The Binding of Isaac/ Ishmael
in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
A joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith retreat of
Palestinian Peace Society and Interfaith Encounter Association
November 29th-30th at the Austrian Hospice
The retreat started with the introduction of the two organizations and their approaches to building peace in the region. It was remarkable to see how both organizations share so much in common in that regard. Both talked about their commitment to the promotion of peace, about the need to include in the process all ideologies, religions. Political views etc, and both spoke to the necessity of building the grass-roots infrastructure without which peace can not stand and of the power of encounter and mutual acquaintance in constructing mutual trust. The Palestinian Peace Society is based in Hebron and works since 1993 and the Interfaith Encounter Association is based in Jerusalem and works since 2001.
Then each of us introduced himself or herself and we shared a personal story in which someone sacrificed something for us.
Then we continued with the three religious focuses on the theme. First was the Jewish perspective and unlike the usual model where we have a short presentation first and then a conversation, this time they were combined thanks to the decision of the presenter Rabbi Bob Carroll to conduct the presentation around joint reading – that soon became joint learning – of the biblical text. We read the text in Hebrew and English and translated it into Arabic too.
Here are some points that came up in the presentation and conversation:
• Our venue at the heart of the Old City is perfect for the theme as in the Jewish tradition the binding took place just some two hundred meters from here…
• Unlike many other religions (Christianity, Buddhism and others) where the founder spreads his message through disciples, Abraham spreads the message through his children – which could be problematic, as anyone who raised children knows. But on the other hand: if a disciple does not believe any more in the message – he is no longer part of the group; when family one continues to love even if they do not follow the message.
• In fact, in Judaism Ishmael was also about to be sacrificed when he was sent to the desert with Hagar. And both gained from this event too: Hagar was awarded a conversation with the angel and Ishmael was purified through his desert experience to the degree he could grow into a nation.
In Islam: Hagar asked Abraham why he leaves them in the desert but when he answered that it was the command of God – she accepted it.
• Abraham was willing to sacrifice his whole future without any argument, out of his full belief in God. This resulted in the future becoming of the place of the binding into the Temple.
Kierkegaard wrote a book about the Binding. He says that it is easier to justify God by saying that he never meant for a real sacrifice – only to try Abraham; but how can we justify Abraham? He answers that if Abraham had refused we may have applaud him as caring for his son, but what he chose to do was not to effuse to identification with human suffering throughout human history and this is a much more meaningful act.
We had a long conversation about full obedience to God versus arguing with Him. We mentioned Abraham's argument about the destruction of Sodom, Moses' argument that prevented the destruction of the Nation of Israel, the argument of Prophet Muhammad encouraged by Moses to ask for reducing the number of daily prayers from 500 to 50 to 5, and the criticism on Noah who did not argue when God told him to prepare for the coming flood.
The second session focused on Christianity and was presented by Kerstin. Kerstin pointed out the interesting fact that we kept speaking about "sacrifice" which is the Christian term, instead of the Jewish term of "binding". In Judaism Isaac is 37 years old and definitely can not be forced by the 137 years old Abraham. In Islam too: Ishmael was a young adult. The agreement to be sacrificed came out of deep faithfulness. In contrast: in Christianity the emphasis is on the sacrifice and Isaac is portrayed as a small child.
The old approach interpreted the sacrifice as working against human sacrifices but it is now clear that human sacrifices were not common in the time of Abraham, which can also be understood from Isaac's question about the lamb for the sacrifice. The new interpretation talks about trying Abraham and Isaac. This is being connected to Jesus who was actually sacrificed y his father in order to grant forgiveness for the sins of humanity. Christianity makes a direct link between Moriya and Golgotha. For example: Rembrandt paints the sacrifice and the crucifixion in very similar way: the cloths, colors, light emanating etc.)
The conversation following the presentation touched on issues as: animal and plant sacrifices, Messiah and the Temple, and charity.
The perspective of Islam was presented by Dr. Taleb Alharithy. It talks about Abraham coming to Ishmael and telling him that he saw in his dream that he has to sacrifice him and about Ishmael accepting. In memory of this event Muslims celebrate Eid el-Adha – the Holiday of the Sacrifice. In this Holiday every Muslim who can in obliged to take part in sacrificing one of a few kinds of animals (a lamb for one family, a cow for seven families etc.). There are many details for the right sacrifice: the animal has to be healthy and not crippled, the slaughtering has to take place after sunset and after the prayer, it is preferable for the person to slaughter himself but it is possible to hire a slaughterer – however without paying him anything. One should select the healthiest and heaviest of his animals, which are at the minimum age of: six months for a lamb, a year for a goat, two years for a cow and five years for a camel.
The meat should be mainly given to the poor. It is best to give it all to charity but it can be divided up to a third for himself, a third for his friends and a third for charity – definitely not more than a third for himself.
On that day: a animal should not see another animal being slaughtered, the slaughtering has to be very swift with an especially sharp knife, which should not be sharpened in front of the animal who should not be facing Mecca. It is forbidden to sell anything – not even the skin or the bones. In Saudi Arabia the meat of the millions of pilgrims is collected, being frozen and sent to poor Muslim countries.
The conversation then touched upon: vegetarianism, eating meat as sublimation of violence, prophets and the interesting point that from a Muslim perspective it is not important is the son was Isaac or Ishmael as both are equally respected as prophets.
We concluded the retreat with a joint delicious lunch and with gratitude to the Austrian Hospice for their wonderful hospitality.
The Woman in Judaism, Christianity & Islam
A joint retreat of
Hope Flower School and Interfaith Encounter Association
August 23-24, 2007
Austrian Hospice Guest House, Old City Jerusalem
The retreat opened with welcome greetings by Mr. Ibrahim Issa, Director of the Hope Flowers School, and Dr. Yehuda Stolov, Executive Director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. They welcomed participants, shared some background about their respective organizations and portrayed the ground rules for the retreat.
Then participants briefly presented themselves in the plenary and then moved to a more detailed self-presentation in small groups, presentation that included sharing with the other members of the group a story about a woman that was significant in their lives.
After a lovely dinner we started the first session, which focused on the Jewish perspective. Rabbi Bob Carroll started his presentation by stating that the Halacha (Jewish law) encourages, but do not oblige, women to be children's bearers and caretakers and therefore exempts them from certain commandments. For the believer – this is part of the divine plan and therefore a blessing and not a curse. It is possible to absorb ideas of equality but only if filtered in a way that they correspond with the Torah. This is unlike the modern approach, which allows religion only when in correspondence with its values (including equality).
The actual duty to bear children is laid upon the man and in principle a woman can design a life course that does not include children. However, women are encouraged to marry and have children. Usually there is no prohibition on women if they wish to fulfill commandments of which they are exempt.
In the Talmud Rabbi Eliezer said that one who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he teaches her insipid content. But in the 20th century it was acknowledged that a situation where a woman can hold Ph.D. in Mathematics and at the same time have primary school level education in Judaism – is dangerous as it can lead to the perception that religion is for children only. Now there is prosperity of Yeshiva institutions for women.
The following discussion dealt with the possibility of different occupations for women, restrictions put on women beyond the religious requirements, women's singing, head covering.
In the following morning Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi presented the Muslim perspective. Prior to Islam the attitude towards women in Arabia – and perhaps the whole world: it was some 1500 years ago – was very negative. For example: there was a custom to burry alive baby girls. Islam strictly prohibited it and this custom stopped completely.
Prophet Muhammad said that the one that treats women good will go to heaven. There were some ten cases of women who were queens in the Muslim world – in Egypt, Morocco, Andalusia, Iraq and more.
There are two Suras (chapters) in the Koran dedicated to women: the Sura of Women, which is the third longest in the Koran describes the rights of women, how they should behave and how they should be treated. The other one is the Sura of Marry, who is very much respected in Islam. This is one example of how a woman can be a model for special connection to God. Other examples are the four mothers, the wives of the Prophet etc.
In the following conversation participants talked about divorce, inheritance rights, differences between Islam and tribal customs (that sometimes contradict), masculine and feminine images of God and his being beyond image and beyond gender, and more.
The Christian presentation started with Ms. Kristine Schnarr who talked about the fact that Jesus loved and respected women. In her Lutheran Church women lead the peace activities and are called to share their spiritual gifts. In some churches women can be pastors and in some not.
Ms. Maria Anastasi added from her experience in the Greek-Orthodox Church that there is equality in the functions of women in worship and as part of the community but they can not be priests or enter the sacred area of the church. Also: the three most elite monasteries are such due to the fact that women can not enter them.
The following conversation went back to many of the themes already discussed – inheritance, divorce, dressing, mixed prayer etc. – with comparisons between the three faiths.
Before we went to the closing lunch we concluded in warm words, sharing the deep experience we had and the wonderful new friendships, committing to continue the process and thanking each other for their contributions to the success of the retreat.
(*** We are most grateful to the Austrian Hospice for their extraordinary hospitality!!)
After being postponed four times due to different reality constrains, the 15th Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter, jointly organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Hope Flowers School, finally took place in the beautiful guest house of the Austrian Hospice, at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, on 22-23 March.
This time too faced challenges. Starting seemed promising when all Palestinians who applied for permits got them very quickly. But when they came to collect them, on the morning of the retreat, a computer failure caused that only a handful of them were able to actually get the permits. After dozens of phone calls it became clear that we will not be able to improve the situation and that most of the Palestinian participants – including the Muslim speaker – will not be able to make it to the retreat. Hesitation was short and we agreed that holding a small-scale retreat is better than not holding it at all. For the sake of perfect equality we cancelled the Jewish speaker.
And we never regretted our decision. The resulting retreat was a very intimate one, with one small conversation group of Jews, Muslims and Christians having one of the best conversations about food and food traditions – mainly in Judaism and Islam as the conversation was so vivid that we hardly managed to touch on Christianity.
Some points that were discussed:
--In Islam all animals and birds are allowed to be eaten, except those who eat other animals. In Judaism the rules of eatable animals make the list narrower while eatable birds are only those who appear in the explicit list;
--In Judaism (as well as in Shiite Islam) only fish that have fins and scales can be eaten. In Sunni Islam everything that comes out of the sea can be eaten.
--In Islam alcohol is strictly forbidden, out of the fear that people will pray drunk. In Judaism a drunk also can not pray but alcohol is not forbidden and in some occasions (Purim, Pesach, sanctifying the Shabbat) drinking of wine is even recommended.
Each point led to many other associated issues such as faith, reasoning, interpretations traditions and more.
We concluded the retreat with a lot of satisfaction and hopes that in the next one we will be able to take enough prior steps so that we ensure participation of all who wish to do so.
On Thursday, October 5th, the first of two Ramadan interfaith encounters, jointly organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Hope Flowers School, took place at the Hope Flowers School's campus in El-Khader.
Read more about this meeting and the conversations that took place.
"The way is through listening and openness – the qualities of forgiveness"
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