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The Legacy of Abraham
He is beloved by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Can this bond stop them from hating one another?
By DAVID VAN BIEMA
My first real experience of the patriarch Abraham's crossover appeal came on the splendid sun-spangled day in June when I took a cross-town cab to arrange my son's circumcision. Jews have circumcised for thousands of years—ever since God (as the Torah tells it), having made a history-altering pact with Abraham, directed him to "cut my Covenant in your flesh." Some biblical commentators suggest that the circumcision was meant as much as a reminder to the Lord as to the Israelites, a kind of divine Post-it not to extirpate these people. My thought as we rolled eastward across Manhattan was, there must be easier ways. We slowed behind traffic on one of the roads through Central Park, and I found myself tapping my foot. The tune on the cab's stereo was Arabic but with a catchy, bubbling horn section. I asked who was playing. A Moroccan group, said the cabbie. He told me its name. Did I want to know what it was singing? Certainly. It was a plea to Israel from the Arab people. The chorus was, "We have the same father. Why do you treat us this way?" Who might the father be? I asked. "Ibrahim," he said. "The song is called Ismail and Isaac," after his sons. We have the same father. Why do you treat us this way? What did that scrap of a song hint at? First of all, it gave witness that a figure beloved by Jews and Christians has a Muslim constituency, suggesting a connection between Islam and the West that might surprise most Americans in this tense season. But second, it acknowledged that despite this apparent bond, there is still turmoil among the sons of Abraham. It wouldn't do to call Abraham a neglected giant of the Bible; almost everyone knows the outline of his story. But until recently he probably has not received the credit he deserves as a religious innovator. As biblical pioneer of the idea that there is only one God, he is on a par with Moses, St. Paul and Muhammad, responsible for what Thomas Cahill, author of the 1998 history The Gifts of the Jews, calls "a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the evolution of culture and sensibility." In other words, Abraham changed the world. Even less well known to most Americans is the breadth of his following. Jews, who consider him their own, are largely unaware of Abraham's presence in Christianity, which accepts his Torah story as part of the Old Testament and honors him in contexts ranging from the Roman Catholic Mass ("Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted ... the sacrifice of Abraham") to a Protestant children's song ("Father Abraham had many sons/ And I am one of them and so are you ... "). And neither Jews nor Christians know very much about Abraham's role in Islam, which acknowledges the Torah narrative but with significant changes and additions. The Koran portrays Abraham as the first man to make full surrender to Allah. Each of the five repetitions of daily prayer ends with a reference to him. The holy book recounts Abraham's building of the Ka'aba, the black cube that is Mecca's central shrine. Several of the rituals performed in that city by pilgrims making the hajj recall episodes from his history. Those who cannot journey still join in celebrating the Festival of Sacrifice, in which a lamb or goat is offered up to commemorate the same near sacrifice of a son that the Jews feature at their New Year. It is the holiest single day on the Islamic calendar. In fact, excluding God, Abraham is the only biblical figure who enjoys the unanimous acclaim of all three faiths, the only one (as the song in the cab suggested) referred to by all three as Father. In theory, this remarkable consensus should make him an interfaith superstar, a special resource in these times of anger and mistrust. And since last September, interfaith activists have been scheduling Abraham lectures, Abraham speeches and even "Abraham salons" around the country and overseas. A new book called Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (William Morrow) by Bruce Feiler, author of the best-selling scriptural travelogue Walking the Bible, espouses their cause. Yet they have an uphill battle. For all the commonality Abraham represents, the answer to the song's plaintive query—Why do you treat us this way?—is written in anathemas and blood over the centuries. If Abraham is indeed father of three faiths, then he is like a father who left a bitterly disputed will. Judaism and Islam, for starters, cannot even agree on which son he almost sacrificed. Then there is Abraham's Covenant with God. Many Jews (and some conservative Christians) believe it granted the Jewish people alone the right to the Holy Land. That belief fuels much of the Israeli settler movement and plays an ever greater role in Israel's hostility toward Palestinian nationalist claims. "Our connection to the land goes back to our first ancestor. Arabs have no right to the land of Israel," says Rabbi Haim Druckman, a settler leader and a parliamentarian with the National Religious Party. This argument infuriates
