Our Abraham, Not Theirs
Inheriting Abraham, by Jon Levenson, expertly dismantles the idea of the patriarch as the father of three religions
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.
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