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Review of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. By Bruce Feiler. New York: William Morrow, 2002. 240 pp. $23.95
Who was Abraham? It's a seemingly straightforward question, but readers of Feilor's book will know that the answers to that query will unquestionably reflect the respective biases and backgrounds of the respondents, depending on whether they are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.
For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God's "Call" to Abraham, as expressed in Genesis, 12:1, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land I will show you," is of supreme importance. The Call represents an internal journey as well as a literal one in all three traditions.
Jews interpret "Go forth," (in Hebrew, "lech lecha") as an injunction to "Go to yourself," as in, to go to one's Jewish roots. Jews felt profoundly vulnerable--as a nation and a religion--after the destruction of the Second Temple (around 70 CE.) and they reacted by becoming increasingly possessive of their biblical forefathers. The rabbis used Abraham as an important morale-boosting tool to help keep Jews loyal to the faith. Abraham thus became a political figure, fighting for the survival of Israel. Since Israel didn't exist during Abraham's lifetime, the rabbis, through re-interpretation of the texts, transformed him into a timeless, almost divine entity. By the Middle Ages, for Jews, Abraham is no longer the person who expresses God's universal blessing to all humankind, but has become someone who bestowed his blessing on the descendants of Isaac only.
For Christians, it is Abraham's response to the Call that makes him the "Father of the faith." A Catholic priest (and childhood friend) with whom Feiler consulted during the writing of Abraham told the author that, "The message of Abraham is to be alone, to be quiet, and to listen. If you never hear the Call in the first place, you'll never know which way to go."
During the very early years of Christianity, Paul recast Abraham to suit his own purposes. He saw his new faith as "Jesus-enhanced Judaism," and wanted to get beyond those elements in Judaism that he considered obstacles in attracting others to the new religion, such as the "tyranny of the law" in everyday Jewish life, and tribal distinctiveness, manifested primarily by the custom of male circumcision.
Abraham becomes the perfect model for Paul's new religion as God established a unique relationship with Abraham before the giving of the law--and before Abraham was circumcised. To Paul, Abraham was distinguished from other men because of his faith--and circumcision is clearly not a requisite of faith.
In Islam, which stresses Abraham's submission to God (the word "muslim" means "one who submits to God"), the Call is viewed as a reward for Abraham's devotion. For Muslims, Abraham is connected to one of the most significant experiences in their spiritual lives--the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca.
According to the Koran, the Ka'ba (the primordial temple where God left his footprint on earth) was originally built by Adam, was lost, and was rebuilt by Abraham. Once the rebuilding of the Ka'ba was completed, God commanded Abraham to go on top of a nearby hill and call to all humankind to make a pilgrimage to the site. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and a key reason why Abraham has such a powerful role in the faith.
Feilor reveals how each religion gives Abraham an historical/spiritual "makeover," transforming him from a universal figure, open to all faiths, to an exclusive figure favoring only one. He also examines how the respective Abraham narratives have helped to support political and religious conflicts amongst the three faiths throughout the centuries. But he also sees Abraham as a potential source of reconciliation.
In a conversation with the imam of El-Aksa, Feiler asks the imam what his message to the world would be, regarding Abraham. The imam, known to be a firebrand, has this to say: "Abraham was a man of faith. He worshiped God, and was thankful for God. He invented monotheism. He had high values. If all people--not just Muslims, Christians, Jews--follow the correct path of Abraham, I'm sure life would be better. But we are not doing that. The situation we are facing is that people are living their daily lives far away from the truly faithful, and from Abraham. If we look beyond the details, which we may disagree about, and follow the principles of Abraham--truth, morality, and coexistence--then most of our problems will disappear."
Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, is a timely book that is destined to become a modern classic.