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Inheriting Abraham

On August 28, Jon D. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, spoke with the current class of Tikvah fellows about his latest book, the first volume in the Library of Jewish Ideas: Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The following is an edited transcript of the event.      


QUESTION: What prompted you to write this book?

LEVENSON: For various reasons, probably having to do with where and when I grew up, I’ve always thought of religions and religious communities comparatively, in terms of each one’s connection to others—both the similarities and the differences.  In the last 20 or 30 years, I’ve focused on the role played by exegesis of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish and Christian communities in late antiquity and the way in which communal interpretations change the self-understandings of the communities involved.

For a long time, I’ve also had a concern with interfaith dialogue, and a certain dislike of the way it’s mainly done. The challenge is to do justice to both commonality and difference—not simply to put commonality and difference in two separate categories but to treat them as organically connected to each other.

Precisely because Abraham is often described as the common father of the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, it seemed to me that he’s a very good test case for comparing similarities and differences and for defining the basis of the comparison, so that you don’t end up with a case of just apples and oranges.

QUESTION: Tell us something about the substance of the book itself.

LEVENSON: One central focus is the interplay between what you might call a more universal or cosmopolitan pole and a more communal or particularistic pole.  A verse that has had a huge impact on interpretations of Abraham is Genesis 12:3: ve-nivrekhu vekha kol mishpehot ha’adamah.  Does it mean that all the nations or families of the earth will be blessed in you, or that all the families of the earth will bless themselves by you?  The former suggests that there is something in Abraham that results in a universal blessing.  That reading is very, very important in Christian interpretations, and over the centuries it’s also been linked to a critique of Judaism. That is to say: the Jews claim the Abrahamic promise only for themselves, but really this verse and others imply a larger, more inclusive, more cosmopolitan understanding of Abraham.

As against this, there’s the interpretation you find in the medieval commentator Rashi and elsewhere that reads the verse as reflexive: “All the families of the earth will bless themselves by [with reference to] you.” The notion here is that Abraham is a byword of blessing; it’s like saying “May you shoot baskets like Michael Jordan.”  And you might be tempted to say that it’s the Jewish, or particularistic, reading: people will want to bless themselves by reference to the good fortune of Abraham, the first Jew. 

This seems to suggest a simple and convenient dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, but the fact is, you can find both interpretations in both traditions.  You can certainly find in Judaism, and especially among Jewish thinkers who associate Abraham with the discovery of the true God, the notion that the blessing of Abraham has universal import.

Another focus of Inheriting Abraham is the Aqedah, or binding of Isaac.  As it happens, the Jewish understanding of this episode in the late Second Temple period had a deep influence on the claims made for Jesus in the early Church, much deeper than most Jews or Christians recognize.  It’s also true that a version of the Aqedah makes it into the Qur’an.  There, however, the son in question is unnamed.  For centuries, Muslim exegetes divided pretty much evenly as to whether it was Isaac or Ishmael.  Ishmael won out, but only gradually, which makes this an ideal story to analyze in terms of interconnections between texts and their afterlife in later traditions.

When you get to modernity and someone like the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the picture shifts again.  Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations all celebrate Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son.  To Kant, by contrast, the Aqedah is a negative archetype: Abraham should have talked back to God and insisted, “No, I’m not going to kill an innocent person.”  The Kantian inversion has had a whole afterlife, too, all the way down to today’s post-Christian West.  By now, we seem to have lost touch with the logic of sacrifice underlying the Aqedah—the logic that plays so profound a role in Jewish and Christian understandings of the religious life and of the relationship between God and human beings.

Then there is the subject of monotheism.  Many people refer to Abraham as the first monotheist, the first person to say there is just one God.  But I see nothing at all in Genesis to support that.  Nor do I see any reason to think that the individuals whom Abraham interacts with are portrayed as any less monotheistic than he, or as if they were worshipers of false gods who ought to be abominated.  He is separate from them, but I discern no element of an interreligious polemic.  Think of a figure like Elijah, one of the great prophets of Israel, inveighing against false gods; there’s nothing like that in the story of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible.

True, there is a suggestive little statement at the very end of the Book of Joshua: “In olden times your fathers, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, lived across the river”—the Euphrates—“and worshipped other gods.  And then I took your father Abraham [out of there].”  This seems to be the first hint that Abraham’s leaving his Mesopotamian homeland was not simply a response to a promise or a command but also involved a kind of religious revolution, that there was, in other words, something wrong religiously with his father’s household.

