Abraham/Ibrahim – Our Common Father

Dr. Mike Ghouse   February 26, 2018   Comments Off on Abraham/Ibrahim – Our Common Father

Civil Dialogue is based on respecting the otherness of other. You are who you are and I am who I am, neither one of us is more privileged than the other, nor do we have a stamp of approval from God to give us an automatic advantage over the other.

The purpose of a dialogue is to understand each other’s point of view to find solutions to a given conflict, without getting angry, digging in our heels or denigrating the other.

I really liked Dan’s speech, and I hope if our other speakers can share their notes, we will publish them as well.

Mike Ghouse
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Abraham/Ibrahim – Our Common Father

Written and Delivered by Daniel Spiro, at a Meeting of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS). Hosted by the Hill Havurah Jewish Congregation

February 25, 2018, Washington D.C.

Daniel Spiro

With today’s program, JIDS officially begins our tenth year.   During that time, we’ve held scores of dialogues on theology, politics, culture, you name it.  We’ve focused on what unifies and what divides us.   We’ve also frequently referred to each other not only as a family, but as first cousins.  But we’ve never devoted a session to the figure most responsible for establishing our family ties.  I’m talking about the man known in Judaism as Avraham Avinu, Father Abraham.

In preparing for this talk, I’ve found the Stories of Abraham to be a microcosm of the relationship between our faiths.  In these stories, you’ll find the seeds of what makes Judaism and Islam eerily similar, yet profoundly different.  I can’t resist the temptation to point out some of the similarities because I so cherish the Abraham we have in common.   But if you dig deep into these stories, you’ll find another set of truths – a more provocative set.  For in the Stories of Abraham, you’ll find sources of division within the family, even sources of discord.  Because this is JIDS, and we pride ourselves in speaking candidly and fearlessly – though always civilly – I won’t shy away from addressing how the forces associated with our common father split us apart almost as much as they bring us together.  Our task is to recognize both sets of forces, contemplate them, and address them in our hearts and in our conduct.

First, the similarities.  Alfred North Whitehead once said that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  Well, I would add that the safest general characterization of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions is that they consist of a series of footnotes to Abraham.  The life Abraham lived sets the tone for ethical monotheism as we know it.  Whenever we reflect, argue, pray, or extend our hand in friendship, we can only hope to follow in his footsteps.

The Qur’an, in speaking of God, emphasizes the qualities of grace and mercy.  Those qualities were precisely what Abraham displayed when he appealed to spare the residents of Sodom if only God could identify ten innocent people.  Alan Dershowitz based one of his books on that story, referring to Abraham as “the first Jewish lawyer.”  But who is Dershowitz kidding.  Lawyers are duty bound to “represent a client zealously … within the bounds of the law,” whereas as a negotiator, Abraham repeatedly gave a break to the other guy – his supposed adversary — because Abraham was nothing if not generous and kind.  Consider the deal he gave to Lot when, in dividing land, Abraham invited his nephew to take the best and leave Abraham the rest.  Or consider the exorbitant price Abraham paid to Ephron to acquire the family burial site even though Abraham could have had the site for free.  Our father was the opposite of a chozzer – a pig.  He handled himself with class and dignity, and made sure to go the extra mile to be fair to others even at the expense of himself or his family.

These qualities were also on display with Abraham’s legendary hospitality.  When three strangers came to his house, Abraham bowed to the ground to meet them, and ensured that they were served the best food and given a foot bath.  When the time came to find a wife for his son, Isaac, it was this same quality of hospitality that was used to identify which woman was worthy.   Those are stories from the Torah, but I am thrilled to say that over the past decade, I have come to know many Muslims, and if I were to identify one quality revered in Muslim cultures far and wide, it would be hospitality.  Muhammad greatly emphasized this as well in his own life … but let’s never forget who served as Muhammad’s predecessor in this regard, our father Abraham.

Later this afternoon, in this building, a number of congregations representing multiple branches of the family of Abraham are welcoming a new refugee family into our community.  Surely, they are practicing the ethic of our common father.  And yet, who can deny they are doing this in a nation that has largely forgotten such an ethic, for increasingly, we are striving to look after ourselves and our household and forget the stranger, who we view as an object of fear and distrust.   While that is not the Abrahamic way, it is becoming the American way.  We all need to confront these problems if we want to make America great again.

I began this tribute to Abrahamic values by speaking about the way he treated his fellow human beings.  As Abraham demonstrated, to be a servant of God you must first be a servant of humankind.  But let us remember that Abraham has also come to epitomize what it means to be worshipful.   Before there was David, the great psalmist, there was Abraham, whose devotion to God exemplifies what it means to pray with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.  Before there was Maimonides, the great philosopher and teacher, there was Abraham, who was curious about nature from the earliest of ages, used his study of nature to affirm both cosmic unity and the notion of transcendence, and devoted his adult life to sharing his ideas with others.  Before there was Spinoza, the great iconoclast, there was Abraham, who smashed his father’s idols and crafted arguments to demonstrate that nothing finite is truly Ultimate and only the Ultimate One is worthy of worship.  And I would say to those who aren’t very familiar with Islam, that after there was Abraham there was Muhammad, who exemplified so many of these same qualities and whose teachings and lifestyle mirror that of Abraham.  This is why, I would argue, it is impossible to love Abraham and study his 7th century disciple without also falling in love with Muhammad.  They were indeed brothers from different mothers.

