BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bruce Feiler, author of "Abraham," how does this book relate to today's world we're living in and September the 11th?
BRUCE FEILER, AUTHOR, "ABRAHAM: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THREE FAITHS": Well, it specifically came out about, actually -- my last book, "Walking the Bible," came out in the spring of 2001 and became that writer's fantasy of a book that touches hundreds of thousands of people around the world. But I was actually working on a follow-up when I got a call from my brother on the morning of September 11, "Look outside your window."
I was in New York that morning and watched the towers fall from the home of neighbors I hardly knew. And like everyone else, I was mute as we began to hear these questions: Who are they? Why did they hit us? Can the religions get along? And particularly if you'd been in the Middle East, as I had, one name echoed behind those conversations. One man stood at the heart of all three religions that suddenly seemed to be at war, Abraham. Abraham.
FEILER:: Well, he is the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That means he's the father, in many cases the biological father, of 12 million Jews, 2 billion Christians, 1 billion Muslims around the world.
I mean, let's just take a simple example. The most mesmerizing story of Abraham's life is his decision to nearly sacrifice his son to God. You'd think that that story was so barbaric, it would have died out over time. Jews read that story in their holiest week of the year, at Rosh Hashanah. Christians read it, the same story, in their holiest week of the year, at Easter. Muslims read the story, the same story, in their holiest week of the year, at the end of the pilgrimage, because it's that story that cuts closest to our veins and poses that question we hope never to face: Would I kill for God?
And as we learned on September 11, for many people around the world, the answer to that question is still yes. And so two weeks after that date, I got up off my sofa and I went on a search, sort of what I do and how I respond to things, back to the Middle East in the middle of the war, back to the text, and ultimately, deep inside myself, to try to figure out was Abraham just a source of war, or could he be a possible vessel for reconciliation?
LAMB:: When was he born?
FEILER:: Well, if he was born -- we have no archaeological evidence that he ever existed -- he probably would have lived around 2000 BCE, 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. He was born, it's suggested, in the War of the Chaldeans, which is in present-day Iraq. But one of the fascinating things about the story is that we don't know anything about his childhood.
If you think about it, Jesus is a baby when we meet him. Moses is a baby. David was a boy. Before we know anything about Abraham, he's 75 years old. He's married to Sarah. They can't have a child. It's a story about creation, and they cannot create. He's sort of the anti-God, which in some ways is part of the -- responsible for the story that unfolds because there's no childhood and no back story, all of the descendants, rivalrous with one another, try to insert their own version of his early life.
LAMB:: So if we don't know if he was born, why is there even a man that we keep talking about like this? Where's it come from?
FEILER:: Well, there's no evidence that the stories ever exist, but there's also no evidence that he didn't exist. I mean, if you think about his life, he was a wandering man. He lived in tents. He goes from place to place. There's no evidence, there are no suggestions that he wrote anything down. So the only evidence we have from 4,000 years ago are remains of big buildings. So the absence of evidence, in and of itself, does not disprove anything.
But I think that it's pretty clear that these stories have deep oral roots that go back in time. So chances are, stories were told about him and his family. They were passed down from generation to generation. And then the stories were finally written down, with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, in the middle of the first millennium.
But what's interesting is, you know, I can't tell you that he existed then, but I can certainly tell you he exists now because, essentially, each of the religions over time has chosen him, and that's the key part of the whole story, which is he could have died out. Plenty of religious figures died out. Abraham doesn't die out because once Abraham and God form a partnership in Genesis chapter 12, when God, who is looking for a human partner, finally chooses Abraham, that partnership has never, ever been undone in human history. And so each of the religions -- Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam -- has tried, essentially, to take control of that moment. It's almost like he who controls Abraham controls God.
LAMB:: Who is the first person, then, to write about his life?
FEILER:: Well, if the question is, When are the stories written down, the first collection of stories that we have written down are written down in, say, 400, 500 BCE, when the Israelites are in exile in Babylon, after -- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, they go down into Egypt -- 400 years of slavery. The Israelites then cross the Red Sea. They're in the desert for 40 years. Then they conquer the Promised Land around 1000 BCE. They're there for several hundred years, and then they're kicked off into Babylon, into exile.
It's at that time that the stories begin to move from oral stories to written stories. Then the Persians come in and free the Israelites from Babylon, and they go back into the Promised Land. And at that point, the stories get what's called fixated, in the scholarship community. They begin to take a form that they're written down. And that's when we first get the Hebrew Bible, around 400 or 500 years before Christ.
And then -- and this is the key moment in the whole story -- then what happens is once the stories are fixed, everybody tries to interpret them. And that's when you get midrash, exegesis, all of these things. And then you get a tension between what's the message in the original story and then what the commentators have added to the story.
LAMB:: I don't mean to keep asking this, but who would have been the first person to write it down? Is there a name? Can we put a name on that?
FEILER:: Well, this is a big scholarly debate. Ezra is the name that's sort of commonly attributed, who was a prophet, a scribe. Ezra, who comes back to Jerusalem, sees that the people living there have lost all knowledge of their descendants, and Ezra is given credit, if anybody's given credit, for writing it down, reading the story openly in Jerusalem, and everybody is, like, Oh, we didn't know these stories. They had been lost. They didn't know about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses.
So I would say if you're looking for a name, Ezra's the best name we've got.
LAMB:: Who was Ezra?
FEILER:: Well, Ezra was a Hebrew scribe who was living -- who was an educated person, who wanted the Israelites who were living in Jerusalem in the middle of the first millennium to understand that there was this story, that God had chosen Abraham, God had made a promise to Abraham that I will give you the land. And that goes down from Abraham, Isaac to Jacob. That Moses -- that they'd been in slavery for 400 years, that Moses had freed them across the Red Sea. And these stories were lost. I mean, maybe a few people knew them from oral traditions, but it was Ezra, this scribe, who wrote it down and then read it aloud.
And that thing that we all take for granted, going to church or synagogue or mosque, the idea of reading the story and say, You know what? What happened to them long ago is relevant to what's happening to us today. That begins at that moment, and it's this -- that's the essential -- one of the great contributions of monotheism to Western civilization is building a causeway to the past and saying, We can learn from those stories. And that's part of this whole journey today, why Abraham can be relevant to us.
LAMB:: Now, if I ask that same question of an imam or a Muslim...
LAMB:: ... what are they going to say about where the story started?
FEILER:: Well, they're going to say not something dissimilar, actually, because in the Koran, which comes along -- Mohammed is born 600 years after Christ -- he goes back and reconnects with those stories. He goes and he hears God retelling the stories. And then the Koran is full of many, many references that say -- to "the book," to the Hebrew Bible, that says it is holy. So Islam accepts Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, even Jesus as prophets. But Islam just says that Mohammed is the final prophet. So there is a continuum between the stories of the Hebrew Bible, the stories of the New Testament and the Koran in Islam. Everybody comes back to the same root family.
LAMB:: But don't you say that there's a difference between the way the Muslims look at Isaac and the way they look at Ishmael?
FEILER:: Well, if you go back and just sort of map out the basic story, OK? God chooses Abraham. Abraham is looking for this child. They go -- he says, OK, I'll go forth from my Promised Land. In return, God says, I'll give you a son, a great nation, and all the families of the earth are going to be blessed by you.
Abraham goes down to the Promised Land, down into Egypt. Decades pass. Still no son. So his wife, Sarah, takes her maid, Hagar, gives her to Abraham. She gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham's got a son. End of story. But as soon as Ishmael is born, Isaac -- Sarah gets pregnant and gives birth to Isaac.
LAMB:: How old is Sarah at this time?
FEILER:: Oh, Sarah is – I think she's 90 when she gives birth to Isaac, and old and withered and past time. That's why it's an act of great faith, as when Paul goes back to that moment. And Sarah then gets jealous and forces Abraham to kick Ishmael out into the desert. And that's the split that we all face today because Muslims consider themselves descended from Ishmael, Jews and Christians from Isaac.
But what's powerful about that moment is that even though Ishmael goes out into the desert, he never leaves the realm of Abraham's love or of God's blessing. God continues to bless Abraham, bless both of his children, bless all of their descendants. At the heart of the story is a message of unity. And the tug never, never changes. So Jews accept that Abraham continued to love Ishmael. There's all these stories about Abraham going off into the desert to see Ishmael. Muslims accept that Isaac is in the picture.
What happens is that over time, the religions begin to sort of elbow one another aside, and as you suggest, to claim one or the other for themselves. And that creates this basic tension which is at the heart of my experience looking for Abraham, between the message in the story and the message of the religions themselves.
LAMB:: Let me ask you about a -- maybe not a small point, but given what we talk about in this country all the time about morality, how much does God have to say about the fact that Sarah allowed Abraham to father a child with the maid?
FEILER:: That's perfectly legal, actually, in the ancient Near East. That's a completely accepted custom. It seems to be of surprise to no one. In fact, the Bible's very clear that the first-born son is the preferred son, and the first-born son gets the legacy, even if the first-born son comes from a wife who is not loved. So at the moment in which Sarah says to Abraham, Kick Ishmael out into the desert -- he doesn't want to. It's his first-born son. But God says, It's OK because I will continue to bless Ishmael and bless all of his descendants.
And that's what's interesting. If you really want to get inside the inner workings of the story, Isaac gets the land and the covenant, but he does so in part through the malice of his mother. Ishmael goes off into the desert, but his mother, Hagar, is treated incredibly well. Hagar is the only person, male or female, in the entire Hebrew Bible who ever names God directly. When she's pregnant and out in the desert and God visits her, she says, "You are El Roi." No one ever calls God by name.
And then God says to Hagar, Your child will become the leader of a great nation. God says that to other people -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses. Hagar is the only woman who ever gets that promise, making her, in effect, a female patriarch.
So I think it's very clear that God does not show a preference here. In fact, if you think about it, the Bible is not -- it doesn't treat losers very well. Abel is murdered. Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt. Ishmael could easily have been dispensed of, but it goes back to that original message in Genesis 12: I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you, and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. God's blessing and that sort of umbrella of morality and salvation extends to everyone.
LAMB:: Here's "Time" magazine. Abraham's on the cover. See what today is -- September the 30th. How did this happen?
FEILER:: The short answer to that question is that "Time" magazine got an early copy of my book, and they read the book, and they called us and said that they were, you know, interested in the book. You know, Tell us what else you have found. And then I told them, basically, this story, which was a story that I didn't know that much about, which is that all across America and many countries around the world, there is this burgeoning interfaith conversation that's going on. And Abraham is proving to be a real unifying figure in that conversation.
There are 800 people in Portland, Oregon, every Tuesday night, who are getting together to have an interfaith conversation. It's called the Abraham Initiative. In Portland, Maine, under the umbrella of Abraham, leaders of the three faiths met with the governor on September 11, 2002, to pledge to get along. There are these Children of Abraham groups popping up around the country because, basically, we face this choice. We can have open conflict among the religions, or we can have a different way of going and relating to one another. And that is the path of dialogue. And Abraham, I think, is a unifying vessel in that. He's not a perfect vessel, but he's the best vessel that we've got.
And so we began these conversations between my publisher, William Morrow, and "Time" magazine about, Look at what we found and look at what they found. And we sort of began to have this conversation and that I think that they felt in the anniversary that Abraham could, in fact, be a unifying figure. And so 4,000 years after he dies, there he is on the cover of "Time" magazine. It was -- it's been an amazing -- sort of an electrifying moment, I think, for the interfaith conversation, and certainly, in my life, it's been -- it sort of exceeds the imagination what it's done.
LAMB:: Do you think that the 18-year-old, the 20-year-old that straps a bomb around their waist and goes over into Israel and blows up a bus will ever care about Abraham?
FEILER:: I actually think that that person is as much a descendent of Abraham as any of us. And I think one of the reasons that Abraham is valuable in this interfaith conversation in the world today is because there is, in fact, violence in the story. It's not like you're putting Mother Teresa up against war and saying, Let's all go to Mother Teresa. Abraham is the figure in history who introduces the notion of the tension between faith and violence.
Let us not forget that Abraham tries to kill each of his sons. He kicks Ishmael out into the desert, which is tantamount to killing him. He takes Isaac up to that rock and nearly kills him, as well. So the idea of killing for God is a subject that has its roots in Abraham.
And that's why I think Abraham can be most valuable because I go back -- I mean, one of the last things I did on my journey, as you know, was I went to Hebron, one of the bloodiest cities on the planet, the epicenter of Muslim-Jewish conflict. I took what's called the "sniper road" south from Jerusalem and -- where Palestinians shoot down Israelis, and I got to the base of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, this giant building that looks like a cross, between a gymnasium and a castle.
Last time I was there, there were 10,000 Jews dancing joyously in the streets. Today it was empty, so unsafe that four Israeli soldiers with helmets and machine guns -- four -- escorted me inside the tomb. And it's there in this tomb, which looks like a flea market, with overturned chairs and prayer books, a chandelier with half the bulbs out, that Abraham dies at 175. And his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, rivals since before they were born, leaders of opposing nations, come, stand side by side and bury their father. Abraham achieves in death what he could never achieve in life, which is a moment of reconciliation between his two sons.
And I think what's powerful about that moment, Brian, is what it doesn't say. It doesn't say they hugged and lived happily ever after and had a meal. It just says they stood side by side, that that is the model of understanding that Abraham tried to kill each of them. And if they can forgive him and stand side by side, then that seems something we can hold onto, as well.
LAMB:: Why should somebody who hasn't studied this thing in depth believe that somebody lived to be, what did you say, 175 years old?
FEILER:: Well, I think that the great thing about these biblical stories, having spent now five years of my life around them, is that no one should believe anything they don't want to believe. It's all ultimately a matter of faith.
I think that it is clear, when you get inside the stories, that the numbers in the stories don't mean exactly what they mean today. You start seeing the same kinds of numbers -- fives, twelves, fours, tens reappearing a lot. It's possible that those numbers have meaning beyond the sort of very literal scientific understanding of numbers that we have today.
I mean, if you take 175 at Abraham's death, you know, Noah, all these -- Adam, the previous figures, they lived to 600, 800 years. The fact that Abraham is 175 suggests to me, at least, that we're moving from the realm of pre-history, when the numbers are even more fantastical, closer to the reality today, when you begin to see Abraham as more human, more relatable -- to-able, if you will, than Noah or Adam.
So I think that 175 actually, in the context of the story, is pretty young.
LAMB:: Bruce Feiler grew up in Savannah, Georgia. What took your parents to Savannah?
FEILER:: Actually, I come from five generations in Savannah, Georgia. I have relatives who fought on either side of the Civil War, actually, and there is a fairly thriving Jewish community in Savannah, Georgia. So my dad was born there, and what took my mom there was my dad. And they are still there, and it's still a great -- it is just one of these magical places that attracts people and that has this great spirit and obviously has this beauty that's unrivaled in the country.
LAMB:: What did John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" -- what impact did it have on Savannah?
FEILER:: I was just in Savannah, actually, before I came here, and I was given a speech in a church, and the woman who introduced me stood up and she said, Well, thank you for beginning your journey for Abraham in Savannah and talking to religious leaders in Savannah and showing the world that Savannah is not just voodoo and homicides and, you know, eccentric characters.
I think that it did a lot for Savannah, in the sense that it spread that charm and it spread that sort of exoticism and people wanted to go to Savannah. I think, at the same time, there were some things in the story that made people in Savannah uncomfortable and that perhaps spread a reputation that is not exactly warranted. So I think that, all things considered, it's a fairly mixed balance -- you have to say people really enjoyed it, and as a result, people came to Savannah. And that tourism really helped the city in a dark period. The city's booming now, but I think that "Midnight" was a sort of bridge.
LAMB:: What do your parents do there?
FEILER:: My father's a real estate developer, and my mother is a businesswoman and a community activist and taught junior high school and ran the local art museum, where she -- my mother actually ran the art museum when Jim Williams was the president of the art museum, Jim Williams being the antiques dealer who was murdered at the heart of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." So they're very active in politics and have a wonderful life there.
LAMB:: When did your own relationship with Judaism start, in a mature, adult way?
FEILER:: Well, I mean, I grew up as a Jew in Savannah, Georgia, which meant that I didn't have a particularly spiritual or a religious upbringing, but I had a pretty strong identity because everybody called me when I was a kid, you know, That's the Jew. I mean, everybody knew those things, and that was -- we stood out.
I tell a story in "Abraham" about being 13 years old and stepping to the pulpit of Mikveh Israel synagogue, which is the third oldest synagogue in the country. I was wearing this dark blue suit and this red, blue and white tie, and my hair was, alas, blond then, and it was brushed over my ears. And I carried this Torah from the back of the pulpit and laid it out in front. I took off the pointer and the breastplate and the mantle. And everything was done a little too meticulously and took slightly longer than it should have.
And finally, I unfurled the scrolls and read in halting, uncertain Hebrew, " Vayomer hashem al avram lech lacha" Those are the opening verses of Genesis 12, in which God calls to Abraham, "Go forth from your father's house to the land that I will show you." And my mother's maiden name is Abeshouse, house of Abraham. And that moment, a child, bar mitzvah, I felt very much attached to the community. My father was president of the synagogue. My mother was its first female president in 250 years.
But I would then say that I traveled around the world. I mean, I went off to university. I went to Yale, and then I started living abroad for years and felt sort of disconnected. And about, oh, I guess seven years ago now, I decided that I wanted to re-read the Bible, to reconnect to the stories. You can't open up a newspaper or turn on a television and not hear these stories referred to in one way or another. So I took the Bible off my shelf. I put it by my bed, where it promptly sat untouched for two years, gathering dust and making me feel even guiltier.
And then in the summer of '97, I went to visit an old friend who was living in Jerusalem, a friend of mine from Savannah. And she took me to this perch overlooking the city and said, Over there is Har Homa, that controversial neighborhood, and over there is the rock where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. And it just hit me like this bolt of lightning: You mean, these are real places that you can touch and visit and feel? And I thought, in a crazy way that I've lived my life by traveling and entering communities, Here's an idea. What if I travel along the route and read the Bible along the way?
People tried to talk me out of it. Most of those places are unsafe. There's no evidence. They're in war zones. But once this idea took root in my head, I was not going to be dissuaded. And I found this archaeologist, Avner Goren, and the two of us made this journey that became "Walking the Bible," 10,000 miles, three continents, five countries, four war zones. And that was the process of reconnecting to the stories and to my own spirituality that has led me here today.
LAMB:: What five countries?
FEILER:: The five countries were Turkey, Israel, Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan. On subsequent trips, I'd also been to Saudi Arabia and Iran.
And the whole story of "Walking the Bible" was to go to the places and then read the stories in the places where they occurred, on Mount Ararat, crossing the Red Sea, on top of Mount Sinai. And that is what sort of -- the thing about your question is that when I started, I said it was not going to be a spiritual experience. It was going to be about me and the Bible, not me and my spirituality or me and my God. It didn't take me long to realize that that was self-protective folly. You couldn't do what we did and not have it be personal.
I remember meeting my archaeologist friend at the beginning of my journey. There I was in my brand-new Banana Republic pants and my new boots and enough sun block for 40 years in the desert. And there he was in his Bedouin trousers, this Israeli man in his 50s, his gray hair squiggling everywhere, and his sandals. And I realized that all of my learning was in my head. It was 150 books I read before starting "Walking the Bible." And all of his learning was in his feet.
So if I had to put into one sentence what happened to me with "Walking the Bible," it would be that my learning went from my head to my feet, that by walking in these places and being on the land, I developed this very tangible, physical connection to the land.
LAMB:: Before we talk more about that, I want to go back to a couple of the books you've written and ask you about them. "Under the Big Top: A Season With the Circus."
FEILER:: I learned to juggle when I was 12 and actually considered -- and did a lot of mime -- I used to say that I put myself through high school doing mime at birthday parties -- and considered running off to join a circus before going to college, opted for a more traditional path, went off to Japan and wrote a book about that, went off to Cambridge and got a master's degree.
And I'd been abroad for about five or six years, and I wanted to sort of come back to America and explore it in a deep, serious way. So I joined a circus, Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, which is the world's largest circus under the big top, and spent a year, bought a Winnebago, lived on the road and did two shows a day, seven days a week, three shows on Saturday, every day from March to December without a day off.
FEILER:: Juggling, clowning, performing, doing everything. Everybody on the circus does everything -- you know, putting up the tent, taking down the tent. I mean, I've never worked so hard in my life.
LAMB:: What'd you learn?
FEILER:: I learned that that old thing about -- people joke that, My office is as chaotic as a three-ring circus. There's nothing more organized than a three-ring circus. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm sent his -- members of the German army to study the way the circus moves because it was so efficient. And I think that I learned that there was a lot of darkness, actually -- murder, rape, arson, bigamy, bestiality, group sex, organized crime. I mean, if you see it in America, you see it in the circus. And I went through a lot of days when I was really disillusioned and disheartened and sort of saw my dream of this world crumble.
But there was also incredible families. There were actually two Bible study groups. There were the most -- there was to me the best example of everyday American as a I saw in the circus because we had not two, three but four Tupperware parties in the course of this year that I was in the circus.
So I learned this incredible familial attachment that the people in the circus have for one another, and I have great respect for that. So I think that I learned that dreams can take a lot of disillusionment, but that ultimately, dreams can come true.
LAMB:: Another book, "Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes and the Changing Face of Nashville."
FEILER:: I grew up in the South. I love the South. I'm fascinated by how the South has changed. The traditional Southern things have died out or they've gone national and sort of taken over the world. And country music is a good example of that. I hated country music when I was growing up, but then in the mid-'90s, as we all recall, suddenly country music was the dominant cultural force in America. So I moved to Nashville in the mid-'90s, spent a couple years on the road with Garth Brooks, the biggest recording artist in American history, Wynonna Judd, a young kid from Oklahoma named Wade Hayes, and wrote this book about sort of trying to figure out what the changing nature of Nashville says about the changing nature of America.
LAMB:: And what did it say?
FEILER:: I think what it says is that the regional differences in this country are disappearing and that that attachment to place has gone away, but that the values -- I mean, the reason that country music has been so popular is that what it represents is no longer picking cotton and working in the fields and all the poverty that it may have represented 40 years ago. It represents good, old-fashioned American values. And that is the thing that is missing from culture often that comes from the East Coast and the West Coast, and that's why country music now can be as popular in San Diego, Cleveland, Seattle, as well as Savannah.
LAMB:: This book, "Walking the Bible," is still on the best-seller list. Tell us about getting into this. You mentioned that seven years ago, you got into going where the -- you know, the different countries and all. How -- why did this become such a best-seller?
FEILER:: Well, I could spend the rest of my life trying to answer that question, but I think there -- at the heart, it's a very simple idea, that people feel the lure and the magic and the appeal of these places, and they want to go. And I think the reason it worked in my life is because I took this basic thing which I did, which was cultural immersion -- joining the circus, going on the country music tour bus -- and applied to the Bible. I essentially reentered the Bible as if it were still alive and sought to become a part of it.
And when I did it actually and I made this journey and it took me the better part of a year, as I was saying earlier, I thought that it would have been done before and it wasn't until I got to the end that I realized it has never really been done systematically, chronologically in the way I did it in "Walking the Bible." And, I used to say glibly well, why is that? And, I used to say well because there's this bubble of peace and now the bubble has burst and I feel all the more privileged to have done it.
And so, I think that that's one of the reasons and the only other insight that I can say that I've gleaned from a year talking about it and hearing from thousands and thousands of readers on my Web site is that most of the people - the hardest thing about that book, Brian, was putting the personal struggle in it that I went through. It's much more personal than my previous books.
Sometimes I felt close to God. Sometimes I felt very distant. Sometimes I loved the stories. Sometimes I was really frustrated and I didn't want to write about that because I thought it might distance me from the readers but I eventually was persuaded by good friends and editors to put this in. The number one thing that people have written to me is thank you for talking openly about your struggle.
And what I've gleaned from that is that most of the people who speak openly about religion in America do so from a position of certitude or they adopt a position of certitude because they think that they should. Most of us out there in the pews, or frankly in the pickup trucks because we're not in the pews, we struggle.
We have doubt and I think that that is ultimately one of the reasons for both "Walking the Bible" and "Abraham" which is that I'm not wagging my finger in the air and telling people what to do. I'm saying I have these questions. This is the journey that I went on and I invite you to come along and I hope that you enjoy it but ultimately I'm not prescribing how you should live your life. I'm just telling a story about my own struggle and then ultimately the joy that I found.
LAMB:: Various numbers have been given in recent years about the number of Muslims in the world as roughly 1.3 billion, the number of Christians in the world roughly two billion, and the number of Jews in the world roughly 14, 15 million.
LAMB:: Why has Judaism kind of stopped in growing?
FEILER:: Well, actually I'm not sure that I would accept that formulation. I mean one of the...
LAMB:: Why haven't there been - you know I know the Holocaust. Why not more people in the world that believe in Judaism?
FEILER:: Well, I think that one of the reasons is that Judaism is not now, it was originally, but it is not inherently evangelical. It does not go out and try to recruit people or convert people to Judaism. I think that Judaism had that streak early. In fact Abraham was a key figure in that because he wasn't circumcised until he was in his 90s and they said look, you know, you can become Jewish even late.
But, I think that it's interesting because my take on that is a little bit different, which is if you went back 100 years ago, Judaism seemed like it would have died out. I mean it had been ghettoized for centuries and centuries and centuries. It was not appealing.
I just was in Rome doing a piece on the Jews of Rome. For 350 years, they were in a five square block area, couldn't get out after dusk. You're not going to be able to invite people to come into that lifestyle. I think the remarkable thing about Judaism is not that it is not bigger. It's that it's not extinguished.
There are religions across time that have disappeared and I think it is the fervency of that faith and it is the idea within Judaism that it is OK to be small, that it is OK to be particular, that you can be a light unto the nations that has preserved it, and so that now it can actually blossom in a way that it hasn't in centuries.
LAMB:: Quick definition, the Torah, what is it?
FEILER:: The Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It's often called the Pentateuch, which is the Greek work meaning five books. You've got the Hebrew Bible which includes the first five books and then another 30 some odd books. Christians refer to it as the Old Testament. Jews tend not to like that term because it implies that there's an Old Testament and a New Testament. So, the Torah is the first five books. That is what is kept on scrolls in synagogues today and read annually in the Jewish year cycle.
LAMB:: The difference between the New Testament and the Old Testament?
FEILER:: The Old Testament is referred to as the Hebrew Bible and it is all of the stories that describe the first five books, which basically go from creation through the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, say 1200, 1300 BCE, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible then describes the rest of that story for the next 1,200 years. So, you've got the conquest of Joshua, David, Solomon, then the prophets that will take the story chronologically, if you will, up to the birth of Jesus.
And then the New Testament, which is a collection of letters and writings and gospels describes primarily the life of Jesus and early Christians and that would pick up the story chronologically around the birth of Jesus, so we'll leave it at that, you know 03 BCE, sometime around then and then it goes just for several hundred years, the New Testament does.
LAMB:: The Quran?
FEILER:: The Quran was dictated by God to Mohammed in the 7th Century and the Quran is a series of proclamations from God. It's written in a very different rhetorical style. If you think of the Hebrew Bible is written, it's got narrative, it's got prophets. It's got poetry. It's got songs. It's got tedious legislation.
The Quran has none of that. It basically is just God speaking to Mohammed and then through Mohammed to readers. So, it doesn't retell the stories of the Hebrew Bible. It refers to them as in remember when Abraham did that or remember when Moses did that. It's written in a different rhetorical style, more directly the voice of God.
LAMB:: You have a lot of characters in the book. I don't mean that they're character characters but people that play.
FEILER:: Some of them are character characters.
LAMB:: OK. Let's go to the Greek Orthodox bishop at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Explain all that. When were you there? Why did you talk to him and what did you learn?
FEILER:: Well, first of all the way I work is that first of all I do research. I spent a number of months doing research into Abraham and I got myself into this knot. As I said, the tension between the universal story in the Bible and the exclusive story that each of the religions tried to claim Abraham for itself.
So, the way I work is I travel and I talk to people. I'm not the expert. I seek out the experts and I went and spent a day in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is this amazing construction in the heart of the Old City where Jesus is said to have been crucified and then laid into the cave. And, as you know, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is to a church what a Picasso is to a portrait. It's basically this multi-faceted room on top of sanctuary on top -- and a different sect controls each of the areas.
LAMB:: Name those sects.
FEILER:: Oh, my gosh you've got the Greek Orthodox. You've got the Roman Catholics. You've got the Copts who are the Egyptians. You've got the Lebanese Christians, and I'm sure I'm leaving out a few. It's six or seven different Christian sects, each of them control like essentially a room or a chamber.
LAMB:: Did you say the Armenians?
FEILER:: Armenians also.
LAMB:: Why the Armenians, how do they - there are so few Armenians in the world. How do they get in this mix?
FEILER:: Well, if you think of the Old City, actually a quarter of it is Armenians and Mount Ararat is right on the border today between Armenia and Turkey so they are intimately involved and they have been in that region. I mean it's far from here to Armenia but the Armenians have been in Jerusalem for centuries and there's a huge population and they're like everybody else. They don't want to give up control. So, in fact, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, all these different sects control these rooms and a Muslim has to have the key to the front door because...
LAMB:: How does that work?
FEILER:: Well, it works like everything else in the Middle East. It's sort of a gerrymandered, not particularly pretty, but ultimately functional system. I mean it's a great example of interfaith at its best because the Christians can't get along with one another. That's why you give the key to a Muslim.
LAMB:: But you go into the church and you go through the sectors, there's somebody in each sector collecting money?
FEILER:: Well, it's more than collecting money. It's like you can't go into certain sectors at certain times unless you profess belief in that sect's idea. You can not go. I mean I went in, I mean back to your question. I spent a day with the bishop of Jerusalem. He's this short man who is an identical to Nathan Lane actually. I mean my mother says you can't say he's Nathan Lane. No one knows who Nathan Lane is, the actor. He looks like Nathan Lane. I had to put it back in and he's this incredibly colorful man and I spent a day with him and he took me into his private chapel.
Now, the Greek Orthodox monks were there sort of trying to block the way in because, you know, if I'm not a Greek Orthodox I can't go in these places and he's like, he doesn't care. He was this jolly man who just poured me a sip of brandy in the morning and he wanted me to go in so I went in with him into this private chapel right on top of the rock where Jesus is said to have been crucified, his private chapel.
And, you walk in and there are all these paintings of Jesus and a circle around the chapel. And then, just below are all these paintings about Abraham. And so, the idea as he explained to me, you walk in. You see Abraham on human level. Then your eyes go up and you see Jesus and then your eyes go up to the Divine, and we talked about, he and I talked about how Christianity - and we said look, I can not justify what Christianity has done in the name of Abraham, especially to Jews by saying well, originally Abraham was a figure. Like Paul used him as a figure, a universal figure. His blessing was open not just to Jews but to gentiles alike.
But over time, as Christianity grew more popular, they began to say well, we want to use him not as a figure to include gentiles but to exclude Jews and that's what I'd gone to talk to him about so that suddenly God doesn't call Abraham to go forth. Jesus calls Abraham to go forth. God doesn't promise the land to descendants of Abraham but the followers of Jesus.
So just like Jews made Abraham into a Jew when he wasn't that, Christians in many ways made him into a Christian when he wasn't that. And so, what this bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Theophanes said to me was that that really, he said in 100 years the great minds, the great people, everybody is going to understand the values of interfaith, that the figure of Abraham belongs to everyone.
Remember Abraham is in the first sentence of the New Testament in the gospel of Matthew and I'm going to sort of mess it up but basically it says Jesus is a descendant of David is a descendant of Abraham and they go back. And as he said to me, you know, with like you know tears welling up in his eyes, Abraham was the first person to understand there was one God, the first person to have that personal connection between himself and that one God, and that you can draw a direct connection between how Abraham felt at that moment and how Jesus felt in that moment and that's why the connection. As he said to me, when you drink that water, you drink that wine and you put all the prophets in, Abraham is one of that. He's part of this mix.
LAMB:: Who is Masoud El-Fassed?
FEILER:: Masoud El-Fassed is this imam that I met deep in Jerusalem.
LAMB:: What's an imam?
FEILER:: An imam is a leader of a mosque. It is sort of a generic term, sort of like the term rabbi means teacher. It doesn't imply sort of a formal training and I told some Muslims that I know, some Palestinians in Jerusalem that I wanted to meet an imam. And I did this thing that in retrospect may not have been all that smart frankly, but I got into a car with some people I barely knew, drove deep into East Jerusalem, and spent an evening with this gentleman.
He was very cordial at first. He spent time in London. We spoke very eloquent English and we had this yogurt and cinnamon that was just divine actually and we talked about Abraham. Abraham loved God. He submitted himself to Allah and over time, as the conversation went along, it began to turn a little bit and he began to say that Abraham preferred Ishmael to Isaac and that the descendants of Ishmael, who of course are Muslims, worship God in the correct way and the descendants of Isaac do not.
And so, I said well wait a minute, are you saying to me that as a descendant of Isaac that I don't worship God correctly and he said yes and you're going to be punished. And I said well, what's going to happen to me? And, we're sitting just like we're sitting right now and he looked at me and he said, you'll die. I could think of nothing to say. He said you know I began to explore Hitler and I wondered why is it that Hitler loved the Jews so much that he would kill so many millions of Jews and it's because...
LAMB:: But didn't he use another word? Didn't he use another word, grill?
FEILER:: Oh yes, grill, right.
LAMB:: Yes, he said why does Hitler love the Jews so much that he grilled them alive?
FEILER:: And he talked about how there is a connection, he said, between Hitler and the prophets. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible said that the Israelites were not worshipping God correctly and that that's the same problem with the Jews today. And, it was this incredible outpouring of hatred in the most calm and relaxed setting I'd ever experienced.
LAMB:: Let me read some more of what he said to you because it puts it in context of September 11th. "God gives you the opportunity to submit yourself to him and follow the rule of God but you ignore him because you have become strong." When he says "you" who is he talking about?
FEILER:: I think he's talking here about Jews in particular controlling the media and these kinds of stereotypes.
LAMB:: "You can deliver your message around the world. You can switch the mind of people. You do the opposite of what God wants. You open banks, sexual places, gambling, evil things. God gives you many chances but, of course, we know that you're not going to follow. And look what happened" he continued "his voice animated but hardly hostile." But hardly hostile you didn't feel a hostility?
LAMB:: "He sent people very strong who killed themselves in order to kill you. This is something unbelievable what happened in America but it came from God."
FEILER:: You can actually hear these kind of sentiments a lot actually around the Middle East and I was there and these conversations took place in December of 2001 when the event was still raw in people's minds and the kind of hatred and mythologies about the CIA did it, the Mossad did it, all these things that we've all heard for so long were still very much in the air.
And, what was so startling to me about that whole conversation was how direct it was. You know it's not like they were going around behind my back saying these things about Jews and, by extension, when you talk about sexual places and things like that the general West, the Judeo-Christian West, was that he was saying it to my face, that there was absolutely no reluctance to do that, and I began to think, what am I doing here? Have I been set up in some way? Is this - how am I going to get home?
And I will tell you, Brian, that my original instinct was don't tell anybody this happened. No one has to know. I haven't told my family that I went there. No one has to know. I'll just forget it. I'll erase the tape and I called a journalist friend of mine Yossi Klein Halevi and I said well, what am I going to do?
I mean here I am looking for Abraham and trying to find some message out there of reconciliation and he said you have to put it in. I said, well what do you mean? He said look you can find extremist Jews out there. You can find extremist Christians.
Certainly in Jerusalem there are many but the truth is that this is still a predominant, maybe even the mainstream view in this area at this time. And though you can find moderate voices out there, contrary to what you hear in the press, and as you know I then met some powerful moderate voices. At the same time, this is a powerful mainstream idea and you have to grapple with it.
LAMB:: Who is Binyomin Cohen ?
FEILER:: Binyomin Cohen is an Orthodox Jew, a devout Orthodox Jew, who runs a shop on King David Street in Jerusalem called B. Cohen, and he sells Judaica, frankly largely to tourists, though when I was there they weren't a lot of tourists coming. He's right there between the King David and the new Hilton Hotel on King David Street, blocks from the Old City.
And, I went to see him because I wanted to talk about the shofar, which is related to Isaac because the shofar, the ram's horn that Jews blow every year on the Jewish New Year is said to come among many reasons from the ram that saved Isaac from the binding at his father's hand.
And we talked about the shofar and he made a shofar when he was young, actually. He was an eight-year-old boy living up in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, and he took the ram's horn and he cleaned it out with the pumice and it was a great story. And, as I was leaving him, I said well, let me ask you a question. If God -- we were talking about God's call for Abraham to sacrifice his son. I said he had, I think it was oh a dozen children and 50 something grandchildren, a large Hasidic family, and I said if God asked you to sacrifice your son, would you do it?
And, again to my complete surprise, he didn't hesitate in the least. He said I haven't gotten the call yet but absolutely and I was like wow, are you saying that you would actually do this in this day? And, this is the degree of faith that he still has and my reaction to that in essence was not horror but it was awe. It was that this is a Holy place, that even in this era of violence and hatred, that this degree of faith can still persevere in this town, Jerusalem, one of the most gorgeous cities on the planet, made me realize how powerful the stories still are.
LAMB:: Why is it faith to say that you're going to kill your son for God? What is that? Explain that.
FEILER:: Well, if you go back to the original story, God says to Abraham take your son, your favorite son Isaac whom you love and take him up to the rock and offer him as a burnt offering. And, as you know, he takes his son up there and at the last moment he does not - the angel says stop, you have proven your faith.
I think that if someone did that today, we would arrest them. In fact, it happens every now and then and today it is not considered to be the standard of faith. In fact, there are still a lot of people, I've been talking about this all over the country, and people are still horrified. Is that the standard of faith?
But the immediate answer to the question is for people who believe in that story, in the actual words and content of that story, if God asks something of you that belief, trust, faith, intimacy with God is the most important thing and you can not understand God and you can not understand his reasons and therefore you express faith in that even if you can't understand it.
LAMB:: Couldn't you just as easily have done what you did, go all over the Middle East, talk to all the different religions, come out of it with no faith, and saying this is all a bunch of hokum? I know that will drive some of our viewers crazy that I even would say something like that but.
FEILER:: I do not think that you could make these journeys as I have made over the last number of years and go to all these places and come out thinking that the stories have no factor whatsoever in the conversation. The stories are much more present there than they are here and you realize they're not just stories there. They are living, breathing things that still live in the air and in every conversation and in the ground.
You just have to put - no, you can come out of it thinking that it's hokum or believing that it's an act of fiction, but I do not actually believe that you could go with Bible in hand, read the stories, talk to the people, and read the history, and believe that the stories are made up. There's too many details in the stories that are true to their time.
There's too much power in the stories and you and I can walk out of the studio right now and go through the streets of Washington, D.C. and ask somebody what's going on in your life and any story that we hear, if we know the Bible, as I have some knowledge of it now, I could say here's something that's relevant in the Bible to your life today.
That, I don't know how they got there necessarily or what was the act of retelling and divine inspiration or frankly whether it was just God talking or God inspired people talking, but I know that that power is very real today and that's not hokum.
LAMB:: But you say that you don't know whether Abraham even lived?
LAMB:: Or if his wife lived or his kids lived and all that. We've had millions and billions of words of fiction written in this country over the last 200 years.
LAMB:: Why wouldn't - couldn't this possibly be the same kind of thing? It started from one person who wrote it down and then people embellish on that.
FEILER:: Oh yes, there are a lot of people, in fact, who believe it's an act of fiction but I'll just give you one story actually from my experience in "Walking the Bible." I crossed the Red Sea, as I was saying when I was doing "Walking the Bible," and I went from oasis to oasis.
And I went to an oasis called the Oasis of the Tamarisk Trees which is a conifer that lives in the desert. And in the springtime a plant lice crawls into that tree, eats the wood which is salty, processes it, then excretes a white, sweet, sticky substance that forms into granules and falls to the ground. You can come along in the mornings and pick up and eat but if you don't pick it up by midday it will melt.
The Bedouin in the area still call that substance manna, and if you look into Exodus, the early chapters of Exodus, you can read about a white, sweet, sticky substance that forms into globules and falls to the ground. The Israelites come along in the mornings and pick up and eat, but if they don't pick it up by midday it will melt.
Here's the thing. If you're living in Jerusalem or Babylon when these stories are written down, you wouldn't have known about that phenomenon. You hadn't been in the desert, and I could tell you stories for days that the people who gathered and told and retold these stories and ultimately wrote them down, had intimate knowledge, not just of the landscape, not just of the geography, but of the natural world.
And remember, there's no libraries. There's no Internet where you can go to check the facts. There's no presidential library where we can go and find out what Abraham did or did not do and there are details in the story of things that occurred in pharaonic ceremonies in Egypt in the middle of the second millennium that in the middle of the first millennium they would have had no way of knowing. It suggests to me powerfully these stories have deep real roots.
LAMB:: There's a man named Hanan Eschel.
LAMB:: Who was he or is he?
FEILER:: He is an Israeli archaeologist who works with his wife actually on the Dead Sea Scrolls and he took me down to Qumran, the site on the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found and he has actually found many of these scrolls himself and we talked about -- we talked not just about the scrolls and about this act of reinterpreting the Bible, but about -- I was at this moment in my journey where I was really frustrated.
You've got these stories and there's this universal message and God's love is for everyone to share, and then Jews are trying to claim Abraham for themselves, and Christians for themselves, and Muslims for themselves. Why not just sort of cast aside the midrash and go back to the original stories? Why not sort of push aside the manmade religious institutions and go back to that message of God.
And he was saying to me, you can't. In fact, what you should do he said is that you should go back and read these midrash, these interpretations, and realize that they have some wisdom and some insight, and then you should gather these insights and then you should make up your own interpretation, but you should do it, in this case in the wake of September 11th.
LAMB:: Let me read to you what you quote him as saying: "Why do religious people act the way they act? It's because of a lack of modesty. It's what happened in Jerusalem with Christian cults planning to blow up the Temple Mount to make way for the Messiah. It's what happened in Israel with the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he made peace with the Palestinians. Some people read the text and suffer from a lack of modesty. They really believe they have all the answers. I know that I don't have all the answers. I'm trying to understand the text and the commentaries and I know that somebody else will have more insights than I will." What's this business about modesty? Explain it.
FEILER:: I think that September 11th will come to be seen as a defining moment in the interfaith conversation because we have learned that we can not cede the microphone to the extremists or to those planes going into those buildings other than people saying my God's version is bigger and stronger than your God.
We've had some Christian leaders coming in saying Mohammed was a terrorist and Mohammed – that's tantamount in this age when we declare a war on terrorism to saying we should declare a war on Islam. That is a black and white certitude of this is what God wants and what he's talking about is looking at the story and looking at the world and saying, I don't know what God wants.
I can not speak for God and I have to have humility in the face of my own ignorance and in the face of my own desire to understand, and, a general attitude of reaching out and listening and respecting. And, ultimately I think, speaking out if you are somebody who believes in the values of tolerance and mutual respect.
If I've learned anything in years now, several years of talking about "Walking the Bible" and now "Abraham" is that I can have a conversation with almost anybody except for people who believe they have all the answers, who have certitude, which I believe is a small percentage on one end and a small percentage on the other end.
There's evangelical atheists as much as there's evangelical believers and anybody in between, and that's been the great I would say revelation for me about the country and the world with these books, is that there's so many people, even deeply believing people, still do have modesty and still are trying to understand and don't feel that they themselves can act exclusively in the terms of a God that they think they know.
LAMB:: Now that this book, it's still popular but you've pretty much gone through your tour and all that, what do you do next?
FEILER:: Well, that's a big question. I'm hoping immediately to shoot a documentary of "Walking the Bible" to go back to a lot of the places. I, as I mentioned at the start of our conversation, was working on the follow-up to "Walking the Bible," "Walking the Prophets" when I was going to go through the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Of course, that's peace be willing and I don't know what the political situation in the region will hold, but I do in many - I have other projects that I want to do and that I feel, itching to get going on. At the same time, I do feel like it's in some ways my destiny to finish this journey and go all the way through the end.
LAMB:: Where do you live now?
FEILER:: Well, my furniture lives in New York. I'm on the road all the time.
LAMB:: Do you have a family, married, children?
FEILER:: I'm not married, no.
LAMB:: And you dedicate the book to Jessica Korn and Max Stier. Who are they?
FEILER:: Jessica Korn and Max Stier are two friends of mine. They're not a couple. I met them my first week of Yale University nearly 20 years ago and they've been good friends and supporters and fellow travelers along the way.
LAMB:: This is the cover of the book. Where's the picture from?
FEILER:: The picture, I don't actually know where the picture is from. I set off on this journey and I said I had three rules. I said it's not going to be personal. It's not going to have September 11th and it's not going to have camels on the cover. As we've heard today, I was wrong on all three counts.
LAMB:: Our guest has been Bruce Feiler and the book is called "Abraham." Thank you very much.
FEILER:: My pleasure and thank you for having me.
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