The Morning After: Iran, Ishmael, and Isaac
By Rabbi Mark L. Winer, President of
: the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony since 1995. MBE PhD DD is a British/American interfaith scholar and leader. In 2014 Queen Elizabeth II appointed him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his “services to interfaith dialogue and social cohesion in London and the UK.”
It is still the “morning after” one of the most acrimonious Jewish debates in recent memory. Pro-gressive, Reform, and Liberal Jews throughout the world divided almost evenly into two camps, those supporting the nuclear agreement with Iran, and those opposed. In North America, our movement’s umbrella institutions judged that our congregations and rabbis were so divided that they declined to take a position either for or against. Public opinion polls indicated that Israeli Jews were overwhelmingly opposed, whereas Diaspora Jews were marginally in favor.
In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion
, Rabbi Lester Bronstein calls our attention to the ram “caught up in the thicket,”
. He relates the Torah’s word
(“thick-et”) to the modern Hebrew word
– “complicated.” It is that complication that forces Abraham to assume a less self-assured, more humble posture as he descends the mountain.
By acknowledging that our own decisions with regard to the Iran nuclear agreement were compli-cated, and that there was no simple option available to us, we too should experience a deeper hu-mility in whatever conclusions we reached. Admitting the complications of the agreement and the complexity of our deliberations about it should impel us to greater respect for those who differed with our opinions.
Torah implies that we are all Abraham and Isaac – that we all stand on Mount Moriah together. Unity of the Jewish People has never meant unanimity of opinion – our diversity of opinion has historically been a source of strength.
The Torah shows the alternative consequences of treating one another with mutual respect versus disrespect. Responding to his wife Sarah’s insistence, Abraham banishes Hagar and his first-born son Ishmael to the desert with only a skin of water and a loaf of bread. The episode of the binding of Isaac in the very next chapter may somehow be a consequence of Abraham’s hand in the ban-ishment.
When Isaac grows up, he makes a different overture toward Hagar and Ishmael. After his mother Sarah dies, he chooses to travel to
Be’er L’chai Ro’i
, the place where Hagar and Ishmael had fled (Genesis 24:62). According to the Midrash, Isaac journeys there in order to reconcile with his brother Ishmael. Imagine Isaac’s trepidation in seeking reconciliation with Ishmael after a lifetime of enmity and rivalry between their mothers! Soon after, in an inspiring act of filial cooperation, Ishmael and Isaac
bury their father Abraham (Genesis 25:9).
Isaac by example instructs us, too, to overcome old rivalries and pursue resolution, even with our enemies.
The figure of Isaac teaches us the power of reconciliation and mutual respect. Those traits must neces-sarily guide our cautious reaching out both to those with whom we disagree within our own com-munity, and also to those outside our community with whom we may share an historic enmity.
Those who know me, and those who have read my essays and heard my sermons over the years will not be surprised to learn that I was a supporter of the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite its many limitations and deficiencies. I have built my personal life and constructed my rabbinic career on transforming conflict – regardless of its sources – interpersonal, religious, racial, or national.
Born in the first years of World War II, I am now a few years into my eighth decade of life. I have witnessed miraculous transformations that few would have imagined possible. To mention only a few, I witnessed and participated personally in the transformation of the racial segregation of the American South, in the incredible progress within the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People, in the Ethiopian Jewish Exodus to Israel, in the re-birth of Judaism in the former Soviet Union, in growing European unification, in the emergence of Israel on the ashes of the Holocaust, and in the flowering of American Jewry. I am an optimist, despite having experi-enced the depth of human evil. I am an optimist wedded to Jewish hope.
Reaching out in hope, I have been a part of growing more collaborative and constructive relation-ships among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I have not forgotten the worst chapters of our historic interaction, but I also remember the fruitful cooperation and creative learning from each other. I believe that so long as we are eternally and jointly vigilant against the extremists in all religions, we can build bridges of peace over the raging rivers that may divide us.
I remain committed to a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. From my many years of Muslim-Jewish dialogue, I feel encouraged that the nuclear agreement with Iran can be-come a foundation for other steps toward mutual respect, celebration of difference, and partner-ship among Jews and Christians and Muslims. Local communities, local synagogues, churches, and mosques, and local rabbis, priests, and imams can and should reach out to each other, in the name of the God we share.
Within our People Israel, we must act quickly to repair the tears in our communal fabric. We must more clearly articulate the understanding that Jewish unity has never meant, and never will mean unanimity. The kinds of divisions which emerged in the debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran reflect differences in perspective which must become sources of creative dialectical tension. Too often we have viewed the divisions among Jews as sources of weakness instead of wellsprings of resilience and creativity.
Difficult as it is, I believe we need to follow the path of reconciliation Isaac exemplifies. To me this means pursuing peace by negotiating
with Iran, our enemy. But more broadly, the Isaac and Ishmael story calls upon all of us to stand together atop the mountain, reconciled despite dif-ferences, standing upright as one Jewish people, and as one humanity, even as we may vehemently oppose one another’s beliefs about what is best for the Jewish People, for our nation and for Israel and for our world.