Concurrent with the early Torah portions in Genesis that deal with the life of the patriarch Abraham, Princeton University Press is releasing a book about how the three monotheistic faiths view him. In “Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam,” Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at the Harvard Divinity School, deals with the question, “Who was the real Abraham?”
“The question, it turns out, is considerably more complicated than most people think,” Levenson writes. His book reveals what interpretations of Abraham’s life unite the three religions, and which ones divide them. The Jewish Week discussed Levenson’s book with him by e-mail.
Q: Why another book on Abraham? That is, why is there still interest in the first patriarch, four millennia after he lived?
A: Abraham is a foundational figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The question of the relationship among them and how they developed from a common heritage increasingly suggests itself. Some people in recent years have suggested that Abraham should serve as a source of unity and concord among what are increasingly called “the Abrahamic religions” — I have written this book in some measure to show why that view is simplistic.
More reasonable is the prospect that by learning about the processes of interpretation of the other two communities, a Jew, Christian or Muslim will see commonalities and complications he or she has been missing.
The three traditions differ on which one inherits, or best inherits, the Abrahamic legacy. For Jews, the heir is Am Yisrael, the people Israel. For Christians, it is the Church, the multi-ethnic community that through Christian faith have become descendants of Abraham. For Muslims, though, the question is not, “Who are his valid descendants?” as it is for Jews and Christians. Rather, in Islam Abraham is an important figure in a whole series of prophets that culminates in Muhammad, who restored the true religion of Abraham.
Why has Abraham, of all biblical figures, become an empty canvas, a “neutral” individual as you call him on which the monotheistic faiths project their own spiritual messages?
What is fascinating to me is that he is always said to have lived before the central action, as it were, of the respective religions took place — before the giving of the Torah; before the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; before the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. That is a situation that calls out dorsheni, “Give me an interpretation!” and all three traditions have answered that call richly.
Winston Churchill said people in the United States and Great Britain are two peoples separated by a common language. Are Jews, Christians and Muslims three religions separated by a common prophet?
It’s a good analogy. In the case of Judaism and Christianity, there is a common Abraham in Genesis, but the Koran is another matter. There are things in the Abraham story in Genesis that are not in the Koran and vice versa. But Judaism, too, sees Abraham in ways that Genesis does not. It sees him, for example, as an exponent of monotheism and a fierce critic of idolatry. So, even the claim that we have “a common prophet” is problematic. We don’t just have different interpretations. We have different materials to interpret..
What are the most common misconceptions that Jews hold about Abraham: what he did and what he believed?
I have met Jews who are surprised to find that the stories of Abraham’s conflict with his idol-maker father and with King Nimrod, which they learned in Hebrew school, are not in the Bible. Many will be surprised that the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) was seen as the origin of Passover before it came to be associated with Rosh HaShanah. They may be surprised to learn that these stories carry over into the Koran, in ways that connect instructively with the identity and career of Muhammad.
When you read the Torah passages about Abraham in shul, do you interpret them in the standard way like most worshippers, or do you have special insights shaped by the years of research you have done?
I try to set up in my mind a fruitful and productive interaction between the classical midrashim, the medieval interpretations, which often challenge the midrashim, and modern historical and literary study.