Saturday, December 5, 2015

Inheriting Abraham, by Jon D. Levenson

Someone once said that the U.S. and the U.K. are two nations divided by a common language. We both speak English, but oh, the different ways we speak it!

This brilliant little book by Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, makes the same claim about Jewish, Christian, and Muslim conceptions of Abraham. Abraham is central to all of us, but in very different ways.

Abraham in Judaism

For Jews, broadly speaking, Abraham is the the first father of our people. In the Torah, God singled him out and commanded his allegiance, and Abraham proved worthy of God's trust through his actions. He circumcised himself and his sons Ishmael and Isaac, as God instructed. He didn't withhold his son Isaac when God told him to sacrifice Isaac (in the Akedah story). Abraham also argued with God about what justice required, so well that if only a few more righteous people lived in Sodom and Gomorrah, both cities would have been saved.

Some commentators go so far as to imagine that Abraham lived by the 613 commandments of the Torah even before they were given to Moses. The continuity between Abraham and the Jewish people is complete.

Jews are descendants of Abraham in a lineal way, but there are other biological descendants: the children of Ishmael. In the Torah, they are blessed with the promise of becoming great nations. Jews are blessed in the same way too, but we claim an additional legacy from Abraham. As a community, we inherit his commitment to God, and God to him. That is why converts to Judaism typically call themselves "son or daughter of Abraham" (and Sarah, in more liberal circles).
Converting to Judaism

Within the Jewish tradition, there are ways of recognizing Abraham's importance for people who are not descended from him in any way. This begins in the Torah: "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (Genesis 12:3) and continues in midrash that states that throughout their travels, Abraham and Sarah brought many people to an understanding of God. Judaism is not an either/or religion, however. Abraham can be a light unto the nations (as we are commanded to be, as a people) and still be specifically Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father.

Abraham in Christianity

Christianity, of course, originally sprang from Judaism. Beginning with Paul, however, Christians interpreted the figure of Abraham both as a foreshadowing of Jesus and as a proof that they--and not the Jews--were the proper descendants of Abraham.

This interpretation rested on two readings of Genesis that the Jewish tradition would not accept.
  1. Reading Genesis 12:3 not as "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" but through you, instead. The Jewish reading had people saying, "May you be like Abraham!" The Christian reading had them saying "We are like Abraham, and the message that he brought flows through us."
  2. Making much of the fact that God chooses Abraham first and only later commands him to circumcise himself and his male children. In Paul's hands, this becomes proof that circumcision (and by extension, all the mitzvot, or commandments, of the Torah) are unnecessary. The nations of the world can become Christians without becoming Jews first.
For Christians, according to Levenson, Abraham's distinguishing feature was his faith in God. Since to many Christians, Jesus is God, their belief in Jesus makes them descendants of Abraham. 

From this perspective, people who do not put faith first, and people who do not believe in Jesus, are missing the point of Abraham and (in the case of Jews) spurning their inheritance. They are putting their salvation in peril. That is an unimaginable thing for a Christian to do, but not an issue that takes up much space in Judaism. Christians generally don't realize that Jews by and large leave questions of what happens after death up to God, and that Jews believe "The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come" (Pirkei Avot 1:1). So, what is the point to Christians is beside the point to Jews.

For Christians, the meaning of Abraham is that Jews should give up rabbinic teachings and "go back to Abraham"--meaning to the Abraham imagined by Christians, who cares only for God and his own soul, not the one in Genesis who is clearly exercised over which of his biological sons will inherit from him. So, for Jews and Christians, being "Abrahamic religions" is a stumbling block to interfaith understanding as much as it is a spur to achieve it.

Abraham in Islam

No god but God, and Abraham was his prophet
 In Islam, Abraham is not the ancestor of the Jews nor the prototype of Christian faith. Abraham is a "muslim" in the literal sense: a person who submits to God.

For followers of Islam, what is most important about Abraham is his strict monotheism. The Qur'an stresses that Abraham was not a pagan or a polytheist, at a time when the vast majority of people were. In this way, Abraham the prophet was just like Muhammad the prophet, and the latter came to restore and amplify on the teachings of the former. Being a descendant of Abraham in any sense doesn't matter. What matters is sharing his belief.

The Torah shows Abraham meeting with and worshiping with priests who called God by other names than he did, and it does not show Abraham saying that only one God exists--simply that he, Abraham, will follow only one. Unlike Christians and Jews, however, Muslims are not bound by the stories in the Torah. If those stories conflict with Qur'an or with belief, they are free to regard them as garbled in transmission. So once again, Jews and Muslims being "Abrahamic" is a source of tension between them as much as it is an opportunity for mutual understanding.

One Abraham or Three?

Jew and Christians both claim to be Abraham's descendants and heirs. Muslims don't.

Jews and Muslims both think Abraham's monotheism means God has no body and no separate "persons." Christians think God has both.

Christians and Muslims both think everyone must eventually accept the truth of their religion to be saved from hell. Jews don't.

Levenson is drawing all these distinctions partly because he is a careful scholar, but partly because he is convinced that relations between Jews, Muslims, and Christians must be based on mutual respect. Sweeping these differences under the rug only keeps us from doing the more important work of understanding one another. I fully agree.