Abraham and the wisdom of the East

Of all Abraham's trials, Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac seems the most difficult. The command to leave behind everything he knew and set off for an unknown land was also very challenging.Both required a tremendous amount of trust, and both demanded that Abraham disconnect from what he knew and loved, from his family of origin and homeland, and then from his beloved son and his very own reason and logic and belief in a just G-d.

Interestingly enough, Genesis 25:1-6 tells us that Abraham married another wife named Keturah, and that although he left his estate to Isaac, while he lived he mysteriously "gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east."

The meaning of this verse is not clear. Many have suggested interconnections between Abraham and the religions of the east, pointing to the names of the Hindu Uber-God Brahma (grandsire of all human beings) and his wife Saraswati as being very close to Abraham and Sarah  - though we must note that the former are gods and the latter humans. Some even claim Abraham to be descended from Indian Brahmins, implying the Eastern wisdom was his legacy; yet that is not the picture the Torah presents, rather that Abraham was unique in his surroundings, and that he sent gifts to the East, not vice versa.

In any event: a central tenet of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, is to release ourselves from attachment and the suffering it causes. The fact remains that Abraham began to learn this wisdom via the tests G-d put him through, and perhaps this constituted the "gifts" he passed on the East, there to be developed further (the earliest Hindu Vedic texts are dated 1700 BCE, slightly after Abraham's birth 1800 BCE approx.)

Buddhism has developed the spiritual goal of striving to non-attachment, in the deepest sense, in that non attachment means unity with all things and freedom from desires (it is more than simply letting go of family or beliefs, but that could be the initial external step necessary to become enlightened). Judaism did not demand this of its followers, but taught other kinds of wisdom.

Nonetheless many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, with its sophisticated teachings about the inner life, and one could perhaps posit that since the it would have been impossible to have a system with both Jewish emphases on doing in this world and striving for spiritual growth within the material (the hardest challenge), and Buddhist emphases on non-attachment and liberation from desires, that both of these "Abrahamic" (or partially Abrahamic) religious systems needed to grow separately so as to develop and nurture their truths. Now, Jews can finally reclaim their portion of Buddhism, the sparks that are truly Abrahamic, and that has developed for all these years, while not accepting the rest.

(Zohar 1:99b).
“Rabbi Abba said, ‘One day I happened upon a certain town formerly inhabited by children of the East, and they told me some of the wisdom they knew from ancient days. They had found their books of wisdom, and they brought me one… I found in it all the ritual of star-worship, requisites, and how to focus the will upon them, drawing them down… I said to them, ‘My children, this is close to words of Torah, but you should shun these books, so that your hearts will not stray after these rites, toward all those sides mentioned here; lest – Heaven forbid – you stray from the rite of the blessed Holy One! For all these books deceive human beings, since the children of the East were wise – having inherited a legacy of wisdom from Abraham, who bestowed it upon the sons of the concubines, as is written: To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still alive, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East [Genesis 25:6]. Afterword they were drawn by that wisdom in various directions”


[1] I thank Prof. Alan Brill for his help in making elements of this dvar Torah more accurate. The idea grew out of a Bibliodrama on Akedat Yitzchak at Andy Kohlenberg's house, parshat Vayera 5755. Thanks to Nicole Koskas who came up with the profound insight about G-d teaching Abraham to disconnect, and to Zev ben Yechiel for pointing out that Brahma's wife is Saraswati.
N.b. if Ketura was the mother of the sons sent to the east, I would have thought that Brahma's wife would be called something along the lines of Ketura. Some say Ketura is Hagar, and apparently the Saraswati river has a tributary named Ghaggar, but here the speculation is beginning to stray rather far.

Reader Comments (3)

(First posted on the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn's blog page, See link below.)

Some time ago, I posted a review of Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus on Amazon. The book, a favorite among Jewish meditators, is partly about a Jewish delegation’s visit to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. The delegation traveled there to share the strategies that Jews have used to survive as a people during our nearly 2000 years in exile.

After reading the book, I remember thinking that the most important lesson we should have shared with the Tibetans was about the very positive value of attachment.