The stirring first words of the 12th chapter in the Torah's Book of Genesis are God's to him and are often referred to as the Call: "Go forth from your native land/ And from your father's house/ And I will make of you a great nation/ And I will bless those who bless you/ And curse him that curses you/ And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. I realized. during which the Lord." Abraham's life becomes very eventful. 'Where do you want this killin' done?' God says. The fate of interfaith stalwarts seeking to undo that heritage and locate in the patriarch a true symbol of accord should be meaningful to all of us suddenly interested in the apparent chasm between Islam and the West. Says Abraham author Feiler: "I believe he's a flawed vessel for reconciliation. Convinced she will have no children. whom you love. At age 175. I believed . appearing as a smoking torch. she bears his second son. Only the Muslims. is a more realistic basis from which to seek reconciliation. They will spend 400 years as slaves but ultimately possess the land from the Nile to the Euphrates." says Sheik Taysir Tamimi. As they travel. "The people who supported Abraham believed in one God and only one God. puts himself formally under oath. Abraham initiates an extraordinary haggling session. Abraham's children will be as numerous as grains of dust on the earth and stars in the sky. Hebron and Jerusalem. to prove that the older religion begged for replacement—a contention that helped propel almost two millenniums of anti-Semitism. however. They can't. Abraham dies and is laid out next to Sarah. His history constitutes a kind of multifaith scandal. "When I set out on this journey. he lays out a feast. The pact is sealed in a mysterious ceremony in a dream. your only one. A model of Middle Eastern hospitality. With an obedience that has troubled modern thinkers from Kierkegaard ("Though Abraham arouses my admiration. the Great Abrahamic Hope was an oasis in the deepest deserts of antiquity. and all we had to do was track him down and his descendants would live in perpetual harmony. The 86-year-old fathers a boy. to "keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice. To make a nation.Palestinian Muslims—especially since the Koran claims that Abraham was not a Jew but Islam's first believer. where his nephew Lot lives. who they claimed found grace outside Jewish law. God elaborates on his offer. He travels to Egypt and back and alights in Canaanite towns that may correspond to present-day Nablus. Yasser Arafat's liaison for religious dialogue. 'Out on Highway 61'")—but which seems transcendentally right to traditionalists—the father commences to comply on a mountain called Moriah. three strangers appear at his tent. Abraham is thus a much more difficult—and more interesting—figure than at first he seems. It works. As he remarks. Only at the last instant does God stay the father's hand and renew his pledge regarding Abraham's descendants. one must have an heir. That oasis. He is now committed. God directs Abraham to offer up "your son. distinguishing himself sometimes as a warrior king and sometimes as an arch-diplomat. But he stipulates that the Covenant will flow only through Isaac's line. the book records his growth from a dewy-eyed Abrahamic novice to a more realistic observer. he at the same time appalls me") to Bob Dylan ("Abe says. according to tradition. At one point." Abraham would appear ill suited to the job. Ishmael. Meanwhile. They turn out to be divine messengers bearing word that God intends to destroy Sodom." The sober understanding Feiler ends up with. the Torah portrays Abraham's domestic life as a soap opera. your Isaac" as a human sacrifice. early Christians used their understanding of Abraham.. Instead. ABRAHAM THE JEW Abraham was born. He requires a different acknowledgment from Abraham: he must inscribe a sign of the Covenant on his body. persuading the Lord to spare Sodom if 10 righteous people can be found. but he's the best figure we've got. He grows rich. who preceded him. Yet he complies. into a family that sold idols—a way of emphasizing the polytheism that reigned in the Middle East before his enlightenment." Feiler began Abraham after the Sept. the desire of people to define themselves by excluding or demonizing others. a case study for monotheism's darker side. Not exempt from the tripartite rancor. dancing Kumbaya around the campfire. in one last spectacular test of his faith. God notes later. Sarah persuades Abraham to send them out into the desert. God saves the duo and promises Hagar that Ishmael will sire a great nation through 12 sons (assumed by tradition to be 12 Arab tribes). and he is a childless 75-year-old whose wife Sarah is past menopause. is just a mirage. Both sons attend his funeral. and he and Sarah set off for a desert hinterland— Canaan—and a new spiritual epoch. and in a wonder confirming Abraham's faith. . and that was the Muslims. Sarah offers him her young Egyptian slave Hagar to produce an heir. Then. seeking a unifying symbol in a time of strife. 11 attacks. initiating the Jewish and Muslim customs of circumcision. Jealous of Hagar's and Ishmael's competing claims on her husband and his legacy.. Isaac. Yet God insists that Sarah will conceive. in a plot he has bought in a town later called Hebron.
