Advertisements ad

April 12, 2009

Christians, Jews each see themselves in Abraham

By Michelle Martin


When people speak of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the three “Abrahamic” faiths, and suggest that members of the traditions should see themselves as equal members of the Abrahamic family, they are missing a central point, said Jon Levenson, who offered the 14th Annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture.

The March 26 lecture, held at DePaul University’s Lincoln Park Campus, was the latest installment of a series that commemorates a lecture given by Cardinal Bernardin in the Senate Hall of Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1995 on anti-Semitism. Since that time, the Catholic and Jewish sponsors have alternated hosting the event and providing a speaker, with Jewish speakers lecturing in Catholic venues and vice-versa.

Levenson said people miss the point that all three religious traditions treat Abraham differently. “What he foreshadows is the one true religion,” said Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, and in each case, that religion is the one telling the story.

For example, some of the stories of “Ibrahim” in the Qu’ran are not found in the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, while the story of Abraham that starts at Genesis 11:26 is not found in the Qu’ran.

What’s more, Levenson said, the Genesis story of Abraham does not say anything about monotheism.

“He does not preach anything,” said Levenson, whose talk was titled, “Monotheism and Chosenness: The Abrahamic Foundation of Judaism and Roman Catholicism.” “What he founded was not a religion, but a family.”

And that family was chosen by God to be his people.

“God has chosen to link his destiny to a particular family, the family of Israel,” Levenson said. “From now on, the story of God will be inextricable from the story of Israel.”

What’s more, Levenson said, the Bible gives no reason for God to single out Abraham to be the father of his chosen people.

“God’s special relationship with Israel is as inexplicable as any other love affair,” Levenson said.

Catholic and Jewish understandings of the role their communities play are remarkably similar, Levenson said.

“Both see their communities in remarkably similar ways,” he said. “Both see themselves as chosen by God, existing in history, but transcending history.”

But in the Jewish tradition, that community is not a voluntary or an intentional association; it’s a family that people either belong to by birth or other family relationship, or they don’t. If they do, they are bound by the Mosaic law.

The Christian tradition emphasizes the faith of Abraham, saying that the community is bound by a common faith, not necessarily the Jewish law.

For meaningful interfaith dialogue to take place, members of the different Abrahamic traditions must take their own and their partners’ understandings of what Abraham’s story means into account, Levenson said.

“Unattached to a spiritual community, monotheism is but an abstraction,” he said. “That can prove very useful for interreligious conversation in the way it is all too frequently practiced, become a vacuous and innocuous form of dialogue.”

The Jerusalem Lecture was sponsored by the the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, the American Jewish Committee, the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. A special co-sponsor this year was the DePaul University Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity.