental twist of the critique takes place with maximum torque, necessarily leaving us—to the extent that we follow its movement without shutting our eyes—off balance.