2016-06-30
Bruce Feiler's best-selling book of 2001, "Walking the Bible," recounted his journey through the Middle East as he retraced the biblical stories of the Torah. To write his latest book, "Abraham," due out this month from William Morrow, Feiler returned to the Middle East, traveling through dangerous regions in search of the patriarch of the three major monotheistic faiths. In "Abraham," Feiler argues that it is impossible to understand the divisions between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism--and much of current world events--without understanding the world's first monotheist.

To research your book, you willingly put yourself in many dangerous situations and in the middle of war zones. It seems you think this book is important now--that it couldn't be put off for a couple years when things might be a little more calm in the Mideast. Why is it so important that this book come out now?

After "Walking the Bible" came out, I was very happily working on another biblical trek last summer. Then, at home in New York on September 11, I received a phone call from my brother, saying, "Look outside your window." I watched the towers fall from the home of neighbors I hardly knew. I was mute, like everybody else, for several weeks. Then we began to hear these questions: Why did they hit us? Can the religions get along? We had been told for about a decade that the biggest question facing the world was going to be the battle between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world. Was this that moment? Was this the start of the end of the world?

If you listened closely, one name echoed behind that conversation, and one man stands at the nexus of the three religions that suddenly seem to be at war: Abraham.

So it was 10 days after September 11 that I hit on this idea, that I wanted to understand Abraham. He is largely unknown. I wanted go looking for Abraham, and I wanted to get him into the national conversation as soon as possible.

Had you thought much about Abraham before September 11?

About a third of "Walking the Bible" is about the early years of Genesis, so I had written a lot about Abraham. In all those years of traveling in the Middle East, in Turkey, Israel, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere, I had talked to countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims about politics, geography, and faith. One thing I learned in traveling there is that the past is never really that far away. It's always lying just under the sand.

I knew that the religions had this shared origin, and I knew that they had come to blows. How we got from Point A to Point B, I didn't know. I knew that personally I think the best way to understand the present is to turn away from the present and look back to the past. Over the years, I had benefited from the process of going back to the texts, reading the stories, going back to the places, and I thought that process might be helpful now, after September 11.

How did your journey to discover Abraham differ from the journey in "Walking the Bible"?

"Walking the Bible" is largely a journey of place. The idea was to go to the places and then read the biblical stories in the places. Very early on with "Abraham," I realized that this was going to be a journey of place and time. On the one hand, I went back to the Middle East, and I wanted to see how the conversation about Abraham differed in the middle of the war zone as opposed to 10,000 miles away. But I also quickly realized that the story was not just the story of Abraham as he appears in Genesis. The story is how each of the religions reinterpreted Abraham over time. There has been an ongoing retelling of the story of Abraham for four millennia. That is something that is entirely new and different from "Walking the Bible."

"Walking the Bible" was an attempt to reenter the time of the biblical stories. With "Abraham," I had to reenter the story of Abraham in every generation for the last 4,000 years.

So is that what you mean by there being 240 different Abrahams?

When I started this journey, I expected there was one Abraham. I thought I could go back to the Middle East and find some oasis somewhere in the desert and say, "Look, here's the center of Abrahamic ideals!"

I very quickly realized that was not true. The great innovation of the monotheistic religions was not just the great stories of the past but finding a way to make the stories of the past relevant to today. So that first Jews, then Christians, then Muslims, every week, retell the stories of the past and make them current. Sometimes in doing that, they find different things in the stories. And sometimes when the religions have been at war with each other, as they have been for much of the past, they say, "Abraham is mine. You don't have rights to Abraham."

There wasn't just one Abraham; there was one Abraham every 50 years for each of the religions over thousands of years. That's how I came up with the number 240. The Abraham of the Middle Ages for Christianity turns out to be different from the Abraham of the 19th century for Islam, which is different from the Abraham of the Second Temple period for Judaism. And these Abrahams are often in conflict with one another. Originally that was the thing that filled me with the most despair, but ultimately I realized it was an incredible opening, because it meant we can create Abraham Number 241 right now. We can create our own Abraham--the Abraham that we need right now at this moment in the history of religion, after 9/11, when religions seem to be about to explode.

Both these books are very personal. It seems that in "Abraham," your journey is not just one to discover Abraham, but to discover yourself. Why was that so?

When I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13, the Torah portion that I read was Lekh Lekha, the story of Abraham going forth. The defining moment of my life was the night of my Bar Mitzvah, when my father pulled me aside at this family gathering, poured me a drink, and said, "Son, you're a man now, you're responsible for your own actions."

Traveling has been part of my identity since I left home. Going out by myself has been part of my identity since I was a young man. I have found that the act of traveling, the act of going by myself to places, has actually brought me closer to my own family and closer to my God. It wasn't until I really sat down and thought a lot about the story of Abraham that I realized how that is similar to the basic story that I was reading at my Bar Mitzvah 25 years ago. The story is deeply connected to my own life.

So you strongly identify with Abraham?

I identify with a lot of the values in Abraham, as he appears in the Hebrew Bible. The basic core values of Abraham: independence, connectedness, sojourning, moderation, and searching. Those things I relate to.

Are these values that all the religions seem to share about Abraham?

Yes. There are a lot of figures in the Bible who have direct connections with God, and yet it was Abraham that the religions chose to make central over time. That is not accidental.

It is discovering what Abraham's values are that is so needed in the international dialogue right now. So much of the conversation is how the religions are different--is this religion too violent? Is this religion too arrogant? Is this religion too defensive? What is far more striking is how much they have in common. They all believe in one god, they all believe in the act of individuals separating themselves from their communities at times to understand the messages of that God. The story of a man sacrificing his son, which would seem to be a story of horrific violence today, is a story that is read in the holiest week of the Jewish year, the holiest week of the Christian year, and the holiest week of the Muslim year. So the connection between faith and violence is built into all three religions.

If this understanding of Abraham is so necessary for interfaith dialogue, where in the conversation does this leave people of non-Abrahamic religions?

One can make a very strong case that intra-family rivalries are greater than inter-family rivalries. I think that while fostering dialogue among all the world religions is a laudable goal, we have a crisis on our hands among the three monotheistic religions. Fostering dialogue among them can advance the process with the other half of the world's believers.

So I don't think that these necessarily need compete, but I'm also at peace saying that it is not detrimental to the other religions for the three monotheistic religions to spend a little time concentrating on how they got to where they are and where they can go from here.

You are set to start filming a documentary based on "Walking the Bible" early next year. Are you reluctant to put yourself back in the same dangerous situations, such as your trip to Hebron?

It's interesting you mentioned that trip to Hebron. I had decided before I went that I wasn't going to go, that it was too dangerous. And yet, when I was there, I felt that calling. I felt that place tugging me. I think one of the reasons was that because I thought there was cause for hope in the conflict there, I wanted to go to the bloodiest epicenter of religious conflict, which is Hebron, and see if I felt hope there. That's why I went.

Essentially, that's the invitation I'm offering with "Abraham." We can't all be firemen, or rescue workers, but there is a small thing that we can do to help heal the breach in the world, and that is to look into the shared past of the religions and reach out to somebody across the way.

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