Revered by three major faiths as the first man to recognize and worship one God, the prophet Abraham remains an enigmatic historic figure, painted in few-but-broad strokes in the Torah, described in hagiographic terms in subsequent depictions. The subject of dispute, like many biblical characters, among academic scholars (Did he actually exist?) Abraham is treated mythically by the sages of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who cite his teachings that reinforce their individual theological vision but downplay the aspect of a flesh-and-blood man who lived in a specific culture and faced human temptations.
How do you write the life’s story of someone that neither historical documents nor archaeological findings can prove lived? How do you balance realism and awe in approaching a subject considered possibly fictional (by the skeptics) or beyond reproach (by the believers)? And what contemporary relevance can you attribute to an ancient wanderer?
Klinghoffer answers all questions with aplomb. In showing where members of the monotheistic religions originated, spiritually and physically, he presents Abraham the person and the common roots of often-fighting followers in ways never imagined. A skilled writer, former literary editor of National Review, Klinghoffer offers what he calls a biography, but which reads like historical novel/travelogue/rabbinical commentary/Sunday school lesson.
"There are grounds to believe that Abraham was a genuine historical figure, the strange and wonderful details of whose 175 years on earth are locked and encrypted in the book of Genesis," he writes. Klinghoffer stands unapologetically on those grounds. But, he adds, "in the Book of Genesis itself one finds no clear indication that Abraham discovered God. It doesn’t say that he was a monotheist."
For those assumed facts about Abraham, Judaism ó and Klinghoffer here: turns to the religions extensive corpus of oral teachings.
From the patriarch’s beginnings in Mesopotamia (Klinghoffer favors accounts of Abrahamic origins in present-day Turkey rather than Iraq), through sojourns in Canaan and adjacent lands (in the opinion of Nachmanides, Abraham committed "a great sin" in twice introducing his beautiful wife as his sister), to an ultimate test at the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (there are sources, the book shows, that indicate Isaac did not survive the encounter on Mount Moriah), "The Discovery of God" traces Abraham’s footsteps, his relations with the outside world and his effect on society as high drama, complete with dialogue.
None of the words of dialogue, despite the author’s modest "philosophical musings," are conjecture; every word attributed to Abraham or Sarah or other hoary characters can be traced to an extant Jewish source. "I didn’t make anything up," Klinghoffer said Sunday in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle.
Unlike Bruce Feiler’s "Walking the Bible," which emphasized the geographic context of Abraham’s life, Klinghoffer stresses the spiritual aspect. It’s the "where" versus the "so what?" Klinghoffer visited many of the Turkish and Israeli sites crucial to Abraham’s life, and his depictions rank with the best of travel writing. But his book’s distinction is the scholarship, which leans heavily on traditional Jewish sources like Midrash and Talmudic aggada, but also includes discredited (by him) biblical critics, as well as Christian scholarship and excerpts from the Koran. Kierkegaard and Maimonides are equally at home here.
This book is an intellectual sequel to Klinghoffer’s first, "The Lord Will Gather Me In," the story of his conversion to Judaism. "The Discovery of God" is the macro to the autobiography’s micro, a profile of the first convert to a monotheistic Deity.
A believer but "not a fundamentalist," Klinghoffer writes with a broad view of holy liturgy’s place in human affairs. He brings an editor’s eye, focusing on apparent gaps, repetitions and contradictions in biblical text; that’s how Judaism’s respected commentators interpret the Torah. His retelling of Abraham’s life, his exacting interpretation of Hebrew words and selective use of Gematria, his reliance on traditional Jewish sources and millennia-old ways of interpreting text are familiar territory for anyone with a day school education; but his propensity to question some familiar assumptions about the religion’s founders and to give Abraham a human face will undoubtedly enrage those same people.
"It is impossible to get an objective, scientific impression of what Abraham and Sarah would have been like if you met them on the street," Klinghoffer writes. "The Talmud and Midrash don’t seek to acquaint us with the patriarch and his wife as personalities. But in my reading I have arrived at a more subjective impression. I think Abraham would have been the sort of man who sounded harsh in his public pronouncements against idolatry and immorality, but who in private was a deeply compassionate soul, exquisitely sensitive to the needs of his followers and others; in other words, a softie. Sarah I imagine as less approachable than her husband, a woman who might be quiet in public but whom people found intimidating, even a little scary, when they were in her home."
For Klinghoffer, this approach to sacred individuals, which makes their holiness manifest because of and not despite their humanness, strengthens faith rather than weakens it. "You can’t have a coherent vision of Judaism without a historic Abraham," he said.
A proper understanding of Abraham, according to Klinghoffer, can place America ("not a Jewish land, but very much Abrahamic") and the continuing tensions between Jew and Muslim ("the present world-spanning conflict … may be explained precisely as a family feud") in a clearer perspective.
"Tracking the post-Abrahamic career of the monotheistic idea down to our own day, one is left bewildered and dismayed by the present moment’s configuration of warring faiths," he writes. "Is there … a way to reimagine his legacy, to reconceive what it means to be his spiritual descendants that could (maybe, someday) give comfort to the troubled world of monotheism? The conception offered here( of a grand if fractured Abrahamic civilization resting on its three foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam moving toward reconciliation) is, I realize, not easy to accept. Today the more natural interpretation may seem to be of a war of civilizations, that of the Quran confronting that of the Bible. In such a reading, Abraham is afflicted by a split personality: the Ibrahim of the Quran at the throat of the patriarch as he appears in the Bible.
"God’s plan," Klinghoffer writes, "the plan initiated by Abraham, is still being worked out. Not tomorrow. Nor the day after. But eventually, inevitably."