4.1 The Disparity between the “True” Situation and the “Real” Situation
15 (18) In that day HaShem made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land…’ 16 (1) Now Sarai Abram’s wife bore him no children: and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar
These verses are juxtaposed in order to emphasize the disparity between God’s promise and the reality. A painful discrepancy is presented between the ideal, the “true” situation (that God will give the Land to Abraham’s offspring) and the real situation “within reality” (that Sarah does not give birth). Such situations often occur in our lives: up above something “true” has already occurred, but below, in the lower world, it has not yet been realized. When our expectations are that something should have already transpired, but which has not yet happened for some reason, the inconsistency intensifies and leads to disappointment and crisis.
The breach between the “expected” and “real” is often a source of strong psychological distress which causes people to make grave mistakes.
Generally, there are two types of transgressions relating to time: acting belatedly and acting prematurely. An example of being late is the transgression of the spies who convinced the nation not to enter the Land even though the time had come. But the sin of prematurity is more frequent. It occurs when the ideal situation is already striving to come into being, but reality is not yet fully prepared for it. An example of the sin of prematurity is that of Adam, who tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge prior to his allotted time.
Another example is the creation of the golden calf. As long as Moses had not yet received the tablets up above, on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people awaited his return. But when the tablets had already been given in the heavens (on the mountain) and the time had come to carry them down to the people, the Jews proved incapable of waiting any longer, and so they said, “Up, make us a god who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1). Ideally, Moses should have already been at the bottom of Mt. Sinai as he had already received the tablets and had nothing more to do there, but in reality, he was not there yet, as he needed time to descend from the mountain. As a result, this delay, a necessary part of traveling, became the reason for the Jews’ making the golden calf.
We should note that the sin of prematurity, although encountered more often, is less severe than that of belatedness. The sin of the golden calf was forgiven, but the sin of the spies was not, and therefore that entire generation died in the desert. “Not loving” is a more serious sin than “loving too strongly,” as it is written: “but love covereth all transgressions” (Proverbs 10:12). Sarah’s sin is acting too early.
An important problem in our life is a shortage of bitahon or “confidence in God”; we therefore fear that a situation will not improve without our hasty interference, and therefore actively begin to do the wrong things, which later costs us dearly.
4.2 Hagar, Sarah’s Slave-Woman
(1) Now Sarai Abram’s wife bore him no children: and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
We have already noted that the concept of “slave” in the Torah does not correspond to the Greek or Roman idea of a slave as a “talking tool” (by Aristotle’s definition), but represents a type of “patriarchic slave” which is more of a servant, the youngest member of the family. According to Jewish law, it was forbidden to beat a slave; it was necessary to ensure the slave’s standard of living was comparable to that of the master; one could not force him to work too much or endanger his life and he had to be allowed to rest on Saturday and sit with everyone at the Passover table, etc. Eliezer, Abraham’s slave, manages his household and chooses a wife for Isaac. Slaves are also students, etc. The Torah calls Hagar a slave-woman not to disgrace her, but only to state that Hagar had a subordinate position in the family in relation to Sarah.
The Midrash identifies Hagar as Pharaoh’s daughter, and relates that after seeing the miracles that God performed for Abraham, Pharaoh gave Abraham his daughter as a slave. It is not necessary, of course, to interpret this Midrash literally, but it is significant that Hagar comes from a distinguished family and is a “representative of Egypt” (and even of its elite and spirituality) in Abraham’s home.
4.3 Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham
(2) And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, HaShem hath restrained me from bearing: go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her’. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. (3) And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.
After God made His promise, ten years—a significant amount of time—transpires, and when His promise is not fulfilled, a crisis occurs. Sarah is desperate and so decides on an extreme course of action: She gives Hagar to Abraham as a wife, hoping that this will somehow help her have children. Her confusion and lack of confidence cause the newly-born Ishmael to become a serious problem for Isaac. Thus, measures are taken to resolve the present, local crisis, which in the future will lead to a bigger global conflict. Sarah’s words, “It may be that I shall be builded up through her,” shows that she did not consider herself hopelessly childless, but thought maybe it was necessary for Abraham to have children first, and once there were children in the family then, perhaps, she would be able to give birth as well. It is also possible that as a reward for giving Abraham her slave-woman and adopting the child, she would herself become worthy of children (as is known, infertility sometimes stops after adopting children; the presence of children in the family acts as a psychological and, through the psyche, biological influence on the woman).
However, after Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham, the situation does not unfold at all as she expected.
4.4 Abraham and Sarah’s Barrenness
If Sarah does not bear Abraham children, but God promised him offspring, then who is the cause of this: Abraham or Sarah? By whose fault do they not have children?
Later in the Torah we will see a non-obvious indicator that the reason for the infertility is Abraham. That is, his process of spiritual growth necessary for Isaac’s birth has not yet been completed. Abraham’s incompleteness is reflected in the process of changing Abraham’s and Sarah’s names. From the formulation of the verse “thy name shall be Abraham” (17:5) we see Abraham is given a new name, but when Sarah is granted a new name, the verse is formulated differently—“thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be” (17:15)—that is, her real name, which had not been explicit previously, is only now being uncovered. The precise wording of the name-giving indicates that Abraham’s essence changes upon receiving a new name and his deficiency disappears, while in Sarah’s case, it is simply that the hidden is revealed, but her very essence does not need to alter.
However, at the time of the events involving Hagar, neither Abraham nor Sarah knew about this, so Sarah modestly blames herself instead of her husband, “Behold now, HaShem hath restrained me from bearing…” (16:2). And since Sarah considers herself at fault and wants to correct the situation so that Abraham would have at least some sort of offspring, does what she can, albeit without enough bitahon, that is, she gives Hagar to Abraham.
As discussed above, the reason why Abraham and Sarah did not have children was not Sarah’s barrenness, but rather Abraham’s unpreparedness for the birth of an heir —for at the time, he was still Abram and not Abraham. Some changes, necessary for the birth of Isaac, had to occur in his personality. But for now Abraham cannot see this; and, besides, God’s promise regarding offspring was given specifically to him. Therefore he not only consents to Sarah’s proposal, but even welcomes the opportunity of creating a future nation through Hagar as the preferable option.
Not only Sarah, but other foremothers as well, were childless at first. This delay in the appearance of descendants was part of the Divine plan, one of the many implicit and explicit hints and indicators that the nation of Israel is created not in the natural continuity of births, but in a disruption in the flow of reality, as something above nature, something encompassing special destiny.
4.5 The Status of the Rights of the Slave-Woman’s Son
We have already noted that the legal framework for the forefathers and the entire ancient Near East, were the laws of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king of the 18th century BCE. Although Hammurabi’s laws are not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, in many cases they are very much part of the milieu of the events, and sometimes it is impossible to accurately interpret the text of the Torah without understanding these laws.
According to Hammurabi’s code, a child born to a slave and adopted by the husband due to his wife’s childlessness, could have one of two statuses: If the wife does not subsequently bear children, then the child born to the slave-woman becomes the heir; if, however, the wife does subsequently give birth to her own child, then the slave-woman’s son loses all his inheritance rights. Consequently, if Sarah does not bear children, then Hagar’s son would become Abraham’s heir, but if Sarah gives birth to a child of her own, then Hagar’s son would end up with no inheritance at all.
In other words, Isaac’s birth deprives Ishmael of Abraham’s entire legacy, and he remains merely the son of a slave-woman. This is the nature of the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, in contrast to, for example, the conflict between Jacob and Esau, in which they were both heirs and the dispute was only about which was the firstborn.
For this reason, from the moment Isaac is born, Ishmael tries not to notice him at all, ignoring his very existence. This is the particularity of the Judeo-Muslim interrelationship (for example, the Muslims’ rejection of the Tanakh), as opposed to the Judeo-Christian relationship. We will discuss this topic in more detail below.
4.6 Hammurabi’s Laws and the Torah: Morality precedes Holiness
There is much speculation about another aspect of Hammurabi’s laws: When archaeologists discovered the texts of Hammurabi’s code in 1901, they noticed many parallels between the newly unearthed codes and the Torah. Based upon this observation, some of the researchers insisted that the Torah simply rewrote Hammurabi’s laws. In response to this contention, several Jewish “defenders of the Torah” began to emphasize the opposite, and insist there is no connection between the Torah and Hammurabi’s laws. But the truth is that from the Jewish point of view, it is normal and natural, and even mandatory, for the basic laws of ethics and the foundations of proper legislation to appear and be recognized in society even prior to the giving of the Torah.
One of the important principles of Judaism states that derekh eretz (that is, basic, universal, ethical principles) must precede the Torah. In other words, morality precedes holiness. If the “moral and universally-dignified” level of behavior has not yet been reached, then there are no preliminary conditions for advancement toward holiness.
Normally, this principle is understood on an individual level—that is, if a person is morally defective and indecent, if he is a “villain” by normal standards of human interaction, then Torah study will not help him mend his ways. It is necessary to first be a decent person, and then one’s advancement toward holiness becomes possible.
This principal can be understood on an individual, as well as historical, level: in the history of mankind’s development, moral norms had to appear earlier than ideas of holiness. Unless derech eretz, that is, a sufficient moral and legal level, is reached, true understanding of the Torah is impossible in principle. From this point of view, it is obvious that morality and justice had to be prevalent in humanity even before the arrival of the forefathers. This principle was manifested, in part, by the acceptance of Hammurabi’s laws, which raised humanity to a level where the law began to be founded on a sense of fairness, and therefore the Torah could be brought down into the world.
The fact that the Torah parallels the Hammurabi’s laws is not only natural, but even mandatory, since a person by his own very nature feels certain basic laws, and this is exactly the definition of derech eretz. Universal moral-legal norms are based not on that which God gave us through the prophets, but on a person’s ability to differentiate on his own, with his soul and consciousness, between right and wrong.
The Torah was not intended to improve villains; it is simply incapable of doing this. It is intended to show an individual who wishes to walk in the path of righteousness how to do so properly. For this reason, morality precedes holiness on both individual and historical levels.
4.7 The Question of Polygamy in Judaism
As a general rule, the Torah allows polygamy. Abraham and Jacob had several wives; the book of Samuel begins with the story of Elkana (the Prophet Samuel’s father) and his two wives, Hannah and Pnina; not to mention King David and King Solomon’s numerous wives.
However, upon closer examination of these cases it becomes clear that, with the exception of the kings, polygamy was always necessary, rather than pre-planned, and the reason for taking a second wife was usually a lack of children from the first wife. The general position of the Torah on this question is that polygamy is allowed, but not encouraged. The Torah’s ideal is a monogamous marriage, symbolized by the marriage of Adam and Eve. However, if a woman does not bear children, then it was proper for her husband to take another wife, to fulfill the commandment of having offspring.
(The situation was entirely different for the kings, for whom it was important to have multiple wives as part of their “job requirements” and as a political step; however, this did not apply to common Jews).
In the Talmudic era we find only one case of polygamy in Jewish texts. In the 10th century CE, Gershom from Mainz forbade polygamy among Ashkenazi Jews, and this law gradually spread and became accepted in almost all Jewish communities.
4.8 Hagar as Abraham’s Preferred Option
[Sarah gives Abraham her slave-woman because she was hopeless, as “a last resort.” However Abraham, apparently, interprets the situation differently. Although it is said “Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai…” (16:2)—that is, Abraham was not leading here—evidently such a chain of events fully agreed with his own desire to integrate with Egypt.
As discussed above, there were originally two plans through which monotheism, Abraham’s religion, could spread to all of humanity: there was Abraham’s initial plan to establish a universal cosmopolitical religion, and God’s plan to create a monotheistic nation. In the end, Abraham accepts God’s plan, but by his nature he was always inclined to the universal approach.
The self imposed marriage to Hagar could have been understood by Abraham as a shift of plans in the universal direction: let the vessel for the ideas of monotheism be a nation related to the Egyptians, the main civilization of humanity, and then it will be a “universal world-wide nation,” so to speak. After all, if the nation is to come from Abraham and Sarah, who are both “Hebrews,” then the scope of this nation will be too narrow. Would such a nation be able to influence all of humanity? If this special nation is born from Jewish origins but on Egyptian foundations, if the Egyptian culture is fertilized by Abraham’s ideas, then, it seemed to Abraham, there would be more hope for its worldwide success.
It is precisely for this reason that Abraham will love Ishmael more than Isaac and perceive Isaac’s birth as a crisis, as we will see below.
4.9 The Conflict between Sarah and Hagar and Abraham’s Role
(4) And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. (5) And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: HaShem judge between me and thee.
