10/23/2012 07:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Genesis 12:1-17:27: Abraham and the Challenges of Iconoclastic Leadership

What does it take to be a transformative religious leader? What is the proper blend of inspiration and collaboration, innovation and tradition, personal vision and communal authority?

The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, explores this subject in a brief but provocative teaching in his major homiletic work, Likkutei Moharan. The text is labeled simply as "An Omission," but this unassuming title does little to prepare the reader for the master's radical message. The text focuses on Abraham"s single-mindedness as the founding father of the Jewish people, based on the narrative of this week's Torah portion of Lekh Lekha and other biblical and rabbinic teachings about the great patriarch. Rabbi Nachman states,

"One was Abraham" (Ezekiel 33). Abraham worshipped God as if he was one, that is, he thought of himself as the only person in the world, and did not become distracted by all those who deviated from God's path ... not even his own father. This is the meaning of "One was Abraham." Now anyone who wishes to initiate a life of spiritual service [must do similarly] ... paying no heed to a person who is an obstacle ... [even if it is one's] father or a mother, in-laws, spouse or children. ... The same is the case with the obstacles one faces from the rest of the world, from those who ridicule and mock, tempting and preventing one from fulfilling God's true service ... functioning within a spiritual mode of "One was Abraham"...

According to Rebbe Nachman, Abraham's greatest feat, the cause of his success in the world, was his ability to be truly "one." Alone and singular in his focus, Abraham is cast here as a great rebel who is forever breaking free from the idols of his society -- the original iconoclast. More significantly for us, Rebbe Nachman insists that Abraham is the model for anyone who wishes to live a life of spiritual service.

The Hasidic master here articulates a refreshing statement of individualism, which stands in tension with many other Jewish teachings about tradition, community and family. Taken as a text on leadership it is an unyielding call for personal integrity and steadfastness in the face of opposition. It is not surprising that these words come from Rebbe Nachman, as he remembered as a highly creative and unconventional leader, who often found himself at odds with other Jewish leaders -- Hasidic and non-Hasidic alike -- including members of his family. But this teaching is also very modern and existentialist in its orientation: strive to discover your own truth, which might only be attained by bracketing the opinions of others, including those considered to be experts or authorities.

Every time I read this text or think about similar presentations of Abraham in other classical sources, I find myself engaged in a complicated internal dialogue. My fear is that Rebbe Nachman is right -- that great change usually comes from revolutionaries who have the bravery to ignore popular opinion, that a deeply meaningful life requires creating significant personal space, even from those dearest to us.

On the other hand, I am deeply troubled by how quick Rebbe Nachman is to encourage us to ignore society, family, even our parents and spouses, and how unbalanced and lonely a calling this is.

In assessing this teaching, I think it is helpful to think about the message of "being one" contextually. That is, when are the times in our lives when we need to individuate more dramatically and why -- in our teen years or mid-life? Even Rebbe Nachman emphasizes the importance of assuming this individualistic posture "when one is entering a life of spiritual service." But I also know how easy it is to limit this teaching to specific life stages as a way to defend my bourgeois lifestyle and the comfort and stability it affords me. I know that I must continue to work to be both radically "one" and to live in true partnership with others throughout my life. I want to be both Abraham the questioning innovator and the Abraham who builds significant partnerships and community.

One way to do this is to develop a more flexible and expansive definition of "being one." There are times when this means that we must retreat from others, even loved ones, to find God or ourselves. But then there are times when "being one" means partnering with others who share similar visions, thereby creating a new single unit. Interestingly, approximately half of the stories about Abraham in the Torah are about his individual search and the other half are about his efforts to build partnerships (with Malkizedek, Abimelekh and Lot).

I try to let Rebbe Nachman's image of Abraham work in my psyche as a free radical, reminding me to hold on to an aspect of individualism that is often suppressed or ignored in my daily life. But I also know that shutting myself off from the love, care and wisdom of others can itself be an idolatrous act. It is all too easy to sink into self-righteousness and play the role of the lonely prophet who bravely holds fast to a transcendent truth that others fail to grasp.

Rebbe Nachman has a gift for being able to stir his students from their spiritual slumber, to challenge us with his provocative readings of our sacred texts and of our human condition. To my mind, the best way to thank him is to read his words carefully and to challenge his assumptions. That is, to take up the mantle of Abraham and continue the quest for meaning and purpose -- alone and in community.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.