Eid ul-Adha: Muslim and Jewish Reflections on Abraham's Sacrifice

Each of our memories of Abraham is different. Yet from within the inherent differences of embedded memory, springs forth a belief that is most real and tangible in the parent figure to which we both relate.
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Memory is innate to our beings. When our grandparents tell us stories about their homes in other countries, we remember. When our parents talk about their childhoods in great detail, we remember. When our siblings remind us of moments we would rather forget, we remember. Our memories transcend the material.

Our desire to remember is no less great when we commemorate the figures who shaped our respective religions. The roles that they play in our lives may be most real, even though we have never met them.

Among the most revered of these figures is Abraham, who is a key parent figure in both of our traditions, Judaism and Islam.

This Friday, 1.5 billion Muslims will mark Eid ul-Adha, a holiday on the Islamic calendar that remembers the Prophet Abraham, his willingness to sacrifice his son, and his son's willingness to be sacrificed, through the sacrifice of a goat, cow, sheep or camel, the meat of which is distributed amongst those in need. The Hajj reenacts events carried out by the prophet Abraham, his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael as they display their unwavering faith and trust in the Divine.

In the sacrifice of Abraham's son, there remains ambiguity within the narrative that leads to debate amongst early scholars of Islam about which son Abraham says is going to be sacrificed, Isaac or Ismael. Although most would consider the Islamic narrative to focus on Ismael, opinions did exist amongst Quranic exegetes that stated it could have been Isaac.

The intentional narrative ambiguity in the Quran enables the story of Abraham and his son to transcend the particular and impact the lives of readers centuries later and in myriad countries around the world. Because of the ambiguity, Abraham's faith can be remembered as one's own, rather than that of another -- with which one can empathize at a distance.

Similar uncertainty can be found in Jewish interpretations of the parallel story in the Torah. This Shabbat, Jewish communities will begin the Torah readings related to Abraham, as a person who was called to go out and start anew. After his character develops still further, after he starts a family, after he forges bonds with his children -- he is asked to sacrifice one of them.

While the Torah's narrative itself specifies that Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac -- and while in the Torah's narrative, Isaac is ultimately spared through Divine intervention at the last moment -- the interpretation of events varies radically. Even within a narrative that relates many details about the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the text is replete with ambiguity.

Did the entire episode take place in the context of a dream? Is it simply an etiological tale about the ban on child sacrifice? How passive or active was Isaac in the story? Did he even consent to being sacrificed -- prior to Divine intervention to spare him?

It is in the gaps between narrative details that our own cognition of events grows. Consciously or otherwise, we relate the narratives of Abraham and his son to our own experiences. Abraham becomes someone more relatable. His story loses its distance from us geographically, chronologically, and socially. Even in an episode most challenging, we find ourselves with Abraham.

Abraham is with us in time and space. He is in our memories. Once embedded in our memories, he is a real part of our lives.

Each of our memories of Abraham is different. Each one pays homage differently to the founder of our respective traditions. Each one of us understands and comprehends differently the sacrifice that Abraham made -- and the sacrifice that his son made correspondingly. Yet from within the inherent differences of embedded memory, brought about by the gaps and ambiguities of our sacred texts, springs forth a belief that is most real and tangible in the parent figure to which we both relate.

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