What The Imam Taught Me

Interfaith dialogue in America has become so de rigueur that at times it feels to me like a tired platitude. In a well-honed ritual slow-dance of tongues, we talk gingerly around the elephants in the room that are our differences, in order to celebrate what unites us. I have rabbinic colleagues who are on the dialogue circuit. Though I am not, from time to time I also sit – somewhat warily – on interfaith dialogue panels representing “the Jewish position” to the wider community; as if I could adequately represent a Jewish community in desperate need of intra-faith dialogue.

Recently, I sat with a Muslim colleague who is a local imam, along with a representative of our Roman Catholic diocese, to answer questions about community service and its capacity to help faith groups find common ground. The small audience at the local college that sponsored the event listened politely as each of us spoke. We all mentioned our respective traditions’ emphases on helping the poor and disenfranchised based upon all of us being created in God’s image. We all agreed (how could we not?) that emphasizing theological and political differences between communities is unproductive, and that it is best to come together for action around mutual concerns such as fighting poverty. As interfaith programs go, it was a very respectful, parve (neutral) affair; that is, until the last audience question. The woman asking it raised her voice with a gently menacing lilt as she declared a kind of open season on all religious differences, reminding us that since we’re all children of God, we need to get over what divides us in order to pursue one universal spiritual path. I’ve encountered my share of new-age universalists and atheists, with their simplistic assessments of monotheism as the worst thing to happen to humanity since Cain slew Abel. I responded to her with my usual answers, yet what the imam then said made me pause. “Look,” he began, “I don’t know where this quote is from exactly, but the Qur’an teaches us the following. It is mentioned in a different context concerning Muslims, but it is applicable here to all people: ‘In matters where we agree, let us love each other. In matters where we disagree, let us forgive each other.’ ”

I barely know this man. He is an immigrant, I believe from Algeria, he has served the local Muslim community for a number of years, and to all appearances he is very traditional. I assume, though admittedly without knowledge, that he is not enamored of Israel, yet I am not about to test those waters with him, in the interests of neighborliness. What struck me about his closing comments was that, in some respects, he sounded like…me. In keeping with the tendencies of non-fundamentalist teachers of religion and in the best spirit of Judaism, I am always reframing texts and ideas of the Jewish tradition to reflect its more universal, inclusive values. Out of wariness, stereotyping, or both, I have come to not expect these kinds of reinterpretations from Muslim clergy, yet my colleague defied my expectations.

I could dismiss the imam’s comments as a mere attempt to placate an American audience for the sake of gaining acceptance. This perspective is not without merit, and, in fact, such attempts to gain acceptance are actually not bad things. They are one of the effects of assimilation into a society that foster good citizenship. However, such a perspective misses the fact that he consciously, openly, re-read his tradition to promote pluralism and civility without smelting all religious differences into some alloy-of-oneness that is oppressively conformist. Such is the powerful influence of Western democratic values to nudge some religious leaders toward a position of respectful co-existence, even full dialogue, that may not have existed before. That influence also leads some religious leaders to seek out the more humanistic values already inherent in their faiths, and to feel free to do so. Rather than a trite rehash of the theme of playing nicely in the sandbox, my colleague’s comments reflect the ways in which a religion’s positive encounters with other religions in a pluralistic setting allow all of them to grow. The potential of these encounters to impact hearts and minds and bring us real peace cannot be understated. It’s in this context that I am rethinking the value of dialogue.

Some critics condemn the interfaith work between Jews and Muslims being initiated by people In America, Israel and around the world. They feel this work is willfully naive since it plays into the hands of extremist enemies who seek to burnish their images for a shallow, politically correct Western public. Yet the growth of interfaith dialogue in the West and around the world, especially between Jews, Christians and Muslims, tells a more nuanced, complex story which is actually two stories. One is about Islam’s struggle within itself. The second is about a global society exhausted by violence, hatred, and mistrust, whose quest is to recognize “the Other” as our brother.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.