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Yakov Nagen

Two Faiths, One Shoulder: American Imams Encounter Israeli Rabbis

Hug with Imam Talib Sharif.
credit: sharaka
Hug with Imam Talib Sharif. credit: sharaka

The Bible tells of a future partnership of humanity “all calling in the name of God and serving Him with one shoulder” (Zephaniah 3:9). Whereas for me, the first part of the verse has become a calling to promote interfaith activity, the meaning of the second part, “with one shoulder,” has thus far eluded me and even translators, who have focused on metaphorical translations such as “in one consent” or “in one accord.”

However, a recent moving encounter between American imams and Israeli rabbis and rabbaniyot provided me, finally, with an understanding of the literal meaning of the verse.

The Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue hosted a delegation of 10 notable American imams, disciples of the renowned Imam W.D. Muhammed, for a day of joint discussion and study. The imams, brought to Israel by the Sharaka organization, are all community leaders and mosque imams from across the United States, and the delegation was led by my dear friend, Imam Dr. Talib Shareef, head Imam of the National Mosque Masjid Mohammed in Washington DC.

Following joint study of both Jewish and Islamic sources acknowledging the other’s faith in God, I received warm hugs from many of the imams, hugs which expressed the deep brotherhood we all felt.

During these hugs, as we embraced face to face, heart to heart, it suddenly struck me that we were also meeting shoulder to shoulder, becoming one! The first part of the Zephaniah verse, “all calling in the name of God” tells about the vertical axis connecting humanity to God. But the second half of the verse, “serving Him with one shoulder,” refers to the horizontal line connecting humanity to one another, teaching us that positive person to person connections are also the way to serve God.

Suddenly, dots that were engraved through various previous encounters all connected.

In 2014, I attended an event called “the Jerusalem Hug,” in which Jews, Muslims and Christians came together to massively embrace the walls of the old city of Jerusalem in a statement that we want Jerusalem to unite us, not divide us. The talented photographer Dida Mulder photographed me and Sheikh Haj Ibrahim Abu Hawa el Hawas hugging and, after countless global shares, the picture was chosen by Google to lead the category of “making sense” in that year’s end-year summary, representing as it does humanity’s thirst for the way that the world ought to be.

John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” asks us to envision a better world, one with ” no religion, too.” Lennon, like so many others, viewed religion as a source of separation and conflict – but we know that it can also be a source of deep connection! The common religious beliefs and sources of the Abrahamic religions teach about our shared humanity; we are all descendants of the same father and mother, we are all created in the image of God.

I will end on a personal note. Last August, I had a severe brain hemorrhage. My wife urgently turned to our Jewish brothers and sisters for tefillot, but upon searching through my phone’s WhatsApp contacts also reached out to every imam, sheikh, kadi, bishop and priest, beseeching of them to pray for my life.

The response was overwhelming and with the mercy of God – and the skill of the doctors – I am still here. For me, it was a small but significant fulfillment of the biblical verse, of humanity “all calling in the name of God”. In gratitude to the prayers on my behalf from good people of all faiths that prayed, I feel strengthened in my mission and moral obligation to help heal our broken world and bring humanity together in light and in love.

Among the sources we studied together

Quran Sura 29 The Spider, al-ʿAnkabūt
46 And dispute not with the People of the Book, save in the most virtuous manner, unless it be those of them who have done wrong. And say, “We believe in that which was sent down unto us and was sent down unto you; our God and your God are one, and unto Him are we submitters.”

Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides) 1135 – 1204, Egypt, Responsa 448
The Ishmaelites (i.e. Muslims) are not idolators in any way… they unify God a proper unification, a unity that is unblemished.

Quran Sura 5 The Table Spread, al – Ma’idah
44 Truly We sent down the Torah, wherein is a guidance and a light, by which the prophets who submitted [unto God] judged those who are Jews, as did the sages and the rabbis, in accordance with such of God’s Book as they were bidden to preserve and to which they were witnesses.

48 For each among you We have appointed a law and a way. And had God willed, He would have made you one community, but [He willed otherwise], that He might try you in that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good deeds. Unto God shall be your return all together, and He will inform you of that wherein you differ.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook 1867 – 1935, Israel, For the Perplexed of the Generation chapter 52
There is no essential principle in our faith that opposes other religions and it is possible for them to be influenced by an abundance of knowledge and prophecy or the Holy Spirit or any other divine help according to their condition and value by the good and pious among them … the faiths that accept that unity of God have no need to leave their religions and they can always remain in them with broad thoughts with complete piety.

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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