THE BLOG
11/13/2012 08:16 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Honesty About Interfaith Dialogue

As a Jew living in a Christian or post-Christian culture, I have been interested, actually since childhood, in the perceptions and misperceptions that Jews and Christians have of each other. And when I came into the field of biblical studies 40-some years ago, I quickly saw that the figure of Abraham has been a major flashpoint in the Jewish-Christian disputation over the centuries -- just as, over the past several decades, he has somewhat paradoxically become a node of connection and commonality among many who are interested in improving Jewish-Christian relations and, more recently, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations as well.

My book, "Inheriting Abraham," grew out of this longstanding fascination with the ways different communities interpret the same Scriptures and how those interpretations, in turn, generate new narratives of their own. The figure of Abraham is a natural here because both Judaism and Christianity call him their father and because the narratives about him are exceedingly sparse and often cryptic, calling out, as the Talmudic rabbis might say, dorsheni, "Interpret me." Judaism, Christianity and Islam have each answered that call creatively, in ways that reflect but also shape their communal self-definition and provide insights into their deeper structures.

But the fatherhood of Abraham, to start there, is a more complicated issue than many seem to realize. For instance: Is his fatherhood a matter of nature, or of faith? Does one, that is, become a descendant of Abraham by birth or by being "born again," as it were? In either case, how shall we account for the fact that in both Judaism and Christianity, some descendants of Abraham fall outside the chosen family? For although one often hears it said that Judaism is particularistic and even tribalistic whereas Christianity is universalistic and inclusive, in fact, both communities have historically claimed descent specifically from Abraham and not, say, from Adam and Noah, the fathers of universal humanity. At the same time, the mechanics for membership in the family are very different in these two religious traditions.

In the case of Islam, things become more complex and in some ways more fascinating. The Quran presents its revelations as calling for nothing short of a return to the "religion of Abraham," a religion long obscured and distorted by both Jews and Christians, the other "peoples of the Book." In the Quran, though, Abraham is not the father of the special community as in Judaism and Christianity; he is instead a key figure in a series of prophets that culminates in Muhammad, "the Seal of the prophets." In fact, the Quranic Abraham looks a lot like Muhammad himself. He is a prophet who sees through idolatry and the philosophical materialism on which it rests and who is at odds with his fellow townsmen and even his own father as a result.

And this brings us to another complication in the contemporary notion that Abraham can and should serve as a node of commonality among the three traditions. The Abrahamic religions, it turns out, are not working from the same textual base. Jews and Christians hold the book of Genesis in common, but each community augments Genesis with material unknown in the other tradition and sometimes at odds with it as well. Muslims for their part do not regard Genesis as sacred Scripture, and the story of Abraham in the Quran is different from the one in Genesis, adding some things and leaving others out.

As for the Quranic Abraham, an uncompromising monotheist and an opponent of idolatry and superstition (including astrology), he first appears not in Muslim Scripture or in Jewish Scripture. He appears instead in post-biblical Jewish tradition. He constitutes a major bond between Judaism and Islam -- but not between those two and Christianity. In short, as problematic as is the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition, efforts to expand it into a Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition are more problematic still.

To some critics, all this may seem like nothing more than the narcissism of small differences. They forget that what is at stake is more than just the exegesis of respective Scriptures. For the question of Abraham is also a question of the identity of living communities. And these communities, in the aggregate, amount to about half the people on the globe.

I am not speaking just about Western civilization and its Abrahamic root, though there is indeed an Abrahamic root of Western civilization. The country with the largest Muslim population is not located in the West; it is Indonesia. Nor is Abrahamic identity just a question of cultural heritage; it is also a question of living practice. What manner of life, what distinct practices, does the Abrahamic legacy authorize? Is it the way of Torah, or the way of Gospel, or the way of islām, submission to God as the Muslim tradition understands it?

It has famously been said that "God is in the details," and the same can be said about communal identities, religious and secular alike. Without attention to the particular narratives and specific practices that define Abrahamic communities, we are not likely to understand them very adequately.

True enough, exploring old problems also means revealing new opportunities, as we uncover connections that are missed if we treat religions as collections of ideas and ignore the history of biblical interpretation. In the final chapter of my new book, I do question head-on the claims that are made for Abrahamic commonality. But the book as a whole is not more focused on differences than on similarities. The task, as I see it, is to do justice both to the common Abrahamic discourse and to the distinctive meanings that it authorizes in each community. Without the common discourse, the separate Abrahamic religions would never achieve a significant disagreement. They would be like two ships passing in the night. But without the distinctive meanings, they would lack individuation and identity. They would be the same ship.

Wisdom means recognizing both the commonalities and the differences, as well as the interrelations between the two categories that make a simple dichotomy quite unrealistic. Rather than attempting to reduce the divergences among the three religions to an Abrahamic lowest common denominator, I recommend dealing with them in honesty and good faith.

Members of the three Abrahamic religions owe each other a candid and patient hearing, a willingness to discard old stereotypes and self-serving caricatures -- and a clear-eyed understanding that not all differences and disputations derive from such stereotypes and caricatures. At a time when conflict is already lethal and interreligious understanding is more urgently needed than ever, some might argue that we should gloss over the points of difference. I agree about the need for interreligious understanding; I disagree about the recipe for achieving it.