Yakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen

The Rebbetzin and the Muezzin: Elohim Encounters Allah in Hebron

It is a Friday afternoon and my wife Michal finds herself – for the first time ever – all alone in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. According to ancient tradition the cave is the burial site of the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Two thousand years ago, the Roman King Herod built a magnificent structure over the cave to commemorate the site and to reflect its sanctity.

Michal feels excited by this once in a lifetime opportunity to pray alone with her ancestors. However no sooner does she begin to pray than the Muezzin (the person who recites the call to prayer) of the mosque located in the Muslim section of the Cave begins the Muslim prayer. The decibel level of the speaker is overwhelming, and Michal soon realizes the futility of her efforts to focus. She muses that Jews and Muslims pray to same God. Reasoning ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’, she joins in the prayer of the Muezzin. In so doing, she discovers that the sounds she had immediately prior experienced as noise were in fact a beautifully moving voice. On her way home, she ponders if the sounds of prayer were a recording or a live Muezzin.

The following Sunday I attended one of the regular meetings of the Hebron area Rabbis and Sheikhs conducted under the auspices of the “Interfaith Encounter Association.” I described Michal’s experiences to the group and posed her question about the Muezzin to my Muslim friends. A Sheik who lives close to the Cave is visibly moved and tells me that the Muezzin is his relative, and he will send our blessings.

Several weeks later I am at another interfaith meeting, this time in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. A newcomer joins the group and I see that the Palestinian participants are excited to see him. “Who is he?” I whisper to one of the regulars, “He is from Al Khalil (Hebron) and he is known for his beautiful voice.” Instinctively I ask him, “Are you the Muezzin from the Cave of the Patriarchs?” “How did you know?” I share Michal’s story, and he in turn tells about himself. “People don’t listen to words any more,” he states, “So I use music to reach out to others.” We begin the meeting with him singing Arabic songs of friendship.

A few months later I hosted Dr. Omer Salem at Yeshivat Otniel located in the Hebron Hills.  Omer is an Egyptian Muslim scholar whose dissertation is devoted to the status of Jews in Islam and was written at Al Azhar University in Cairo, Islam’s most ancient and prestigious institution. Based on is research, he outlines his ideas about how to move forward towards peace, which are further developed in his book The Missing Peace. After the lecture, I approached Omer and told him we have to pray together at the Cave. He agrees, and we drive together to Hebron. When we reach the Cave I tell him that the last time my wife was there, she prayed with the Muslims, and this time it is his turn to pray with me. In the shadow of our forefather Abraham, we recite Psalms together.

For me however, the story of the Meuzzin only came full circle a year later on a day that began in Jerusalem before returning me to the Cave and the Muezzin.

From Afghanistan with Love

The Temple Mount is a most sacred place to both Judaism and Islam. Because of its sanctity, Jews are obligated to undergo spiritual preparation including immersion in a ritual bath in order to enter what is the holiest site in our tradition. The Temple Mount is also the site of Islam’s sacred Al-Aqsa mosque. Because of threats and intimidation, Israel forbids Jews from praying on the Mount. Religious Jews are thus escorted by police and members of the Muslim Waqf to insure that no prayers are recited, and violators are immediately arrested.

I try to make the best of the situation – since so often prayers are external, I take this as a challenge to pray with the heart. While on the Temple Mount, the Arabs who see our group shout “Allahu Akbar.” I am envious. I too would like to proclaim in this sacred site “God is Great” in any language including Arabic. I try to reframe the experience by thinking that these shouts are because of me, therefore those words could be considered mine. However the hatred in the voices is too blatant to ignore. I try to engage in conversation the Waqf representatives escorting us, but they turn to the police who warn me not to speak to them. I find the whole experience depressing, as I see the essential significance of the Temple Mount as a place of connection. Tradition believes this to be the place where heaven and earth kiss, and the prophet Isaiah proclaims the Mount a center of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:7).

I believe this site – so sacred to each of the Abrahamic religions – must be a center to affirm that which connects us. The 19th century Italian Rabbi,  Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, interpreted the closing verse of the prophets in the Bible (Malachi 3:24) – “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” – as symbolically referring to a reconciliation between Judaism and the religions it engendered – Christianity and Islam. What better location for reconciliation than the Temple Mount and the Al –Aqsa Mosque?

My neighbor Yehuda Glick, a proponent of freedom of prayer on the Temple Mount who was critically injured after an assassination attempt, has written enthusiastically about the Al-Aqsa mosque as being a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. He also believes in Al Aqsa’s significance as a permanent feature of the Mount. Ironically, the assassin who pumped four bullets into him told him that this is because “You are an enemy of Al Aqsa.”

Returning to Hebron from the Temple Mount, I had a redemptive experience at the Cave. I was giving a tour to Muslim tourists, members of the Pashtun tribe, the most dominant population in Afghanistan. Proudly Muslim, the Pashtuns have a tradition that the origin of their ethnic group is from the lost ten tribes of Israel. They came to Israel in the context of linking with their ethnic roots. They were deeply moved when we arrived at the site where according to Jewish tradition Abraham is buried.

My 94 year grandmother was sick at the time, and I asked them to pray for her. I thought that they would politely respond by a few words. To my surprise, they dedicated ten minutes in devout prayer for my grandmother’s recovery. Shortly afterwards, we hear the call to prayer by the Muezzin. My guests are eager to join into the prayer albeit their being in the Jewish section of the Cave. We hurriedly find a faucet for them to wash their hands. They ask a Habad Hasid (an orthodox Jewish sect)if they could borrow the large towel which was next to him to use as a pray rug. When he understands what they need it for he responds “A towel!? Let me bring for you the carpet used for the blessings of the Kohanim (Jewish priests remove their shoes and stand on a carpet before blessing the congregation in the Jewish prayer for peace).” For at least that time and place, Jews and Muslims connected to God through connecting to one another.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone's Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is also a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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