Conventional thinking argues that it is was Avraham who “discovered” God after mankind had fallen prey to idol worship and that this was his main contribution. This however cannot be the whole story. It is clear that other individuals also recognized God as their Lord. So we read that Avimelech, King of Gerar and Melchizedek king of Salem, believed in God seemingly even before they met Avraham. (chapter 14)
On top of that, belief in God alone does not automatically lead to the need for morality and justice.
It was Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel z.l.*, (1883-1946) former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who suggested that it was the replacement of only one word which made Avraham into the father of all western religions and justice. And it was this change which brought about a radical departure from conventional thinking for all future times.
When Adam meets his wife Chava for the first time (after she has been formed from his rib), he identifies her with the words: “This now is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh” (Bereshith 2.23)
This is a most remarkable statement since we would have anticipated that he would refer to her in spiritual rather than in physical terms. Somehow Adam was not able to see himself or his wife in terms of soul. This is even more startling when we realize they had not yet participated from the tree of knowledge and as such lived highly spiritual lives in the Garden of Eden.
During the following centuries we see that human beings continue to see themselves in terms of flesh. Even the Torah which originally had called man “nefesh chaya” a living being, (2:7) continues to describe man in terms of his flesh. This becomes very clear when we read the story about the flood of Noach.
“And God saw the earth and behold, it was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” (6.12)
Only when Avraham enters the Biblical narrative, is man never again described as flesh. From this moment onwards he is called soul (nefesh). (See for example Bereshith 12:13)
This possibly means that Avraham’s most important contribution was not so much the discovery of God but to teach mankind that the human being is not so much flesh as he/she is soul. And once the word flesh is replaced by the word “nefesh”, the foundations of morality become possible and the concept of religion is able to undergo a radical change. No longer is its function to make man just aware of God’s existence, but the driving force behind moral values. From this moment it taught the human being that since he has a soul he is a moral being and henceforth responsible for his deeds.
Remarkable is the fact that Avraham’s personality must have been so inspiring that once he met a stranger, the latter automatically changed his language from physical to spiritual. Even the King of Sedom, far from being righteous, could no longer employ his old sensual expressions. When speaking to Avraham after the latter had rescued Lot, he says: “Give me the souls and take the goods for yourself” (13:21)
One has only to recall the abominable practices associated with the old polytheistic cults and Plato’s criticism of the Greek religion ** because of the great moral evils it bred, to realize that the relation of religion to morals is by no means obvious. It was only in Judaism that the idea of the inseparableness of religion and ethical living arose. And from there this concept was taken over by Christianity, Islam and different legal systems. It is only because man is seen in terms of soul that he is asked to be ethical.
Once that is established, values such as “kedusha” (holiness) and “tahara” (spiritual purity) become possible.
All this became part of western civilization once Avraham revolutionized the world by replacing the word flesh with soul.
* LeNevuchei le-Tekufa, 1928
** The Republic, 111, p.250-1, Jowett’s translation.