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Michael Wolffsohn {*}

What unites us,
what separates "the Abrahamic religions" -
seen from the Jewish perspective?


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 6/2008 P. 12-14

webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Abraham: Jewish - Muslim

In the field of religious studies the cuddle theology of the "common Abrahamic heritage" of the three monotheistic faiths corresponds to the "Cuddle Classic" on the radio. The thesis of the connecting Abrahamic heritage that associates Jews, Christians and Muslims rests on shaky theological foundations. Matthias Morgenstern has, knowledgeably and convincingly, scientifically pulled downright to pieces that claim. The Abraham-bridge was unstable above all toward Islam. The Tübing Judaist meticulously gives references for it.

The decisive argument is: Even the Abraham story, the "narrative" does in the Qur'an totally differ from that in the Old Testament, which, at least as a narrative connects Jews and Christians. But it fundamentally separates Jews and Christians from Islam. The Muslim dissociation is intended and provocative. That does not only apply to the Abraham story, it apples to many, almost to all the stories in which the Koran, the Muslim primal source refers - in a kind of counter-narrative - to contents of the Old and New Testament. In their respective Muhammad biography Tilman Nagel and Hans Jansen have impressively and emphatically presented and explained that fact.

This is soon and easily explained from the view-point of Islamic theology. The Koran is presented as completion, so to speak as a correction of the Jewish and Christian Scripture. In the Koran Abraham is not the progenitor of the Jews, but as the first Monotheist the first follower of Islam; he is prophet and founder of the Kaaba in Mecca. There is one single reservation regarding the "prophet" Abraham: In Genesis 20, 7 God, who speaks in a dream to Abimelech, calls him "prophet".

Nowhere in the Old Testament we read that Abraham lived in that geographical area or even in Mecca, and that he (together with Ishmael) had built the Kaaba there. The biblical geography of Genesis 13, 14-18 and 15, 18-21 does not involve the Arab Peninsula, let alone its central area. Genesis 17, 8 mentions only the land of Canaan, to which the Arab peninsula did certainly not belong.

In Genesis 12, 7-9 Abraham builds two altars, one near Sichem, the other near Bet El, i.e. in the middle of the Holy Land of the Jews. Abraham lived then in Beer Seheva (Genesis 22, 19). That is not the Arab peninsula but the Negev desert.

And Ishmael? "He settled in the desert of Paran, and his mother chose for him a wife from Egypt" (Genesis 21, 21). Paran and Egypt too do not belong to Mecca and the Arabian Peninsula.

In the Book Genesis Abraham is to sacrifice his son Isaac, in the Koran (Sura 37, verse 99-103), the son who is to be sacrificed is not mentioned by name. Some Muslim commentators say Isaac, others think Ishmael was meant. Isaac is certainly "promised" to Abraham in Sura 37 (verse 113). But that has nothing to do with Isaac's sacrifice resp. fetters (Hebrew: akedat jitzchak). The promise of his birth and his sacrifice are two completely different issues. Once more and again and again: Referred to the Jewish Biblical narrative the Quran narrative is non-Jewish; it does not connect Jews and Muslims but separates them. More cautiously: It is similar but ultimately different, for whatever reasons.

Sura 37, "revealed in Mecca", belongs to the central period of Mecca. It is, as the Meccan Suras in general, therefore in principle prophetic and not yet political-legal as the Suras of the Medina period. Moreover, the Medinan Suras strongly and openly reflect Muhammad's conflict with, even his hostility to the Jews. That can easily be explained. Muhammad had at first hoped that he was able to win the Jewish tribes of Medina over to his new doctrine of salvation. They refused. Like the Jews in Germany later disapproved of Luther's teachings, who showed them his wrath after he had initially courted them. Luther verbally, Mohammed bloodily.

The Jews in Medina at least partly ridiculed Muhammad - precisely because he similarly but yet differently served them up the stories resp. narratives of the Old Testament. From their Old Testament perspective they knew it differently, yes, better. In Sura 3, verse 72, of course "revealed in Medina", we learn it verbatim: "You followers of the Book, do not cover up truth with falsehood in order to hide the truth, for you know it better." Mohammed insisted on his "truth", the Jews on their Old Testament truth. For Jews, who take their starting-point from the Old Testament narrative Muhammad's truth naturally was and is fiction. Perhaps great poetry, but not truth. That's why the Jews of Medina fought with Mohammed: "Some followers of the Book say ....", hence the Jews say in Sura 3, verse 73. Mohammed replied to them (verse 74): "Say: Allah has the leadership ... Or do they want to argue with you before Allah? Tell them ..." and so on. "But Satan wants to lead them astray into a remote error", Mohammed maintains



resp. the Quran in Sura 4, verse 61, which is of course also "revealed in Medina". "They" that were the Jews. They were seduced by Satan. We will still meet the Satan motif, referred to the Christian-Jewish "Abraham dialogue", in the anti-Jewish polemics of Saint John's Gospel.

