Letter to the Editor: Response to Ben Greenfield on the Forefathers’ Attributes

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Last week, the Lehrhaus published “Hesed, Gevurah, and Emet: Do These Attributes Actually Describe our Forefathers? by Ben Greenfield. This essay “argues that the Zohar Hadash understood these three attributes not as virtues which our forefathers mastered but as qualities with which they each wrestled” and concludes that “it is reasonable to understand this kabbalistic thread as stating that the forefathers repeatedly confront their respective attribute.” Review of other medieval material, including the parallel passage in the Sefer ha-Bahir, critically undermines this interpretation. I present three thirteenth-century sources to the editor for comparison:

  • Shlomo ibn Adret (Responsa 5:115) writes that “[Of] these three blessings, the first corresponds to Abraham, who was a man of hesed … the second corresponds to Isaac, a man of pahad, but he was a man of gevurah … and the third corresponds to Jacob, who was a man of emet.”
  • Sefer ha-Bahir 135: “According to the virtue which each practiced, its corresponding [force] was given to him. Abraham did acts of kindness … and the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the attribute of kindness…”
  • Asher ben David of Posquieres (Perush 13 Middot): “And in the first blessing we recall ‘the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob’; these correspond to the three virtues which the patriarchs practiced, and from which they never departed in all their days, and each of the patriarchs wielded one of these virtues in its entirety: ‘Abraham’ corresponds to the virtue of hesed … this is as it says, ‘titen emet l’yaakov, hesed l’avraham’ … and ‘Isaac’ corresponds to gevurah…”

It would likely be impossible to establish these sources’ exact diachronic sequence, but it suffices to say that they are at least contemporary with the Zoharic texts. The slightly vaguer formulation found in the Zohar Hadash (which still, behind Greenfield’s ellipsis: “[Abraham] grasped [hesed], never released it, and dealt well with others; these acts brought him to [the lens of hesed]”) is simply not representative of “this kabbalistic thread” at its earliest stage. Greenfield may feel that “Kindness, Strength, and Truth cannot possibly be embodied completely by any mortal being” but Asher ben David disagreed, and it can hardly be “fairly bold of later sources to construe Avraham as the model of kindness, Yitzhak as the champion of strength, or Yaakov as the embodiment of truth” when those sources  follow exactly in the footsteps of tradition.

Gershon Klapper