It is commonly understood that Abraham’s major contribution was the doctrine of monotheism. He taught an idolatrous world that there is only one God, and that idea is synonymous with Judaism. But I have to tell you that that picture is not accurate. The idea of one God was very firmly established before Abraham. (Idolatry, as we have seen, is the practice of relating to intermediaries as if they have independent power, not the failure to recognize God altogether.) Knowledge of God was standard…
What did Abraham bring to the world as the amazing novelty that started the Jewish people and changed history forever?
The answer is this: Abraham did not begin the path of the spirit; he began the path of bringing spirit into flesh. His contribution was not in the sphere of knowledge. Others had already explored the higher reaches of the spirit and were well versed in the highest wisdom when Abraham began his journey. What he pioneered in the world was the process of bringing that wisdom down into the physical, showing how to express the highest level of consciousness in fingers and toes of flesh. That is the radical idea of Judaism.
The absolute uniqueness of Judaism is not its God-consciousness; it is the teaching that the body can be drawn up into sanctity. It is not the teaching of the holiness of spirit; it is the teaching of the holiness of the physical. Examine the world’s spiritual systems; you will see that they grasp the conflict between spirit and flesh, the primal battle between soul and body in which body seeks to dominate soul and bring it down to serve its animal agenda. And they define a solution to this most basic of all conflicts: abjure the flesh, discipline the body by starving it of its sensuous feed, become an ascetic, celibate, enter the monastic mode. The highest exponents of the world’s spiritual systems are monks and nuns, celibates and ascetics who have renounced the body in order to transcend it.
The body must not be left behind while mind and spirit transcend. It must be made to serve mind and spirit. The commandments. The mitzvot are physical actions (there are very few mitzvot that are performed in consciousness alone) that express spirit. Every part of the body is commanded to act; each limb and organ performs an action that expresses Torah. Mitzvot are to Torah what body is to soul.
Abraham did not bring the idea of pure spirit to the world; he brought to the world the radical idea that the body, that fallen, subversive, treacherous and lecherous body can and must be elevated to purity. Its functions and actions are not to be suppressed; they are to be expressed as holy. The world perceives shame and the problems of male-female intimacy, its potential to erode spiritual refinement; we perceive its holiness. The world perceives the danger of alcohol, its tendency to replace mind with earthy physicality; we use it for elevation. The world understands that the body must be renounced, that is the only way to free the soul; we give the body full expression in actions that are harnessed to serve spirit. That is how we discipline the body; we do not command it to be silent, we command it to serve.
But Judaism requires engaging the body; requires marriage, requires the experience of bodily pleasure, regards permanent celibacy as a sin. Our path is not to separate body and soul but to engage the body and elevate it to the level of soul. For us, the body is not the point of departure for the spiritual voyage; it is the vehicle.