Also the Medinan Sura 4, verse 66 quite frankly mentions the "disputes" between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina. Not only the late but already the early Medinan Suras, as Sura 2 "The Cow" portray the Muslim-Jewish clashes. In it the position and role of Ishmael is consistently dramatically enhanced. For example, in verse 141 Ishmael is put on the same level with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the list of the progenitors' names it is placed before Isaac. That again fundamentally contradicts the Jewish narrative, because Ishmael never appears in the Jewish naming and listing of the progenitors.

Here Hebrew Bible, Koran there, narrative and counter-narrative, or even opposition, because the Koran and the Islamic (early) tradition are anything but friendly towards Jews. According to Hans Jansen Mohammed has not only initiated and approved of eighty treacherous murders but shed much Jewish blood. Jansen even compares the execution of the Jewish men of the tribe Quraiza with the massacre of Srebreniza. "Kill all Jews who are in your power", the Prophet had called upon his followers. They obeyed.

Mohammed placed himself in the tradition of the Jewish prophets and of the "prophet" Jesus. But the idea of Djihad was intellectually, religiously, political-practically completely alien to them. Neither Jesus nor the Jewish prophets appeared, like Mohammed, with the sword. Their message was, "Swords into Ploughshares". That bloody fact weighs at least as heavy as the supposedly (not really) common Abraham narrative - which furthermore emphasizes the claim to superiority to Judaism and Jews especially in the "at Medina revealed" Sura 2, which is theologically and historically significant regarding Jews: "When the Lord had put Abraham to the test by various commands and Abraham had proved to be a loyal servant, he said: 'I appoint you High Priest for the people!' Abraham asked, 'And my offspring?' God replied, 'My covenant does not include the sinful evil-doers'".

The message is clear: Abraham's descendants, the Jews are sinners. That makes sense historically, especially in Medina one can understand Mohammed. Medina's Jews refused to follow Muhammad - what at best cost them their possessions, and especially one Jewish tribe its life.

So much just about "the Jews". And about Judaism? In Sura 2, Verse 130 Abraham and Ishmael consistently ask Allah, "0 Lord, make us Muslims who are devoted to you." Sura 3, 64 calls the religion of the Muslims "religion of Abraham". The Meccan Prophet was the true heir of Abraham. Also the Suras 4 and 9, for example, are by no means kind to Jews. Similar Koran quotations and Mohammed traditions (especially in the primary source Ibn Ishaq) are legion. The demarcation from Judaism is clear. According to Tilman Nagel, scholar in Islamic studies, there is a glaring dividing line between Muslims and members of other faiths, Jews and Christians, if the latter are not ready to adapt themselves to the Islamic rites and purity regulations. In that case they are to be branded as infidels." (Sura 9, verse 12-14)

Certainly, after Mohammed the Islamic-Jewish history was less bloody, especially in the early medieval Spain from 711 to about 1000 AD, in the Indian Mogul empire of Emperor Akhbar (1556 - 1605) and above all in the Ottoman Empire with its, from today's perspective, almost exemplary Millet system; but when and where the Jews were not persecuted, they were like the Christians subordinated.

Back to Abraham. In Abraham's family a real war raged between his wives Sara and Hagar. Their sons Isaac and Ishmael were passively drawn into that, literally, life-and-death struggle. That dispute had also "national" traits, because Hagar was Egyptian, Abraham, Isaac and his son Jacob the progenitors of Israel resp. of the Jews.

God promised to Abraham and Hagar to make Ishmael, the son of the maid-servant Hagar, "a great nation". Hagar was maid-servant, but not mistress. As a "bridge" only equality was suitable. In "The City of God" also Augustine points to that difference of rank (which just separates and does not connect): In order to prevent Abraham from regarding "that promise as to be fulfilled by the son of the maid-servant, the Lord appeared to him when he was already ninety-nine-year-old and said to him" that he would give a son to Sara.