In previous verses, the Torah emphasizes that Sarah remains Abraham’s wife (“Sarai, Abram’s wife”; “to her husband Abram”). But Hagar’s status is also greatly elevated (“…and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife”). Because Hagar becomes pregnant, she decides her merits must outweigh those of Sarah. Hagar, with her Egyptian mindset, does not withstand the trial of an “elevated status.” The hierarchy between Sarah and Hagar becomes less obvious, and Hagar is disillusioned into thinking that the hierarchy is destroyed altogether, so she begins to act unacceptably.
In this situation, Sarah turns to Abraham to request judgment: “HaShem judge between me and thee,” for Sarah generally represents the category of judgment, gevura, within Abraham’s hesed.
Her ability to be “the inner category of judgment” is manifested with special intensity later, because without this characteristic she would be unable to give birth to Isaac, who embodies the “prophet of the category of judgment.”
(6) But Abram said unto Sarai, ‘Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes’
Abraham again avoids making harsh legal decisions, since he, who is the epitome of hesed, is not inclined to realize the category of judgment, and passes on the right to make the decision to Sarah, for whom the category of judgment is natural.
But this was in fact a trial which Abraham did not pass. He undermined the fact that Hagar was now his wife, and that it was his obligation to establish her position as subordinate in relation to Sarah. Abraham, the symbol of hesed, refuses to accept the category of judgment, leading to the destruction of the balance between judgment and mercy, and the collapse of the entire situation.
(6) And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face.
The Midrash says Sarah set Hagar to regular tasks and ignored her pregnancy (the pregnancy made Hagar haughty), that is, Sarah realized the category of judgment too harshly. The Torah considers this treatment as harassment and faults Sarah for her behavior.
4.10 God’s Question to Hagar
(7) And the angel of HaShem found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. (8) And he said, ‘Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, whence camest thou? and whither goest thou?’ And she said, ‘I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai’.
Ostensibly, Hagar is running away from the house to save herself from Sarah’s oppression, but in truth, she aims to clarify her own status to herself and so merits Divine assistance.
Hagar cannot cope with the uncertainty of her position, and God sends her clarification: the angel addresses her as “Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid,” thereby putting Hagar in her place.
The question by the angel (or by the Almighty, which is the same thing here) to Hagar is analogous to God’s question to Abraham, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9), and to Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9). This kind of question, which aims to encourage a person to realize his place in the world, God continues to ask throughout the entire course of history.
God wants to help a person find the right path on his own and therefore, He usually acts by sending hints rather than with force. Hagar understands the hint and says, “I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai,” thereby admitting her lowered status of a slave. In doing so, she corrects her previous mistakes and becomes worthy of Divine blessing.
4.11 A Problem with the “Religion of the Desert”
God reveals himself to Hagar in the desert and not in her home. And the subsequent place for Divine revelation for Hagar and Ishmael’s offspring is the desert.
The type of theology is developed in the desert which fully subjects a person to Divinity; it is a theology of humility, “Islam” in Arabic. The desert is not at all a place of freedom, but instead somewhere a person can feel his own worthlessness. In the desert, a person feels deserted and forgotten by everyone. One who lives in the desert recognizes the insignificance of humankind and the greatness of God. It is only logical then that, Islam, a religion of the desert, emphasizes the oppressive Divine predetermination, leaving almost no room for free will.
Judaism was subjected to a similar experience during the Sinai Revelation, and therefore, some “healing of side effects” was subsequently necessary. It is not by chance that the Torah was given in the desert, where, as the Midrash says, “God raised the mountain above the Jews and threatened to release it,” that is, He compelled the Jewish people to accept the Torah. However, according to Judaism, this was only the initial giving of the Torah, rather than the ideal fully-fledged connection with God. As long as we accept the burden of the commandments under coercion, our complaints against the Heavens will not cease.
Because the Jewish people were pressured to receive the Torah in the desert, they had to “re-receive” the Torah again. This necessary renewal of the Covenant with God has been occurring throughout the span of Jewish history, beginning with the Covenant in the city of Shechem (after the Jews crossed the Jordan River; below, we will discuss this question further), later on during the Purim story, and right up until the present day.
It is possible that Islam, as part of its further development, will also have to go through these stages.
4.12 The Status of Hagar and Ishmael and their Roles
(9) And the angel of HaShem said unto her, ‘Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands’
Recognizing Sarah’s dominance is necessary for Hagar herself. All the while she is mistaken in her self-identification, she does not earn Divine blessing. But when she acknowledges her status as a “slave-woman,” and in doing so rectifies her behavior, she becomes blessed:
(10) And the angel of HaShem said unto her, ‘I will greatly multiply thy seed, that it shall not be numbered for multitude’. (11) And the angel of HaShem said unto her, ‘Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Ishmael; because HaShem hath heard thy affliction.’
The role of Ishmael and the Muslims in world development is very important, and is also part of Abraham’s legacy. In relation to Sarah and the Jews, Hagar and Ishmael’s position is two-fold: although they have a subordinate status, it would be wrong to oppress them. The very name “Ishmael” tells us that God hears Hagar’s suffering. It is not easy to balance these two aspects, and in our lives we often see that some Jews emphasize to a greater extent the “necessary subordination of Ishmael,” while others emphasize the “inadmissibility of oppressing him.” However, we must learn to combine both these principles, and only then will our relationship with Hagar’s descendants normalize.
We should note that in Jewish tradition in general, the image of Hagar, despite her conflict with Sarah, is the image of a positive character of a fairly high level of spirituality. At the end of the Torah portion of Hayei Sarah, we are told that after Sarah’s death Abraham took a wife named Ketura whom the Talmud identifies as Hagar. According to this interpretation, Hagar, after having been exiled from Abraham’s family (we will read about this below), did not get married, but waited until Abraham called her back. Subsequently, Abraham does call her back, and she bears him more children. The alternation of Hagar’s name to Ketura demonstrates a change in her identity and her overcoming of previous insecurities.
Hagar’s problem is that her spiritual potential allows her to rise to the level of a “spiritual leader of the nations of the world,” but not of the Jewish nation. Her descendants include people who can become righteous men for other nations and fulfill an important spiritual function in the world, but they are not included in the Chosen People.
(12) And he shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.
The world pereh (wild) can be translated as “a wild ass.” “Wild,” as someone who does not “accept any yoke,” means not only wishing to be free, but also unready to perform labor.
“His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” i.e. everyone will need him, and he will be in need of everyone, and he will not be able to exist by itself; he is dependent, but at the same time in possession of something necessary for everyone else.
In the course of history, this blessing has come true, most likely, in that the creative role of the Islamic countries in the development of civilization was minute, while their “role as a transmitter”—in culture, trade, etc—was relatively significant. Their constant “hanging over the West as a threat” fulfilled the historically necessary role of the “threatening savage.”
(13) And she called the name of HaShem that spoke unto her, Thou art a God of seeing: for she said, Have I even here seen Him that seeth me? (14) Wherefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.
God says to Abraham, “I hear you” (that is, turn to Me; I am ready for a dialogue). Hagar, on the other hand, says about God, “He sees me.” (In other words, He watches over all and controls everything, but one cannot hide from Him.) This is an essential conflict within Islam: the inability to turn to God with a dialogue generates an inability to turn to people with a dialogue. But the desire to obey God, to blindly follow God’s orders (rather than discussing them with Him), creates a mindset to give out orders to the surrounding people and dictate to them how to live properly, rather than entering into a dialogue with them.
(15) And Hagar bore Abram a son: and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. (16) And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
Abraham leaves Haran and comes to the Land of Canaan at the age of 75. After 10 years, when Abraham is 85 years old, Sarah gives him Hagar, and at 86 Ishmael is born. The message about the future birth of Isaac comes when Abraham is 99, i.e. when Ishmael was 13 years old and has come of age. This is a necessary aspect of Ishmael’s upbringing as we will see later.
4.13 The Division of Abraham’s Legacy between Isaac and Ishmael
All his life, Abraham feels a special love for Ishmael, up until the time when he receives God’s promise about Isaac’s birth, which causes a conflict within him. “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?’ And Abraham said unto God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!” (17:17-18). We later see a similar attitude.
Abraham prefers Ishmael to Isaac for two reasons: Firstly, he hoped his marriage to Hagar would create a connection with Egypt, the pinnacle of world civilization at the time, and this aspiration remains with Abraham later too. And secondly, Ishmael’s character of hesed, although flawed, is more understandable and closer to Abraham than Isaac’s character of gevura.
Abraham’s preference for Ishmael leads to a division in Abraham’s legacy: the promise “I will greatly multiply thy seed” (16:10) goes to Ishmael, while the Covenant and Land go to Isaac as stated in Genesis 17:21: “But My covenant will I establish with Isaac.” Although later both Isaac and Jacob receive promises of numerous offspring from God, the proportion of Isaac’s descendants to Ishmael’s is initially in Ishmael’s favor.
