Rebecca Abrahamson

Haredi Peace Activist

The Qur’an Study Group – an Inclusive, Authentic Space for Learning and Growth

Belonging is an issue. So universal a need, the need to belong has been grappled with by philosophers from the secular to the religious.

Defined as an affinity for a place or a situation, philosopher Simone Weil stated, “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

In Islamic thought, two essential vectors of belonging are noted by Professor Tariq Ramadan. The connection to the Creator is the primary vertical dimension, and forms the basis for the horizontal vector of belonging to one’s family, then to the Muslim umma, and then to humanity as a whole. He states that tawhid, the belief in the unity of God, assumes a relationship with others. “to be with God is to be with human beings.”

And therein lies the tension.

Sandra could not find her place. She favored colorful prints and the expostulation of all that came to her mind. Neither style fit in with the more reserved community she found herself in, where emotions and fashion are held in check. I finally advised her, in response to her constant expression of unease, “you can change everyone here, or change yourself to fit in better, or change where you are.”

Belonging requires giving up some individuality. No community can be endlessly pluralistic. When it comes to belonging to a religious organization, how many of us have given up some of our individuality so as not to make waves for the sake of manners, or, say, just so our kids will fit in better? It is one thing to blend in regarding dress, that is mere outward appearance and just means shopping at one store over another.  But what if we have a nagging feeling that some scriptural teachings are not as alive as they should be in our religious community?

The tension can become so great that no matter how necessary a sense of belonging, two things can happen. One – annoy those around you so much that they offer an ultimatum like the one I offered Sandra. Two – the tension causes one to finally stalk out to – nowhere.

And no one likes to be nowhere. What can we do in this quandary?

Turn to the “Qur’an Study Group.”

Every month in the heart of London, a varied group of Muslims and non-Muslims from all walks of life and levels of observance gather for a morning long seminar. The teacher announces a theme, gives his presentation on the subject, and invites participants to give presentations as well.

 

Outside Brikbeck College, University of London

You need some stamina for the seminar as it can span for from four to six hours.

Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad founded  the “Qur’an Study Group” over a decade ago. Educated in London and at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the foremost Muslim educational institution and the oldest running university in the world, Hafiz Abdullah is both an Islamic scholar and an attorney, and so he has a broad range of knowledge both of Islam as well as the English legal system. Born to Bangladeshi immigrant parents, the imam grew up in the east end of London where he dodged bullies, and remembers painfully the murder of a fellow Bangladeshi Altab Ali in 1978. This racially motivated murder galvanized the younger members of the Bangladeshi community, who marched on Hyde Park and used this tragedy to promote social justice for Bengalis and, by extension, every minority group.

This consciousness raising surely impressed Hafiz Abdullah, who has had a long career of interfaith work in London.  He has also visited Israel-Palestine several times with his family, determined to build bridges between Muslims and Jews, and hosted Ben and I at his Qur’an Study Group, in March 2019.

Those in attendance were as diverse as they come, reflecting every color of the rainbow and level of observance, with a collective high IQ as well as high cultural level. Those present included a woman neuroscientist who holds a PhD and is studying post natal depression, a student who is fluent in Latin and Spanish and has memorized half of the chapters of the Qur’an – at only sixteen years of age. Attorneys, entrepreneurs, university students, the married, the single, both Muslims and non-Muslims from very diverse ethnic backgrounds, from age ten to over seventy were in attendance, whose accomplishments in their respective careers were matched by fine manners as well as a modesty of bearing. What I mean is, you will not find boastfulness matched with accomplishment among faithful Muslims: talent is a blessing from God, conceit is eschewed entirely.

Many do belong to mosques, but some do not find their place in organized religion, and find belonging here. Hafiz Abdullah notes that if it were not for this place, some may even leave Islam altogether. In predominantly Muslim countries, religion is more regimented, so Muslims with who challenge religion generally just leave, having no place to go. In the UK, he has the opportunity to offer an accepting space that is completely in line with scripture and tradition.

Despite his accepting stance, Hafiz Abdullah eschews bidah, that is, religious innovation, and in this sense he is orthodox. I heard him advising one follower, “listen, I know about that alternative reading group, but you need to stay within orthodoxy. If you can help them stay in an orthodox framework, then by all means reach out to them.”

This was but one example of how he confronts issues that people are dealing with that pulpit imams often do not.  When an imam is heading a mosque, people come to him, so anyone who would approach such an imam would already have gone through a certain filter. Hafiz Abdullah is in that way more challenged and aware of more of the issues that British Muslims are facing.

And non-Muslims.

I wondered if the young woman with the flowing hair who gave a presentation was a newcomer to Islam, or from a Muslim family that did not hold by hair covering. Hafiz Abdullah quipped, “she started attending the group, sitting in the back, I never asked who she was or where she was from or about her beliefs. Eventually I asked if she would like to present something, and she did.” I did not find out then if she is a Muslim, or considering converting to Islam. What is more remarkable, Hafiz Abdullah did not either, until she was ready to offer him the information.

Now, how many religious communities allow people to attend and participate without leveling any personal questions? Within many religious communities, including my own, though it hurts me to say this, people want to know where you are coming from. Unquestioning acceptance, when it occurs, is pretty transitory. Who are you and where do you belong is a constant demand, the flip side of belonging, looking to welcome if and only if some condition is met, and also, looking to exclude.

I spoke to the woman who covers her face. She is a student from China and plans to return to her homeland. “I am a revert from the Han people, I do not come from the Chinese Muslim community.” I found out later that she does not normally cover her face but on this occasion did so to keep away from the camera as she does not want to bring attention to herself.

In my talk to the Quran Study Group, I expressed two important points: the ideal relationship between the sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, as well as the scriptural roots of modern political science.

British intellectuals including John Selden looked into scripture to create the civil rights that we enjoy today. They were impressed with the rights of the non-Jews in the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth, including the ger toshav – resident alien –  and the chochmei umot haOlam – the wise nonbelievers among the nations, and this spelled a scriptural-based pluralism. Indeed, the very Parliament is based upon the ancient Sanhedrin.  The parallel in Islam lies in the Constitution of Medina and the concept Umma Wahida, or united nations, made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians and Sabeans at the time of Muhammad (pbuh). It has been said that John Selden’s efforts avoided civil war among the various Christian factions in his generation. I feel it is essential that the west recognize the scriptural roots of modern political science, with its parallel in Islam. This inclusive view will not only right the historical wrong of the obfuscation of these religious roots of modern democracy, but create a more inclusive space for Muslims in western countries.

So the good news is that there are orthodox Muslim leaders like Hafiz Abdiullah Muhammad who are giving a space to an embracing Islam that is both authentic, orthodox and accepting.

Feeling great after a wonderful morning of learning and sharing

Hafiz and Ben discussing the common roots of Islam and Judaism

The first Qur’an Study Group meeting. It has grown since!

I feel like Hansel and Gretel, leaving crumbs behind me in a trail that I hope someone else can pick up and build something more. God fearing communities can indeed be more inclusive, teachers and clergy can put themselves more in the front line for outreach and for grappling with the real issues that people face. Quit asking personal questions, you need not know about people until they are ready to speak.

