The Torah story of the banishment of Ishmael, along with his mother Hagar, can often resemble a bad Western movie.
One might rationalise the expulsion of Abraham’s other son (Genesis 21) as a case of “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us”. In every generation of our Patriarchs such a decision is made, but none as seemingly cruel as this one.
Classical commentators justify the episode suggesting that when
Ishmael “played m’tzachek with Isaac”, he entered into some immoral act – trying to sexually abuse, kill or lead Isaac into idolatry. In this reading, expulsion is justified to protect Isaac’s physical or spiritual wellbeing.
Others point at the wordplay and suggest Ishmael was playing – perhaps innocently as children do – at being Isaac, the one who would inherit. In this reading, Sarah fears for her son’s right to be the legitimate heir to Abraham, a very real concern for Ishmael that he would have legal rights as the son of a concubine, and had Ishmael kicked out.
The morality of the decision is traditionally justified because God endorses Sarah’s demand. However, Midrashic and Islamic interpretation is at pains to remind us of Abraham’s love for Ishmael – and, indeed, Hagar.
In Liberal Judaism, we see what the Torah can tell us about today’s society. Here, we see how the cruel dissolution and division of families for whatever reason blights society and can, in the worst cases, lead to interminable and internecine conflict.
The religious inheritors of Ishmael and Isaac, Jews and Muslims, have far more in common than divides us. Yet modern banishments still afflict us.
Shalom Joseph Shapira’s poem, Ishmael, My Brother, warns: “Time is running out, put hatred to sleep; shoulder-to-shoulder, let’s water
υ Aaron Goldstein is senior rabbi at Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue