Our Father

For years I have served on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, an interreligious group that addresses civic issues of common concern. The council began as a coalition of Christians and Jews, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, amid racial tensions surrounding the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor. Soon afterward it expanded to include the Muslim community; from then on, council membership was clearly and confidently based on, and limited to, membership in one of these three “Abrahamic” faiths. Some time back, after much debate, the council decided to open its doors to the whole spectrum of religious groups, from Bahai to Hindu to Zoroastrian. It felt like a momentous step to go beyond that tight triad of faiths into the wide, wide world of everything else.

What exactly is the special bond among the three Abrahamic faiths? This is the question addressed by Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, in Inheriting Abraham. An observant Jew as well as an astute scholar, Levenson argues that bonds among the three faiths should not be built on the false assumption that all three view Abraham in the same way—or, worse, on some vague, overarching religious perspective that devalues or ignores the unique religious commitments and particularities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Such a unity, Levenson fears, can be accomplished only at the expense of one or another of the three traditions—and usually, in his view, Judaism.

Inheriting Abraham begins with an examination of the account of Abraham found in Genesis. Compared with accounts found in later Rabbinic, Christian, and Muslim traditions, the biblical material about the Patriarch is relatively sparse. Two dimensions of the Abrahamic stories are of particular importance. First of all, Abraham is presented as obedient to God’s commands, leaving his homeland at God’s bidding to set out on a journey to a new land and an uncertain future (Gen 12:1–3). Second, Abraham is promised, despite the challenges of his and Sarah’s old age, that he will have an immense progeny and be the “father of many nations” (Gen 17:4–5). Levenson stresses how important the question of “family” and “descendents” is, not only for the Genesis story, but for subsequent Jewish (and to some extent Christian) tradition.

No example of Abraham’s trust in God is more important in the Genesis account, and in the traditions of all three Abrahamic faiths, than the story of the sacrifice of Isaac—the Aqedah, or “binding,” as it is known in Jewish tradition—found in Genesis 22. Levenson has published an acclaimed book on this passage (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son), and he analyzes its meanings in detail here. In a sense, both fundamental motifs of Abraham in Genesis merge in the story of the sacrifice: his obedience to God’s command is put to the supreme test, even as the fulfillment of this command seems to place in mortal jeopardy the promise of an enduring progeny, since Isaac after all is his designated heir and prime descendent. Levenson notes that ambiguities in the Genesis narrative provide fertile ground for the growth of later traditions. One example is the question of whether Isaac was an innocent victim—or a knowing young adult who, in effect, shared in Abraham’s heroic faith and offered himself as a “martyr” or witness of extraordinary obedience to God’s commands. The latter view would be important for Jewish traditions about martyrdom or heroic fidelity to the Torah (linking Abraham to the stories of the Maccabeean martyrs), as well as for Christian tradition, which saw the Aqedah as a prefiguring of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the beloved Son of God.

A crucial aspect of the Genesis Abraham for Jewish tradition is the Patriarch’s enduring role as “father” of an elect or chosen people. While fidelity to God’s commands was important, even acts of infidelity did not destroy the relationship God had created with his chosen people, inheritors of the promise made to Abraham. As Levenson notes, “The interplay of the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants thus yields a theology in which human deeds are critical to the divine-human relationship and yet not exhaustive of it. If the human community—in this case, the people Israel—obeys their divine Lord’s commands, they will flourish—if they disobey and are ‘hostile’ to him, then they will suffer. But the relationship transcends their obedience and their disobedience.” This is a critical point in debating the later Christian claim, primarily proposed in Paul’s theology, that the status of descendent of Abraham can be forfeited through failure to believe in Jesus as the messiah.

Inheriting Abraham illustrates how the figure of Abraham and some of the stories about him take on new meaning in the evolving traditions of all three faiths. Though Levenson gives most attention to Jewish traditions, he spends considerable time on Paul’s theology and does not neglect Islamic interpretations. In several instances, the later traditions attribute qualities or events to Abraham not found in the biblical text. For instance, the portrayal of him as the founder and key proponent of monotheism—and vigorous opponent of idolatry—figures hardly at all in the Genesis stories, yet becomes important in rabbinic stories that pit Abraham against his own father and his home village, depicted as rampant with idolatry. Muslim tradition also praises him as a defender of monotheism and, in this regard, as a prophet who foreshadows Muhammad himself.

Later Jewish tradition, found in Philo and Talmudic writings, would subtly portray Abraham as anticipating the Law given by God to Moses, discovering all of the demands of the Torah through his contemplation of nature or by God’s revelation. Paul and other Christian traditions, on the other hand, view Abraham as justified through faith alone, apart from the Law—which was not yet given—and thus present him as father of the Gentiles, who also were justified through faith and apart from the works of the Law. For Christian tradition, Abraham’s role as “father of many nations” underwrites the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God; Jewish tradition by contrast insists on the chosen status of Israel as a unique people, while acknowledging the many offshoots from this family (e.g., the descendents of Ishmael and Esau) that God’s providence allows. Islamic tradition seems to ignore or discount the “familial” dimension of Abraham as “father” of the Jewish people, retelling the Aqedah account either without naming the victim or inserting Ishmael in place of Isaac. In Muslim tradition Abraham is seen as an opponent of idolatry and a supreme moral example of belief in the one God. In effect, Abraham anticipates the prophetic role of Muhammad himself and is thus a true Muslim. “All this points to one of the most peculiar aspects of Abraham in all the Abrahamic religions,” Levenson concludes:

On the one hand, all three revere the man and find him paradigmatic for their own communities, each in its own way. On the other hand, in each set of scriptures the central action of God occurs in a much later period that that of Abraham. In Judaism, it lies with God’s gift of the Torah in the time of Moses on Mount Sinai. In Christianity, the central event of all human history lies with Jesus, to some degree with his teaching even more so than with his redemptive death and subsequent resurrection and ascension to his divine father.... In Islam, it lies with God’s dictation of the Qur’an, his highest and final revelation and the only true guide for human beings, to Muhammad through the medium of the angel Gabriel.

Levenson spends considerable time on Pauline theology as the supreme exemplar of the Christian view of Abraham. In Galatians 3:6–9, Paul stresses that it was Abraham’s faith that made God’s righteousness available to him; drawing on the promise to Abraham in Genesis 22:18, Paul views this as opening the way for Gentiles, too, to be justified apart from works of the Law. In Romans 4 Paul reasserts that Abraham was justified through faith and not through the works of the Law, adding that he exhibited his life-giving obedience prior to circumcision. Paul concludes that the Gentiles become authentic descendents of Abraham through faith, apart from either circumcision or obedience to the Law. The true descendents of Abraham are no longer the Jewish people, but rather those who, like Abraham, have faith—which for Paul, of course, means faith in Jesus Christ.

To be sure, Paul is not entirely consistent, as Levenson concedes; he was not ashamed of his Jewish heritage and likely maintained strict observance of the Law even as a Christian. In Romans 9–11 Paul agonizes over Israel’s fate, yet seems to envisage that at the end of time, the Jews will be enlightened and accept Jesus as the Messiah. This apparent Pauline delegitimization of the Jews as the true descendents of Abraham provides an opening that some Patristic theologians seized on. Levenson quotes a chilling example, in the writings of Melito of Sardis, of a theology of supersessionism that effectively declares Judaism null and void, replaced or “superseded” by Christianity—a noxious tradition that enjoyed a long shelf life in both Catholic and Protestant teaching, lasting up to our own day.

The book’s final chapter (“One Abraham or Three?”) notes that while the portrayal of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reveals some notable common ground, far more remarkable is the great variety of interpretation among the three faiths. Levenson opposes the inclination of such commentators as the Jewish writer Bruce Feiler and the Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel to buff away these particularities in the cause of religious harmony, often by attempting to rescue the “real” and “universal” Abraham of the Hebrew Bible from the subsequent traditions of the Abrahamic religions, which are charged with co-opting the patriarch in the cause of their own narrow religious interests.

