The Torah’s Prophecy of Jewish-Muslim Reconciliation

November 2, 2018 | Jonathan Sacks
About the author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician. He served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

At the end of this week’s Torah reading of Ḥayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), Abraham dies and his two eldest sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come together to bury him. By analyzing this scene in light of several other details in the same reading, Jonathan Sacks interprets it is an allegory for a reconciliation between Judaism—represented by the patriarch Isaac—and Islam—represented by Ishmael, who, in both Jewish and Muslim traditions, is the forebear of the Arabs:

Ishmael’s presence at [his father’s] funeral is surprising. After all, he had been sent away into the desert [by Abraham] years before, when Isaac was young. Until now, we have assumed that the two half-brothers have lived in total isolation from one another. Yet the Torah places them together at the funeral without a word of explanation. The sages piece together [this and other] puzzling details to form an enthralling story. . . .

We know that Abraham did not want to send him away; [his wife] Sarah’s demand was “very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). Nonetheless, God told Abraham to listen to his wife. There is, however, an extraordinary midrash, in [the rabbinic commentary] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, that tells of how Abraham twice visited his son. On the first occasion, Ishmael was not at home. His wife, not knowing Abraham’s identity, refused the stranger bread and water. Ishmael, continues the midrash, divorced her and married a woman named Fatimah. This time, when Abraham visited, again not disclosing his identity, the woman gave him food and drink. The midrash then says: “Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things. When Ishmael returned, his wife told him about it, and Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.” Father and son were reconciled.

The name of Ishmael’s second wife, Fatimah, is highly significant. In the Quran, Fatimah is the daughter of Mohammad. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer is an 8th-century work, and it is here making an explicit, and positive, reference to Islam.

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Ḥayyei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between . . . Isaac and Ishmael. . . . Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both of his sons, and was laid to rest by both.

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