I was driving to an appointment a few weeks ago, half listening to a debate on the radio, when the words, “Our Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him” caught my ear, so to speak. I turned up the volume and listened to the tail end of a discussion between a senior South African Imam with an obstreperous upstart of a colleague who was clearly not playing ball. He was about to launch the first South African “Open Mosque’. In this context an Open Mosque is one that affords a place of worship to gays, “Muslims from other sects”, as well as Christians, and is a place of worship where woman would be allowed to lead the services.
This could well have been an argument that our own clergy could be having with regard to the approach to Conservative or Reform Judaism, with the Imam who represented the Muslim Judicial Council arguing (rather eloquently I thought) that for 1400 years Islamic intellectuals have studied and debated, and yet not changed the manner of worship. And far be it for some bloke in a suburb of Cape Town to now do so.
The last that I heard of the discussion as I switched off and exited my car was Chief telling the Indian that he was trying to attract attention to himself by claiming that he had been threatened with violence, but that he strongly encouraged him to reconsider this project.
And then the mosque was shut down because he apparently had not complied with municipal council regulations, according to a City Councilor who happens to be a member of the Al Jamah Party (not that I had heard of it – strangely there is no representative in the Jewish suburb of Glenhazel, Johannesburg). But still it went ahead and the doors opened for all to enter.
And then last night it was firebombed. The police claim it was a petrol bomb and no arrests have been made.
Until this point I could have been following this story in the Jewish media as it pertains to us and to our approach to change. We resist and shout out against it and recoil from anything that challenges the status quo. But now, with the fire bombing of the mosque, paths diverge and we enter territories that are unfamiliar to us. With all our screaming and shouting, I thought smugly, we don’t bomb each other when we disagree. We are a verbal and a rational (albeit emotional people) and we certainly do not place each other in danger.
When Orthodox Rabbis refuse to share a podium with the Reform, it is a message in its strongest form. It is a message that they don’t value the changes that the Reform or Progressive movements have made and the damage that it believes will be caused. When the South African community erupted over a Jewish child supporting Gaza at the expense of his people we shouted and screamed and we even signed some petitions. “That will show them” we thought, “take that signature you rascal!” and we signed with conviction (well not personally). But then the outrage passed, and we got over it and everyone went back to worrying about how much weight they would put on over our festive season (it’s a war out there).
And then it dawned on me — how far are our stone throwing cousins in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem if someone desecrates Shabbat, or the Beit Shemesh hostility and conflict, from this act of violence? Does the anger on an El Al flight that seems to have come out of nowhere towards a few Haredi men who did not want to sit next to women, and the viciousness with which we react to it not lead ultimately to this type of deplorable act? Are we building up to the same level of intolerance where a pipe bomb is quite literally just a stone-throw away?
The Open Mosque is a lesson for us and we should take heed. Each act of aggression leads to another and we need to be careful that this is not the slippery slide down which we are currently careening.
What is clear to me is that violence is not an option within the South African Jewish community and of this we may proud. And that needs to be protected at all costs. Healthy respectful (and sometimes even disrespectful) debate is important and even critical, but we need to make sure that we continue to be mindful of the fact that quite simply, there but for the Grace of God, we go.