conversion in Christian terms or t'shuva (turning toward God) for the Jews.) But Abraham represents a revolution in thought.. Allah willing. (If he did live. it would have been between 2100 B. If many Jews know him best as a dynastic grandfather whose grandson Jacob actually founds the nation of Israel. he wrote. as Cahill notes in The Gifts of the Jews. Jesus mentions Abraham in the Gospels. there is no way to know what century Abraham lived in. One of his themes was that a believer no longer needed to be Jewish or to follow Jewish law to be redeemed—the way now lay through Christ. record that Jesus was crucified here. hundreds of years before the date most historians assign to the actual birth of the religion called Judaism.That is the story.D. in a fiery furnace to which he is condemned for his fealty to Allah. Abraham tells his son of God's command. Perhaps the most strongly self-identifying Jew among the Apostles. Paul waffled as to whether Christianity rendered Judaism's Abrahamic Covenant null and void. or even whether he actually existed as a person.. The Koran includes scenes from Abraham's childhood in which he chides his father for believing in idols and survives." Yet Paul's Abrahamic bouquet to his birth religion contained poisoned thorns. ABRAHAM THE CHRISTIAN The church of the holy sepulcher in Jerusalem is arguably the most Christian place on earth. the first man in the Bible to abandon all he knows in order to choose the Lord and consciously move ever deeper into that choice. Such faith.. To have "one God that counts" instead of a constellation of gods who require occasional ritual appeasement. and so. the most Christian place in the church. So pure is his submission to the One God that Muhammad later says his own message is but a restoration of Abrahamic faith. did it come through tribal inheritance. thou shalt find me of the steadfast. Conference of Catholic Bishops: "Whether you call it submission in Muslim terms. removed from the Cross. Traditions dating back to the 300s A.C. to the left is Christ. the Greek Orthodox bishop of Jerusalem tells Feiler. While he is not a pure monotheist (he never suggests that other gods do not exist). or "hope against hope. Paul clearly felt an urgency to connect his new movement with the Jewish paterfamilias. did not come through law. "What the church did with Abraham was bitter and cruel. In a remarkably frank assessment." Notes the Koran approvingly: "They had both surrendered." as it would be for millions who followed. and your cities burned. about to slay Isaac. the underlying concept of Western civilization. Daniel-like. He did so primarily through Abraham's original response to God's Call and through the old man's embattled faith. What is its importance? Despite every effort and argument. Abraham. Just above the rock's Plexiglas-protected expanse is a chapel shared by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. "O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. until the point of no return on Moriah." The New Testament book Romans proposes Isaac's binding and release as a prophetic foreshadowing of the Resurrection. In the center is Mary Magdalene." something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abraham's story served these arguments well. Positing a deity intimately involved in the fate of one's children overturned the prevalent image of time as an ever cycling wheel. Baptism in faith would more than suffice. means that Abraham's relationship to God "became the matrix of his life. A universal God made it easier to imagine a universal code of ethics." using the verb whose noun form is the word Islam. Notes Feiler: "The image of Jesus sprawled on the unction stone is nearly identical to the image of Isaac on the altar.S. made Abraham "the father of all who believe. And in the Koranic version of Abraham's ultimate test. "the promise to Abraham and his descendants . Paul argued. His Covenant long predated the Jewish law as brought down from the mountain by Moses. but it was Paul who did the fine mortise work. The God of the Hebrew Bible deemed Abraham to be "righteous" years before his circumcision." ABRAHAM THE MUSLIM No faith is as self-consciously monotheistic as Islam. he is the Ur-monotheist. wrote Paul." as Paul famously put it. The man credited with that insight is the Apostle Paul.. The implications of his breakthrough are almost infinite. and the boy replies. But his successors assumed so." So linked is Abraham's name with this new path that each of the subsequent two monotheistic religions reached back hungrily to enfold him—and belittle the others' claims on him. For passing such trials.C." Nor. that God would bring him a son. Muslims regard him as one of the four most important prophets. Jews were at the mercy of their neighbors' worst instincts. "Lo. The Catholic side boasts three mosaics. and its embrace of Abraham is correspondingly joyful. director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the U. I have appointed thee a leader for mankind!" . which meant that his listeners didn't need to become circumcised Jews to be Abraham's inheritors.. Bereft of a divine warrant for their well-being. effectively inventing the idea of a future. citing the patriarch in his New Testament epistles more than any other figure except Christ. circumcision marked Jews "so that your land might become desolate. Allah tells Abraham. and 1500 B. and to the right is none other than . The 2nd century church father Justin Martyr wrote that far from an indication of grace. Paul wrote. and the gray rock mass of Golgotha (or Calvary) inside. Says Eugene Fisher. monotheism is a radically new understanding.