In Second Temple Judaism, a very rich literature came to be devoted to Abraham’s supposed controversies with his townsmen and with his father, who is depicted as an idol-maker.  That literature was well-known to rabbinic Judaism and also found its way into the Qur’an; some rabbinic midrashim on this theme are very closely echoed in the Qur’an—particularly the one in which little Abram smashes the icons in his father’s workshop and attributes the misdeed to the largest one, thereby trapping his dad into admitting that they’re not gods at all but simply material entities.

Indeed, Islam is actually called millat Ibrahim, the “religion of Abraham,” in the Qur’an.  Islam, that is to say, is the true religion, restored after the distortions of it in Judaism and Christianity.  It’s a conception that fits with these stories about Abraham—the idea, that is, that he was the restorer of the primal Adamic religion that was monotheistic before the generations between Adam and Abraham messed things up.

My book also takes up the question of Abraham as forerunner of Judaism and Christianity.  Here my key question is, what did Abraham practice: Torah, or Gospel?  And if Torah, was he a law-observant Jew before there was a Torah, or did he somehow practice a form of spirituality that was apart from the Torah and the commandments and yet profoundly pleasing to God?

In Judaism, you have both positions.  According to a text that’s appended to Mishnah Qiddushin  4:14, “Abraham observed the entire Torah—all of it—before it was given.”  This is the maximally observant Abraham and it’s a very popular position—but, as you might expect, some dispute it.  There’s also the minimally observant Abraham, an Abraham who observes what all human beings should know without any special revelation, plus ritual circumcision.  The argument between maximalists and minimalists continues in the Jewish tradition into the Middle Ages.

In early Christianity, the question takes another turn.  Abraham is promised to become av hamon goyim, “the father of a multitude of nations.”  Do the members of those other Abrahamic nations have to observe the Torah the way the Israelite nation does?  Do their men have to be circumcised?  Abraham is first pronounced righteous by God in Genesis 15, when he is still uncircumcised; only in Genesis 17 do we hear of circumcision.  If you think being a full, authentic descendant of Abraham requires you to practice the Torah, to keep kosher, to observe the holidays and everything else, why did Abraham our father and spiritual paragon not have to do that?  

The minimalist position was thus very useful in early Christianity, in which a very important stream—the one that would eventually become dominant—argued that Gentiles did not have to observe the Torah in its entirety or even become circumcised. In some ways, this became a major flashpoint between Christians and Jews, though the rabbinic tradition, too, agrees that Gentiles (Christian or other) are not obligated by most of the commandments of the Torah, including circumcision.

QUESTION: What about the modern idea of Abrahamic religion?  What’s true in the idea, and what’s false?

LEVENSON: Certainly Judaism and Christianity share a common text, which is Genesis; and they have a continuing discourse about Abraham.  The case of Islam is more complicated, because Islam does not share a common text with the other two: Genesis per se is not scripture in Islam.  On the other hand, there’s a great deal about Abraham in the Qur’an that you don’t find in Genesis or anywhere in Judaism and Christianity, just as there are things in Judaism and Christianity (and in Genesis) that you don’t find in the Qur’an.  Not only Islam but also the other two traditions have material about Abraham that the others lack.

What links the three together, at least to some degree, is that each engages in exegetical discourse about Abraham, despite the significant differences among them in how the texts are used.  The late Michael Signer once said something like this: “Jews and Christians have a common lexical stock but make different meanings with it.”  The same goes for Islam—with the added difference that it does not share with the others a common textual base. 

The big problem with the notion of a common Abrahamic religion is very simple.  It is encapsulated in my title: Inheriting Abraham.  You can talk about monotheism and faith, and that’s all fine.  But if this is your sole focus, you’re leaving out a major dimension of the Abraham story in Genesis (albeit one not echoed to a significant degree in the Qur’an)—namely, which son is Abraham’s heir? In Genesis, Ishmael inherits the promise of a great nation; he does not inherit the covenant.  Isaac inherits both the promise and the covenant.  As far as Genesis is concerned, it’s quite clear that by the next generation, Ishmael has left the scene, as will Isaac’s elder son Esau in the third patriarchal generation.  In other words, particularity, communal particularity, is internal to the Abrahamic narrative; it’s not something that later traditions have imposed on it.

The monotheism of Abraham and the Abrahamic traditions is not primarily philosophical, even though it comes to be perceived as such. Martin Jaffe has used the term “elective monotheism” for it.  This is a form of monotheism whose “essential marker . . . is not the uniqueness of God alone.  Rather, it lies in the desire of the unique God to summon from out of the human mass a unique community established in His name and the desire of that community to serve God in love and obedience by responding to His call.”

