I’m learning that Torah study does not always take a clear and straight path. Of course one can always walk in others’ footsteps, but I’m looking to avoid the potential ruts created by the tread of centuries of learned feet. This year, I hope to widen somewhat my path to understanding Genesis.
Parshah Chayei Sarah closes the story of Judaism’s “first (nuclear) family”. Sarah dies and Abraham buries her in a cave in Hebron purchased from the Hittites (Genesis 23). Isaac acquires a wife, Rebecca, from the family “in the old country” (Gen. 24), the divinely-supervised love story that typically gets all the attention. But the portion takes a turn seldom examined – it returns to consider Abraham’s “other” family, or families.
And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. And Jokshan begot Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were the Ashurim and the Letushim and the Leummim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Enoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah. And Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac. And to the sons of Abraham’s concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still alive and sent them away from Isaac his son eastward, to the land of the East. … (from Parshah Chayei Sarah, Genesis 25:1-6), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 127-32)
Except for one other similarly brief reference (1 Chronicles 32-33), this passage of Genesis is the only description of Keturah and her sons, the only information provided about the remainder of Abraham’s intimate life (which extended over a considerable time, producing six sons). Who was Keturah? What is the legacy of her union with Abraham?
Our text continues to relate the life of Ishmael, with whom Abraham appears (in spite of the gaping silence in the text since the expulsion in Gen. 21) to have managed to maintain a continued relationship. Upon Abraham’s death, Ishmael and Isaac together bury their father in the cave of Machpelah, and Ishmael’s 12 sons – 12 chieftains in their own rights – and their progeny people the land as far as Egypt (Gen. 25:7-18). But Keturah is a marginal figure. Indeed, she is nearly absent from tradition, as she is from our pictorial history. Even a cursory search turns up countless images of Sarah and Hagar, but only a single image of Keturah, in the Venice Haggadah of 1609:
Keturah and her six sons, along with Hagar and Ishmael, are relegated to flanking the “first family”, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. And even here Keturah is only partially in view.
Rashi erases Keturah entirely by conflating her with Hagar via a contorted reading, restricting her status to concubine rather than wife since she had no wedding contract (Gen. Rabbah 61:4). This approach is mystifying; there’s no mention of wedding contracts for any of Abraham’s wives in Torah (unlike Isaac’s), although Sarah has priority in the text as a first partner. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K., is a familiar and welcome voice of tolerance in interfaith matters. But Rabbi Sacks, in his own exploration of the connections between Judaism and Islam raised by the parshah, relies on Rashi and “the sages” to slip past Keturah and focus instead on the midrash of Abraham’s role in Isaac’s choice of his second wife (Fatima) (Rabbi Sacks’ commentary can be found here). The D’var Tzedek commentary on Chayei Sarah by Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman, featured this week by the American Jewish World Service (located here) takes on the rabbinic debate about Hagar-Keturah’s identity. Yet even this progressive commentary grounds itself on the meaning of Hagar’s name – “stranger” – and suggests that Jews look to the fiction of the “strangers” of our world (such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Monica Ali and Khaled Hosseini) as well as midrash to “enlarge our sense of possibility and encourage us to identify with the stranger”. I agree with this view of the importance of a varied diet of good fiction, but even here Keturah is absent.
So what of Keturah, whose name means “fragrant”, with whom Torah tells us Abraham chose to spend his final years, who bore him six sons? How might a modern American Reform Jew make sense of the narrative of Abraham’s extended family and the implications of its web of relationships?
“Where Nature Knows No Boundaries”
My own search for Keturah turns up only bits and pieces. I am intrigued by a referencer to the “Yakult Midrash,” which suggests that each of Abraham’s three wives descended from a son of Noah: Sarah, a daughter of Shem; Hagar, a daughter of Ham; and Keturah, a daughter of Japheth. How tidily this medieval midrash connects the entire family which survives the Flood with the entire family of tribes who people the mideast; how remarkably generous, how “modern”. I suppose I am not surprised to find that the approach of this midrash is similarly employed in the roughly contemporaneous map of the world contained in the 15th-century Nuremburg Chronicle, in which Noah’s three sons support the perimeters of the (known) world.
A little more effort reveals a genuine surprise: Keturah “survives” in the Negev, transformed into the green oasis known as Kibbutz Ketura. It seems fitting that Abraham’s third and final partner, another woman from outside the tribe, should be the namesake of a kibbutz whose progressive policies towards religious pluralism have garnered national awards for religious tolerance, an intentional community that is also the home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which co-sponsors with Hazon the Ride for Peace, Partnership and the Environment.
Reports that Arava’s diverse student body is often challenged by Israeli governmental profiling of Palestinian and Arab students and scholars are disturbing (information here); I’m relieved that Israel’s Supreme Court has rejected such discriminatory practices, since it matters to me that Israel be a just society. The efforts of Arava’s alumni to launch their own peace and environmental projects through the Arava Peace and Environmental Network (APEN), and its blog (“Where Nature Knows No Boundaries”), are also encouraging. APEN’s steering committee includes Arab and Jewish alumni, who continue to meet in various locations in Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Israel. Since 2005, APEN projects have included Negev Bedouin Education, Galil Organic Farming, Acco Rain Water Harvesting, Aqaba Urban Planning and West Bank/Israel River Restoration, and similar peace and environmental projects in the West Bank and Jordan. These projects, grounded in an understanding of the shared interest in the environmental integrity of Israel and its neighbors, are wonderful examples of the peace-building visions of the post-Holocaust and post-independence generation of young people. That they are taking responsibility for an environmentally just Israel is something to celebrate.
Arava’s website is an amazing network of links between mid-east environmental & peace projects and organizations. Among these is a link to the Shalom Salaam Network, which offers the following guidelines:
We should look for things that we have in common and unite us, and not those that divide us
We should not defend positions, but aim to explain things others find incomprehensible
We should not accuse each other, but understand that members of the group don’t make political decisions for their group or country
We should aim to close gaps, and not open them
These help me make sense of the complications of Abraham’s lives (and wives), and the intricate dynamics of the Abrahamic “family”. I have a more complete picture of Keturah now.