Abraham: Knight of Many Faiths
It is hard to reconcile the glaring gap between promise and fulfillment in the story of Abraham. The vision by which God enticed Abraham to abandon his homeland is universal. From his loins would issue a nation whose numbers should match the stars on a moonless night and whose faith should become a blessing to all. Yet Sarah, his wife, like Rebecca and Rachel after her, experienced great difficulty in bearing children. There was no demographic explosion. Ancient Israel remained an unstable and circumscribed political entity, eventually decimated by defeat and deportation. The history of the second Jewish commonwealth barely unfolded on a grander scale. The dimensions of Judah during the First Temple or of Judea during the Second, never came close to those of China in antiquity or Rome or Arabia after Muhammad.
In his treatment of Abraham in his philosophic masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides was acutely aware of the disparity. Writing in Arabic rather than Hebrew in the late twelfth century, he addressed a readership that potentially included Muslim as well as Jewish intellectuals. Accordingly, he construed a portrait of Abraham that was of universal significance. For Maimonides, Abraham loomed as a religious revolutionary, a Socratic-like figure intent on bringing down the polytheism that prevailed in his homeland and , indeed, throughout the world. He rejected the belief that the sun, moon and seven planets were deities who shared the governance of the world and imbued their statues in temples and groves with an influx of their life force. Abraham contended that the world was not eternal, but the handiwork of a single omnipotent Creator. To spare his realm from ruin, the king first imprisoned Abraham, and then stripped him of his possessions before expelling him. In short, Abraham launched what would become the ultimate purpose of the Torah, namely, “to put an end to idolatry, to wipe out its traces and all that is bound up with it, even its memory.”(Pines trans. 517).
However, Maimonides’ portrait of monotheism’s champion did not rest on the Torah, in part because it supplies us with almost no information about his early life. Instead, Maimonides turned to outside sources purported to be contemporaneous with Abraham. The tales of the Midrash would not suffice. The discourse of a philosophical treatise needed to be accessible to all. To project Abraham as a religious watershed required reliable non-partisan documentation.
More important though, Maimonides held that God had fulfilled the promises that accompanied Abraham’s calling. Both Christians and Muslims venerated him and regarded themselves as his progeny. Without committing himself on the degree to which Christianity and Islam represented instances of pure monotheism, Maimonides acknowledged that their self-perception made of Abraham a universal benefactor. One had to go beyond the borders of Judaism to grasp the equivalence of promise and fulfillment. In this expansive and magnanimous view, Maimonides had almost no peers among medieval Jewish thinkers.
Maimonides lived his entire life in the orbit of Islam and surely knew just how pivotal Abraham was to the faith of his neighbors. God’s revelation began with Abraham and culminated with Mohammad, the final bearer of good tidings. It was Abraham who anticipated the essence of Islam, which means surrender, by submitting himself wholly to God’s command. He lived in a perpetual state of al-islam. Abraham also consecrated the Ka’bah in Mecca as the most sacred site in Islam, the place to which eventually all Muslims would turn in daily prayer wherever they might be. Accompanied by his son Ishmael, Abraham visited the Ka’bah and prayed: “Our Lord! And make us submissive unto Thee and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee, and show us our ways of worship, and relent to us” (Surah II: 128). Finally, according to the Quran, Abraham instructed his sons, including Jacob “O my sons! Lo! Allah hath chosen for you the (true) religion; therefore, die not save as men who have surrendered (unto Him)” (II: 132).
Thus, while Islam superceded Judaism, it did not deny its patrimony. Abraham was regarded as the first Muslim. Beyond that common descent, Judaism and Islam were bound by an austere concept of monotheism, law as the basic manner of relating to God and antipathy toward visual representation. In design, the sacred space of mosque and synagogue was remarkably similar. Given this close kinship, Judaism and Islam cohabited amicably in the early centuries after the astonishingly quick conquest of much of the civilized world by the Arabs in the century following Mohammad’s death in 632. The confident cosmopolitanism of the caliphates of Iraq, North Africa and Spain aided their relatively secure Jewish communities to reach a cultural apogee unparalleled in the Middle Ages. Maimonides was but the most notable examplar of this symbiosis.
The Torah opens paradigmatically with the murder of one brother by another. Kinship is often the breeding ground for extreme violence. World War I pitted the most cultured nations of Europe, the epitome of Western civilization, against each other in a carnage without end. In the Middle East, rage leads to acts of brutality that only humans have the stomach to commit. In moments of sanity, we ought to remind ourselves that passions were not always as unbridled as they are today. Kinship can also lead to mutual respect and fraternity. The achievements of the past must spur us to reassert our common origins and tenuous humanity.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Lekh L’Kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.