In Judaism and Christianity, that notion of a unique community is expressed in the doctrine of chosenness, or election.  In Islam, chosenness and election are downplayed or eliminated, but there still is a unique community—the ummah, the fraternity of Muslims worldwide—as well as a strong differentiation between Muslim and non-Muslim.  The way I put it at the end of the book is that one of the salient characteristics of the three Abrahamic religions, one of the most defining aspects of the three Abrahamic religions, is that each of them thinks the other two are not fully Abrahamic.

That is a paradox that I fear most people who talk or write about “Abrahamic religion” have been missing.  In embarking upon interfaith dialogue, an enterprise I endorse, it is a point that I would urge all parties to keep in mind. Doing so makes the dialogue harder but also potentially much more fruitful.

QUESTION: How does this bear, or does it bear at all, on interreligious discourse with non-Abrahamic faiths?

LEVENSON: Let’s put it this way.  Anyone who adheres to one of the three Abrahamic religions is necessarily going to be at odds to some degree with members of the other two (while also sharing commonalities with them).  But all three of them, again to some degree, will be at odds with non-Abrahamic religions—and also with modern secularism, especially when the secularism entails some form of materialism.  Still, whether any contemporary person or practice qualifies as idolatrous is a very, very complicated question that can’t be answered just by reading the Bible or giving some glib description of the person or practice.

The question points to something else that’s very important.  People who promote the idea of Abrahamic religion usually think of themselves as making a bold claim for universal human brotherhood.  They miss the fact that most people in the world don’t look to Abraham at all.

And that raises still another point, which is how long the universalistic, humanistic message can supersede the traditional religious message before people begin to ask: “Why, if our goal is simply human unity, do we bother speaking of Abraham in the first place?”

The fact is, none of the three Abrahamic traditions simply affirms the ideal of an undifferentiated humankind. They all believe there’s some act that differentiates a particular community, that separates it out.  If you want to do away with that notion, then you’re back to “I’m okay, you’re okay,” in which case you shouldn’t be citing Abraham as your example.  The ideas of chosenness or election in Judaism and Christianity, and of Abraham’s fearless opposition to idolatry in Judaism and Islam, are just too strong for him to serve effectively as the patron of so vapid a model of interreligious conversation.

In the scriptural religions, the fathers of the human race are Adam and Noah.  The Mishnah relates that God created humanity out of one man precisely so that nobody could say to anyone else: “My daddy’s greater than your daddy.”  That we all belong to the same human race is a major theme in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and obviously an important theme for members of all three religions to keep in mind.  But it’s not the whole story, and it’s not the story of the texts associated with Abraham.

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Jerry Blaz on November 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm (Reply)
As religions develop, and they do develop, each develops in circumstances that are unique to each faith. So when Jews read Genesis 12:3: ve-nivrekhu vekha kol mishpehot ha’adamah, we understand it within the context of Jewish religious development of Judaism or Judaisms, since today we must acknowledge its pluralistic character. I wonder how Muslims and Christians understand this phrase, and in the case with Muslims, for whom Genesis is not canonical, if they attempt to understand it at all.

What we do know is that Judaism is different in its relationships to non-Jews than Christians are to non-Christians and Muslims are to non-Muslims. Jews do not think of their faith as a successor to either of the other two "Abrahamic" religions. Abraham is a significant character in our respective mythologies, but our mythologies are different one from the others. The biggest "mitzvah" for Christians and Muslims is to help somebody convert to their faith. No so with that branch of the children of Abraham who call themselves Jews.
David Levavi on November 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm (Reply)
“…Anyone who adheres to one of the three Abrahamic religions is necessarily going to be at odds to some degree with members of the other two…all three of them…will be at odds with non-Abrahamic religions…”

“At odds” is a broad term and, with respect, Professor Levenson misuses it to suggest a false equivalence. Jews differentiate themselves from Gentiles but they do not proselytize to Gentiles or attempt to displace Gentile culture with Jewish culture. Christianity and Islam are--to varying degrees of aggressiveness--inclusive; Judaism is—to varying degrees of aloofness--exclusive.

Absent Hebrew literature, Abraham would be unknown. Christians learn of Abraham and form a connection to him through Jesus. Muslim discover Abraham via Mohamed. Did the Arabs revere or even recognize Abraham for their ancestor before Mohamed? I’m no Orientalist but I doubt it. Christians refer to Abraham as Abraham; Jews refer to Abraham as” avraham avinu” or “our father Abraham.” I doubt that similar familial affection is naturally and sincerely expressed by Muslims.

