It is commonly understood that Abraham's major contribution was the doctrine of monotheism. He taught an idolatrous world that there is only one God, and that idea is synonymous with Judaism. But I have to tell you that that picture is not accurate. The idea of one God was very firmly established before Abraham. (Idolatry, as we have seen, is the practice of relating to intermediaries as if they have independent power, not the failure to recognize God altogether.) Knowledge of God was standard...
What did Abraham bring to the world as the amazing novelty that started the Jewish people and changed history forever, if Shem and Ever were already teaching spirituality at the highest level? What exactly was new about him? What was the revolutionary nature of his enlightenment if others had already shown the way? Why was he a groundbreaking initiator and not simply a talented pupil?
The answer is this: Abraham did not begin the path of the spirit; he began the path of bringing spirit into flesh. His contribution was not in the sphere of knowledge. Others had already explored the higher reaches of the spirit and were well versed in the highest wisdom when Abraham began his journey. What he pioneered in the world was the process of bringing that wisdom down into the physical, showing how to express the highest level of consciousness in fingers and toes of flesh. That is the radical idea of Judaism.
The absolute uniqueness of Judaism is not its God-consciousness; it is the teaching that the body can be drawn up into sanctity. It is not the teaching of the holiness of spirit; it is the teaching of the holiness of the physical. Examine the world's spiritual systems; you will see that they grasp the conflict between spirit and flesh, the primal battle between soul and body in which body seeks to dominate soul and bring it down to serve its animal agenda. And they define a solution to this most basic of all conflicts: abjure the flesh, discipline the body by starving it of its sensuous feed, become an ascetic, celibate, enter the monastic mode. The highest exponents of the world's spiritual systems are monks and nuns, celibates and ascetics who have renounced the body in order to transcend it.
But Judaism requires engaging the body; requires marriage, requires the experience of bodily pleasure, regards permanent celibacy as a sin. Our path is not to separate body and soul but to engage the body and elevate it to the level of soul. For us, the body is not the point of departure for the spiritual voyage; it is the vehicle.
The body must not be left behind while mind and spirit transcend. It must be made to serve mind and spirit. And that is the meaning of the mitzvot, the commandments. The mitzvot are physical actions (there are very few mitzvot that are performed in consciousness alone) that express spirit. Every part of the body is commanded to act; each limb and organ performs an action that expresses Torah. Mitzvot are to Torah what body is to soul.
Abraham did not bring the idea of pure spirit to the world; he brought to the world the radical idea that the body, that fallen, subversive, treacherous and lecherous body can and must be elevated to purity. Its functions and actions are not to be suppressed; they are to be expressed as holy. The world perceives the shame and the problem of male-female intimacy, its potential to erode spiritual refinement; we perceive its holiness. The world perceives the danger of alcohol, its tendency to replace mind with earthy physicality; we use it for elevation. The world understands that the body must be renounced, that is the only way to free the soul; we give the body full expression in actions that are harnessed to serve spirit. That is how we discipline the body; we do not command it to be silent, we command it to serve. That is the basis of the mitzvot...
You can see how fundamentally misunderstood all of this is today. We are Jews in our observance of the commandments; all of them, with each movement of each part of our bodies. We are not Jews because of Jewish wisdom and generally moral behavior; that is fine and well, of course, but it is not Judaism. We are children of Abraham because we work to sanctify our bodies; what marks us off from the community of the world's wise and moral adepts is primarily the way we eat our food and drink...
You see this sharply in our relationship with wine. We have noted in many of the world's spiritual systems alcohol is forbidden entirely, certainly for the priestly and monastic individuals who would reach holiness. But in Judaism wine is a central feature in all movement from physical to spiritual. We use wine at occasions of connecting the two: at a wedding, where two physical bodies will elevate their relationship to the spiritual; at a circumcision, where we begin the process of sanctifying the body; at kiddush, the blessing sanctifying the first moments of Shabbat where the mundane domain of the week meets the transcendence of Shabbat; four cups of wine at the Passover seder, where we celebrate exile's transition to redemption, slavery to freedom.
Wine powerfully represents the danger of the physical; if taken in excess it converts consciousness to unconsciousness, dehumanizes to the extent that the drinker becomes entirely part of the physical, nothing more than a mindless body. And yet, used correctly, it has the capacity to open consciousness, to facilitate a state of elevation. The deeper sources note that although wine is a physical substance it obeys the rules of the spiritual: all physical things degrade and disintegrate with time; this is the rule for all things in the material and biological world no matter how carefully those things are handled and nursed.
Conversely, things of the spirit improve with time; wisdom deepens with age -- even as the body of the sage sags, his wisdom gains. But unlike other physical things, wine improves with age. Uniquely in the world of the material, wine reflects the quality of the deeper, the secret hidden within the material (the Hebrew word for wine has the same numerical value as the word for secret).
You know that at havdala, the ceremony that marks the exit of the Shabbat, we also take a cup of wine. At that moment of sensing the departing spirit of Shabbat, that moment of descent, we use wine. Now we have been saying that wine is used at moments of elevation. What is the meaning here?
The idea is this: certainly the week begins with the sadness of sensing Shabbat fade. The relinquishing of sanctity is palpable. We smell spices to revive the spirit. But the week's beginning means a new opportunity to build, to elevate our present status towards another Shabbat that will be higher than the last, that will reflect another week of work and growth added to the previous ones. This is a "descent for the purpose of ascent," a higher and greater elevation than before. That is exactly the Jewish idea -- we descend into the mundane and the material, but we do so only for the purpose of elevation.
Torah lives only in its application; even its most rarefied wisdom is real only when it has some attachment to the world of action.