About 20 years ago, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Dar ul Islah Mosque in Teaneck co-sponsored a Muslim-Jewish dialogue that lasted about seven years.
In that seven-year period the participants went from mutually wary individuals to trusted partners and friends. After the seven years had passed, we concluded that we had talked about every germane subject we could. We knew what we shared and what we didn’t. We knew what we could agree upon and what — because of our deeply held beliefs — we could not.
We parted respecting each other’s depth of commitment, knowledge, and mutual understanding of many of the issues that were most important to us.
For example, the Muslim participants articulately and feelingly expressed their understanding that Jews must have a state after the Holocaust, not only for the survivors, but for any Jew who is persecuted anywhere. We shared the recognition about how hard it is as a recent immigrant to maintain your faith, its values, and its culture in a new environment. Some of us knew that experience firsthand. We all recognized the challenge of keeping our youth as part of our community so that our faiths might have a future.
These moments of mutuality were not small matters, and had we expected them to be there automatically seven years earlier, our expectations would not have been met.
Since then there has been no Muslim-Jewish dialogue — and until recently little interfaith dialogue at all — in the Teaneck area. That changed sometime in July, and there was a follow-up on Sunday, September 3. Christian participants are still being sought and of course they are invited, but as yet the event is a dialogue rather than a trialogue.
The discussion held in September ultimately was free-ranging. The meeting opened with a report by a Muslim woman about her experiences in Charlottesville. She and other people of faith peacefully protested the hatred being exhibited by neo-Nazi and white supremacist marchers. Her sense of fear, combined with a willingness to try to dialogue with the marchers, showed exceptional belief in the humanity of even her enemies and of the power of gentle reasoning.
Her report was followed by a presentation about peace by Haham Isaac Sassoon, an academic scholar, and some discussion of that issue. Once the formal part of the program was complete, however, the discussion went in many directions. The event was both Talmudic and Quranic in the sense that neither work goes in a Western straight line. But several key matters did emerge. We have more in common religiously than not. We are dealing with more fundamentalism and extremism in some sectors of both our communities, and we must find means to confront and undercut those tendencies. We are communities more under siege lately than we have been heretofore, and therefore it is mutually beneficial for us to support one another.
Events like this give the “Other” a human face, which in turn reduces the fear and suspicion that so easily descends into irrational hatred. So, in an attempt to help us all to be better people, which is the central theme of this time of the Jewish year, let me try to put that human face on some Muslim “Others.” I sincerely hope that you will someday meet them in the flesh and realize that what we share is our common humanity.
Most of us know that Muslims observe dietary laws. Their form of ritual slaughter for meat is exactly like shechitah and is done with a ritual formula not unlike a berakhah preceding it, namely, “in the name of Allah.” This makes the meat halal, permissible, but not for us. For meat to be kosher, it needs a shochet. While pork is haram — forbidden — camel meat would not be. Camel, however, is prohibited to Jews in Leviticus 11. Halal also is used generically to mean all permissible foods. This would include mixtures of meat and dairy, which obviously do not fit the kosher menu.
So halal and kosher are both dietary regulations, a point that brings us together, but since they are not exactly the same, each faith’s adherents must recognize that there are boundaries and differences that need to be respected. These boundaries, however, need not be impassable walls. Indeed, all interfaith conversations with any integrity must start off with the understanding that a search for commonalities is not a search for sameness.
I am sure that all of us are convinced that jihad means “holy war.” That, however, is not its meaning in Arabic. Rather, it means struggle. Unfortunately, violent Islamists, as opposed to most Muslims, have turned a term used frequently in the Quran with no military connotation into a dirty word. Classically, there are two kinds of jihad. There is the inner or great jihad and the external or small jihad. The inner jihad is the struggle with your own self in order to achieve control over your basest instincts. There is also the jihad of the tongue, which refers to speaking truth and proselytizing on behalf of Islam, and jihad of the hand, which is to do what is right and to fight injustice. These all are part of the inner or great jihad.
Islamists have decided that the little jihad, which classically is war in self-defense, is rather war against anyone whom the jihadis think are infidels. Given the beliefs of such people, both Muslims and non-Muslims are equally vulnerable. The fate of any of these people depends on the whim of the jihadi or his or her leader, who has clearly thrown the inner, great jihad to the wind.
As we all know, dog bites man is not news. It usually is the extreme and abnormal that gets coverage. It is therefore no wonder that the great, inner jihad is unknown and the jihad of the sword has become definitive of the term. Having met sincere Muslims who practice inner jihad, I can assure you that those Muslims resemble us a lot.
Our tradition demands that we fight our evil inclination, so that we wrong neither ourselves, nor others, nor God. Jewish law and tradition places high value on speaking truly and being careful with what we say. When it comes to proselytizing, however, we part ways with the Muslim community. And of course the deep Jewish commitment to social justice and doing the right thing is a mark of being a Jew.
Obviously, the Muslim “Other” is not as different from us as we may think.
The Muslims I have had contact with know their Quran, and they know it well. In Muslim societies, it is not uncommon for the Quran to be committed to memory. This is paralleled by memorization of the Tanach, and especially the Torah, among many Jews hailing from North Africa and the Middle East. Torah study ranks among the most valued mitzvot for Jews. A Jew who studies Torah knows the values to which are we committed and the right behavior expected of us. Similarly, for a Muslim, dedicated study of the Quran and its classical commentary, the Tafsir, makes the difference between being a Muslim ignoramus or a Muslim who knows his or her tradition and obligations.
It would be wonderful if we Jews took on the study of Torah as a commitment for the coming new year. We, too, have the right to know how deep our tradition is and what kind of heritage belongs to us. We should give ourselves the chance to find a good adult education program or a good learning opportunity for our children so neither we nor they find ourselves rootless and ignorant of the most noble aspects of Jewish thought.
Torah is the best gift we can give ourselves in terms of understanding what we stand for and who we are. Our Muslim neighbors have found that knowledge of their tradition is the only way to move the hearts of their more assimilated second and third generations to remain true to their God and to their faith. We would do well to learn from them.
The word “Islam” means “submission.” As it is used among Muslims, it means “submission to God’s laws and will.” In Judaism, we speak of mitzvot, which are not merely good deeds. That’s a meaning it took on in Yiddish. In Hebrew, a mitzvah is a command given by God. To a degree, Jews are expected to obey — that is to submit — to God’s mitzvot. Unlike Islam, however, Jews have a tradition of challenging God. From Moses to the chasidic masters to the Holocaust survivor-writers and post-Holocaust theologians, Jews have questioned God’s justice and fairness, and some risky answers have been offered.
For example, when God threatens to destroy the Israelite nation after the golden calf incident, God offers Moses the chance to form a new nation; he would be its progenitor. Moses responds that if that is what God wishes, then he, Moses, no longer wishes to play a role in the unfolding history of the children of Israel. “Erase me from Your book” (Exodus 32:32) is one of Moses’s responses at this critical moment. Further, Moses threatens God that He will make Himself a laughingstock among the nations if He fails to keep his promise to bring His people to the Land of Israel.
One of the great chasidic masters, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, arranged a “din Toire mit Gott,” a suit against the Almighty, and some post-Holocaust theologians have proposed daring theories about what role God did or did not play in that catastrophe. Out of concern for the feelings and sensibilities of my readers, I will let you peruse the thinking of Richard Rubenstein, Harold Kushner, Eugene Borowitz, and Yitzchak Greenberg on your own, and come to your own conclusions about how satisfactory their thinking is. But all these works share the willingness to question and not simply to submit.
There also is great depth to the thinking of Muslim scholars. No less than their Jewish counterparts, they seek to know as much about God as can be known and to understand the nature of revelation. They are interested in the laws and observances of Islam, what they mean, and how they further human righteousness. Contemporary Islamic thinking also is interested in Quranic interpretation, especially those sections of the Quran that are obscure or ambiguous, and that can be read constructively or destructively. Those interpreters who believe in the universal humanitarianism of the Quran of course will read these verses in a way that embraces humanity.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have scriptures that include hard verses. All three religions struggle with these verses, which are devastatingly unfriendly to the “Other.” Where the belief that God is just and merciful prevails, those who do not wish just to toss the hard verses in the garbage heap of history struggle with them, and in almost rabbinic fashion they interpret them more positively than they appear to read in their unvarnished state.
While we can argue whether the interpretive readings surpass the plain ones, the unwillingness to accept that God is unjust and unfeeling reflects the values of the interpreters, who in many ways are following the Jewish tradition that allows “changing the truth for the sake of peace.” According to the rabbinic tradition, that practice started with God, who revised Sarah’s deprecating words about her husband Abraham’s ability to produce a son at his advanced age in order to maintain the peace between them (Rashi, Genesis 18:13).
The Book of Proverbs says, “As reflecting water reflects back a person’s visage, so the heart of a person reflects who he is to the heart of his fellow” (Proverb 27:19).
The purpose of this article has been to put a human face on the Muslim “Other.” In so many ways, the Muslim ‘Other” reflects back a face recognizable to committed and knowledgeable Jews of all stripes. It is my hope that our hearts and their hearts will become reflecting mirrors, allowing us to see our shared humanity and to recognize that there is more that we have in common than we think we have.
Getting to know your Muslim neighbor will reduce the suspicion and fear of the unknown. Promise yourself that in this new year you will try to find a venue to do this.
In doing so, you truly will celebrate the beauty of the diverse world that God created on Rosh Hashanah.
Bonding for the victory of justice
As I noted at the beginning, our two communities — the Jewish and Muslim communities — face similar problems in today’s world. We need one another’s strengths to overcome them. We need the strong faith of all of us to confront those who would undermine the American dream by trying to make us feel that we are strangers in our own land. We need to know each other face-to-face to gain the strength to make the right and the just victorious, and to defeat those whose behaviors are an affront to God and decent people. More than ever, we need the faith to believe that the good ultimately will win and we need the hope that this will occur soon and in our time.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of almost endless prayer. Indeed, Yom Kippur is the one day in the year when we have five prayer services. That is the same number of times that our Muslim neighbors pray daily. Pray that God will grant us all a year of health, peace, and joy. But more than that, pray that we become enlightened enough and self-knowing enough to realize in ourselves and in the “Other” the dignity of what it means to be created in the Image of God.
Shanah tovah. May all of us merit many good and pleasant years.