And here is an example of how working together, Muslim and Jew, can really work for both our communities, and by extension, create a more inclusive western culture. Our trip coincided with a national open mosque day. Two hundred and fifty mosques across the UK were open to the public.  A woman visitor reached out her hand to shake that of the mosque imam. He respectfully declined, beginning as explanation of the mores of Islamic modesty, but I saw that she continued to be frozen in place.

She may have been both embarrassed and offended, and I jumped in, “I am an orthodox Jew and we have the same laws, but I will happily shake your hand on behalf of all the orthodox Jews and Muslims who love and respect you. This bonds us as women as well!” She relaxed and looked greatly relieved and laughed. My spur of the moment hearty handshake seemed to compensate for any embarrassment or offense she felt. Another example of how the different faiths can work together in a unified way.

And we really must work together. Enough wake up calls have been sounded, whether in the realm of education, laws to protect circumcision and meat that is Halal or Kosher, racism, or even simple social interactions which can be misunderstood when laws of modesty are involved.

And inclusive spaces like the Quran Study Group are a great start.

Created in Egypt, Spreading Out to the World from There

Al Fayoum, Egypt, 2016

My passion was ignited, a column was born – “Giving Voice to Muslims Who Seek Peace”, written by this orthodox Chassidic Jewess and directed at a traditional Jewish readership. I began spreading the word that the children of Israel and the Muslim nation can indeed find common ground for peace through our scriptures and shared history. Momentum was gaining, the workload overwhelming as my networking revealed ever more Muslims to write about and vital information about Islam to share with the traditionally Jewish English speaking world.

Having ingratiated myself into the graces of Dr. Omer Salem of Al Azhar and Yale Universities, and hungry to interview Muslims, I demanded contacts in Egypt.

Well he invited me there, and I jumped, along with Rabbi Yakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva and Dr. Joseph Ringel, Fulbright scholar. We spoke with professors at Al Azhar University and Al Fayoum College. Think of Al Azhar as a world class university teeming with the sheer variety of the vast Muslim nation, with students flooding in from all over the world to learn at this one thousand year old institution,  heading home afterwards to take up leadership positions in their native lands. Al Fayoum is more conservative. From what I gathered, students there aspire to build strong Muslim families, not too far from where they were raised.

The warmth of the people we met was palpable, tinged by a bittersweet awareness that we could not always reveal that we were Jewish, and that we were visiting from Israel. The first evening there, we stood on the street in Cairo gazing that the Shaarei Shamayim synagogue. We were dressed as Muslims, which was pretty easy, Rabbi Nagen and Dr Ringel simply donned large white knitted skull caps instead of the smaller colorful ones they usually sport. I simply tied my regular headscarf across my neck instead of to the side. Well some policemen saw whom they thought to be Muslims looking suspiciously at a synagogue and promptly requested our passports. You see, they were protecting the Jewish presence there – from whom they thought were meddling Muslims. I cannot remember ever feeling at once threatened and protected at the same time. Made me feel a bit jittery, parting briefly with my liberty.

This slight of hand with our identity is what helped us navigate safely. I conversed with a Muslim man, a shopkeeper, who described with much feeling the Friday prayer that he attends. As a direct descendant of Muhammad (pbuh), he and his extended family are entitled to utter a special prayer for the benefit of his kin. He briefly recreated the form of worship for me, his head gently shook from side to side, he raised his arms slightly, “this gives us a good – feeling”, he said with a broad smile, and for a moment I could visualize a thousand cousins praying together and the source of joy it bequeathed upon them. The spell broke as he looked directly at me and asked kindly if my husband is a Muslim. My sincere interest had brought me from the level of tourist to sister, you see, so he needed to take an interest in my spiritual welfare.

This quick change in direction, from shopkeeper talking to tourist, to elder brother looking out for the welfare of a seeming potential sister in faith, meant I had to change gears quick. I stumbled on a mumbled, incoherent, “um, um, well,…” answer, and Omer abruptly entered the store to usher me to our next meeting.

I had bonded, but could not be completely honest, an aspect of exile not easily remedied.

But there was another time in which our passports were taken from us, and the atmosphere was much more charged.  We had spoken to a professor at Al Fayoum college, without having followed the proper protocol, and this time, our Jewishness was transparent.  One administrator confronted us, “Do you cry when Israeli soldiers murder Palestinian children?!”  Rabbi Nagen responded, “yes I do, in fact, I organized a prayer vigil after the fire in Duma village that killed three members of the Dawabasha family, and I signed one hundred Rabbis to a petition condemning the alleged arson. Do you cry when Jews are killed?” Well this did not turn out to be a time for dialogue, but for accusations. Ushered out of the college abruptly, the students staring at us, our liberty grabbed out of our hands, Omer taken aside to be questioned, I was quite frightened.

After a long wait and heartfelt prayers, we we allowed back into the college, and engaged in dialogue with professor Wageeh Abdel Qader El-Sheemy . He apologized for the actions of the administration, and shared the teachings of the Qur’an that welcome all People of the Book.  He asked us to proclaim this message – “we accept have no problem with the Jewish religion, but we are pained at the plight of Palestinians, that is our real concern.”

So the barriers between us are more political than religious.  Indeed, as a devout Muslim he was honestly welcoming, yet he dwells precariously under a firm hand that is likewise more political than religious.  Sadly, his salary was later docked for meeting with us. So Egyptians may suffer for meeting with Jews. At least, for the time being.

I continue to be in touch with Dr Omer Salem and Egyptian human rights activist Hassan El Shamy, but there are others I met, spoke openly with, and have not been able to continue in dialogue. The taboos in Egypt against connection with Jews, with Israel, are more than social, they are enforced with threats of ostracism that can damage the participants professionally and financially. At least, for the time being.

And in my Haredi community, such a connection would be looked at very askance, no matter that I have my Rabbi’s blessing and encouragement. I could tepidly be accepted as an eccentric, but not a role model. At least, for the time being.

I had the privilege of meeting face to face, “eyeball to eyeball” as they say in Arabic, with a variety of people in honest dialogue, even seeing a place that tourists generally do not travel to, and it was in this space that my feelings about the limits on our ability to connect spilled out into prose – there, in Al Fayoum:

An oasis an hour and a half south of Cairo, tourist free, you will visit and see real Egypt.

As you leave Cairo, the sands of the Sahara surround you on either side of the straight highway going south, a little higher than the road. Golden brown, a color you have never seen before, ever. Indeed, there are many colors in Egypt you have never seen before. Color and fragrance were created in Egypt, and spread out to the world from there.

You feel small among the sands, there are no landmarks, no wild brush, no cactus. You will perish with no trace if you do not get out of there.

Reborn, you come upon the sight of an oasis, slowly sand gives way to a bit of green, then a few scattered buildings, then suddenly a mighty and wondrous city full of colorfully dressed Muslims in hijab and jalabiya – pastels, every shade of brown and blue and pink, moving everywhere, adorning the faithful, among the mosques and stores and gracefully built apartment buildings. A surprisingly beautiful city in an oasis hidden in the desert. I can just go out and hug the people, I know it.

Generous and curious smiles greeted us as we sat in the outdoors of a community center. They are all related or acquainted so who might you be? A bit pale and a bit awkward in my impromptu hijab, I smiled back, the stranger who loved you before she ever met you.

You continue on to the farmland, green and lush as New England but flat, though the flat Egyptian earth has its own subtle curves. Green increases to farmland of – spices? Again a foreign image, like overlarge clover, ah – surely a spice you never scented before. Ever. Scent is created in Egypt and spreads out to the world from there.

Sharing a ride, men in white robes stood on the outside of various vans holding onto metal hooks, totally at ease. Children played in the fields that touch the small outskirted village that followed the farmland, wearing pink and yellow and clashing crazy color, casting a wondering look at the strange car coming though. Shop owners displayed their wares out doors under a generous sky that sheds no rain. The sights just got better and better.

 

 

When I met Ben I understood something. You can fall in love passionately and permanently in minutes. With Ben the love returns to me – a quarter century growing together, we are completely different people than when we first met, constantly reborn together, readjusting, re-giving, and now not only a resource for our kids, but even for grandchildren.

But you need to beware. You may fall in love with people and a place and they cannot give back to you yet. You may have to resign yourself to missing people that you found reason to love in minutes. You see, sound was created in Egypt, you can reach back there but you may find there is no echo, once you leave you are somewhat a traitor to color, fragrance and even sound. Those you befriended are trapped behind strange walls that I broke through, but closed up behind me again once I boarded the plane for anywhere outside the mother of all nations.

But I have a noble goal, telling the world about noble Muslims, remember? Remember me?

Silence.

Silence was created in Egypt and spreads out to the world from there.

 

On Learning the Language of the Other

February 26 2018

In order to make headway in any peace process, anywhere, learning the language that the Other speaks is vital.

I presented my work at the Engaging Sacred Values Conference, Trinity College, Dublin; its theme — the use of religious values to make peace in the middle east. Reverend Ken Newell moderated, who has his own track record of peace making. He helped negotiate the Good Friday cease fire agreement, 1998, putting an end to much of the terror attacks in Northern Ireland. At the conference, he encouraged the participants to be open to hearing other points of view, “learning another language is so much more than vocabulary and grammar, it means learning the language of religion, the language of another’s values.”

The dominant language in the middle east is that of scripture and tradition. The language of traditional and religious people of all Abrahamic faiths includes discretion, tact, and modesty.

And I witnessed some gaps in that understanding during my trip.

During my presentation at Trinity, I presented what I believe is the ultimate method of recognizing the Other in Islam and Judaism, in the language that speaks to both — interconnected Muslim and Jewish religious courts.

In the language of Islam, there can be Shari’a courts that will interact with courts of the “People of the Book,” also known as Mumin – believers from other monotheistic faiths. Jewish courts or Batei Din can interact with courts of the “Children of Noach” and Ger Toshav — righteous resident aliens. Muslim Shari’a courts and Jewish Batei Din will use this language of recognizing the other, forming an intellectual and legal basis of mutual recognition.

I also presented that this involves recalling the scriptural roots of western political science as brought down by Christians including Erastus, the founders of the English Parliament and the founding fathers of the United States. We need to question the assumption that peace will arrive in the middle east as soon as everyone here is living some derivation of western relativism.  Religion no longer marginalized, all peoples of the middle east will feel represented, making any workable peace process truly lasting.

Here was the response — “Arabs are not second class in the Holy Land… how would you like to live in Iran!… we believe in Democracy not Theocracy… Where would Christians fit in your scheme….Most religious leaders do not share your open and accepting views…We have fought for freedoms that you would undo….”

But I had other responses as well – “it is good that you challenged us… we cannot continue sitting around agreeing with each other… secularism is simply not working in the middle east… Rebecca has a point that Judaism and Islam shape all parts of life…of all the ideas I have heard, this is the most workable….”

I was also asked in private, and asked tactfully,  how I feel about gay rights. That seems to be the modern litmus test for tolerance. I welcomed the discussion, it is a sensitive and timely issue, but  I would not expect anyone to ask my underage children or grandchildren that question.

This brings me to another branch of this trip to Ireland and the UK.

My ticket back to the Holy Land was booked from the airport at Luton, a suburb of London.  Eager to network with the Muslim community, I found the Olive Tree Primary School, and made contact.

A staff member told me, “we can work with believers from all faiths”, and invited me to give a brief talk to the school children.

I found them to be friendly,  modest,  and varied – the blue eyed and fair skinned sat among those whose ancestry stemmed from the African Continent  to the Indian sub Continent. They displayed a marked cordiality – they all took the time to greet each other with the blessings that G-d fearing Muslims bestow upon each other.  They were hospitable to me, reflecting a generosity of spirit ingrained in the Islamic religion – and a hospitality that was taken somewhat advantage of by the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted). Here is what happened.

I asked if their community had any contact with the Haredi Jewish community.

The secretary responded, “A Rabbi from Stamford Hill called to offer support after our school made the news. You see, officials from the government came to check our school. They said they need to speak to the children, separate from us…”

My wariness receptors went on high alert.

She finished the sentence: “they asked the children, ‘do you know any homosexuals?’”

But the oldest children in that school are eleven years old!

She continued, clearly hurt: “and we told them, ‘we do not want you talking to our students.’”

The claim is that the officials were simply checking the school for discriminatory attitudes.  It also showed that these officials had not learned the language of the Other. Learning that language would have made them aware that such a question could be interpreted as a provocation.

Bequeathing modest and strong boundaries to children is achievable, and it is what traditionalists do.  It’s language involves hands-on parenting,  creating a sense of acceptance in the home so that as children mature, they will not crave affection from outside. It means avoiding immodest influences from the media, as well as anyone who would raise inappropriate topics.

Is this an extremist view? The works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov are studied widely, from Christian divinity students to Jews from the unaffiliated to the orthodox. Rebbe Nachman emphasized modesty in deed and thought as a foundation of spiritual and psychological health. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is considered a moderate leader in the Muslim world today. He strongly emphasizes the importance of modest demeanor between men and women.  No one calls these leaders extremists.

As far as fears that traditionalists are poised to harm homosexuals?

Upon the shooting and murder of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando Florida, scores of Muslim leaders condemned the attack. Here I want to point out the use of tactful and modest language when  the Orthodox Union, which represents modern orthodox Judaism in the United States, issued its condemnation: “.…No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.…” (emphasis mine).

You might say, forget the sensitivities of religious people! Well, let’s take a look at the Planned Parenthood website on talking to children about intimacy, here are some quotes, see the link below:

“…you can teach your kids about respecting other peoplekeep the conversation age appropriate reassure them that it’s OK to be embarrassed about this stuff…The best way to keep your kids safe and healthy is to stay involved in their lives and to set some boundaries…”

Looks like tact is important to a lot of people. As far as effective dialogue goes,  Professor James David Audlin has quipped, “I see all too often in such ‘inter-’ dialogues where true dialogue is replaced by loaded questions that are more dogmatic assertions than honest questions respectfully asked.”

Whether striving for peace in the middle east, visiting a school in a sleepy London suburb, or in what ever circle you find yourself, try to remember to get to know the language of the Other.

————

Full quote from the Orthodox Union condemnation:

https://advocacy.ou.org/orthodox-union-condemns-violent-attack-orlando-florida-american-assailed-due-personal-identity/

———-

Write up of the Ofsted questioning of the Luton schoolchildren:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/15/ofsted-luton-olive-tree-school-homosexuality

———

Planned Parenthood web site on tips for talking to kids about sex – if even PP acknowledges the need for tact on this subject, why in the world cannot that be acknowledged when breaching such a subject with traditionalists? The site is modest:

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/parents/tips-talking

———–

Go ahead and Google : “Muslims Condemn Orlando Attack”

Reverend Ken Newell’s Book, Captured by a Vision  https://www.amazon.com/Captured-Vision-Memoir-Ken-Newell/dp/1780731035

The Temple Mount — Haram Al Sharif, towards harmony: What we have forgotten, what we must remember

March 9 2018

Understanding the symbiotic relationship between the Temple Mount, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock is pivotal in shedding light on the ideal relationship between Judaism and Islam. In clarifying the contexts in which Jerusalem is holy to both religions, we will discover that this site can truly be a place of prayer for all peoples, while fully acknowledging the aspirations of both Jews and Muslims regarding theology, history, and even how this can be applied politically today.

We will see that the debate over the Temple Mount\Haram Al Sharif need not be a zero sum game in which only one side may lay claim to this sacred place, quite the contrary; at the same time, the holiness of this area to the children of Israel and to the Muslim nation are not equivalent, nor should we expect it to be, given our peoples’ unique roles.

But before we get to facts and figures, Holy Writ and historical evidence, I want to bring you to the meeting that catalyzed this article. In February  2018, the Interfaith Encounter Association hosted a dialogue session at the Abu Awad estate in Gush EtZion, in which both Muslims and Jews presented their views on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif, on which stands the al Aksa Mosque. Al Aksa means “far away” in Arabic…and in First Kings chapter 8 verse 41 concerning the Temple, we have “…if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—”

Al Aksa – far away, from a distant land….

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Temple Mount in Judaism

  1. Its Universal Character – Holy to all children of Abraham

The holiness of the Temple Mount begins at the very beginning – there, Adam and Chava were created and offered sacrifices.

The midrash (legend) of the field of Brotherly Love is said to have been located on this place. Two brothers dwelt here, one with a large family, one who lived alone. After completing the harvest, the one who dwelt alone thought, “my brother has a large family, I have no need for all this wheat, let me bring some to him” At the same time, the brother with a large family mused, “I have so much happiness from my family, let me bring some wheat to my brother who lives alone, at least he can have some pleasure in this world.”  Each one thus put the other first. They met up as each was carrying his sack to the other, and, understanding the intent of the other, they hugged in brotherly love.

There, Abraham built an altar and faced the trial of the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac. From then on the site was called Har HaMoriah – the place where G-d will be seen/feared.

It was on Har haMoriah that Jacob learned Torah in with Shem and Shem’s grandson Ever, and where Jacob had his prophetic dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

The above illustrates the holiness of the Temple Mount/Har haMoriah, as it applies to humanity. Now we will look at its place as a focal point for the children of Israel.

II As a Focus of Prayer for the children of Israel

The Temple Mount became the focus of prayer for the children of Israel because the Temple housed the aron haBrith (Ark of the Covenant), which initially accompanied the children of Israel’s wanderings in the desert. Upon the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments were placed in the  aron haBrith, and the Jewish people prayed towards it. The  aron haBrith symbolized the presence of God on earth.

The Ark of of the Covenant traveled to several places. Then king David brought it to Jerusalem and it was placed on the rock where Isaac was almost sacrificed. The Temple could not be built by king David because he had been a man of war, so his son Solomon supervised the construction. Thus, the Temple Mount became the focal point for prayer for the children of Israel. Sacrifices were offered in the Temple, and Jerusalem became both the royal capital as well as the location of the Sanhedrin, or High Court.

Indeed, Jerusalem has always been the spiritual capital of the children of Israel, with the Temple at its focus – with ample room for the nations of the world to worship there as well. G-d fearers from all nations of the world would visit and worship at the Temple, even those from far away – I Kings 8:41.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, the always smiling and energetic founder of Roots\Judur, quoted scripture regarding the place of Jerusalem and the Temple for the Jewish people (indeed, the Rabbi would have continued quoting had I not cut him off at a pivotal point, and he politely deferred – thank you Rabbi Hanan! We will get to that dynamic point, now back to scripture):

First Kings  chapter 8:

41

וְגַם אֶל־הַנָּכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־מֵעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא וּבָא מֵאֶרֶץ רְחוֹקָה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶֽךָ׃

“Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—

42

כִּי יִשְׁמְעוּן אֶת־שִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל וְאֶת־יָֽדְךָ הַֽחֲזָקָה וּֽזְרֹעֲךָ הַנְּטוּיָה וּבָא וְהִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּֽה׃

for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm—when he comes to pray toward this House,

43

אַתָּה תִּשְׁמַע הַשָּׁמַיִם מְכוֹן שִׁבְתֶּךָ וְעָשִׂיתָ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָא אֵלֶיךָ הַנָּכְרִי לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּן כָּל־עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ אֶת־שְׁמֶךָ לְיִרְאָה אֹֽתְךָ כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלָדַעַת כִּי־שִׁמְךָ נִקְרָא עַל־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִֽיתִי׃

oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built.

Rabbi Schlesinger went on to quote the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the rebuilt Temple and and end to all war, which you can see in footnote I at the end of this article.

Thus the focal nature of the Temple in Judaism did not detract from its importance to the nations of the world. Quite the contrary! We should be glad that there are other peoples who cherish Jerusalem and the site of the Temple, we want to see scripture fulfilled, don’t we?

Concerning the special role of the Jewish people in the Temple, understand that the nations of the world and the children of Israel have discrete roles – Temple service was exclusive to the male members of the priestly class. And among the priestly class, only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and only on one day a year – Yom Kippur.

Discussing the universal nature of the Temple is not saying that the Temple Mount is a free for all, quite the contrary, its very universality demands particularist roles –  the special roles of the High Priest, the priestly class, the Israelites, and the G-d fearers from the nations of the world were strictly defined. Each Jewish tribe had its own gate in which to enter, it was forbidden for a member of one tribe to breach the gate of another. Each tribe had its special place, and each nation has its special role, working in harmony, and this bequeaths a strong sense of belonging and uniqueness.

Journeys

We then looked at the Qur’an about al Aksa in Surah  (chapter) 17, “The Night Journey”:

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.

  1. Glory to Him who journeyed His servant by night, from the Sacred Mosque, to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, in order to show him of Our wonders. He is the Listener, the Beholder.
  2. And We gave Moses the Scripture, and made it a guide for the Children of Israel: Take none for protector other than Me.
  3. The descendants of those We carried with Noah. He was an appreciative servant.

Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad, our host and the Palestinian director of Roots, connected Surah 17 and the Prayer of Solomon – I Kings 8:22-52. Al-Aqsa means far-away. Perhaps the Qur’an is referring to I Kings 8:41, the Temple being a house of prayer for “the stranger who comes from a far-away place”?

We all marveled at this “chidush” – this (seemingly) new interpretation, springing from Holy Writ. This speaks to the energy that emerges when people gather with an aim to uncover an intellectual framework for peace, already possessing a nagging feeling that it is already there, embedded in scripture.

Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad had his own journey in coming to the point of hosting such conciliatory meetings. He is co-director of Roots, and his brother, Ali Abu Awad, is co-founder of Roots and founder of Tagryeer – the Palestinian National Non-Violence movement.

The Abu Awads did not just wake up one morning and decide to be leaders in peaceful resistance. Ali had begun using forms of peaceful resistance when in an Israeli jail – he went on a hunger strike in order to be able to see his mother, and it worked. Then their beloved brother Yusuf was killed at an Israeli checkpoint in 2001, and not, apparently, in self defense. Incredibly, this tragedy deepened the Abu Awad’s commitment to peaceful conciliation.

I will also tell you what brought my husband Ben and myself to reach out to Muslims. It was catalysed by Ben surviving a terrorist shooting of a bus. He was physically unscathed, but deeply shaken, and determined to find authentic paths to reconciliation.

It would be easier to stick to facts and figures, scripture and tradition, but I need to give you a picture of the dynamic at work here, at the marvel of people who have survived tragedies, who by some rights should detest the Other, finding common ground in dynamic discussion. Scripture may well be written in stone and calligraphy, but it is people that bring it to life.

Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad is the religious brother, Ali a bit more open, so you will find your address at the Abu Awad estate, whether devout or not, there in Gush Etzion, next time we meet.

Back to the discussion – then Rabbi Yaakov Nagen came up with a compelling parallel to Muhammad’s night journey: the prophet Yechezkel speaks of his own journey, being taken by God from a far away land to see the Temple:

וַיִּשְׁלַח תַּבְנִית יָד וַיִּקָּחֵנִי בְּצִיצִת רֹאשִׁי וַתִּשָּׂא אֹתִי רוּחַ ׀ בֵּֽין־הָאָרֶץ וּבֵין הַשָּׁמַיִם וַתָּבֵא אֹתִי יְרוּשָׁלְַמָה בְּמַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים אֶל־פֶּתַח שַׁעַר הַפְּנִימִית הַפּוֹנֶה צָפוֹנָה אֲשֶׁר־שָׁם מוֹשַׁב סֵמֶל הַקִּנְאָה הַמַּקְנֶֽה׃

“He stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by the hair of my head. A spirit lifted me up between heaven and earth and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the inner Gate that faces north; that was the site of the infuriating image that provokes fury.”

Rabbi Nagen is the grand nephew of the illustrious Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish.  He is Ram of Yeshivat Otniel, Hebron. Perpetually smiling, accepting of all and blind to your faults, Rabbi Nagen commands a wide span – he has a deep understanding of the Haredi path, given his background, matched with his education at Yeshiva University and now leader in the national religious camp. Also a journey.

Journeys are par for the course, for prophets, for us.

The Destruction of the Temple as noted in the Qur’an
The Qur’an declares the homeland of the children of Israel to be the Land of Israel, Surat Al Maeda, 5:20-21:
And [mention, O Muhammad], when Moses said to his people, “O my people, remember the favor of Allah upon you when He appointed among you prophets and made you possessors and gave you that which He had not given anyone among the worlds.
O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back [from fighting in Allah ‘s cause] and [thus] become losers.”
And in this Land, we had a Temple. We continued our study with teachings from the Qur’an relating to the destruction of the Temple –

  1. And We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: You will commit evil on earth twice, and you will rise to a great height.
  2. When the first of the two promises came true, We sent against you servants of Ours, possessing great might, and they ransacked your homes. It was a promise fulfilled.
  3. Then We gave you back your turn against them, and supplied you with wealth and children, and made you more numerous.
  4. If you work righteousness, you work righteousness for yourselves; and if you commit evil, you do so against yourselves. Then, when the second promise comes true, they will make your faces filled with sorrow, and enter the Temple as they entered it the first time, and utterly destroy all that falls into their power.

See too this is also the message in the passage in Yechezkal: 8:6

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי בֶּן־אָדָם הֲרֹאֶה אַתָּה מהם [מָה] [הֵם] עֹשִׂים תּוֹעֵבוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת אֲשֶׁר בֵּֽית־יִשְׂרָאֵל ׀ עֹשִׂים פֹּה לְרָֽחֳקָה מֵעַל מִקְדָּשִׁי וְעוֹד תָּשׁוּב תִּרְאֶה תּוֹעֵבוֹת גְּדֹלֽוֹת׃ (ס)

And He said to me, “Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the terrible abominations that the House of Israel is practicing here, to drive Me far from My Sanctuary? You shall yet see even greater abominations!”

Thus we see the verses both in the Qur’an and in the Torah about the Temple’s fall, let us take a peek at history as well.

The Destruction of the Temple – first under Babylon, then under Rome, the Temple Mount laid waste – until Islam

When the first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the ark was hidden under the Temple Mount. It continued to be the center of prayer for the Jewish people, and a symbol of Jewish unity. The second Temple was rebuilt in 515 BCE and stood until 70 CE, when Israel rebelled against Rome. Three wars were fought, the first and second wars of Jerusalem, the third of Bar Kochba. Rome conquered Israel, renamed the land Palestine, and renamed Jerusalem Aelia. The Temple Mount was purposely left in ruins.

In the year 614 CE, the Persian army set out to conquer Egypt, and en route the Jews helped them conquer Israel. But the Roman Byzantines defeated the Persians, and the Roman Byzantine king, Heraculus, punished the Jews by turning the Temple mount into a latrine, where all the waste was dumped. Under Byzantine Rome, no Jew was allowed to even come within five miles of Jerusalem on pain of death.

So for over 500 years, the Temple Mount suffered every degradation possible, first by pagan Rome, then by Byzantine Rome. This inspired various Jewish splinter groups to rebel, to fight for the Temple Mount again.

Al Quds in Islam

I In Tradition

The word “Jerusalem” or its Arabic equivalent, “Al Quds” – “the Holy” – is not written in the Qur’an.

Back to the meeting – two Jewish participants started to react to this, and I stepped in quick. This is usually used to say that Jerusalem is not so important in Islam. I insisted that this must be understood in context: in many parts of the Qur’an concepts are not explicitly mentioned because it is assumed that one is familiar with previously revealed holy books. I also brandished the essay by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, “Confrontation”, in which he states that we cannot apply the rules used by one religion to another, different faiths are not parallel and cannot be understood by the vantage point of another faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes that this is not a mere gap, but an abyss, an impossibility in fully comprehending the Other.

So by evaluating the place of Jerusalem in Islam with the tools of Islam – assuming previously revealed holy books, and not by the tools of Judaism, ie, how many times it is mentioned in the Tanach – we see an example within the Qur’an itself of its acceptance of other proper faiths, its self-identity of belonging in a symbiotic relationship with previously revealed faiths, a sort of enshrined scriptural tolerance.
Qur’an, Surah al Isra (the Israelites)  17:1 states – Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al- Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.
This is followed by 17:2 –
And We gave Moses the Scripture and made it a guidance for the Children of Israel that you not take other than Me as Disposer of affairs.”
Back to the meeting,  Rabbi Yaakov Nagen brought up this passage  as an indication as well of the centrality of the Torah as the heart of the Temple.
Here are two hadith (traditions) that declare Al Aqsa to be located in Jerusalem:

“set out deliberately on a journey only to three mosques: this mosque of mine (in Medina), the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) and the Masjid al Aqsa (in Jerusalem)” (hadith Bukhari and hadith Muslim).

And – “a prayer in the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) is worth 100, 000 prayers, a prayer in my mosque (in Medina) is worth 1, 000 and a prayer in Jerusalem is worth 500 prayers more than in an any other mosque”. (Bukhari).

From a religious view, the Al Aksa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam for the offering of prayer. Historically, it is important to Islam because of its role in protecting other monotheistic faiths.

I continued, “If Jerusalem was not important to Islam, why would Caliph Umar clean the Temple Mount with his own hands?” I pantomimed to make my point, they looked chagrined. Here is more:

II In History

  1. Caliph Umar – Al Aksa

We discussed Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab (584-644 CE), who was a member of the Sahaba – companions of Muhammad, and was the second Caliph in the growing Islamic empire. Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem in 637 CE. Umar cleaned the Temple Mount with his own hands, setting the example for his soldiers to clean it also. Umar brought 70 Jewish families to dwell in Jerusalem. Thus Umar reversed centuries of Roman degradation.

Umar did not clean the Temple Mount for Muslim worship. He cleaned it for the Jews.

Back to the meeting – Yusuf, a Palestinian Muslim, interjected, well, can the Jews look favorably upon the al Aksa mosque, as part of a fulfillment of Jewish prophecies to restore the Temple?

This is where Rabbi Hanan raised his hand to make a point – he was jumping out of his chair and could have sparked a flame with that infectious energy of his, but I was jumping out of my chair as well and grabbed the floor without raising my hand at all, politeness will have to wait, peace comes first – “of course!” I interjected – Rabbi Hanan sat back in his chair, deferent, still smiling, and I presented the actions of Caliph Umar, above, in cleaning the holy place.

Of course, in the backwash of my enthusiastic expostulation, I wondered yet again if I am breaching ethics of modesty, held by both Judaism and Islam, by even sitting with a group of mostly men, in an effort at conciliation. Oh interrupting a Rabbi is a slight offense compared to this. I have the blessing of my Chassidic Rabbi to participate, true, but is it enough? And the Muslims there may well get flack from their brethren for sitting with Jews.

I glanced at Sheikh Abu Awad in an effort to read his expression, but he had that distracted look that I have sometimes noticed, perhaps still grieving about his brother Yusuf? Perhaps worried about his son, disabled by, well, I did not want to believe that this was true, his son was shot by one of our soldiers and is in rehabilitation.

We are all carrying quite a lot of baggage as we gather.

Back to more facts and figures, they are easier:

The holiness of Jerusalem in Islam is in part because of Islam’s role as protecting other proper monotheistic religions. This echoes the role of Ishmael, the older brother whose role is to provide support for other religions to worship God properly. This protective role is sourced in the book of Genesis 25:9, in which Ishmael and Isaac bury their father Abraham together, with Ishmael deferring to Isaac. Although Ishmael was older and should have gone first, his deference to Isaac reflected his respect for Isaac’s role as Torah learner, and a symbol of protection.

Caliph Umar hired a Yemenite Jewish engineer named Ka’ab al-Ahbar to construct Al Aksa Mosque.(Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol XII).  Al Aqsa was built by Jewish people with the help of Muslims who believed that they were rebuilding Solomon’s Temple.

At this time, the majority of Jews were not Rabbinic, they were Samaritan, Karaite, and Saducean. Umar built a Christian shrine over the rock, where Dome of the Rock is now. In the Southern part of the Temple Mount he built a mosque where Al Aksa is now.

The Exilarch was the leader of all the Jewish sects, including Rabbinic, Karaite, Sadducean, and Samaritan. At the time of Umar, Hemen was the Exilarch. He was more politician than religious leader.

Sabeos was an Armenian historian who lived during Caliph Umar. He claimed the non Rabbinic Jews were more militant and that they claimed the Temple Mount exclusively for Jews. Sabeos claimed the non Rabbinic Jews formed a plot to get revenge on the Christians: they slaughtered a pig and threw its carcass in the mosque and claimed the Christians did it in order to get Caliph Umar to kick the Christians out of Jerusalem. Umar discovered this lie, deposed Hemen the Exilarch, banished him from Jerusalem, and replaced him with the scion of the Davidic house, head of the academies of Babylon, A Rabbinic Jew named Bustanai.

Bustanai made an agreement: Muslims would keep the Temple Mount clean and open to all believers. The Rabbinic Jews would forbid sectarians, radicals and militants from trying to build a Temple.

For connections between Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock, and Ezekiel’s Temple, see footnote II below.

On Rebuilding the Temple in Jewish Tradition

Do we rebuild, or wait for Messiah?

This question has been pivotal for the children of Israel since the destruction of the Temple.

I Wait for Messiah

The commentator Rashi, twelfth century France, writes, “The final Temple that we are awaiting, is built and complete, and will be revealed and descend from heaven.”

It is written in Zohar, Shemot 32A, that the Holy Temple will be built by G-d Himself.

II We built the first two, let’s build the third

On the other hand, Maimonides, twelfth century Spain and Egypt, writes that the Temple will be built by the Jewish people. He bases this on Exodus 25:8 “And they will make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” G-d gave us a commandment to build a Holy Temple for Him, and the obligation rests upon us to complete it.

One way of reconciling the two opinions is as follows: The building, which was built by G-d (the spiritual Holy Temple which we are building every day in our mitzvot, especially when we study the Holy Temple and its laws) will descend from heaven, and the physical Temple is already in place.  (Likutei Sichos Vol. 18, Bein Hameitzarim)

And of that time, it is written: ‘For then I will convert the peoples to a pure tongue that they may all call upon the name of G-d to serve Him with one consent’” (Zephaniah 3:9) and: “On that day G-d shall be one, and His name One“. (Zachariah 14:9)”

Holy Writ, historical facts, and creativity

Towards the end of the meeting, Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Organization entered. He sports grays and browns, a modest knitted kippa, and projects a welcome calm. He is busy, running over ninety simultaneous encounter groups all over the Holy Land. His bearing is a relaxed balance to the passions that Rabbi Hanan and I compete over. He will ground you, and direct you to the group best suited for you with that laid-back insightfulness of his.

To come up at the meeting with the “chidush” – acceptable interpretation, of Al Aksa as the farthest mosque echoing verses in the Tanach was a powerful experience indeed, among people who by some rights should not even be talking to each other, and is yet another example of how much potential there is for conciliation.

Religious people are shaped first and foremost by holy writ and tradition. Engraved in stone, enshrined in tradition, the word of G-d and the vessels in which His word has been passed down are absolute and guide us on the straight path of living. That straight path is brilliantly applied in our daily lives as halacha/sharia – both mean “the way” – the nuances, that are vital to the flexibility needed in order to apply religious law to daily life.

So we have one level – the absolute teachings, a second level –  their applications on our path, and a third level – our personal philosophy, shaped through that lens with which we view the world, a lens which is influenced by our place in history and our life experiences, the potential for creativity within those limits, and powerfully expressed at this encounter.

Applying Theology and History Today

From the Torah view, the children of Ishmael live in the whole world. “His hand is on everything” Genesis 16:12.

If Ishmael is not doing his role properly, then he troubles everyone.

If he is righteous, he will help everyone. He will serve God in a simple way. He will avoid complexity. He will know what is right, and do it with no sophistication, no complex intellectual arguments. In the Torah, Pinchas saw a sin and acted. He killed a man and woman who were brazenly rebelling against Moses. He did not wait for a court to hear their case. This is an example of holy brazenness.

The term “Muslim” used to refer to all believers. Indeed, the word “Muslim” predates Islam as we know it. The word “Muslamai” was used by Onkolos to translate “Kenites” in the five books of Moses. Kenites were righteous non-Jews. (Onkolos translated the five books of Moses into Aramiac, first century CE.) In the Qur’an, there are many verses that define “Muslim” as anyone who believes in G-d, His prophets, believes in the Last Day, and does good deeds.

When Muslims get all upset about something, they are right, but sometimes in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Expressed badly, it leads to terror, to dictatorships. Expressed for the good, it leads to defending the helpless, revenge on the evildoers, fighting for justice.

If Muslims believe that Islam only refers to those who follow the Qur’an, then Muslims have to fight everyone else. But if Muslims, like Caliph Umar, believe that anyone with a prophet and scripture is a believing nation, then Muslims will actually help and protect Jews in their synagogues and Christians in their churches. Then, “infidels” are only , those individuals who are outside civil society.

Why is Jerusalem the third most holy site in Islam? Because it is the first most holy place for Jews. And Muslims are supposed to be the protectors of Jews. Anyone who tries to claim it only for themselves, exclusively, is mistaken.

Since the time of conciliation under Caliph Umar and Bustanei, things have changed. Beginning in the 10th century, 400 years after Muhammed, The Muslim definition of “believer” meant only Muslims who follow the Qur’an – pray five times a day, fast on Ramadan. Muslim commentators stopped including Jews and Christians. This is in opposition to Qur’anic verses:
Surah Al Maeda 5:48:”… To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.”
And Surah Al Baqara: “The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians- all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good- will have their rewards with their Lord. They will not fear, nor will they grieve.”
Likewise, the children of Israel could better apply the concepts of righteous gentile as a living concept, including the ger toshav – resident alien, to members of the Arab population who dwell in Judea and Samaria.

Muslims forgot why Jerusalem was important. It is not important to Islam itself, it is important to Islam because Islam is supposed to support other religions. It is the third holy city in Islam because it is the first holy city in Judaism. Muslims forgot to protect the children of Israel.

Rabbinic Jews have forgotten that they were once a minority. If Umar had not selected Bustanai as the new Exilarch and the official representative of Judaism throughout the expanding Islamic empire, Judaism could have devolved into a militant sectarian band of zealots, seeking to restore the sacrificial system, devoid of Rabbinic tradition.

Indeed, when the Muslims fight for the Temple Mount today, they have inherited being a protector. When Rabbinic Jews forbid going to the Temple Mount, they are keeping their part of a forgotten agreement. The agreement was to stop the Jewish zealots who say the Temple Mount is only for Jews.

We are shadow-actors, playing out an agreement that was made 1500 years ago, with little memory of where it began. And we are carrying personal and national baggage as we shadow-act.

The children of Israel must remember that the Temple Mount is a house of prayer for all peoples, and from mount Zion will spread Torah to the whole world. The Muslim nation must remember its protective and welcoming role to all children of Abraham. Both nations must put into action their acceptance of the Other, enshrined in scripture and tradition.

Scripture and history are there for us to listen to, as we have no choice but to breach societal norms (under the guidance of our spiritual leaders) and the baggage of personal experience to reach conclusions that are laying dormant, awaiting us.

Footnotes:

I   Isaiah chapter 2
הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר חָזָה יְשַֽׁעְיָהוּ בֶּן־אָמוֹץ עַל־יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2

וְהָיָה ׀ בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים נָכוֹן יִֽהְיֶה הַר בֵּית־יְהוָה בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃

In the days to come, The Mount of the LORD’s House Shall stand firm above the mountains And tower above the hills; And all the nations Shall gaze on it with joy.

3

וְֽהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָה אֶל־בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר־יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

And the many peoples shall go and say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4

וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתֽוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא־יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל־גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃ (פ)

Thus He will judge among the nations And arbitrate for the many peoples, And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war.

Isaiah 56:7

וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל־הַר קָדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices Shall be welcome on My altar; For My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.”

The Qur’an, in the chapter al-Isra – the children of Israel – which discusses scripture and may be a parallel to its focal point in the aron habrith – Sura 17:2 And We gave Moses the Scripture and made it a guidance for the Children of Israel that you not take other than Me as Disposer of affairs.

II Connections between Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock, and Ezekiel’s Temple:

Coins printed by the Ummayds reflect the “menorah”.

The Dome of the Rock is the gold domed shrine to the north of the al Aksa mosque. There is evidence that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (646 – 705CE) built the Dome of the Rock according to the plan of Ezekiel. “And I saw that the House had a height (govah) round about; the foundations of the cells were the full length of a rod, six cubits was its span” (Ezekiel 41:8) ”Govah” is not just height, but also linguistically related to the back of something, a covering, or dome.

There are other similarities, for instance the Holy of Holies, which was located where the Dome of the Rock is now, is not physically connected to the Temple Sanctuary or inner courtyard, just as in all previous Temples.

Under ‘Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock was opened to the public solely on Mondays and Thursdays; on the other days only the attendants (Levites) entered. These attendants immersed in a bath and purified themselves, changed their clothing, burnt incense and anointed the Rock with all kinds of perfumes. Prayers were held after incense was burnt. Ten gatekeepers were responsible for each gate. The Dome was coated with gold, and the Rock was surrounded by an ebony balustrade, behind which-between the pillars-hung curtains woven with gold. Jews and Christians were employed in different services there: they made glass for the lamps and for goblets, and prepared wicks for the Menorah. They were exempted from the Jizya and passed on these tasks as inheritance. (see AI-Wisiti, pp. 43-44, the tradition of the Jerusalem family of ‘Abd al-Rahaman. from Raja’ and Yazid) (Qubbat al-Sakhra). (Abu-Bakr al-Wasiti, Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis, pp. 80-81, vol 136).

They used to stand by the Rock and circumambulate it as they used to at the Ka’ba, and slaughter beasts on the day of the feast [i.e., ‘Id al-Adha]. (Sibt b. al-Jawzi’s Mir’at al-Zaman )

So we see in the above, a glimpse of the holiness of the Temple Mount in Islam – the third holiest place for prayer, and the mandate in Islam to support other monotheistic faiths.

Crossing the Barriers in Cairo


Published in MissMuslim, December 2017


This story does not fit in anywhere.
I figured I would never tell it.
Stumbling across MissMuslim, and its founder’s sensitive discussion on “hyphenated people” – those with multiple identities – I thought, would they accept this hyphenated experience? Throughout this story you will meet a Chassidic Jew praying for a traditional Muslim, and as a result, both reaching a higher ground.

