Inheriting Abraham

By Jon D. Levenson
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

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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