" he says. a massive stone structure built by King Herod 2. is the grim living metaphor for dueling Abrahamisms. a Harvard Jewish-studies professor who has examined affinities and conflicts in the Abrahamic traditions. Since the latest intifadeh. Not only was their genealogical claim void. Moreover." an Israeli settler tells Feiler. aimed at achieving political gains. Unlike the Torah. while Ishmael is the father of the Arabs. his grandson Jacob and his first wife Leah. Somewhat like Paul. That's why they are killing us.. Scripture adds. but their forefather lost his role in the great drama of surrender. took steps to cement Abraham's Jewish identity. who nearly allows himself to be killed without talking back. "They took a biblical figure open to all. says Jon Levenson." he writes. citing earlier authorities. The Talmud describes him anachronistically as following Mosaic law and speaking Hebrew. There is an eerie effortlessness to the way in which fights picked by scriptural revisionists hundreds of years ago feed today's psychology of mutual victimhood. THE CONTESTED PATRIMONY Things devolved from there. Abraham in Genesis makes a point of paying Ephron the Hittite 400 silver shekels for a cave in Hebron to serve as a burial plot. like Ishmael." Arafat's religious liaison Sheik Tamimi snaps that any Jewish claims based in Genesis are "pure lies. like Isaac. the Koran does not specify which son God tells Abraham to sacrifice. Custody shifted to a complex scheme granting each side access to parts or all of the tomb on different days but avoiding their meeting. a distinct family marked off from the rest of humanity. which Feiler nearly does. "And the Jews are very passive." To his horror. He and Sarah were laid there. hedged about with checkpoints and razor wire in a neighborhood under strict military curfew." The Tomb of the Patriarchs. if Allah ever had a pact with the Jews as a race. "If you want a symbol for universal humanity. meaning that Abraham's only true followers are true believers—i. its Muslim owners. Dr.But not as a Jew. professor of Midrash at New York City's Jewish Theological Seminary. says Shaul Magid." HOPES FOR RECONCILIATION It is a staple premise of the interfaith movement. "Nay . Says Fisher of the Conference of Catholic Bishops: "We can't not talk to each other about him. stung. which has been picking at the problem since the late 1800s. The Jewish Theological Seminary's Magid describes a 1st century tradition in which Ishmael is a bully and Isaac "becomes the persecuted younger brother. Part of the problem. his story featured a theme of exclusivity.000 years ago. And they severely downgraded Ishmael. that if Muslims. Ishmael. believers of both faiths worshipped side by side. Initially. so were Isaac and his wife Rebecca. ginned up what they wanted to stress and ended up with a symbol of their own uniqueness that looked far more like a mirror image of their fantasies than a reflection of the original story. he realized that Abraham "is as much a model for fanaticism as he is for moderation. a key road leads through Abraham.. Later scholarly opinion determined that Ishmael was also the son who went under the knife." That belief has persisted. described Ishmael as a "thief" whom "everybody hates. a 13th century Koranic commentator. Muslim interpreters a generation after Muhammad concluded that the prophet was descended from the slave woman Hagar's boy. Then in 1994 a radical Israeli settler. For most of the past few hundred years.. and later. because his whole story is about the singling out of one guy to found a new family. It is enough to make a grown man cry. at imposing the sovereignty of Israeli occupation on the holy places. Muslims. struck back by claiming the Jews had "dishonestly and slanderously" introduced Isaac into the Torah story: "They forced this understanding because Isaac is their father. mowed down 29 Muslims at prayer in the tomb. but the site. Baruch Goldstein. because we don't fight back. Jewish parents named their boys after Abraham's Arab son. (we follow) the religion of Abraham. When the Israelis took control in 1967. the Koran advises Muslims proselytized by either Jews or Christians to answer. go to Adam. Christians and Jews are ever to respect and understand one another. "tossed out what they wanted to ignore. but the custom evaporated as they began living under Muslim rule. who called it the Mosque of Abraham. Ibn Kathir." But identifying a path does not make it passable." Another stumbling block between Jews and Muslims is that they are working from two different texts. Indeed. "Don't go to Abraham. Despite God's promise that this land would be his people's one day. ." Then there is the matter of Isaac and Ishmael.e. Islam concluded that God chooses his people on grounds of commitment rather than lineage. the arrangement continues. Herod erected a grandiose monument at what he thought was the site. presents a message of piety inextricable from violence and mistrust. is that even before they went to work on him. Jews. The decision effectively completed the Jewish disenfranchisement. By the 11th century the great biblical scholar Rashi. allowed Jews to pray near the entrance." an insult that can still be found in his prominently placed commentary in many Torah editions today and that is taught in many Orthodox religious schools." That sentiment too survives today on the Muslim side. He was always a particularist. they backslid out of it in episodes such as the worship of the golden calf in the Torah's book of Exodus. "The Muslims are very aggressive.