The displacement of the Jews is the chief enterprise of Christianity and Islam and the first act of displacement is the substitution of Jesus and Mohamed for Abraham as a moral ideal. To Christians and Muslims, Abraham is merely one more bit of cultural loot “borrowed" from the Jews. Only the Jews look to Abraham for moral guidance.

Did the Christians and Muslims who slaughtered each other for control of Jerusalem “love” the City of David? Does the Christian scholar who detest Jews and listens to Wagner as he pores over the most ancient of Jewish scrolls, heedlessly fouling the precious documents with coffee stains and cigarette ash, “love” the Hebrew Bible? Does a Christian find it bizarre that a Jew-hating German Nazi like Goebels or Mengele is named “Joseph?”

“Let no reader imagine that the characters described in the text are Jewish,” Martin Luther instructed the translators of the Hebrew Bible into German. “Let German readers imagine the towering figures of the Hebrew Bible are good Germans like themselves.”

The Jewish challenge to a Christian--merely by thriving Jewish existence--is so existentially disturbing because it challenges the Christian's identity. A heathen Buddhist or Hindu barely raises psychic hackles; a happy and prosperous Jew shakes Christendom itself.

A Christian takes Abraham for his father because he has been culturally orphaned and has no father of his own. Christianity obliterated cultural memory in the Occident. Islam obliterated cultural memory in the Orient. Buddhists and Hindus don’t reflexively hate Jews because they owe nothing culturally to the Jews. Christians and Muslims are hostile to Jews because their cultural debt to the Jews is overwhelming. The more they imitate us, the more they hate us; the more they hate us, the more they imitate us. Cynthia Ozick speculates on how much time would pass between the death of the last Jew and the addition of phylacteries to the miter, ephod and urim v’tumim already in the Holy Roman Catholic wardrobe.

Again, with respect, Professor Levenson overstates the importance of Abraham in Christian faith and in the Christian psyche. No accident that the loudest reference in our time to the “Three Abrahamic Faiths” (and “peace” between them absent Zion) was heard from the Jew-hating Southern Baptist Preacher and President, James Earl Carter, Jr.
charles hoffman on November 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm (Reply)
A Christian reads the "Jewish" Bible (Chumash, Torah, Pentateuch) as a different book than a Jew; everything in the Bible is there as a fore-teller of the events and personalities in the New Testament.

The stories are the "same" but they are different.
We use the same words but they have entirely different meaning; and when we try to reconcile our separate beliefs and explanations of the texts, we wind up in a syncretic soup.

Your can read your books and interpret them the way you'd like; I'll read mine and interpret them or understand them according to my religious tradition. And the best place for us to come together is to discuss the Sunday afternoon football game.
David Levavi on November 28, 2012 at 10:07 pm (Reply)
Charles Hoffman:

You sound like a nice fellow, Charles. But reading the Hebrew Bible in English is a little like reading Shakespeare in Hebrew. Most people who call themselves Bible scholars are no such thing.

In any event, no Jew reads the Bhagavad Gita in English or any other language searching for evidence to confirm his Jewish beliefs. More important, no Jew claims the Bhagavad Gita is Jewish literature or apes Hindu religious ceremonies or slanders and persecutes Hindus for betraying and killing his "God."
charles hoffman on November 29, 2012 at 9:25 am (Reply)
D. Levavi

I have been "reading the Hebrew Bible" in the original Ivrit since age 8; but when the "same words" have entirely different meanings to me - as understood by 1900 years of recorded, author-identified commentary and illumination, than to someone who reads them (in any language - including those biblical scholars who read Hebrew)through the lens of the Christian view that all that is there is solely as "prequel" to the Gospel.

They can read it that way to their heart's delight; but, as the intent of my original post was --- don't ever think that we share a tradition. Because we don't.
David Levavi on November 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm (Reply)
Charles Hoffman:

I stand corrected. Sad that Christians and Jews are so close and yet so far apart. Saul of Tarsus intended communion between Gentiles and Jews. By forcing his Pagan beliefs onto the spineless and terrified Christian Bishops at Nycaea, Constantine made certain it can never happen.
charles hoffman on November 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm (Reply)
Sad? Not sad? Reality.

Whatever were the events and elements which furthered the development of Christianity as a separate and distinct religion, they are now part of the distant past that is of itself, the subject of much dispute, controversy, and ideological differences.

So What!

1500 years of persecution, murder, hatred, and suppression have made the theological differences second to the basic - they and we are different; they and we are not the same.

Let them interpret whatever they want their way; and we'll go ours.

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Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham