Note: Mike Ghouse attended the summit and came out with hope for humanity. He was moved by the succinct presentation by Daniel Spiro, and pleased to share his speech.
Talk Delivered by Daniel Spiro at the Third Annual Imam-Rabbi
Summit of Greater Washington, Tifereth Israel Congregation, 12/11/16
Some people say, “I don’t care about religion, I care about science. I take active responsibility for achieving justice and peace. Religion just causes people to place their fates in the hands of God and be passive.”
Some people say, “I care about religion, but only within my own faith. I don’t like interfaith activities. They either brush over real differences, or they devolve into nasty arguing.”
Some people say, “I support interfaith! But only if all faiths are equally involved. If we reach out to only one or two, we’ve being divisive, and that defeats the whole point of interfaith.”
Well, I support science. And the importance of taking active responsibility for justice and peace.
I support my own faith and feel a sense of kinship with the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
And I support the interfaith movement in the broadest sense of that term, and recognize that some activities (such as having a rapid response program to confront all forms of bigotry) need to involve as many faiths as possible as well as humanist congregations.
But I have a special fondness for Muslim Jewish engagement. And I have a sense that Muslims and Jews are the closest of cousins. Our engagement isn’t antithetical to the interfaith movement. It’s vital to that movement and the movement for peace.
Now believe me, this is hard work, and it can be frustrating.
I’ve been in meetings where Muslims say things that are offensive to the Jewish ear, and some Jews don’t have the tolerance to put up with it – so they never come back.
I’ve spoken to Muslims at the end of meetings who say, “talk, talk, talk. I’m tired of talk. I want action.” And we don’t see them again either.
I’ve attended planning meetings where one community is represented, and the other just doesn’t show up. Or dialogues where people say, there weren’t enough people from the other community. What kind of interfaith event is that?
You get the idea. Building community between Muslims and Jews takes time, patience, and commitment. But it’s worth it. We’re offering you a treasure map. Though time and effort are needed to find the treasure, its value is priceless on so many levels.
Please allow me to identify three sets of reasons why Muslim-Jewish engagement is so fulfilling. First, because we share such similar concerns. Second, because our differences can be embraced as learning experiences, rather than feared. And third, because taken together, our similarities and differences create a magical synergy in our appreciation of holiness.
First, our similar concerns
We know what it means to face discrimination and acculturation issues.
At a meeting of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), my mother spoke about being in Southern Virginia decades ago struggling to find a hotel that accepted Jews. Others have spoken about how Jews once dealt with some of the same assimilation issues many Muslims deal with now – and what we learned to do to gain a measure of political power and respect.
Muslim and Jews also share an experience of being peoples of the book that happen to be religious minorities. For example, we restrict our diets, dress differently, and celebrate holy days that aren’t federal holidays. As a result of all this, we hear our religions mischaracterized — even savaged — and rarely understood.
Yes, we have much in common.
Now, the differences
Muslims and Jews generally come from different lands with different cultures. But it’s fascinating to learn about those differences.
We have different perspectives on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But when we come together and build friendships, we can educate each other, even about Middle East Peace. What I’ve found over the years is that those who are most active in Muslim-Jewish engagement come to feel that Muslims and Jews truly are cousins and that the Israel-Palestine conflict is among family. They become the best damned peacemakers in this city. The most compassionate, the most patient, the most open-minded.
So yes, embracing our differences is as valuable as recognizing common ground.
The magical synergy
Finally, let me introduce how Muslim-Jewish engagement produces a magical synergy in our appreciation of holiness.
Some of our most beloved inspirations are the same. For example, whether we know it or not, we all have in common an undying love for Abraham and Moses.
But when Jews study Islam, they encounter the beauty of Muhammad. And when Muslims study Judaism, they encounter the beauty of a Martin Buber or a Baal Shem Tov.
Our greatest values are largely the same – like love, peace, truth, and justice – though the ways in which we seek to further these values may be fascinatingly different.
When we study each other’s faiths, we realize that holy words that have become widely hated in different parts of our family – like Jihad and Israel – may be harmonious. Both those holy words actually refer to the concept of spiritual struggle.
And that leads me to the topic of God. Jews and Muslims might see God differently. Then again, Jews and other Jews see God differently. We generally agree, at least, with the words of the Qur’an: “Allah [is] the One and Only….[T]he Eternal, Absolute. He begetteth not nor is he begotten. And there is none like unto Him.”
Muslims talk about Muhammad’s ascent when he encountered earlier Prophets. Well, I like to imagine a meeting between a modern Jew and Muslim when they proclaim their love for God … but in deliciously different ways.
The Jew talks about the Ein Sof, The One who is Without End, the God above the conception of the deity we commonly speak about with our limited tongues.
And the Muslim talks about this world as like a leaf in a giant forest compared to the Seven Heavens and the Seven Earths, which are like a grain of sand in the largest beach compared to the Divine footstool, let alone the Divine Throne.
And then, in my imagined story, both the Muslim and Jew realize that we do share the same ultimate beloved, but we can grow more deeply in our love for God when we study the subtle differences in our theologies, our holy books and our senses of spirituality.
When Jews and Muslims come together to speak of God, it is reminiscent of two parents who attend a concert to hear their child perform and recognize that they have a special affection for the same beloved for whom they’re jointly responsible. Except here, we are the ones who come from the One God. Our Ultimate Beloved is also our Ultimate Benefactor. And the passion we feel to honor God – and God’s world — is the source of our spirituality. That is what can keep our family together despite all the petty squabbles.
This epiphany, to use a Christian term, has taught me that no Jew can be fully Jewish without being steeped in Islam, any more than a Muslim can be fully Muslim without being steeped in Judaism. We need Muslim-Jewish engagement. Not just science. Or same-faith activities. Or across-the-board interfaith activities. We need to engage with each other in particular as honest-to-god cousins.
Successful Jewish Muslim Relationships
- Video – https://youtu.be/5y0D7qO7eHc
- Muslims Standing up for Jews – www.HolocaustandGenocides.com
- Muslims for Holocaust Education – Video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uneRYgYfgWI
- Standing up for Jews – http://standingupforothers.blogspot.com/2012/02/standing-up-with-jews.html