"The Tent of Abraham" by Waskow, Chittister, & Chisti: Book Review by Claire Gorfinkel

The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims (Beacon Press, 2006). By Joan Chittister, OSB; Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti; & Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Foreword by Karen Armstrong. *

Reviewed by Claire Gorfinkel *

For some time now, I have longed for a study group that would consider common themes in Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts. But as is so often the case, in my longing I have created a set of expectations that are virtually impossible to fulfill.

I wanted a group with both men and women, Jews, Christians and Muslims who were well grounded in their faith traditions, who would meet for disciplined study over a substantial amount of time, and who would engage issues of both faith and politics, God and the Middle East conflict.

Was that too much to ask? Probably. Then along came an extraordinary new book: The Tent of Abraham.

Starting from the Hebrew Bible [“Old Testament”] account of Abraham’s origins, his rejection of his father’s idol worship, his relationships with Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, the three authors offer us a series of stories and teachings that are simultaneously –

personal: about themselves and challenging us as individuals;

spiritual: about God, issues of faith and the parallels among the core texts of the three traditions;

and political: from welcoming the stranger to challenging the materialism of the dominant culture to valuing the natural environment to seeking a just peace in the Middle East.

Stories: these are “Stories of Hope and Peace.” They are stories about the authors’ personal struggles but they are also stories about the value of stories themselves and about the ways that by re-telling our stories – and listening to others’ – we can glean new meanings from them. They help us see how we can change our lives and the world around us.

The three authors are passionate about the need for peace, reconciliation, and self-examination; they are also modest and able to critically reflect on the limitations of their respective faith communities.

I was deeply moved by Rabbi Waskow’s understanding of Abraham’s encounter with God in the oaks of Mamre. He teaches us the imperative of seeing God in every human person as well as in the leaves fluttering in the breeze like “the Breath of Life.”

I am grateful to Sister Joan Chittister for describing her valiant efforts to bring together Israeli/Jewish and Palestinian women, including parents of children killed in the conflict that divides them, to witness against violence.

This book reminds us that strong beliefs demand sacrifice. It then recalls how both Isaac and Ishmael were spared, after being threatened with death.

Rabbi Waskow calls to us in the Biblical imperative: “Do not stretch out your hands against the children!”

Saadi Shakur Chishti, a Sufi scholar, adds deep psychological insight. He shows us ourselves, divided as our father Abraham was divided: sometimes the tyrant and sometimes the child, our male and female, striving and nurturing aspects struggling for expression. He challenges us to heed the prophetic voice within, and he asks whether concepts such as “democracy” and “Islam,” have become modern-day idols.

This book is wonderfully accessible and at the same time deep. Most of the essays are only a few pages. One can read them in sequence or randomly and many are worth re-reading several times. Like the best family stories, we get to hear some of them told more than once, and thanks to the authors’ different perspectives, experiences and faith traditions, we get to see our own stories in a surprising new light.

The Tent of Abraham would be a great resource for a series of adult education sessions, and for creative dialogue with people from different faith traditions. As for me, I think it will take the place of my study group!

-- May 23, 2006

Claire Gorfinkel is an activist and writer who lives in Altadena CA.


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