Both Sufi Islam and non-Yeshivah centered Judaism share a belief that there exists a small number of poor, simple, unknown, very kind and compassionate people in each generation, without whose presence the whole corrupt society we live in would collapse.
This concept supports the ideal that a few people who continue to live in moral and ethical purity when everyone else has become corrupt, can really make a big difference in society’s survival.
This is an especially important belief today, when the whole earth seems to be filled with violence, cruelty, oppression and injustice. The corrupt behavior of many political, economic, intellectual and even religious leaders is constantly being exposed.
This belief, that developed within some unorthodox groups in both the Jewish and Muslim communities, is that in every generation there are a small number of very special hidden saints (60 or 40 Abdal in Islam and 36 or 30 Tsadekim in Judaism), whose souls are so kind, honest, trusting and righteous, that for their sake alone, the rest of the society of corrupt human beings avoids collapse.
Thus, the idea of poor, uneducated, hidden saints emphases the importance God gives to a small number of very kind and humble people, who serve as the supporting foundations of the civilized world; and in some way known only to God, support human civilization against total collapse.
As the great Sufi poet Rumi says in his Masnavi: “The saint’s heart is the greatest mosque around, because that is the place where God himself is found”
Since acquiring religious knowledge is highly valued in both Islam and Judaism, most Jewish and Muslim scholars have ignored or even rejected this elevation of very spiritual but religiously ignorant individuals.
However, I am a Reform Rabbi who feels that many legal scholars need to increase the respect that people in general, and the religious and educated elite in particular, should have for the many simple, good hearted, righteous believers in their own community. This is especially true in our generation.
I also see parallels between the Sufi Islamic and the non-Yeshivah centered Jewish revolutionary concept that society is supported and sustained; not by the high and mighty, not by the rich and famous, and surely not by the celebrities of sports and entertainment, but rather by a small number of poor, kind hearted, unpretentious, hidden and rarely acknowledged, saints.
This Sufi influenced Hadith reports that Abu Hurayra said: “I entered the mosque, and Muhammad said to me, ‘Abu Hurayra, in this hour, a man will walk through this door, who is one of the seven people of the world through whom Allah diverts punishment from the Earth’s inhabitants.”
“Just then an Ethiopian entered through that door. He was bald, maimed, and carrying a container of water on his head. Muhammad said: “That’s him,” and then said to the man three times, “Welcome” This man used to sweep and clean the Mosque.”
Most legal scholars say this is a weak Hadith, but it is certainly one with a strong message to respect every human being regardless of class, status or appearance.
The following Lamed Vovnick story of two widows, related by Conservative Rabbi Hillel E. Silverman, has given me hope for almost 50 years.
When the Old and New Cities of Jerusalem were reunited in 1967, a recently widowed Arab woman, who had been living in Old Jerusalem since 1948, wanted to see once more the house in which she formerly lived. Now that the city was one, she searched for and found her old home. She knocked on the door of the apartment, and a Jewish widow opened the door and greeted her.
The Arab woman explained that she had lived there until 1948 and wanted to look around. She was invited in and offered coffee. The Arab woman said, “When I lived here, I hid some valuables. If they are still here, I will share them with you half and half.”
The Jewish woman refused. “If they belonged to you and are still here, they are yours.” After much discussion back and forth, they entered the bathroom, loosened the floor planks, and found a hoard of silver coins. The Jewish woman said, “I shall ask the government to let you keep them.” She did and permission was granted.
The two widows visited each other again and again, and one day the Arab woman told her, “You know, in the 1948 fighting here, my husband and I were so frightened that we ran away to escape. We grabbed our belongings, took the children, and each fled separately. We had a three-month-old son. I thought my husband had taken him, and he thought I had. Imagine our grief when we were reunited in Old Jerusalem to find that neither of us had taken the child.”
The Jewish woman turned pale, and asked the exact date. The Arab woman named the date and the hour, and the Jewish widow told her: “My husband was one of the Israeli troops that entered Jerusalem. He came into this house and found a baby on the floor. He asked if he could keep the house and the baby, and it was agreed.”
At that moment, a twenty-year-old Israeli soldier in uniform walked into the room, and the Jewish woman broke down in tears. “This is your son,” she cried.
This is one of those incredible tales we sometimes hear. But even more incredible was the aftermath?
The two women liked each other so much that the Jewish widow asked the Arab mother: “Look, we are both widows living alone. Our children are grown up. Coming to this house has brought you relief from guilt and anguish. You have found your lost son, and our found son. Why don’t we live together?”
And they did.
And someday all Israelis and Palestinians will also live together in peace; and mourn their tragic losses together in friendship.