Salaam. Aleinu v’al kol ha’olam, Salaam, Salaam.
The first time I heard this now classic Jewish-American peace song, with its triumphant mash-up of Arabic and Hebrew was when I picked up my then 5-year-old son on a Friday at the local Jewish day camp in Amherst, Massachusetts. While the kids sang, a friend of mine, another young rabbi, whispered to me that he doubted the kindergartners in Jenin chanted Hebrew prayers for peace at their summer camps. “Yeah,” I agreed. “More likely they say Jihad, Jihad.”
But I was cynical then, and not particularly thoughtful. I didn’t catch the uncanny, radical optimism in the song – or the startling, open-hearted generosity. Salaam, the campers sang – not shalom, not even “peace,” but salaam, the Arabic word, the Islamic word, in fact the root word that forms “Islam.” The word of an enemy, of a culture that’s been locked in a deadly competition with us, that has waged war against us since before 1947.
I thought of that moment at the day camp during a recent Rosh Hashanah service at a Renewal synagogue in Berkeley, California. It was my first experience at a Renewal Congregation, not because I’ve been avoiding the movement, but because up until a few months ago, I’d spent my career as a synagogue rabbi and I couldn’t go anywhere for the holidays other than my own Conservative congregation. The worship was a revelation for me in many ways, but the most dramatic part came during a series of tunes the excellent musicians led us through after the shofar service.
The text for the songs included the Hebrew word Aleh – “rise” – but at some point the singer changed it to Allah – the Muslim word for God. Allah, she chanted, and the scales and rhythms and instrumentation and percussion became explicitly Middle Eastern. Here it was again, but this time for adults. Borrowing Islamic tropes for Jewish prayer, an homage to Islamic spirituality during our holiest Jewish service. This wasn’t a Buddhist coloring, which I might have expected, or even a nod to gospel-infused Christianity, which I didn’t expect, but would have been less shocking. This was, again, the language of the enemy, using a word in Jewish prayer that suicide bombers shout out before detonating their explosive vests.
What is going on here? This isn’t merely tikkun olam – the mostly anodyne call for universalistic goodness, American Judaism’s most famous innovation. This is radical empathy, an intentional tour into the heart of our adversary, an attempt to know the enemy in the same way the Torah insists we know “the heart of the stranger.” It doesn’t come out of nowhere. Deuteronomy includes a more prosaic form where we’re commanded to return our enemy’s lost object. Also, Jonah travels (reluctantly) to Nineveh and rescues the Assyrian city, a hundred years before that enemy wipes out the kingdom of Israel. We’re told not to abhor the Egyptians, or to celebrate their suffering. There’s an astonishing Midrash which identifies the king of Nineveh as Pharaoh, who’s become a ba’al teshuva, a believer in the God of Israel. So the idea of seeing the world through the eyes of an enemy is not exactly foreign to Jewish thought.
But chanting Allah during Rosh Hashanah services, or children singing salaam as part of a Friday afternoon ritual goes further than returning a lost object. Choosing Islam for syncretistic innovation means exploring the Islamic soul, trying on the spiritual clothes of not just an exotic, alien culture, but a religious sensibility that in most places on the globe – but not in America – opposes us. It’s a big idea, generous, empathetic, large-hearted and strange. It’s also naïve. Maybe even foolish. I’m not entirely sold. At this point, despite the moving moment on Rosh Hashanah, I’m an agnostic. I didn’t sing along. But I am impressed. This isn’t setting up a homeless shelter, or serving turkeys on Christmas day – as admirable as these activities are. It’s deeper, provocative, disturbing in every way, and inspiring.
We often fret over the future of North American Judaism. The crisis narrative that’s so handy and tempting in our Israel discussions often proves equally tempting in thinking through our own complex issues. We’re disappearing. We’re losing ground – to other religions, other ideologies, to Israel. We’re bleeding self-confidence. And, of course, the data confirms some of this pessimism (but certainly not all of it). So we forget our great accomplishments, our rituals, our thinkers. During the holidays, I experienced truly excellent music, moving worship, an innovative congregation bursting at the seams with young energy. I also encountered a truly consequential, novel idea. Who knows where it will lead? But if it’s powerful ideas that direct us into the future, we’ve got some here.