According to the tradition Ishmael is regarded as progenitor of the Arabs. Arabs and Jews - that meant already in the text of the Old Testament (i.e. in the ancient history) frequent hostility, even enmity. Arabs and Jews - that unfortunately means also today still enmity. And that applied also to the time of the Second Vatican Council: the Council Fathers came in very close contact with it by the interventions of both parties - and reacted by watering down the substance of the pro-Jewish resolution.

Also the actors' hierarchy described in Book Genesis cannot be described as connecting religions and peoples, in case Abraham should be the ancestor of Jews and Muslims (and all Christian believers). Abraham was clearly the master, Sara the "mistress", and Hagar the maid-servant. Sara was at first infertile. That's why Sara chose the maid Hagar as "Kebse" (subordinated second wife) of her husband. "And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress." (Gen 16, 4). A kind of internal family rebellion. "Then Sara treated her so severely that Hagar run away." (Gen 16, 6). The "angel of the Lord" persuaded Hagar to return, promised her to make her descendants "so numerous that they can no longer be counted", and she gave birth to Ishmael (Gen 16, 10). Later, after the birth of Isaac, Sarah's domination was restored. At her instigation Hagar and Ishmael were with God's approval in the truest sense of the word "given the push", driven out into the desert where they did not die of thirst only through a miracle of God (Gen, 18).

The Genesis-hierarchy transferred to the later tradition means that Jews (and the Christians following them) are superior to the Muslims. That is not a good basis for the Christian-Jewish-Muslim Trialog, what (no "wonder") the Muslim side has always recognized and mentioned.

When Abraham died he bequeathed all his belongings to Isaac (Genesis 25, 5). His other sons from the (mostly overlooked by most people) second marriage with Ketura after Sara's death (Gen 25, 1) and the sons of his many concubines" he sent "far away from his son Isaac, to the East, into the Orient" (Gen 26, 6). One son of Ketura was called Midian and was therefore the progenitor of the Midianites. Zippora, the first wife of Moses was, as is well known, Midianite.

No doubt, Ishmael was superior to those many sons, because after the death of Abraham he was buried in the "Cave of Machpela in Mamre" by "his sons Isaac and Ishmael". Also here, in Genesis 25, 9 the two are mentioned in this order and rank. But only Isaac gets God's blessing after the progenitor's death (Genesis 25, 11).

Incidentally, or maybe not, because you expect a progenitor and even more a prophet to set a good example: As a husband Abraham seemed almost to be submissively dependent on his wife Sara, at the expense of Hagar and Ishmael. Sara "tormented" (so the original Hebrew text in Genesis 16, 6) Hagar and Abraham did not stop Sara.



When Hagar run away for the first time the "angel of the Lord" consoled her (Genesis 16, 7). No Abraham was to be seen anywhere. The rest is a mystery.

You can really not maintain that Abraham protected his partners. In order to save his own skin he pretends Sara is his sister, and lets Pharaoh physically at and on the skin of his wife, whom the lecherous king of Egypt (Hagar's homeland!) desired (Genesis 12, 10-20). In Gerar Abraham plays the same charade with King Abimelech (Genesis 20, 1-18). Unlike Pharaoh Abimelech could not enjoy the intercourse with Sara. God had prevented it in time by timely appearing to the lascivious king in a dream (Genesis 20, 6-7).

In Genesis 20, 12 Abraham informs both Abimelech of Gerar as well as us, the readers of the Old Testament: "By the way, she is really my sister, a daughter of my father, but no daughter of my mother, so she could become my wife." Really? Does that not verge on incest?

If not, it is nevertheless not exemplary. And are we actually not to expect that of a progenitor and / or prophet, or rather not? We little, i.e. posthumous Jews have no problems with our grand people, our ancestors, because we know about their frailty as human beings. Just think of how Rebecca deceived her husband and Jacob his father when Isaac gave him his fatherly blessing. Not only he, also the first-born child, Esau, has knowingly and intentionally been misled. In the Old Testament things are often in an all too human way. That is agreeable and realistic, but people are here rather seldom a superhuman legacy of a supposed infallibility and of an unattainable greatness. Not even Moses or King David, the founder of the royal family from which, so to speak, the Jewish Messiah is to come and from which Jesus was to come.

What is left is Abraham as the first and radical Monotheist. Really? "But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14, 22). To God Most High, Hebrew "el eljon". Where and when there is a God Most High, there are also others, so to speak, gods of lower rank. Some people will say that is hair-splitting. They are wrong, because words, especially holy ones are very carefully chosen.


