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    Isaac & Ishmael – can they water their sheep together?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the website, The Jewish Thinker, on 11 September, 2012.

    The Rosh HaShanah readings focus on the birth of Isaac – not the American hurricane but the Israelite patriarch. Every aspect of his birth and life story is a precious part of the Biblical narrative. Isaac is important, but Isaac is not an only child. There is a half-sibling, Ishmael. According to Rashi and the rabbinic tradition, there was rivalry and hostility between them from the start, though the story does have a happy ending with the brothers reconciled at their father’s grave – or, according to some, whilst Abraham was still alive.

    The struggle between siblings is a common theme in the sagas of the Book of Genesis. Apart from Isaac and Ishmael, there are Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. In each generation there are recurrent themes – sibling jealousy, simmering resentment, parental favouritism. Each episode has unique features such as Joseph’s self-centred dreams, a father’s gift to one son but not the others, poor family communication, and years of alienation.

    Constantly we see a lack of reconciliation. It is only a later generation that declares in Avot d’Rabbi Natan (chapter 23), “A true hero turns an enemy into a friend”. In the meantime Isaac’s mother Sarah chooses Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, as her husband’s substitute wife – and then turns against her. Not only is there tension between Sarah and Hagar, but we are not certain about the relationship of Abraham and Sarah (and indeed Abraham and Hagar too). God reassures Hagar and Ishmael but warns that Ishmael will grow up to be be a wild young man.

    Abraham tries to teach Ishmael the principles of ethics but worries about him. The boy becomes a mocker (and, according to the Midrash, an idolater). When Isaac enters the family, Ishmael taunts him. Sarah protects Isaac against Ishmael, apparently on two issues: family status and the father’s inheritance. Abraham wavers, but finally follows Sarah’s request to banish Hagar and her son.

    God too is involved. The way the Torah sees it, the Divine plan requires Isaac to prevail. Nonetheless there is a prophecy that Ishmael will prosper and sire twelve princes, so Ishmael carves out a destiny for himself and becomes successful. Significantly, somewhere along the line the festering sibling hostility recedes and the two sons are reconciled at Abraham’s death. The Midrash even says that whilst Abraham is still alive, Ishmael repents and comes to live near his father.

    History, however, holds two conflicting versions of the story. To say the least, there is tension between the Jewish and Islamic narratives. From the Jewish point of view it is significant that there is bound to be an eventual modus vivendi and the two sons and their descendants are neither fated nor condemned to struggle for ever. However, whether there is room for a parallel hope within the Ishmael tradition is not quite so certain. It seems more likely that Islamic belief is adamant about the inevitability of holy war between “dar al-harb” and “dar-al Islam”.

    Why this is the time to address this question is because recent decades have given Islam a new sense of confidence and propelled it onto the world stage to a probably unexpected extent. Already in the 1960s, Andre Malraux wrote: “The violence of the Islamic upsurge is the major phenomenon of our age. Underestimated by most contemporary observers, the rise of Islam is comparable to the beginnings of Communism in Lenin’s time”.

    The popular view is that an Islamic monolith is poised against Israel, the United States and the whole of Western society.

    Yet Islam is not really a monolith but is – as we see from other events in the current turmoil in the Middle East – divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites, as the result of a 7th century dispute, with each group having its own sub-sects. However, for our purposes we can look at Islam as a whole. Our immediate concern is its relationship with Jews and Judaism. There are two questions – dialogue and co-existence. There are two contexts – theological and political. The theological dialogue is easier for Jews than for Muslims; the political dialogue is difficult for both.

    How – if at all – can either dialogue be furthered? There is an organisation in Israel called ICCI– Inter-Religious Co-Ordinating Council in Israel, with its headquarters in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem’s German Colony. The ICCI experience is that careful, respectful encounter enables the two groups, plus the Christians, to engage together constructively – talking, learning, laughing and even eating together. They have a culture of The Other. I exist; The Other exists. This is co-existence. Is it a mere flash in the pan?

    In the past there were times of apparent harmony and co-existence, but the motivation was generally expedience: it worked better to be on speaking terms. Conventionally this is what the Golden Age, whenever in the Middle Ages it was, was all about. But the supposed medieval Golden Age was largely a myth, and even if it wasn’t, occasional pockets of co-existence do not prove very much. There was still a theological divide. Both sides were convinced they were right, though the Jewish tradition was probably more inherently tolerant and hopeful than the Islamic.

    In today’s boiling cauldron the issues are more complex than ever before, and the questions tumble after each other in profusion. Can Jews live under Muslim domination? Can Muslims live under Jewish domination? Can either live under Christian domination? Is domination the real issue? Maybe for Islam it is.

    Is a religiously neutral, democratic host society better for either group, or both? Can they be satisfied to be neighbours who live together in a culture of The Other – or really, The Others – whilst leaving theology in the “too-hard” basket? Can each group pasture its flocks next to the other and worry more about watering the sheep than arguing with the shepherd? Can they work together without anyone needing to dominate anyone else? Can they say, “All those texts and tautologies! They give me a headache”? Can they say, “Let’s get on with life and leave the theology to God”?

    If this displeases the theologians, can either group compromise its truth claims, with all the political consequences, internal and external?

    Or are they doomed to struggle together to the end of time?

    To this question Judaism seems to have a hopeful answer. The problem is whether Islam does. Islam sees Ishmael as its model and often uses Jewish midrashic material in its writings: can it find (or wish to seek) an Islamic version of the Midrash about the reconciliation of the brothers?

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