When Judaism, Christianity, Islam attempt to locate common ground with one another, we frequently cite the biblical figure Abraham as a unifying religious symbol that the three traditions share. While I would never discount the desire of well-meaning religious leaders to bring divides with one another, what we discover, upon further examination, is that the Abraham linked to each of these religious traditions is not really the “same” Abraham, a theory developed by Harvard professor Jon D. Levenson in his new book Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He writes:
- “…there is good reason to believe that the neutral Abraham who is beyond the text, beyond tradition, and beyond history will not overwhelm the figure attested in the complex and endless fascinating texts of the historical traditions. Rather than inventing a neutral Abraham to whom these three ancient communities must not hold themselves accountable, we would be better served by appreciating better both the profound commonalities and equally profound differences among them and why the commonalities and the differences alike have endured and show every sign of continuing to do so” (214).
According to Levenson, rather than search for a general uniting aspect of Abraham that brings the three traditions together, we ought to recognize that each tradition develops a distinct approach to making Abraham a central figure in their religious philosophy, one unique to their tradition. By extension, acknowledging the diversity amidst the shared importance of Abraham in each tradition challenges us to see how each tradition sought to make a unique contribution to the world by means of following their understanding of Abraham’s example. Whatever your religious faith, may Abraham’s example, and Levenson’s challenge, push you to engage more deeply with the questions of existence that a life of faith challenges us to explore.