Why is attachment something we should share? In my opinion, attachments are the keys to Jewish survival. For example, God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel. If we had not been spiritually attached to the land as a result of God’s promise, we never would have had the desire to survive and return. This attachment, a great yearning, has had great value.

In Hebrew there are a few different words for attachment. Each expresses a different sense of what attachment means.

One is hit-dahb-koot, which means “to cause oneself to cling to” or “to cause oneself to adhere to.” It’s a deep and serious attachment, in love and in awe/fear. It’s rooted in the word d’veikoot (or d’veikoos), and implies a constant awareness and mindfulness that we are always in God’s presence. Being there, our desire to do God’s will, which values compassion, justice and surrender, completely supersedes the self-centered desires of our own egos. With perfect d’veikoos we will not, even for a moment, lose our connection to God. This kind of attachment can be very positive.

Another word for attachment is hit-kash-root. It means “causing oneself to be connected to” or “causing oneself to be tied to.” Jewish mysticism teaches that each of us is a soul consisting of many parts. One part is attached to its root in the highest spiritual world, a spark of God’s “light.” It also attaches us to each other. We want that attachment.

A third word for attachment is hit-khab-root, which could be translated as “drawing oneself into a very close relationship.” Its root means “friend” or “joined together.” It’s God’s relationship with the world that allows the infinite light of existence to enter, which is what allows for tikoon, repair. Without that relationship, the world would revert to chaos in an instant.

All three of these kinds of attachment can connect us to the everlasting, infinite One.

The same word d’veikoos is also used in the Torah for when two people get married. It describes how they “cling to each other and become one flesh.” Jewish mystical teachings say that our entire reason for being is to elevate the physical via the spiritual, especially in our relationships. Instead of offering a celibate, monastic life to reach the pinnacle of spirit as some religions do, Judaism asserts that some of the highest levels of spirituality are found in the attached state of marriage. The relationship between God and Israel is even likened to a marriage, and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, a wedding.

It’s clear that Judaism considers some kinds of attachment, including the very deeply attached relationship of marriage, to be very positive.

But not all attachments are positive. Some attachments are negative. Judaism’s Mussar movement is about cultivating mindfulness to become aware of and then change our bad habits and negative character traits.

What does attachment have to do with Jewish meditation? We usually think about meditation as a way to free ourselves from attachments; but, in Jewish meditation, attachment is a goal. Almost all of the classic Jewish meditation texts teach that meditation is about attaching ourselves to God. The practical forms of Jewish meditation foster that attachment. It may take the form of cultivating inner silence or compassion or equanimity. It may require us to work on mindfulness and self improvement, as in the Mussar approach. It may be in the form of prayer or visualizations. Or it may require social action.

Silence, compassion, equanimity, prayer, visualizations and social action are important, but according to traditional sources, we have to make sure that we don’t mistake (to use a Zen metaphor) the finger pointing at the moon for the moon, or the road for the destination. In the end, the reality is attachment to God.
Len Moskowitz is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University and currently translating a 19th century work of Jewish theology and mysticism into English. He has been meditating for twenty years.


November 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLen Moskowitz

Yael wrote:

> ...and one could perhaps posit that since the it would have been impossible to have a system with both Jewish emphases on doing in this world and striving for spiritual growth within the material (the hardest challenge), and Buddhist emphases on non-attachment and liberation from desires...

Here's an understanding of how attachment is fundamental to Judaism. and how the Buddhist perspective on non-attachment is profoundly not Jewish:


November 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLen Moskowitz

Thanks Len, you make an excellent point here. I would add, though, that from my own firsthand experience, practising non-attachment can be an important and helpful support for avodat Hashem. In life, we attach to all sorts of things in a way that is not spiritually helpful. In its extreme form, this kind of attachment becomes a form of avoda zara, inasmuch as we place the value of stuff in our lives above G-d; and clearing this kind of attachment helps to clear us up for the attachment to the divine you describe.

December 15, 2014 | Registered CommenterYael Unterman

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>