Abraham: Jewish - Christian

Also between Christians and Jews the Abraham bridge is not particularly strong. Matthew 1, 1-2 is the small Christian pillar: "The family tree of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac of Jacob, Jacob of Judah and his brothers." Matthew 1, 17 concludes: "On the whole there are therefore fourteen generations from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian captivity fourteen generations, and from the Babylonian captivity to Christ fourteen generations."

With Luke (3, 23-28) Abraham is one of the 76 "ancestor of Jesus" mentioned by name, from Adam up to Joseph, as whose son "one" regarded Jesus (Lk 3, 23).

The Abrahamic tablecloth is completely cut in Saint John's Gospel (8, 30-44): "When Jesus spoke these things, many believed in him. Then Jesus said to those Jews, who believed him ... They answered him: We are Abraham's descendants ... I know that you are the children of Abraham. But you seek to kill me, because my word has no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and you do the things that you have seen with your father. They answered, and said to him: Abraham is our father. Jesus said to them: If you are the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill me, a man who has spoken the truth to you, which I have heard of God. This Abraham did not. You do the works of your father. They said therefore to him: We are not born of fornication: we have one Father, God. Jesus therefore said to them: If God were your Father, you would indeed love me. For from God I proceeded, and came ... You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning."

In plain language: The Jews are not God's children but children of the devil, and Abraham was not her progenitor. Jesus and his followers are God's children, Abraham is the progenitor of his followers, who were later called "Christians". Abraham is not the progenitor of the Jews. It [the hostility] cannot be formulated more clearly and polemically against the Jews. Where is the common Abrahamic heritage?

Also Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke about the "belonging together" of Christians and Jews "by the common Abraham-history, which at the same time is our separation and our togetherness". Can you call those brief mentions "Abraham-history"? For all the literalness of the New Testament and beyond the dubious historicity of the progenitors those citations are even not sufficient for a short story. Of course, everyone understands what Joseph Ratzinger wants to say: Jews and Christians were related to each other through the family tree drafted by Matthew and Luke. That is plausible even without mentioning an Abraham-Bridge, because the Gospels describe his birth, his life, his career, his work and his suffering as a Jew in the Jewish world afflicted by Rome.

Just as "history" the "Abraham story" is not suitable as Judeo-Christian bridge, because Abraham (like God) took the circumcision as a sign of the covenant very seriously, whereas the relinquishment of the circumcision pursued by Paul started the separation from Judaism. That's why (also) the "Abraham story" separates Jews and Christians. "... with regard to the flesh Christ comes from them (= "Israelites"), who as God is superior to all ..." (Romans 9, 4 - 5).

Jesus as "God", at the same time "God's Son", "virgin birth", but then "family tree" - that is only theologically understandable, just as the birth of Isaac as child of his aged parents Abraham and Sara. That relation on the other hand would connect Jews and Christians. And just it is not mentioned by the theologically highly learned Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who (as aforementioned) refers to the family trees in Matthew and Luke, and in another place also converts the gentiles into "Children of Abraham", without family tree: "According to the Christian creed Jesus opens and fulfils at the Cross the wholeness of the law and hands it over to the gentiles, who are now able to accept it in its entirety as theirs and thus become children of Abraham."

That may be acceptable as Christian theology, as a bridge between Christians and Jews it is emotionally, rationally and "theologically" inappropriate for Jews. That is confirmed by the Christian-Jewish dialogue since Nostra Aetate. The great, really important rabbis and Jewish scholars have withdrawn from it. Of course, there are exceptions. In the German language area I think of Shalom Ben-Chorin, his son Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, Pinchas Lapide, also Walter Homolka and of Jacob Neusner in the United States. As the Liberal and Reform Judaism in general, they have especially in Israel no "divisions", i.e. no influence on religion, and the "Jewish music" is - like it or not - above all played in the Jewish state, in Israel, where meanwhile the majority of Jews lives. The proportion of Israelis of the Jewish people is steadily rising, because there the growth of the Jewish population is considerably, whereas in the Diaspora the number of mixed marriages is increasing and, as a consequence of it, the Jewish offspring decreases. The "Jewish geography" and "Jewish demography" will increase the weight of the orthodoxy prevailing in Israel but not that of the "reform" dominant in the United States. What this development means for the Jewish-Christian dialogue needs not be explained in detail: it will "fall asleep".

