Last week the Jewish world marked the beginning of year 5775 with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Unlike the revelry of January 1, the Jewish celebration centers on introspection and effort to improve ourselves according to the moral dictates of the Jewish heritage. Among the prayers each morning of that holiday is the chanting of the Torah reading. Given the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the war between Israel and Hamas and the simultaneous hostilities brought by the Islamic State, that Torah reading remains particularly poignant.
Reading the story as it has been understood for centuries several lessons are to be learned from the births of Ishmael and Isaac and the subsequent binding of Isaac, and later in Genesis, the death of Abraham.
1. The story emphasizes the covenant of circumcision among the progeny of Abraham. That rite stresses their belief in the One, the Universal God.
2. As events unfold the descendants of Abraham will live side by side in continuity as geo-political entities.
3. There is no biblical, sibling rivalry between the sons of Abraham. Indeed, inappropriate play that Sarah witnessed between Ishmael and his little brother motivated Sarah to oust Ishmael with his mother, Hagar.
4. Ishmael and Isaac could live near each other peacefully, even if Sarah stresses that they cannot live together. The two join effort as grown men to bury and mourn their father after he dies. A generation later Esau takes one of Ishmael’s daughters as his wife to gain his own parents’ approval.
It is noteworthy that in the millennia since the events of the Akeidah, the peoples descended from Abraham have continued to believe in one universal God. Both continue to circumcise sons as a flesh-borne sign of the depth of belief.
With so much binding them, why are events as terrible as they are? Some claim that the trouble lies in fundamentalism. Not only is that inaccurate, it miscasts the core values of Islam.
If the world views Western culture as a tree, Judaism is a trunk from which the limbs of Christianity and Judaism developed. Much overlap exists among the three groups. What differentiates the Islamists from mainline Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity is their reliance on physical force and promise of death as motivation for forced conversion. Were that use of the sword eliminated, the threat posed by Hamas and IS might be minimized. Christianity abandoned forced conversions hundreds of years ago. Judaism did the same before the time of Jesus. A similar, Moslem orientation might also minimize the Islamist threat.
Many westerners might refuse to live according to the tenets of Sharia law. But why would a country with a Moslem majority not build its legal system around it. Those irked by Sharia could easily avoid those areas.
There is nothing wrong with Moslems hoping to spread their ways worldwide. There is a lesson to be learned from Christians and Moslems who previously faced the same challenge. Those religions reached global dominance by the strengths of the contentthey espoused and not by the power of the scimitar. There is even a supporting tradition within Islam itself. During the Middle Ages Moorish authorities recognized Christians and Jews as People of the Book, students of sacred texts devoted to belief in Allah. They were second class citizens, Dhimmi, and paid special taxes, but their safety was assured by the Moorish, government authorities with whom they lived.
If we can respect that which binds and separates us as separate religions, we can later confine the political stresses that bring parties to war. However, blaming the current critical situation on fundamentalism truly misses the target.