Isaac & Ishmael

Tenou’a #158: Editorial by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur
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Une_158_webIn the beginning, brotherliness was impossible. In any event, that is how Bereshit Genesis begins, in a tale of violence of brother against brother. No sooner did brotherhood appear than along came fratricide: Cain killed Abel. And the shadow of original murder haunts the rest of the book: Jacob and Esau fought in the womb and were rivals as of infancy, and Joseph was thrown into a pit and then sold by his brothers.

In the beginning, my brother was but my enemy, my murderer, or my victim. And the biblical history of origins repeats this scenario of conflict, jealousy and hate over and over. Among all the feuding brothers who haunt the text, one pair seem to have come out of the pages of Genesis and onto the pages of the news. That, in any event, is how the conflict between Jews and Arabs is often told, as if an ancestral scene was being played out over and over again, as if it had migrated from the holy scriptures onto our television screens.

Thus, relations between Jews and Muslims are often seen through the prism of Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, incapable of making up. Jewish and Muslim traditions do indeed establish those two as their ancestors, as archetypal figures of their respective identities. In the Torah, Abraham’s two sons, who were separated as of their infancy, in the name of inheritance that could not be shared, tell of a family that, today, we would doubtless say was “dysfunctional”. Does identifying ourselves with them then condemn us to dysfunction for ever more, and does it imprison us in insurmountable resentment? Can thinking of ourselves as the children of Abraham allow us to make up, or, on the contrary, does it take us back for ever into the story of our origins?

In Genesis, Isaac and Ishmael never came together again, except on the day they buried their father. Side-by-side, they found themselves before a tomb, the tomb of their father whom they had come to bury together. While in the Near East, violence is intensifying, and in France, the communities are withdrawing into themselves, thereby fuelling antagonism, this issue of Tenou’a seemed to us to be urgent and necessary. If Isaac and Ishmael were only able to come together at a tomb-side, can their story help us today to talk to one another again? In a context making encounters between Jews and Arabs so difficult, we have chosen to have Jewish and Muslim voices talk to each other in this issue, exchanging visions and reading and rereading together the texts of the Bible and of the Koran, asking questions about their Histories and about how they are being rewritten, calling into question the way in which the other is perceived in their respective cultures. Abraham had two sons. What can they still have to say to each other? In his work, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai unceasingly searched the scriptures for possible paths or voices leading towards reconciliation. In his collection “Open Closed Open”, he brings together Abraham’s family to invent another son, a brother who could have been ours.

Three sons had Abraham, not just two: “God will hear – Yishma-El (Ishma-El) ”, “He will laugh – Yitzhak (Isaac)”, and “Yivkeh – He will cry”. No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, the youngest, the son that Abraham loved best, the son who was offered up on Mount Moriah. Yishma-El was saved by his mother, Hagar, Yitzhak was saved by an angel, but Yivkeh no one saved. He was just a little boy, and his father would call him tenderly, “Yivkeh, Yivkeleh”, but he sacrificed him all the same. The Torah says a ram, but it was Yivkeh… Yishma-El never heard from God again, Yitzhak never laughed again (…) Three sons had Abraham: he will hear, he will laugh, and he will cry. God will hear, God will laugh, God will cry.”

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Delphine Horvilleur is a rabbi and is editorial director of the magazine for Jewish thought “Tenou’a – Atelier de pensée(s) juive(s)”.