This coming Sunday, our shul is hosting a conversation between Chaplain Omer Bajwa and me. Chaplain Bajwa is the Director of Muslim Life in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University and the topic of our conversation will be “Muslim-Jewish Relations: Can We Be Friends?” We intend to speak about a wide variety of topics ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, antisemitism and Islamophobia, to how Muslims theologically deal with a Jewish state. Having a conversation with a Muslim cleric is new for our shul, and doing so may make some of our members uncomfortable. What then is the value of having and hosting this dialogue?
Chaplain Bajwa participated in the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute. According to its website, the initiative “was launched in the summer of 2013 under the directorship of Imam Abdullah Antepli and Yossi Klein Halevi to build relationships of understanding, respect, and trust between North American Muslim and Jewish communities.” The relationships between Jews and Muslims are often adversarial, seeped in conflicts that are hundreds (thousands?) of years old. I believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor to see if we can dialogue with moderate Muslims who are willing to engage on topics of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish peoplehood. In doing so, perhaps we can create a relationship of understanding, and even trust on some level.
Second, I hope that having a conversation with someone of Muslim faith about the Israeli-Arab conflict and about the Jewish-Muslim conflict can provide an additional perspective that is often missing when Jews try to understand both sides of the issue. In my fifteen plus years as the Rabbi of our shul, we have hosted dozens of experts who have lectured on these topics, who range politically from center-left (Yossi Klein Halevi) to right (Mort Klein). As much as we think we understand the Arab or Muslim perspective by reading literature from Arabs or Muslims or by listening to a lecture by an Israeli or a Jew about the Arab or Muslim perspective, it’s not the same as actually hearing from an Arab or a Muslim person about the way they conceptualize these issues. Though I of course anticipate that I may fundamentally disagree with some of the things that Chaplain Bajwa says, I am not afraid of hearing those positions. In this regard, I find myself a student of Rav Kook, who wrote in Orot HaKodesh that all thoughts are legitimate and that, for example, when it comes to heresy, the non-believer challenges the religious man’s concept of the Divine, forcing the religious man to re-assess and refine his perceptions. This leads to greater understanding of the Divine. As such, even if I fundamentally disagree with some of Chaplain Bajwa’s positions, having a meaningful dialogue on these issues may force me to re-think and fine-tune my own positions in response to his challenges.
Finally, being able to speak respectfully and openly with those with whom we fundamentally disagree is something that is sorely needed in this country. As a nation, we have lost the ability to have real conversations anymore. We have lost the ability to disagree in an agreeable manner. And, of course, it’s the other person’s fault! One of the best ways to combat the toxic polarity that has become so pervasive in this country is to actually model respectful discourse. We should all be having conversations not just for the sake of being heard, but with the goal of actually hearing another perspective. This Sunday evening, I look forward to welcoming Chaplain Omer Bajwa in a conversation that I hope will do just that. I hope you will all join me.