In terms of faith, the Muslim nation is a “great nation” (17:20) and occupies a very important place amid the nations of the world. During the very first centuries of Islam it gave the world philosophical development of Abraham’s monotheism with a clarity and coherence which only appears among Jewish religious philosophers in subsequent centuries. The problem with Islam’s followers is that their belief does not translate enough into a relationship with other people. After all, accepting the ideas of God’s oneness and the obligation to submit to Him is not enough. It is necessary to arrange a practical way of life on the basis of unity between ideals and the systems of commandments.
To arrive at this, it was not enough to be Abraham’s son; it was also necessary to be born from Sarah. Abraham’s nation was chosen not only to carry and spread the theological and philosophical concept of One God, but also to bring to humanity “the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice” (18:19). For this reason, Ishmael is not capable of creating a civilization on his own; he can only “dwell in the face of all his brethren” (16:12), that is, serve as a counterbalance and corrector of defects for other Abrahamic religions.
Ishmael is universal and therefore has no connection to any specific land. He is to “dwell in the face of all his brethren” so has no need for his own personal country. Restricted “Land of Ishmael” would contradict the cosmopolitanism of Islam. The Covenant of the people, and, consequently, the Land, is passed down from Abraham only to Isaac.
We have noted earlier the connection between the Land and the realization of Abraham’s mission: “Now HaShem said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). Therefore, when it later says, “And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac,” (25:5) this refers specifically to the Land which was “all” because without it, realization of the mission is impossible.
4.14 The Difficulty with Judeo-Muslim Dialogue
Ishmael is a candidate as Abraham’s heir only in a situation in which Sarah has no children. If Isaac is born, Ishmael will once again become only a slave-woman’s son. This means that in order to continue considering himself Abraham’s heir, Ishmael must—regardless of reality!—deny Isaac’s very existence. If Isaac is simply a fiction, a fabrication, then Ishmael becomes the lawful heir. Because of this, it is very difficult for Ishmael to enter into a dialogue with Isaac.
This position finds its historical expression in the differences between Muslim-Jewish relations and Christian-Jewish ones. Christianity recognizes the Tanakh (Old Testament) as Divine Revelation, that is, it theologically accepts the existence of Judaism. Islam, on the other hand, is convinced that the Tanakh is the Jewish distortion of the words of God; that Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon were Muslims; that, instead of the true “sacrifice of Ishmael,” the Jews deceitfully put the sacrifice of Isaac into their book.
For this reason, when Maimonides was asked whether it was possible to discuss the basis of faith with Muslims and Christians, he responded that “this is possible with Christians, but not with Muslims.” This might seem strange on first glance, since Maimonides was inclined to consider Christian worship of the Trinity to be a form of idolatry (as opposed to most Jewish authorities of the Middle Ages, in whose opinion Christianity is not a form of idolatry). He says this despite the fact that Muslims are not idolaters. Maimonides, naturally, took into account that the Christians, unlike the Muslims, accept the Tanakh as Divine truth and believe in it (even though they add the New Testament to it). The existence of common ground creates a base for dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, and the discussion between them about the proper understanding of the biblical texts could easily be productive. But the situation is different with Muslims: since they reject the truth of the Tanakh, our basic religious text, a religious discussion with them about this text would be futile.
Indeed, history witnessed Judeo-Christian dialogues in both a conflicting (Medieval Ages debates) and “constructive-discussional” manners, but it barely saw Judeo-Muslim dialogue at all, even though Jews lived in Islamic countries for many years, and there were eras of good social interaction between them. As long as Ishmael does not acknowledge Isaac’s existence, he can say nothing positive to him.
It should be noted, that the Torah does not provide us with any examples of dialogue between Isaac and Ishmael, while there is no lack of dialogue between Jacob and Esau.
On a separate note, we should mention that when a Jew bought a non-Jewish slave in ancient times, he had to give him an option to follow the commandments and undergo a so-called “giyur of slavery” (giyur le-shem avdut) in order to be a slave in the Jewish nation. A slave who did so took upon himself the main commandments, was circumcised, and became a “the youngest family member.” If such a slave was freed, he would be immediately considered a full-fledged Jew. If the slave did not agree to undergo the “giyur of slavery” and become a member of the Jewish nation, he had to be sold to a non-Jewish master.