Our Abraham, Not Theirs
Inheriting Abraham, by Jon Levenson, expertly dismantles the idea of the patriarch as the father of three religions
We like to think that mutual understanding promotes tolerance. But sometimes we hate people because we understand them. Martin Luther’s exhaustive study of rabbinic commentaries as well as Hebrew scripture did not prevent him from proposing the destruction of every Jewish home along with every synagogue. Adolf Eichmann hoped to study Hebrew with a Berlin rabbi, the better to understand the people he planned to exterminate.
In Inheriting Abraham, Jon Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Bible at Harvard’s Divinity School, throws cold water on the mutual-understanding campfire. Misunderstanding is not what divides the image of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the misnomered “Abrahamic religions”; on the contrary, the founders of the younger religions well understood Abraham’s role in Judaism. St. Paul’s transformation of Abraham into the father of all who believe, and the Quran’s recasting of Abraham as a Muslim prophet who prefigured Muhammed, both rejected the Jewish version by design, by inventing their own Abrahams to serve their own doctrinal purposes.
Through published excerpts and interviews, Levenson has been drawing attention to his most provocative conclusion: that it is wrong to present Abraham as a unifying figure who transcends the differences among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The progressive wings of Christianity as well as Judaism have a great deal invested in this reassuring claim, and Levenson’s devastating refutation of the “three Abraham religions” thesis will be unwelcome. He makes short work of pop theologians like Bruce Feiler, whose best-selling book on the patriarch claims that “Abraham belongs to all of humanity” and that “the carefully balanced message of the Abraham story [is] that God cares for all his children—a tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the religions themselves existed.” Feiler and his co-thinkers, Levenson observes, have essentially invented another Abraham—“a neutral Abraham who can be made to serve as a control on the Abrahams of the three traditions that are thought to derive from him.”
So, it is clear that Levenson’s new book will be resented in liberal religious circles. What it won’t be, however, is easily refuted.
Why should Abraham belong to all of humanity? For Jews and Christians, the answer lies in paternity and covenant: Abraham is the father of God’s people, through his son Isaac in Judaism, and for Christians, through the faith of those who belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Christianity’s departure from Judaism is an argument about lineage and legitimacy. The Abraham of Genesis, as Levenson notes, never preaches monotheism. The Abraham who smashed the idols in his father’s workshop appears in Second Temple sources, and that is the Abraham of the Quran: the prophet of monotheism who prefigures Muhammed. Abraham’s definitive act for Christians and Jews, his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, is simply a prooftest of submission for Muslims, who are instructed by Muhammed as prefigured by Abraham.
As Levenson showed in his 1993 book on the binding of Isaac, and reprises here, Jews and Christians sacrifice every day, albeit vicariously—through such rituals as circumcision and the redemption of the firstborn, and above all through sacrificial service. The purpose of religion is to triumph over death. We give our lives to God, who gives us eternal life in return. In ancient Judaism, sacrifice was the religious service for which the rabbis substituted the thrice-daily prayers after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. Jews recite the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) in every morning service, remembering that God swore by himself to bless the patriarch and his descendants because he did not withhold his only son.
For Jews, the vicarious sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac prefigures the lamb of the Exodus, whose blood keeps out the Angel of Death. Sacrifice is God’s gift of love, the means by which death is displaced from Isaac and by extension from the whole family of Abraham. Christianity transmutes these themes of love and sacrifice: In place of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, who is bound for death but miraculously spared, Jesus dies and is resurrected.
Paul takes this challenge a step further, Levenson continues. The commonplace notion that Paul wanted to extend the Covenant of Israel to all peoples is entirely wrong: “For Paul, the Gentile Christian has abandoned the Adamic identity for the Abrahamic. He has left the universal identity associated with the sin-infected human essence and been recreated as one who attains righteousness in the sight of God on the basis of his faith, just as Abraham did in the Pauline reading.” Christians thus styled themselves the adoptive children of Abraham, separate from the sinful mass of humanity. On the strength of the promise in Genesis that Abraham would become “the father of the multitude of nations,” Paul proposes a separate lineage for Gentile Christians. As Paula Frederiksen puts it, “Pagans-in-Christ are also from Abraham’s lineage, since Abraham was the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4; Rom. 4:17); but they descend from Abraham alone, not also from Isaac and Jacob.”
A number of Jewish scholars, notably Michael Wyschogrod, have proposed similar readings of Paul. This approach helps explain why the founder of Christianity accepted the continuing existence of the Jewish people, Abraham’s children of the flesh, despite our refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether Christians are persuaded by such readings of Paul is a different matter. From the beginning, the church identified itself not as a new Abrahamic religion but as Israel itself. St. Peter said (I Peter 2:9), “But you [Christians] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, the independent existence of the Jewish people represents a schism within Israel, and so it will never abandon its hope for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. What has changed in Catholic thinking since Vatican II is that the church considers that a question for the end times rather than for missionary activism today. Church doctrine today therefore looks benignly on the Jewish presence on earth—until Jesus should appear once more.
What is “maddeningly unclear in Paul,” Levenson adds, “is the relationship between the new community, which is the Church, and the old community, which is the Jewish people apart from the Church.” In some places Paul emphasizes that the “glory” and the “covenants” belong to the “kindred according to the flesh.” Elsewhere he asserts that Christians, not the Jews who reject Jesus, are the children of God. Paul’s belief that the end times were at hand made the question moot, for Jesus’ imminent return would soon persuade the Jews of their error.
