Inher­it­ing Abra­ham: The Lega­cy of the Patri­arch in Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam

  • Review
By – May 28, 2013
Once again Jon Lev­en­son has pub­lished a schol­ar­ly work that gives depth to a con­tem­po­rary reli­gious con­cern where it is all too easy to fall into sim­ple answers. Inher­it­ing Abra­ham takes on an idea at the foun­da­tion of inter­faith dia­logue: that in Abra­ham, the three monothe­is­tic faiths have a shared point of depar­ture that can be the basis for under­stand­ing. 

Lev­en­son gives a detailed, nuanced read­ing of the Abra­ham nar­ra­tive. Along the way are some insights counter to what we usu­al­ly hear. Lev­en­son argues that the sto­ry of Ake­dat Yitzchak (the bind­ing of Isaac) pre­sumes that child sac­ri­fice was a legit­i­mate demand that God made of Abraham. 

At the same time, Lev­en­son com­ments on how episodes in the Abra­ham sto­ry are viewed in the Tal­mu­dic tra­di­tion, ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam. Nowhere in the Torah is Abra­ham tak­en to be the spe­cif­ic founder of Judaism. The view that Abra­ham was the first seek­er, philoso­pher, or mys­tic — oft en tak­en as the basis for inter­faith under­stand­ing — orig­i­nates in the ear­ly Christi an cen­turies, long after the bib­li­cal text. Lev­en­son dis­cuss­es two issues that Paul delves into in his epis­tles: whether there can be covenant with­out cir­cum­ci­sion, and whether Abra­ham is a mod­el of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by faith.” 

Lev­en­son’s pur­pose is to sound a note of cau­tion regard­ing inter­faith dia­logue around Abra­ham. Lev­en­son argues that Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam view Abra­ham in dis­tinct ways that reflect the over­all dif­fer­ences among the faiths. A reli­gious per­son is unlike­ly to give up his or her dis­tinc­tive Abra­ham, in favor of the puta­tive orig­i­nal, pre-tra­di­tion­al” Abra­ham of the Bible. Any­one will­ing to put such an Abra­ham at the cen­ter would not tru­ly be rep­re­sent­ing her own tradition. 

Though Lev­en­son might not have set out to do this, his work presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty for inter­faith con­ver­sa­tion around the inter­pre­tive dif­fer­ences. Peo­ple from dif­fer­ent groups could study Abra­ham with Lev­en­son as a guide, and explain to one anoth­er the Abra­ham each one sees. The com­mon text would not cre­ate a com­mon truth, but a com­mon agen­da, and a help­ful way for adher­ents of each faith to get a clear­er under­stand­ing of the faith of oth­ers. Abbre­vi­a­tions, biblog­ra­phy, notes. 
Jonathan Spi­ra-Savett is a rab­bi and teen edu­ca­tor. He is the rab­bi at Tem­ple Beth Abra­ham in Nashua, NH. His work focus­es on civic edu­ca­tion and youth phil­an­thropy, and he has taught his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies in addi­tion to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish texts.

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