By Professor Arnold M. Eisen | Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary
posted on September 9, 2010 / 1 Tishrei 5771
Jews have prepared for the High Holiday season of repentance and renewal in 2010 with Muslims very much on our minds. Peace talks between Israel and (largely Muslim) Palestinians have just been renewed. The dispute about whether an Islamic cultural center should be built two blocks from Ground Zero has dominated headlines and fomented passion for weeks. The movable lunar month of Ramadan coincided exactly this year with the Jewish lunar month of Elul, meaning that Muslim fasting and Jewish soul-searching took place at the very same moment, toward the very same end.
And—as if the rabbis who long ago fixed the liturgy and Scriptural readings for the Days of Awe had anticipated our urgent need as Jews in 2010 for sustained reflection about what the conjunction of calendars, conflicts, interests, needs, faiths, perspectives, and passions joining us to Muslims might mean to the two traditions—the Torah portion that we read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah concerns the shared origins, covenant, and destiny of the two faith-communities. Examined through the new lens provided by recent events, the familiar stories of Ishmael and Isaac recounted in chapter 21 of Genesis prove startling and remarkably prescient.
The plotline, in brief, is this. God gives Abraham and Sarah the child of laughter who had been promised them. When Isaac is weaned, Sarah demands that her maidservant Hagar and the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham be banished from their sight. God tells Abraham to allow this to happen. "I will make a nation of him too," God says of Ishmael, "for he is your seed." Hagar flees to the wilderness, uses up all the water that Abraham had given her and her son to drink, and fears for their survival. An angel of God appears to Hagar, tells her that God has heard the cry of the boy, and shows her a well close at hand. "God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became skilled with a bow . . . "
Three of the five sections that we chant from Genesis on Rosh Hashanah are devoted to this account about Abraham, the common ancestor of Jews and Muslims, and the two sons of Abraham who mark the split that will one day divide the two religions. We can say, without any exaggeration whatever, that the close kinship of the two faiths and the intertwining of their destinies are fixed at the very moment that the people Israel comes into existence and enters into covenant with God. We appreciate the complex linkage binding Judaism and Islam still more if we recall the background that a biblical reader is expected to have when reading this remarkable passage.
The first incident comes (Genesis 16:1–12) when Abram's wife, then called Sarai, has borne no children to Abram despite God's promise that his offspring shall be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. She asks Abram to conceive a child with her handmaiden Hagar. (The child will in some sense—legally and perhaps otherwise—be considered Sarai's.) When Hagar becomes pregnant, "her mistress was lowered in her eyes." Sarai responds by treating Hagar harshly, causing the maidservant to flee into the wilderness. An angel encounters Hagar by a spring or well of water and promises in God's name that "I will greatly increase your offspring." Hagar is told to call her son Ishmael ["God hears"]. "He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him" (Gen. 16:1–12).
In the next chapter of Genesis—and the next chapter of the Isaac-Ishmael saga—Abram is given a new name, Abraham, "For I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you." One cannot miss the plurality of plurals here: a multitude of nations, nations shall be born of Abraham, kings shall come forth from him. When we read the very next verse—"I will maintain my covenant between Me and you and your offspring [literally: your seed] after you, as an everlasting covenant throughout the generations, to be God to you and to your offspring after you" (17:7)—we cannot avoid asking what offspring signifies. Does it refer only to the descendants of the child not yet announced, let alone born (Isaac)? Or does it include as well the descendants of the son already born to Abraham by Hagar, and named by him (16:15) Ishmael?
Subsequent passages (for example 17:19, 21) make it clear that God's covenant will be made with Isaac and will continue "for his offspring to come." But the Torah takes pains to reiterate that God will have a special relationship with Ishmael and his seed as well. "I hereby bless him . . . I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous . . . I shall make of him a great nation."
It is all the more striking, given this designation of Isaac as the child of Abraham who will carry the covenant made between God and Abraham forward, that the mark of that covenant—circumcision—is inscribed first on Abraham and his son Ishmael. Isaac is not yet born. Ishmael is 13 years old. Muslims follow the custom of circumcising male children at that age to this day.
This is truly remarkable. Jews share the sign of the covenant from the very outset with another people, another faith! God is the God of Ishmael's seed no less than our God, just as Abraham is no less their ancestor than he is ours. It comes as no surprise that Jews should find ourselves over the centuries, and still today, sharing an enormous amount with Muslims—law, philosophy, mysticism, the notion of a people defined by covenant with God—and sacred claim upon the Land of Israel promised by God in Scripture (17:8) to Abraham and his descendants.
This year as every year, we recount the juxtaposed stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac in the midst of the most highly charged moments in our sacred calendar. At the heart of the two days on which we acknowledge God's sovereignty over all Creation, and recommit ourselves to be partners in the task of speeding the arrival on earth of God's kingdom—at that very moment, we tell the stories of two births to Abraham in old age, twothreats to life (on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac), two acts of salvation of life, a double fulfillment of divine promise, and the making of a covenant that is marked not only on male children of Israel but on male descendants of Ishmael. Contemporary Jews stand in a long line of ancestors who have pondered this relationship over the centuries. We do so in 2010 with renewed urgency born of wholly new developments both in Israel and in Diaspora communities.
How shall we address these perplexities? At the very least, I think, Jews should resolve at this High Holiday season to give careful attention in coming months to the vexed relationship that binds us, our land, our faith, our Scripture, our view of history, our position in the world, and our profoundest hope for the future, to Muslims. (This relationship is arguably far more intimate and troubling at this moment than the age-old ties and tensions that connect us to Christians and their faith). I offer three observations on the matter that arise directly from our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.
One: Muslims will not go away, either in Diaspora or in the Land of Israel. Nor should we want them to. I remember when a thoughtful Israeli professor I knew well, a man of the Left, a fervent opponent of West Bank settlements, said to me about thirty years ago that he wanted Israel to return all of the conquered territories, every square inch, because he wanted nothing to do with Palestinians. Like Sarah in relation to Hagar, he wished them out of his sight. Some thirty years later, it is clear that this cannot be. Muslims will not disappear from Jewish vision or Jewish concern. They will remain an integral part of the State of Israel, and that State must find its place in the Arab world. Whether Muslims are wholly reconciled to that reality or not, they and their faith—used by some to support violent opposition to Israel's existence, and by others to promote peaceful coexistence—must be seen, heard, and confronted. And not only fought. God heard the cry of Hagar and of Abraham's son Ishmael. That is what his name, given by God, means. We too should heed Muslim voices.
Two: the plan to build the Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero has caused some Jews, and many Americans who are not Jews, to have a reaction similar to that of my Israeli professor. They want Muslims less central, less visible, less present on ground that has been made holy by the deaths of those who were murdered by terrorists in the name of Islam. Whether or not the Islamic center is built at that spot, and whatever one's opinion on the question of whether it should be built there, let's agree that hatred, fear, and bigotry should not be allowed to decide the issue. Whatever the outcome, Jews, like other Americans, will have to work closely now and for generations to come with the faith-community whose story overlaps so profoundly and uncomfortably with our own. We had better talk to one another and keep talking.
Three: there is much to be learned from this encounter, not just about Ishmael and his descendants but about Isaac and the children of his son, Israel. This is no mere nicety or cliché. Key elements of Jewish tradition stand greatly indebted to Islam, from the grammar on which all reading of Jewish sacred texts depends, to the most profound insights of Jewish mystics and philosophers. The writings of Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time, are absolutely indispensable to me and formative of my faith, as they have been to many other Jews over the past 800 years. Maimonides devoted a significant portion of his twelfth-century masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed, to details of Islamic philosophy. For this alone, I bear a great debt to Islam—and the more I compare notes with Islamic thought and practice, the better I understand Judaism, religious community, sacred space, and more. There is political urgency to Jewish-Muslim conversation. But there is even greater religious benefit to be had from this dialogue. The loss to both sides if we do not undertake it will be immense.
May it be God's will that Islam and Judaism help to guide one another through our shared perplexities. May the latest chapter in the age-old story of the two communities achieve a peaceful resolution this year and lead to better times for both of us. May blessing, goodness, and life choose us, and we them, at this precious moment of new beginnings.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.
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