Traditions diverge within the two religions as well. Jewish authorities differ as to whether or not Abraham practiced the whole of the Torah before it was given at Mt. Sinai. Rashi takes this position but failed to persuade his grandson the Rashbam, who held that Abraham practiced only those parts of the Torah that are accessible to natural reason. Divergent Jewish views resonate in turn with differences in Christian accounts, for example, between Paul’s Epistles and the Letter of James.
Things get trickier when we move on to Islam, though. Levenson correctly notes that the Akedah is downplayed in Islam. The Quran mentions the binding of Abraham’s son in just six verses (Sura 37:102-107). The same sura mentions Isaac a couple of verses later, suggesting that the Muslim version is a thumbnail of the biblical account in Genesis 22. Later Muslim commentators insisted that the son was Ishmael rather than Isaac, contrary to the plain sense of the text. Muslims today recall the deliverance of Ishmael by killing and eating a sheep or goat on the Feast of Eid al-Adha. Yet the custom has no cultic significance whatever. It is performed by family members, not by a cleric and not in the mosque. A fatwa quoted on Islamonline.com and numerous other Islamic sites explains:
Sacrifice is not a pillar of Islam. … Not only did the pagan Arabs sacrifice to a variety of gods in hopes of attaining protection or some favor or material gain, but so, too, did the Jews of that day seek to appease the One True God by blood sacrifice and burnt offerings. Even the Christian community felt Jesus to be the last sacrifice, the final lamb, so to speak, in an otherwise valid tradition of animal sacrifice (where one’s sins are absolved by the blood of another). Islam, however, broke away from this longstanding tradition of appeasing an “angry God” and instead demanded personal sacrifice and submission as the only way to die before death and reach fana or extinction in Allah.
Then, midway through the book, the reader encounters this astonishing question: “Why are Jews, Christians and Muslims not sacrificing their beloved sons? Why are so few Muslims engaged in mass murder à la Sept. 11 suicide bombers?” Levenson implies here that jihad, including its manifestation in terrorism, is a mode of sacrifice in Islam—the spiritual heir of the binding of Isaac. That is not a new thought. As the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig put it, “Following the path of Allah means in the narrowest sense propagating Islam through holy war. In the obedient journey upon this path, taking upon one’s self the associated dangers, the observance of the laws prescribed for it, Muslim piety finds its way in the world.”
To be clear, Jews and Christians also continue to sacrifice their beloved sons, albeit vicariously—for example, through circumcision, which (as Levenson correctly notes in his 1993 book on the binding of Isaac) is a substitute for human sacrifice. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik taught that the redemption ceremony for the firstborn asks the father to personally relive the binding of Isaac. For Christians, in turn, Jesus’ sacrifice is a continuing presence through the Lord’s Supper. But Islam eschews vicarious sacrifice—the substitution of the lamb for Isaac—and instead demands personal sacrifice, which Muslims understand to be an advance over the more primitive versions of monotheism that preceded their own faith.
So, if death in jihad is the Muslim equivalent of the sacrifice of the beloved son in Judaism and Christianity, one understands why it continues to shape life in Muslim countries and in countries where Muslims live. The National Counterterrorism Center lists 79,766 terrorist attacks globally from 2004 through 2011 with 111,774 dead and 228,317 injured, almost all by Muslims. Although a tiny minority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims takes part in jihadist terrorism, such sacrificial acts have a solid doctrinal foundation in the faith. A majority of respondents to a 2011 Pew Center survey in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories said that suicide bombing against civilians was sometimes justified.
Yet Levenson rejects out of hand the idea that the story of the binding of Isaac inspired Muslim terrorists to sacrifice themselves. “The accusation that the Quranic version of the Aqedah lies in the background of the mass murders and suicides of September 11, 2001, and kindred atrocities underestimates the ostensible theological basis for the crimes in the minds of the perpetrators themselves—the Muslim institution of jihad.” The trouble is that jihad is more than a legal issue. It is a theological issue, and—if the use of a Christian term is permissible—a sacramental issue. It is disappointing that Levenson declined to pursue the implications of his own work here. Levenson shows with great clarity how Christianity and Judaism compare as “Abrahamic” religions—that is, religions of covenant, sacrifice, and paternal love. But the concept of a divine covenant with the descendants of a man beloved by God is alien to Islam for two reasons. The transcendent God of Islam deigns to make no covenants with humans, And the matter of lineal or figurative descent from the patriarch is irrelevant to Islam.
So, if Islam is not an Abrahamic religion in the sense that Jews and Christians understand the concept, what sort of religion is it? What leap of faith defines the devout Muslim? Levenson gives us a hint or two in his passing discussion of jihad, but no more.
His allusive but incomplete account of Islam is a lacuna in an otherwise magisterial work. For Jews who want to understand Christianity and especially Christianity’s understanding of Judaism, Inheriting Abraham is likely to remain an indispensable guidebook for a long time to come. The authoritative Jewish critique of Islam, though, remains Franz Rosenzweig’s work of nearly a century ago.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Meet the new Lincoln Square Synagogue, the first important Jewish religious building in Manhattan in four decades