The Chronicle Review

To Each, His Abraham

The Art Archive Caravaggio's "Sacrifice of Isaac"

October 15, 2012

Given the history of violence committed in the name of religion, efforts to bridge divides among faiths are laudable; but blurring their differences does a disservice to all.

That is Jon D. Levenson's contention in Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press), a study of the distinct but different Abrahams fashioned by the three faiths. "We show more respect to other identities when we acknowledge the differences," says Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University.

The three faiths' divergent understandings of Abraham arose from their varying interpretations of his appearance in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament to Christians. All three faiths display a "struggle to appropriate Abraham into their own theological frameworks," writes Levenson.

That, like their evolution in overlapping geographical soil, entails "a common struggle with diverse results." The crux of the differences is that each monotheistic tradition uses Abraham to claim the label of God's chosen people.

Genesis portrays Abraham as receiving "some rather extravagant promises," as Levenson puts it. Among them: Abraham would become the father of a great nation, although he was the aged husband of an infertile wife. God would grant that people the land of Canaan, if only Abraham would leave his family in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

He does beget a son—Ishmael, by an Egyptian slave—but then God promises him another son, Isaac, by his wife, Sarah, although she is 90.

Both Ishmael and Isaac inherit blessing and nationhood, while Isaac additionally is promised the "covenant" of becoming progenitor of God's chosen people.

God says Abraham can have all this, as long as he sacrifices Isaac as a burnt offering.

As the well-known narrative relates, Abraham proceeds, but God intervenes just as the logs begin to crackle. Isaac survives to procreate the chosen people.

Inheriting Abraham is the first book in Princeton's new Library of Jewish Ideas series, which it is publishing with the Tikvah Fund, a private foundation dedicated to promoting Jewish intellectual life. Neal Kozodoy, a former editor of Commentary who is now a senior director of the Tikvah Fund, is series editor.

He says he intends the series to do what Tikvah does: elevate the place of Jewish ideas in the study of the great human questions. Next up, in the spring, is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, by Ruth R. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Also in the pipeline are books on Hebrew, human nature, and death. According to Kozodoy, several presses had expressed interest in collaborating on the series before the Tikvah Fund settled on Princeton.

He said he is choosing authors who, while experts in their fields, are able to write meaningfully for general readers.

Levenson's book typifies the series' intended approach: to issue books that show how Jewish thought contributes something fresh and even challenging to discussions of great ideas and issues.

In that vein, Levenson contends that differentiating the Jewish interpretation of Abraham from those of Christianity and Islam does a service to all three faiths. While for Jews Abraham was the father of their people, for Christians he was "the father of all who have faith without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned in them," as the apostle Paul put it, speaking about converts such as himself. Christianity intermingled and evolved with Judaism, but drew its sense of itself as the faith of the chosen people not only from the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—but also from the New Testament.

In the seventh century, Islam fashioned its own Abraham, and like Christianity, Levenson argues, it sought "to detach Abraham from the flesh-and-blood Jewish people" as it made a case for its own chosenness. For Muslims, descent from Abraham was insignificant because Abraham was not the father of the believing community but rather "a link in the chain of prophets that begins with Adam and culminates in the greatest of all prophets, Muhammad."

Muslims hold, then, that Islam is "the religion of Abraham restored after a long period of being misinterpreted or misrepresented or becoming blurred," says Levenson.

That, he writes, poses a challenge for "the claim that Abraham is a source of reconciliation among the three traditions increasingly called 'Abrahamic.'" That concept is "as simplistic as it is now widespread."

Levenson offers various examples, including Harvard University's Global Negotiation Project on the "Abraham Path Initiative," which he says professes a "kind of conversion experience...toward a larger and more universal identity," and Bruce Feiler's 2002 best-seller Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.

The three faiths' irreconcilable Abrahams do not prevent each from having "a parallel integrity" of its own. But the quest for commonality, Levenson argues, is much better served by recognizing that each interprets Abraham in a self-defining way that is firmly although differently based in the original narrative.

He laments that in various quarters, including academe, "there is a strong tendency to think all religions teach basically the same thing." That worries him, because it "comes from a perspective that's very distant from the actual scriptures and the lived practices of the religious traditions."

The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford are among a small number of institutions that have recently established chairs of Abrahamic religions, while the University of Wisconsin at Madison now has the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions. Charles L. Cohen, the director of the Lubar Institute, says: "I see the book as precisely the kind of effort we need—that is, a good faith and candid effort to parse differences as well as commonalities."

But the first holder of Oxford's chair, Guy G. Stroumsa, says that although he admires Levenson's book—he blurbed it—he would downplay differentiation in favor of socially constructive interfaith efforts. After the Holocaust, such efforts aimed in Europe to find commonalities between Christians and Jews, and now they are again in play as Muslims become a significant European minority. "It tells them, you're part of the family," he says. "So, it's a Christian liberal concept, to open up to Muslims as well as Jews."

Such terms as "Abrahamic religions," justified by the reality that the three religions are indeed "genetically related," emerged "to put a different face on the relationship between religious believers and peacemakers," Stroumsa explains.

True, says Levenson, but "I reject the model of interreligious conversation that sees the goal as mutual affirmation alone and assumes that all differences and negative judgments are owing to misunderstandings."

Why? Because, he says, "Some are; some aren't."

Correction (10/18/12, 11:45 a.m.): The original version of this article stated incorrectly that in Genesis, God tells Abraham to go to Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. In fact, it is Mesopotamia that Abraham is to leave. The text has been corrected.