Who was the first Jew? All of us learned in Sunday School that thefirst Jew was Abraham. It was our father, Abraham, who detected thepresence of the one true God and championed monotheism in a paganworld. It was with Abraham that God established the Covenant,defining our identity, our mission, our destiny. That’s true. But thefirst Jew wasn’t Abraham. The first Jew was his son Isaac.
In Jewish prayer, we address God with the expression, “Elohaynuv’Elohay Avotaynu — our God and God of our ancestors.” We recitethese words easily, oblivious to the dynamic tension buried withinthe phrases: Is my God the same as the God of my ancestors? What ofmy faith is received, and what is created? What is of tradition, andwhat is my own?
The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Chassidism, wasasked why the “Amidah,” the central prayer of the daily services,begins with the triple iteration, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, Godof Jacob.” Why not just say, “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”? Heanswered: The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God ofIsaac was not the God of Abraham. Each grasped God in his own way.Each offered the world his own unique testimony of God. There is roomin Judaism — indeed, there is a need — for the new, therevolutionary. The personal spiritual adventure — the individual’ssearch for God — is the very life force of faith. Without it, ourreligion stagnates and dies. This is the radicalism of the Baal ShemTov.
But the same Baal Shem Tov awoke each morning, donned his tallis,wound his tefillin, and recited this prayer just as his ancestors haddone. In doing so, he affirmed a spiritual continuity with Abraham,Isaac, Jacob, and all the generations of Israel, down through hisown.
The personal religious quest brings energy, life, creativity andrenewal. The loyalty to tradition offers wisdom, depth, and the wordsand symbols from which we build the religious community. We need themboth. Denying a place for personal spiritual seeking leaves usstagnant. Cutting off tradition leaves us with a terrible sense ofweightlessness, of loneliness, and with a painful hunger forauthenticity. In my most significant moments, I crave a wisdom olderand deeper than my few years on this planet.
Responding to this hunger, so many of our contemporaries seem topatch together their own eclectic religious expression — mixing alittle Native American mythology, a little Buddhist meditation, alittle Christian morality, a little Sufi passion into the Shabboschallah. In the end, they find the mixture tasteless and unsatisfyingbecause it transcends neither the self nor the now. There is nonourishment in spiritual noshing.
The dynamic of Judaism embraces the personal religious questwhile, at the same time, affirming loyalty to the continuity of ourhistorical tradition. It is a dialectic filled with conflict andtension. But in this tension is the secret of Judaism’s spiritualvitality and its survival. And its father is Isaac.
Isaac, not Abraham, was the first Jew. For Isaac was the first toknow the tension between “my God” and “the God of my father.” He isthe first to know the struggle between the faith of his father andthe truth of his own religious experience. He is the first to knowthat we must do more than simply receive, affirm and repeattradition. We must make tradition our own. We must find a place forits wisdom in our life situation, fill it with our own passion,express its truth in our own idiom, remake its symbols to speak toour own souls, but never lose its message and its meaning. Ourfather, Isaac, was the first to know the challenge of receivingtradition and passing it on to those after him. And he was the firstto stay up at night, worrying about whether his grandchildren wouldbe Jewish. Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, was the first Jew.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.