Monday, November 06, 2006

The Ishmaelite Prophecies of Lech Lecha -----------

Parashat Lech Lecha discusses, among many things, the birth of Isaac and Ishmael. I find the Torah's treatment of both of Abraham's sons, the first through Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian maidservant, and the second through Sarah, Abraham's wife, very interesting. The Torah tradition says that the Torah has seventy levels of insight, so what I am about to say in this blog might be found in one of those seventy levels, but as far as I know this is just one of my own observations.

The Torah speaks of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham's first son. I think that there are many key elements and descriptions in this parsha referring to Ishmael which give us insight into his character. The first set of experiences that made Ishmael the man that he was have to do with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, her handmaiden. In Bereshit 16:1, we read, "Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, 'See, now, Hashem has restrained me from bearing; consort , now, with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.' And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai." A bit later in verse four it says, "He consorted with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. So Sarai said to Abram, 'The outrage against me is due to you! It was I who gave my maidservant into your bosom, and when she saw that she had conceived, I became lowered in her esteem. Let Hashem judge between me and you!'"

We see here that after Hagar had given birth, she (maidservant) looked down on Sarai (mistress, the feminine of 'master,' 'gever,' 'gvirta' in Hebrew). It was acceptable for Hagar to be happy for having a child, but for her to give Sarah "bad eyes" because she had not yet given birth and even worse because Sarah was barren, was by all means a hostile and conceited action. To jest a woman who cannot give birth is a very low way to act towards another person, and Sarah being incredibly wounded by this act expelled Hagar from the household.

The next set of events which befell Hagar are what gave Ishmael his specific attributes holiness, characteristics, and spiritual energy. After Hagar was expelled, she fled to a desert which the Torah says was
"in between Kadesh and Bered." (Bereshit 16:14) In verses seven through fourteen we see, "An angel of Hashem found her by the spring of the water in the desert, at the spring on the road to Shur. And he said, 'Hagar, maidservant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?' And she said, 'I am running away from Sarai my mistress.' And an angel of Hashem said to her, 'Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her domination.' And an angel of Hashem said to her, 'I will greatly increase your offspring, and they will not be counted for abundance.' And an angel of Hashem said to her, 'Behold, you will conceive, and give birth to a son; you shall name him Ishmael, for Hashem has heard your prayer. And he shall be a wild-ass of a man: his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and over all his brothers shall he dwell.' And she called the Name of Hashem Who spoke to her 'You are the G-d of Vision," for she said, 'Could I have seen ever here after having seen?' Therefore, the well was called 'The Well of the Living One Appearing to Me.' It was between Kadesh and Bered.'"

There are a few very interesting things going on here. First of all, according to Rashi, the reason that the angel used the term "mistress" with Hagar was to show her that Sarai was still in charge of her; my own observance is that we see in the verses that Hagar immediately reflected the angel's utilization of that word showing that she had a certain depth of faith, which can even be said to be deep, and understood that it was G-d's will for her to be under the "domination" of Sarai. Indeed she did return to the household and lived as Sarai's maidservant. Genesis 16 says that Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.

The second very interesting thing was that,
"And an angel of Hashem said to her, 'I will greatly increase your offspring, and they will not be counted for abundance,'" - Hagar would give birth to a multitude of people but that they would not be counted for abundance, which can be read that their huge numbers will not yield power. Thousands of years later, the Arab peoples, whom claim to be the descendents of Ishmael, are extremely numerous (and so are the Muslim peoples, whom claim to be the spiritual descendents of Ishmael) but they, despite their abundance, have not, thank G-d, overcome the Jews, whom are but a tiny fraction of the total Arab population.

But let's try to topple this argument before moving on. If we employ the argument that it is silly to assume that this verse refers to our own day's reality, we can assume that it refers to a time more contemporary to the timeline of this verse, namely, sometime after a group of peoples known as "Arabs" came into being shortly after the time of Ishmael's and Isaac's lives. G-d gives the blessing to Hagar at a time of conflict between her and Sarai, and so that
they will not be counted for abundance is relevant only in light of that conflict. Now, we cannot be sure that such a conflict existed at the time shortly after Ishmael's and Isaac's lives, so this would lead us to assume that the verse is making a reference to a (much) later time when there actually was some such conflict in between people claiming to be Isaac's descendants (the Jews) and people claiming to be Ishmael's descendants (the Arabs and Muslims). We could, however, try to topple this argument by saying that a time did indeed exist in which Jews and Muslims were in conflict before our own day. Such a time could have been at any time that the Arab peoples had already come a discernible group, but we know through history that there was nothing inherently conflicting between Arabs and Jews (before Islam) because the Arabs were just another pagan culture on the Earth. It was only after the advent of Islam that any such conflict, that is, specifically and uniquely between Arabs and Jews could have come into play, because it was only until Islam that Arabs (by way of Muhammad's teachings) claimed to be the descendants of Ishmael. We could, however, insist that the Arabs, even before Islam, claimed to be the descendants of Ishmael, but that is highly unlikely because they knew that Ishmael was a monotheist and all of the Arabs until Islam were polytheists. Therefore, their connection to Ishmael was "discovered" only with the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Therefore, we get the astonishing realization that the verse is meaningless if it does not refer to some time in which a situation like our own exists. We could try, however, to say that such a conflict existed in earlier times (sometime after the lives of Ishmael and Isaac) to which this verse is actually referring, but history records no such thing. The conclusion is that it was a prophecy referring to today's time (from the 7th century until today, actually).

