The trialogue between Jews and Christians and Muslims can be improved by frank recognition of the different ways they think of Abraham, according to one of Fordham’s top theologians.
Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, said Jews, Christians and Muslims should observe how each thinks of Abraham based on each religion’s historical experiences of faith.
Ryan delivered the annual Spring McGinley lecture on April 13 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus and again on April 14 on the Rose Hill Campus. “The Faith of Abraham: Bond or Barrier?” continued the “trialogue” between the three Abrahamic religions that he established when he assumed the McGinley Chair in 2009.
Father Ryan began examined how the three religions regard Abraham.
“The most ancient strains in Israelite thought saw in Abraham not just another Mesopotamian Bedouin looking for grazing land and progeny, but the forefather of God’s People and the pioneer of their God-given land,” he said. “Later strains in Jewish thought saw Abraham more as the Jews’ forerunner in faith.”
Father Ryan said the New Testament abandoned the centrality of biological descent from Abraham and Sarah as well as the territoriality of older Israelite thought about Abraham.
“The Pauline writings of the New Testament opened up the possibility of descent from Abraham being extended to all of humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, justified by faith apart from works of the Law,” he said. “The Qur’an, recognizing the monotheism of the People of the Book, looks, however, for something more absolute, a supranational iconoclastic faith in one God who makes demands of all humanity called to surrender itself to God.”
Father Ryan said Muslims and Christians and Jews might live together more fruitfully and more peacefully if they recognize “the polyvalence of Abraham, the polyvalence of great concepts like faith and revelation, community and the path of righteousness.
“Once we have learned how we all creatively reinterpret what may seem to be the same stories, how we all work out varying types of midrash on common themes, we may learn to live together in peace,” he said.
As with the past few McGinley Lectures, Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., spiritual leader of Congregation of Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Amir Hussain, Ph.D., professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, offered responses to the lecture.
Rabbi Polish said he was in complete agreement with Father Ryan’s take regarding the role of Abraham in the bible and with the mention of land.
“Certainly, the theological role of Abraham, which becomes the central feature of the Christian presentation, cannot be scanted in a Jewish reading of the core text,” Rabbi Polish said. “And as Father Ryan suggests, the parallel midrashic treatment of Abraham took place simultaneously in the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Jewish approach gives greater emphasis than the Bible does to Abraham’s theological role, but not without sufficient appreciation of his paternal role in the genetic sense.”
Though the Jewish tradition does indeed regard Abraham as the father, Rabbi Polish said he could not help but think of how the Jewish calendar excludes any holiday devoted to him.
“It’s been widely recognized that the calendar of any religious tradition is a good indicator of its greatest concern,” he said. “The most attentive study of the Jewish calendar suggests that Abraham doesn’t figure into the Jewish tradition at all. What this implies, I cannot say.”
Is Abraham indeed the genetic father of the Jewish people?
“If so, then Jewish identity must be restricted those who entered into by birth and conversion would thus be impossible,” he said. “Here, significantly, we encounter Abraham again. The conventional format of Hebrew names is ‘So-and-so,’ the son or daughter of ‘So-and-So.’ How could a convert even have a name? The rabbis ordained that converts be known as ‘So-and-So’ the son or daughter of Abraham, and in modern times, of Abraham and Sarah. The act of conversion is thus construed as bringing one directly into the genetic family line of Abraham.”
Hussain delivered a response titled, “Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac: the Bonds of Family.”
“For Muslims, it’s important to remember the significance of Abraham, who was mentioned by name the second most of any of the prophets in the Qu’ran-69 times,” said Hussain, who also listed the number of times Moses and Isaac are mentioned in the Qu’ran, 137 and 17 times, respectively.
“As a Muslim, I cannot understand the Qu’ranic stories without being familiar with their roles in the bible and oral traditions,” he said. “For me, the appropriate metaphor is triptych-a painting in three panels. Each panel unique, but when viewed together, part of a greater whole.”
Hussain said the reason Mecca is very sacred to Muslims because it is where Abraham and Ishmael, his eldest son and first born, rebuilt the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
“For Muslims there is a connection to biblical stories,” Hussain said, while listing some of the differences.
“While some may see the difference to all these stories as a barrier, I see them as a bond,” he said. “Perhaps another way to look at is the same characters in different plays each of which needs to be read together-a trilogy.”