Christian clerics and scholars are already now complaining - mostly off the record - about the lack of interested and theologically qualified Jewish interlocutors. They continue the dialogue (of the deaf and dumb?). Some, because they want to be "politically correct" and know that today's "spirit of the age", differently to the early 1960s, wants the dialogue with the Jews. Those on the Christian side who refused it are isolated by Christians. The "spiral of silence" (Elisabeth Noelle) works. Meanwhile, however, many priests, differently to the time of Second Vatican Council, enthusiastically take part in it; you can see that "fire" also among the "grass-root" Christians. It will die, because despite their efforts the Christian claim to superiority continues. Up to now it has not really been questioned (by whom, if at all?). Is it possible that it is questioned by Christians as Christians? No. And that's why the still burning inner fire of sincerely committed Christians will (in the figurative sense) not really kindle Jews; someday it will die.

It remains a fact that Nostra Aetate has corrected flagrant injustice by condemning anti-Semitism. It has said natural, obvious things by abandoning the thesis of collective guilt. But it has not created a sound basis for a Christian-Jewish dialogue. Also the bridge built to the other non-Christian religions is not convincing, because the text does grant them no more than one ray of the truth.

The message of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources is clear - provided you take the sources seriously and do not interpret their statements away: The Abrahamic heritage does not really connect the three religions. Of course, as Jews, Christians and Muslims we want and are to come together, but the bridge connecting us must be stable. The Abrahamic one collapses before we step on to it.

Also the monotheism of the "Abrahamic" religions is not non-controversial among the three. That applies especially to the Trinity in Christianity, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Regarding this the Koran is openly polemical and by no means objective; the Jewish "theology" is similarly reserved but fences with a foil. Both, Judaism and Islam fail to recognize here the complicated theology of the unity of that Trinity.

Judaism and Islam regard the veneration of the Saints in the Catholic Christianity and the Christian religious pictures as a clear violation of the biblical Old Testament ban on images, as a quasi-idolatry. Who or what does unite us Jews, Christians, Muslims? Nothing and nobody? In my book "Jews and Christians" (2008) I have tried to prove that Jews and Christians share the common Jesuanic heritage, because Jesus is inconceivable without the Jewish prophets and the pre-Talmudian rabbis - as well as the Talmudic sages thereafter cannot really be understood also in their polemic. Jesus, Jesus but not Christ connects Jews and Christians - not Abraham. Jesus is what, or more exactly, Jesus is the one who is common to Jews and Christians, but at the same time he separates them; separating with regard to his Messianity, but not with regard to his religious and ethical substance. That unites Jews and Christians.

What unites Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Christians? Abraham not. Who or what then? The content and messages of the Old and New Testament - where and when they are understood as truly common original and are not twisted either for reasons of polemic, partial knowledge or ignorance. But with all the readiness to come to an understanding, this must be clear: The Djihad contradicts the Jewish and Jesuanic and of course the Abrahamitic attitude of mind. But how are we, for example, to understand the Crusades or that God supposedly ordered Saul to destroy the Amalekiter as a people? That has nothing to do with Abraham, whereas the Jihad is rightly to be regarded, theologically and historically, as religious and predatory war but not as a "great mental effort". Djihad was not Abraham's affair.

Let's have the courage to be in each case different. Let's have the courage to make use of our own reason when we read the respective sources and to recognize and identify the different characteristics in the other person/matter. Let's not have our eyes on ideologically or theologically agreeable, often cheap interpretations, and were they presented as erudite as possible or by, as regards the amount of knowledge [additiv], most learned scholars (i.e. by those who are not necessarily the most sensible, understanding people, resp. intellectuals).

Live and let live, not kill - that is to be our goal. "Thou shalt not kill." All the Ten Commandments say more than the Abraham story (-ies), which in many sections shows man's frailty[menscheln]. Compared with it, what theological problems have Jews, Christians and Muslims with the Ten Commandments? No problems at all. Those who prefer something like Küng's "world ethos" are certainly on the safe side regarding ethics, but the ethics wheel has already been invented before. Not only "love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19, 18), but also Leviticus 19, 34: "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Is that "Jewish hegemony"? No, it is open-mindedness and tolerance without the need for acceptance. Again: "The others are different - they are like you."

The Abrahamitic trinity as a connecting unity is fiction and formula. It seems, however, that formulas are necessary for the education of people, because many (most?) people orient rather towards formulas than towards contents. Seen in this way, the Abraham formula would have at least its civilizing function: lacking in content and effective.


    {*} Prof. Dr. Michael Wolffsohn, professor of modern history at the University of the Bundeswehr Munich


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