The third thing, related closely to the second, is this verse - "
and he shall be a wild-ass of a man: his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and over all his brothers shall he dwell." This verse has to be referring to the same exact time as the previous verse because it is related to this conflict. However, the verse does not make mention only of the conflict between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac, rather, it makes reference to "everyone," (his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him) i.e., he will have a conflict with everyone. We see today, and this is magnificently politically incorrect, that the Arab nations, and by some measure, the Muslim nations, are growingly at war with the majority of the world, maybe even the rest of the world. One who studies the "latest" sociological phenomenon of political Islam and Muslim terrorist groups will see that they are motivated by an ideology that is set against the entire world and seeks for it to accept Islam. The way I read "wild-ass" is that he will be constantly kicking and fighting in the stubborn manner as does an ass (donkey), and this can be overlaid to the behavior of not per se the Arab or Muslim world, but to the factions operating within it that acts the most "expressively." The verse also reads, "and over all his brothers shall he dwell," clearly Arab nations rule over Arab nations today, if we read "brothers" as meaning "other Arabs," but if we read "brothers" to mean "other people," because we are all brothers, then the verse means that Arabs will dwell (ishkon), i.e., he will be in their midst. This can be read in many ways, but I read in the way that his sheer numbers will place him all over the world, dwelling over his brothers. All in all, the Arab nation will be a nation of an incredibly powerful faith in G-d, as was Hagar, but they will be violent, as was her son, and they will be everywhere. If we take into account human history, it is hard to read this verse as referring to anything else.

Nevertheless, Hagar returns to Sarai and fourteen years later (or it could be thirteen), Sarai gives birth to Isaac. Approximately one year before G-d told Abraham that Sarai would give birth to a son (Isaac), He told him,
"And as for you, you shall keep My covenant - you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of the foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised..." (Bereshit 17:9). Islam has the tradition of circumcising their sons at the age of thirteen years in order to keep in line with the age of Ishmael at the time of his circumcision. A Muslim site about circumcision reads, "Often, Muslim boys pass through their major status change - circumcision (khitan) - when they have recited the entire Qur'an [Koran] once through. In Malaysia and other regions where this procedure is followed, the boy undergoes the operation at from ten to twelve years of age. It is thus a real puberty rite, separating the boy from childhood and introducing him to a new status. There is much anxious anticipation of circumcision at the age of puberty, because the initiand is increasingly aware of his own sexuality and needs also to demonstrate his bravery and honor. The adults talk a lot about the fearsomness of the circumciser and make frightening remarks right up to the time of the event, which in some causes is semi-public, although it is more and more often performed in a clinic or hospital. In any event, there is much festivity, with music, special foods, and many guests. While the actual event is taking place, one may hear praise of God, partly, as some observers have suggested, to drown out the boy's cries. But the procedure is relatively safe, and those whom perform it are usually trained and experienced." ( This has further meaning, it is much easier to be circumcised at the age of eight days then it is to be at the age of thirteen years; for a boy to be circumcised at an age of consciousness means in the Muslim tradition that he is more steadfast and dedicated to G-d, largely because he really has no choice but more because the goal is to follow in the footsteps of Ishmael. Therefore, in Islam, it is a noble religious value to carry out one's faith to extraordinary levels of self sacrifice. *When a Canaanite neighbor of Jacob and his sons raped his daughter Dinah, he said that he would let the matter go if the man married her and if the whole town circumcised themselves, an act delineating conversion - his intent was to have real peace with them. On the day after the circumcision when the pain is at its most severe level, Shimon and Levi, two of Jacob's sons, murdered all the men in the town. The point here is that we see that circumcision is an undeniable act of complete obedience if done at an age of consciousness.