Levenson artfully refutes this line of thinking, demonstrating that many universalist views attributed to Abraham are, in fact, not found in Genesis at all, but rather are modern assumptions read into the text. He insists moreover that evolving religious traditions, which accommodate and adapt the biblical text to the ongoing circumstances of time and culture, are the very lifeblood of religious communities, neither to be dismissed nor despised. Levenson questions modern projects—such as “Abraham’s Path,” developed by the Global Negotiations Project at Harvard University—that seek to spur interfaith harmony by effacing the particularities of the three Abrahamic traditions. It is true that the faiths share a reverence for Abraham, and also a rich tradition of interpreting the meaning of the patriarch. But in Levenson’s view, the content of this tradition as found in each of the Abrahamic faiths affords little basis for unity. In fact, he observes, if Judaism, Christianity, and Islam want to find authentic common ground for their standing before God, the proper biblical appeal would be to the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, not Abraham.

Inheriting Abraham is an elegantly written work that succeeds in making Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologies accessible to the nonacademic reader. From a Christian point of view, I wish there were more exploration of New Testament traditions that present the relationship between Judaism and the emerging Christian community differently from the way Paul does. One trend in contemporary scholarship, for example, holds that Matthew’s community considered itself an authentic part of the Jewish community, with Abraham as their ancestor. The Jesus of Matthew declares that “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.” It is probable that Matthew’s community was law-observant; the difficulty for these Christians lay not in being Jewish—which they prized—but in the fact that their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and thus the authentic interpreter of the law, was not accepted by Jewish leadership. The inclusion of Gentiles—a challenging issue for Matthew’s Jewish Christians—did not mean the delegitimitization of Judaism, but rather, in this final period of history as they saw it, the redefinition of “God’s people” to include Gentiles as well as Jews.

Finally, while Levenson correctly challenges some modern writers who attempt to fashion an ill-conceived common “Abrahamic” platform, there exist other important and influential Christian texts, not considered in this book, that foster real dialogue among the Abrahamic faiths while respecting their important particularities and theological traditions. The famed declaration of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra aetate, for example, has become both a turning point and reference point for Roman Catholic relationships with Judaism and Islam. Nostra aetate—in harmony with Levenson’s view—bases the common ground among these three religions not on the figure of Abraham but on the act of creation itself: “For all peoples comprise a single community, and have a single origin, since God made the whole race of men dwell over the face of the earth.... One also is their final goal: God.” Later, in speaking of both Islam and Judaism (with which it affirms a unique relationship), Nostra aetate cites reverence for Abraham as one of the common traits shared by all three religions.

Even more in accord with Levenson’s perspective is the 2001 statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible. That text explores in depth both the similarities and differences between Jewish and Christian traditions, particularly as they relate to interpreting the Bible. Addressing a Catholic audience, this text—formulated under a commission led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and formally approved by Pope John Paul II—endorses the validity of Jewish interpretations of Scripture and vigorously opposes a theology of supersessionism, defending the status of the Jews as God’s unique covenanted people. Its final chapter acknowledges the many divergences between Judaism and Christianity, but insists that

This discord [between Catholics and Jews over points of interpretation] is not to be taken as “anti-Jewish sentiment,” for it is disagreement at the level of faith, the source of religious controversy between two human groups that take their point of departure from the same Old Testament faith basis, but are in disagreement on how to conceive the final development of that faith. Although profound, such disagreement in no way implies reciprocal hostility. The example of Paul in Romans 9–11 shows that, on the contrary, an attitude of respect, esteem, and love for the Jewish people is the only truly Christian attitude in a situation which is mysteriously part of the beneficent and positive plan of God.

Jon Levenson’s superb book demonstrates that despite some simplistic and ill-conceived attempts to harmonize the three Abrahamic faiths, and some lingering supersessionist antagonisms, we live in a period remarkable for serious and thoughtful dialogue among these cousin religions. It is a dialogue grounded in responsible awareness of the complexity, beauty, and defining commitments of each one. Working from this awareness is our best hope of developing the vital mutual respect and harmony our divided world requires.

Published in the 2013-02-22 issue: 

Donald Senior, CP, is president of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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