Yes, Jews and Muslims owe so much to our common father.   But in the spirit of Abraham, who taught us to honor the truth when confronting the great questions of religion, let us not engage in what Walter Kaufman calls “religious gerrymandering.”  Let us not concentrate only on what we like about a Scriptural text or figure and ignore the rest.  We must take stock in the bathwater as well as admire the baby.   For you see, in the stories of Abraham you can find much of what divides us.   And I’m not just talking about interfaith divisions, but also intrafaith divisions.

For so many traditional Muslims or Jews, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is deeply moving.  It shows the willingness to do whatever God requires of us, even making the ultimate sacrifice.  But to many contemporary Jews, this story, known as the Akedah, is beyond troubling.  It shows Abraham to be a religious fanatic, the type who could commit terrorist acts, inspired by voices in his head rather than logic or compassion. This makes Abraham a divisive figure within Judaism today.  To many a secular Jew, the idea that faith could inspire the greatest among us to be willing to sacrifice his own child based solely on the directive of a supernatural God is anachronistic, if not monstrous.   That was also the view of Immanuel Kant.

In the name of candor, we Jews who are religious need to recognize that child sacrifice for any reason does not hold up to 21st century values.   It then becomes our choice whether we want to reinterpret the Akedah to suit our values, or confront the story for what it was originally intended to mean.  For me, this story is probably the least inspiring part of Abraham’s legacy, but it doesn’t prevent me from loving him just the same.

So that was Abrahamic divider number one.  Number two is for the purpose of JIDS even more important.  I’m referring to the idea that in the Torah, Abraham creates only one covenantal community – the community that flowed through Sarah and Isaac, not Hagar and Ishmael.  We see the signs of this division in numerous verses.  For example, God told Abraham that he will make of Ishmael a great nation, “but my covenant I will maintain with Isaac.”(17:21)  And later, we’re told that when Abraham died, he “willed all that he owned to Isaac” (25:5) not Ishmael, who an angel once said would become a “wild ass of a man.”  (16:12)  The Torah provides a very different portrait than you get from reading the Qur’an, in which God makes a covenant with Ibrahim and Ishmael (2:125) and those two are responsible for raising the foundations of the Ka’bah in Mecca (2:127).

In Islam, we read that there are multiple “people of the book,” including Jews, Christians and Sabeans.  But in Judaism, which pre-dates the other monotheistic faiths, the Abrahamic covenant is associated with the Jews alone.  Traditionally, Jews perceived Abrahamic values to be largely universal values – the same qualities I discussed earlier should inform the way we treat all people, not just Jews.  And yet, when it comes to creating a sense of special kinship, of special obligation, for many of the most traditional Jews, you won’t find the sense that the Abrahamic covenant extended beyond the Isaac line.  In other words, those Jews see themselves as being part of the family associated with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and as part of a broader family associated with Adam and Eve, but not so much as being a part of a family associated with Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad.   Islam is very different in the way it reaches out to Judaism and Christianity, though of course in doing so, it diverges from the teachings of those faiths in profound respects.

It is tempting to be critical of traditional Judaism for not being more welcoming to the broader extended family of Abraham.  Similarly, it is tempting to be critical of Islam for changing the story of Abraham from what appeared in the first of these Holy Scriptures, which some Muslims unabashedly refer to as a “corrupted text.”  But I am not here to criticize.  I prefer to see in these differences a set of challenges to Jews and Muslims alike.

Now, in the 21st century, can we make room for one another as part of an extended family associated both with Isaac and Ishmael?  Can we acknowledge that the members of each branch of the family are forever linked by the privileges and obligations of ethical monotheism, which include honoring covenants with God?  And can we make room for one another’s Scriptures as truly holy books, books that every member of this family would benefit from studyingand I’m including the Talmud and the Hadiths?

JIDS obviously exists for everyone willing to answer “yes” to those questions.  But it also exists for those who are at least curious enough about the family resemblances to keep asking those questions.  When it comes to curiosity, we have quite the role model in our father Abraham.  Let us remember his teachings and his example while we continue to read all the footnotes to his legacy and while we pray to the God he announced to the world.

In conclusion, if Abraham were here today, I have no doubt that he would say “Enough about me.  What about God?  Should we not be talking about the Divine?”   Well yes — for me, thinking about Abraham is invariably a reminder to refocus our attention to his greatest beloved.  The One who brings religious Jews and Muslims together in worship and in devotion.   The One who is truly Ultimate.  The One for whom it can be said that nothing greater can be conceived.  We might associate that last concept with western philosophy.  But the spirit behind the concept, and the challenge to enter into a personal relationship with what that concept represents and to do so communally — that glorious challenge begins with our Father Abraham.  God bless his memory.

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