In Bereshit 21:9, when Hagar had been back for already thirteen or fourteen years and after Isaac had been born,
"Sarah son the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. So she said to Abraham, 'Drive out this slavewoman with her son, for the son of that slavewoman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac!' The matter greatly distressed Abraham regarding his son," but he did as G-d had told him, "Be not distressed over the youth or your slavewoman: Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours. But the son of the slavewoman as well will I mate into a nation for he is your offspring."

Here's the fascinating thing about this set of verses. First of all, Ishmael was thirteen when Isaac was born and he had since, in the last thirteen years, probably become well-versed in the conflict existing between his mother and Isaac's and he inherited his mother's bias, which is natural. When Isaac was born, Ishmael mocked in a similar manner to Hagar's mocking Sarah when she was barren. When Sarah saw this, probably stirred by the memory of that mocking, and probably also looking for a reason to expel Hagar, said the previous statement to Abraham. Now the interesting thing about Ishmael is that he was likely what one would call a "tough kid," he was circumcised at the age of thirteen and was probably weaned on stories from his mother that she gave birth to him after being driven out by Sarah. He likely had not the most positive view of Sarah, whom had carried out such a grievance against his mother, who could have died, and further knew very well about Hagar's extraordinary vision from G-d in the desert, which had saved his life. Ishmael probably had a serious faith in G-d, via his mother and then on his own, and had an aggressive streak. It would also be in the realm of sense to say that he had somewhat of a painful spot with his father, Abraham, whom allowed Sarah to expel his mother, and he might have had a rebellious spirit in him towards his father. The commandment to honor the father and mother is related to the commandment to honor G-d since the parents are one generation closer to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. If it is true that Ishmael had a sore spot towards his father, Abraham, he might have also had then a sore spot towards G-d Himself. Nevertheless, he definitely inherited the monotheistic and yes, compassionate legacy of his father, combined with the aggressive and mocking attributes of his mother, whom disliked Sarah and most likely resented Isaac as well.

We must also focus on Hagar's mocking behavior of Sarah, which then re-expressed itself as Ishmael's mocking of the infant Isaac. We know that Hagar looked down on Sarah for being barren and felt herself above her mistress for this reason. The irony is grand; she who was supposed to have children with Abraham, his wife, had to concede the right to Hagar with the hope that she might be a blessing for her. Hagar was of a different mindset regarding this and she began to see Sarah as a pathetic who had to raise her handmaiden above her due to the miserable curse that had befallen her, allowing her "access" to her husband in order to procreate. It is no wonder that the child of this union between Hagar and Abraham would seem to Hagar to be the living expression of her superiority due to her fertility versus Sarah's barrenness, forever.

When Sarah expelled Hagar (the second time), she again had a powerful spiritual experience in which an angel of G-d visited her. The set of verse reads,
"So Abraham awoke early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them on her shoulder along with the boy (who was thirteen), and sent her off. She departed, and strayed in the desert of Beer-sheba. When the water of the skin was consumed, she cast off the boy beneath one of the trees. She went and sat herself at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, "Let me not see the death of the child." And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept. G-d heard the cry of the youth, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the youth in his present state. Arise, lift up the youth and grasp your hand upon him, for I will make a great nation of him.' Then G-d opened her eyes and she perceived a well of water; she went and filled the skin with water and gave the youth to drink. G-d was with the youth and he grew up; he dwelt in the desert and became an accomplished archer. He lived in the desert of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt." (Bereshit 21:9-21)

Many fascinating realizations can be gleaned from these verses. First of all, Abraham loved Ishmael and probably felt a high degree of compassion for Hagar, even though he was aware of her behavior and conflict with Sarah regarding Ishmael; all Torah sources say that Abraham was an extremely compassionate and sensitive man. I imagine him to be a righteous, holy, "pushover" when it came to acts of kindness, morality, and those that he loved.

Regarding Hagar, it is incredibly interesting that the language the Torah uses to describe Hagar's distance from her son was "some bowshots away," using a weapon's (her son's later weapon of choice) reach to explain distance. We see that Ishmael, who had a series of difficult experiences, became an accomplished archer. The Torah also seems to explore Hagar's attributes; twice now (as far as we know) Sarah had expelled her from her household due to some infraction related either to her or to her son, and each of those times Hagar never stopped to wonder if perhaps she had done something wrong. Instead, in a dramatic episode she drew on her powerful faith and prayed to G-d to save her, never praying to G-d to forgive her for her hurtful infractions against Sarah (and to an extent, Abraham); she was able to pray to G-d amidst her resentment of Sarah and never once stopped to think that maybe her actions had landed her in this predicament. But G-d being Merciful and "hearing all those who truly call," is moved to Compassion by the sound of Ishmael's cries, not hers, for as it says,
"G-d heard the cry of the youth," and revealed a spring of water to her, in effect, also saving her.