." As the anniversary of Sept. association that organizes intensive three-way scriptural studies modeled on Abraham's hospitality to the strangers at his tent. Christianity's position on Abraham had remained depressingly consistent since Justin Martyr's condemnation of the circumcised. One group that bucked the trend was the Children of Abraham Institute. he says." It is a historical oddity and a hopeful sign that as the three religions battled over Abraham.S. In Portland. The venerable. you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations . Ore. Matt Rees and Jamil Hamad/Hebron and Eric Silver/ Jerusalem . although this time a sacrifice was completed." says Fisher. Protestant-founded Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York is starting an open-ended Abraham Program involving lectures and trifaith panels.. "O Lord. Nadia Mustafa/New York. still dream of a moment when they stand alongside one another and pray for their lost father and for the legacy of peace among nations that was his initial mandate from heaven. several new enterprises inaugurated similar efforts. and parley with imams in Malaysia. and seemingly each generation. whichever son it was." The resulting Vatican II document rolled back centuries of anti-Judaism and began a rehabilitation of the notion of Abraham as a Jew.. South Africa. "Abraham—peace be upon him—great-grandfather of the Arabs and the Jews.Nonetheless. The borrowings and counterborrowings. The moment of truth is just past. citywide interfaith program. The most heartening may be an Islamic tale cited by Feiler whose roots. especially involving Muslims. I pray this. seeking a way to reach out to the U. "is perceptive enough to know that his children will fight. Sadat was assassinated in 1981. a Charlottesville. At the end of Abraham. University of Virginia professor of Islamic studies Abdulaziz Sachedina expressed an interfaith ideal when he contended that people of faith can "control" their respective interpretations of Abraham's story "so that it doesn't become a source of demonization of the other. It has held meetings in Denver and at England's Cambridge University and has sent representatives to lecture in Cape Town. In 1977 Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. reread Paul's letters." But he also knows that "his children still crave God. Christians would be orphans. concocts its own Abraham has liberated him to create his own. moderate Iranian President Muhammad Khatami proposed a "dialogue of civilizations." clearly hoping that both sides would approach Arab-Israeli cohabitation in the same spirit. It is set after Abraham's near sacrifice of his son.'s Kofi Annan subsequently adopted the gesture. murder (and) fly planes into buildings. God gazes down with pride and compassion and promises to grant his any prayer. who in March 2000 pressed a prayer card between blocks of Jerusalem's Western Wall: "God of our fathers. has been trickier in the past 12 months." —With reporting by Azadeh Moavevi/Tehran. "When any person in any era meets you at the gates of heaven—so long as they believe in one God—I ask that you allow them to enter paradise. "If the Covenant between God and the children of Abraham dies. but theologians at the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. prompted by an unshakable belief in the ideals that lend life a profound significance. many plans for Jewish-Muslim conversations fell through. announcing before the Israeli Knesset the brave initiative that would become the 1979 Camp David peace accords. in 1998.) Observers assumed Khatami was crafting a smoke screen for political talks. At one of its gatherings last October. (The U. As the boy lies stunned on the altar. shaken by the Holocaust. that would pass the scrutiny of his nation's dogmatic clerics. moderate Islamic leaders have periodically enlisted Abraham as a bridge builder. make far more pleasant reading." THE EFFECT OF SEPT. A more thoroughgoing theological initiative has been undertaken by the Catholic Church. No one has pursued its spirit more avidly than Pope John Paul II. "the branch withers with the roots. we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. The accords went through. reach into both Judaism and Christianity." with Abraham as common ground. as old as the conflicts. They noted that at one point Paul calls the Covenant between God and the Jews irrevocable and that in one passage he compares Christians to a wild olive branch grafted onto the tree of Judaism." This Abraham. Va." Sadat noted that Abraham had undertaken his great sacrifice "not out of weakness but through free will. the father's hand is stayed. whom he whimsically calls "Abraham No. But the former professor of Eastern and Western philosophy seems to regard Abraham as a mascot for his comparatively humanistic. its author announces that understanding how each faith. 241. A participant in several such efforts is Feiler. open-minded brand of Islam. scholar Reuven Firestone hypothesized. It has the ear of the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury. 11 Such rapprochement." the boy says. invoked. Interfaith advocates say that after the attacks. 11 passed. they continued (without admitting it) to swap Abraham stories.. More recently.N. a group called the Abraham Initiative began a two-year.
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