Another incredibly amazing thing is that the core of Ishmael's relationship with G-d was formed when he was nearest to death, and therefore through being near death Ishmael's forged his internalized venues of connection with G-d. The religion of Islam expresses this value explicitly as a lack of fear, almost a desire to die in the worship of G-d. This is not just a reference to terroristic suicide bombing, which some had said is a perversion of true Islam, but rather to a stream of thought that exists in Islam itself, which sets the foundation for suicide bombing to take place but does not necessitate it. The point is that unbending dedication to G-d to the brink of self-sacrifice is an existent value in the religion of Islam and is directly associated with the experiences that caused Ishmael to be who he was. There is something comforting and liberating about being able to tell yourself that you will do anything for G-d, a sense of invincibility, but the freedom is a freedom from conscious and the invincibility is an illusion, both in this world and in the World to Come. The combination of Hagar's, Abraham's, and Ishmael's attributes seem to interestingly enough accurately describe the spiritual energy emanating forth from the religion of Islam. The best way I can describe it is "aggressive, holy, monotheists."

Most interesting are the parallels between Ishmael's prophecied character attributes and the Israeli-Arab conflict and more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The events surrounding this and the characteristics of those involved play themselves out in today's modern scenario. If Abraham, the husband, can serve literarily as the prophetic metaphor for G-d, then Sarah and Hagar respectively serve as metaphors for the Jewish and Muslim people. Therefore, just in the same way that Hagar looked down upon Sarah for her travails, the Muslims would look down on the Jews for their miserable situation, and just as Hagar "had access" to Abraham, Sarah's husband, so would the Muslims have access to the special relationship that the Jews have with G-d. Just as their would be a numerous and powerful child of this union, the product of the Muslims' claim to the G-dly tradition would also be numerous and powerful. Just as Ishmael's offspring would not be counted for abundance, the sheer number of Arabs would not overpower the Jews. Just as Abraham allowed Sarah to expel Hagar, so would G-d allow the Jews to expel the Muslims. Just as the Hagar, wandering in the desert, cried out to G-d for her own salvation but never once wondered if she had harmed Sarah or prayed for forgivness, the Muslims would not once stop to seriously think if perhaps they were needlessly ruthless with the Jews. Just as Hagar never once considered that her consequences had befallen her due to her unrighteous treatment of Sarah, the Muslims don't stop to consider that the plight of the Palestinians could have been avoided had they been a little more fair with the Jews. Just as Hagar "strayed in the desert" rather than going to someone else's house, perhaps preferring her nomadic status than to serve under Sarah, the Palestinian national cause is marked by the preference to live as non-citizens everywhere than to submit to a Jewish sovereign state. Just as Hagar heeded G-d's words and submitted to Sarah her mistress, so will the Muslims submit to Jewish sovereignty. Just as Hagar and Ishmael had a deep relationship with G-d, so do the Muslims. Just as Ishmael grew up to be an aggressive man, so is the Muslim religion. Just as Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father, so will the Jews and Muslims ultimately come to grips with each other for the sake of G-dliness.

Another element of Islam is its apparent drive, through its religious practices, to “out-perform” Jewish religious practices in terms of dedication. For example, Jews pray three times a day, Muslims pray five times a day. Jews have two full-day fasts during the year (Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur) and Muslims have a whole month of half-day fasts (Ramadan). Jews, since the time of the destruction of the second Temple have ceased to pray in full prostration. Instead, we now pray in full prostration during only two holidays during the year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, while Muslims pray in full prostration five times a day – two years have passed before Jews have prostrated five times! Jews were already prostrating twice annually when Islam had formed so Muslims would have known this. Even the Akeidah, which Islam claims was with Ishmael and not Isaac, exemplifies this attitude; the “Jewish version” is that Abraham was just about to sacrifice Isaac when the angel of G-d told him not to. In the “Muslim version” Abraham actually slits Ishmael’s throat but just as he is doing this the angel places a metal (or some other material) sheet on Ishmael’s throat and he slices that instead. The point is that in the “Jewish version,” the Muslim tradition claims, we can never be fully sure that Abraham would have actually gone through with it, while in the “Muslim version” we are left with no room for doubt. The Muslim tradition claims that the original story has been falsified but in reality it doubts Abraham's dedication, not the veracity of the Jewish tradition.

The spiritual and psychological effect of this alteration in the telling of the story, despite that it switched the figure and location, is to establish absolute unwavering and wild obedience as the hallmark of religious experience. Not only that, this is another instance in Muslim thought where an experience placing Ishmael near death is identified with the climax of religious experience – we would see this tendency repeated in the nature of Muslim warfare, not excluding suicide bombing. In this logical schema, the “Jewish version” apparently doesn’t convey a fully devotional enough story for Islam’s taste and so Islam simply makes up its own Akeidah. Carrying this to the logical conclusion we would have to say Muslims believe Abraham and Isaac to be liars whom altered the historical record, but rather they get around having to do this by simply dumping the guilt on corrupted Jewish compilers and editors. The funny thing is that the Muslim tradition never identifies these anonymous Jewish editors, never states at which point in time they edited the text, for what reason, and where they lived; all in all, the Muslim claim that “these Jews” corrupted the text is 100% arbitrary and invented. The truth is that “these Jews” never existed and the record actually occurred as is written in the pages of the Torah, and the claim that the Jews corrupted history is in fact a corruption of history on its own terms.

Ultimately, the Muslim (and Christian) tradition relies on the veracity of certian key parts of the Jewish tradition as told in the Torah. For example, Islam has to believe that G-d gave the Torah to the Jews on Mount Sinai for two main reasons, the first one being that it was the first massive revelation to a group of people. Related to this, the Torah is the basis of G-d's Law, and since Islam believes that the Jews' straying from this Law necessitated the Qur'an, Muslims have to believe in the veracity of this specific event in the Torah. Second, Muslims also believe that Isaac inherited a part of Abraham's legacy, and indeed, Isaac's descendants (the Jews) received the Torah. At any era in history did G-d deliver such revelation to the descendants of Ishmael (Muhammad's revelation was private). If Islam rejects the veracity of this event, Islam cannot exist.

However, Islam is able to get around rejecting many of the Torah's records, such as the ones that it finds irrelevant as being either true or false and therefore leaves them alone. There are only a few specific records that Islam must proclaim to be false (have been falsified) if Islam is to make any sense, and those are the ones pertaining to Ishmael. Muhammad had to be very careful in deciding which events were true and which events were false; if too many events were true, then why should people follow the Qur'an and not the Torah? If too few events were true, then why should people believe that Islam, following on the Torah tradition, is true in and of itself? By only touching on the parts that Islam needed to, Muhammad was able to choose how to make people understand his new religion. By being indifferent on parts that neither confirmed nor challenged the veracity of this new religion, he was able to avoid bringing attention to those details and therefore solidified Islam as a believable tradition. A fair share of militarism was also necessary for this tradition to catch sway, and the banning of books and ideas (either legally or by way of norm) that challenged Islam, such as an independent reading of the Torah (or the Christian Bible). The details of the Torah might have challenged the veracity of the Qur'an and so Muhammad made no mention of them, skipping around them and retelling the stories. If a Muslim, or a potential Muslim in the 6th century had been allowed to independently read the Torah in its entirety, he or she might decide that it was the truth and become a Jew - this is not too different from today, where reading the Torah is probably taboo or maybe even banned by Muslim Law.

Other than this, certain tellings in the Tanakh are taken to be true but "revamped" to make sense in the context of 6th Century Saudi Arabia (such as the alteration in the occurrence of Adam and Eve), in which Christianity was also a popular religion. Fragments of records in the Tanakh are used to confirm Islam, such as Jeremiah's harsh criticism of the corrupted scribes whom he accused of altering the texts. The Muslim tradition explains that Jeremiah was criticising the scribes (sofrim) for altering the original text of the Torah. To sum up, Islam:

1) Confirms certain necessary parts of the Torah (Mt. Sinai)
2) Accuses parts disproving Islam of having been corrupted by Jews (Isaac and Ishmael)
3) Ignores parts:
3a) which are irrelevant to it (nearly everything)
3b) which would cast suspicion on the veracity of the Qur'an if paid attention in detail (Kashrut vs. Halal)
4) Alters known stories to make sense from a 6th Century Saudi Arabian perspective (Adam and Eve)
5) Interprets fragments of the Tanakh to support that "the Jews" corrupted the text (Jeremiah and the Scribes)
*6) Argues that the Talmud is immoral but allows such things to exist in the Hadith (polygamy, just war, centrism)
*7) Fallaciously sets Islam as the opposite of Judaism when they have essential commanalities (monotheism, a way of life, theocracy)