A Chassidic woman visiting Egypt, with a Rabbi, Professor, and hosted by a Sheikh, is already a hyphenated experience.

There we were in March of 2016 zipping around Cairo and Al Fayoum in marathon discussions with professors of Al Azhar University, Al Fayoum College – and human rights activists on how to improve relations between Jews and Muslims, between Israel and Egypt. We needed to identify and challenge the barriers that separate us.

Al Azhar, the oldest running university in the world, boasts a stunning variety of students, a cross section of the entire humanity of Muslims who flock there from all over the world. Thus you see a formality in bearing and the refined manners that are paramount when meeting strangers from all walks of life and all colors of the rainbow.

Crossing the Barriers in Cairo -

Al Azhar University – Cairo, Egypt

Al Fayoum College reminded me of, believe it or not, my Haredi (they call us ultra-orthodox) society. A more conservative institution, they attend to learn the holy books and become good wives and mothers, good fathers and husbands. Living in a society of relatives and acquaintances, the women I passed in the hall gazed at me the same way they would have if this school was in Meah Shearim or Bnei Brak, “Do I know you? Perhaps our families are acquainted?”

Discussions that began with theology veered quickly into politics, and here was the common thread – their prime concern was the treatment of Palestinians under Israel. This, not theology nor history, was held up as the real stumbling block to normalization. We had found the major barrier.

But, that is mere background. Our trip took an unexpected turn when I encountered a different set of barriers.

At the Ibn Ezra synagogue in Cairo, which is no longer in use, I prayed alone as one overwhelmed to be in a place once thriving with Jewish life, now a tourist attraction – a mockery of glory past. How did Jews get here, why are we gone? This exile goes on for so long, so long… standing completely alone, tourists vanished, light surrounded me, the house of worship was mine at last.

Crossing the Barriers in Cairo -

Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Cairo

I sighed, woke out of my meditative reverie, overheard the gaggle of tour groups again, and also an, “Excuse me, can you pray for my fiancée?”

A young woman with bovine eyes and a worried expression approached me. “Of course,” I answered,  “Please tell me his name.”

I do not know why I added, “I am Jewish,”  to the end of my reply.

Well I was in a synagogue, although not one in use anymore. But we were supposed to keep hush hush about being Jewish and coming from Israel. “You are! I’ve never met a Jew before! My father always taught us to respect everyone, and he said that Jews are very special people. Can I call you?”

Our host, Omer Salem, with his relaxed bearing, yet on the alert, slowly began approaching us, “I really have to ask Omer…” He (Omer) nonchalantly walked over, cutting us off, we were taking risks being there, he needed to be cautious. We left the synagogue.

Two days later I found myself hugging her in the hotel lobby. Just minutes before our embrace Omer told me, “Iman, whom you met, wants to talk with you, and, actually, she is on the way to the hotel now…” How could I say no?

“We met when he was touring Egypt,” she began to tell me of her fiancée, “I love him because he is so honest and he respects me. He lives in the States and his health is not good.”

Iman’s efforts to get a visa had been rebuffed, and her fiancée’s chronic health problems were a more serious stumbling block to married life. So that very day we first met in the synagogue she was going to various houses of worship and asking people to pray for him.

He created the Straight Path, not fences and walls.

There I was trying to cross political and theological barriers. I was witnessing both nobility and familiarity during my excursion in Egypt, I could hardly bear the thought that soon I would be leaving, that walls and fences would loom again, and here was Iman with her own personal barriers that were preventing her very happiness.

Her pain became my pain. Why should those in love be separated? Fences and walls are everywhere! This is unbearable! Enough.

When we give du’a – pray, practice sawm – fast, or give zaka’at – charity, or any other good deed, we have a choice. We can figure that G-d will just have to reward us in this life and let us into Jannah – Heaven – in the next. Focused on the good deed, and not on the Giver of the good deed, we rush past G-d as we accumulate merit as selfishly as those who exploit in order to amass wealth. Smug in our piety, we’ll get our reward!

Or – we can transform.

Iman’s pain became my pain. Back in Israel, I nearly bumped into a wall, I was distracted in pondering the barriers that separated Iman and her fiancée. What is G-d saying to us, here and now? He is Gracious, created love and commands marriage. He created the Straight Path, not fences and walls. He wants our happiness.

Then it came to me….“Go!”

“Go!” begins the chapter in the Torah that introduces us to our forefather Abraham’s journey. G-d commanded him,“Go out from your land, from your father’s house…”.

We are not ancient Greeks, with their pantheon of selfish gods, throwing around fate and human emotion, stuck in tragedy.

Children of Abraham act. They “Go”!

I contacted a human rights activist in Egypt and inquired about a visa, put Iman in touch with a doctor to discuss options for treatment, and, here is another hyphen for this hyphenated experience – contacted a minister! You see, in Jewish tradition, the marriage ceremony is said to bring healing to the bride and groom. Well, Reverend James David Audlin confirmed that holds true in the Christian tradition as well. So we both encouraged her to marry. He contacted a lawyer for her visa, and things were finally moving!

Great! No longer stuck in tragedy, Iman told him, “I will be there soon.”

A few weeks later I got this message from her:

“Dear Rebecca,
Thank you for your help and your prayers. I need to tell you something. He broke up with me, he says he cannot go through with this. We have spoken for the last time.
Iman”

So “Go!” was answered with “No.”

She was no longer stuck, that was some comfort.

We had achieved clarity, if not the exact fulfillment of our prayers.

And that clarity moved her in another direction:

Two months later, I received a photo of Iman and an Egyptian man, it was their engagement picture. She wrote,

“We have been friends for a few years, he supported me during that trying time, I respect this, and he is so honest….”

And I thought I would not tell you about it.

I miss Egypt, I long to return, but boundaries loom. What is G-d saying to us, here and now? He is Gracious, created love and commands peaceful relations among people. He created the Straight Path, not fences and walls. He wants our happiness.

Such an insight helped Iman.

Could such an insight mend the political as well?

Respectful Dialogue, Nuanced Views: New Visions for Peace in the Holy Land

Respectful Dialogue, Nuanced Views: New Visions for Peace in the Holy Land

Published in the Jewish Press, August 2016

 

Recently, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center a forum hosted by the Home/Bayit organization, had a candid and wide-ranging discussion on ways to solve the conflicts in Israel between the Israeli’s and Palestinians and create something new and better for everyone in the Holy Land.

The fact that discussion of volatile issues could take place in such an atmosphere of respect was even more impressive than the solutions proposed. Inon Dan Kehati is chairman and founder of Home/Bayit, and his insistence on respectful and open dialogue really worked. One panelist quipped, “how many conferences have you all attended where everyone stays for four hours?” The energy was hopeful despite the potential for rancor. The respectful atmosphere meant that each participant could express the nuances of their views, which lessened the potential for polarization.

For example, Sami B Awad is a member of the Arab Christian community in Bethlehem, and one of the panelists. He indeed supports the BDS movement as a means to pressure Israel to address the grievances of the Palestinian population here, and decidedly not as an effort to displace or threaten Jews. He sharply criticized parts of the BDS movement for harboring antisemites who have no interest in Israel, but are joining BDS due to their distaste for the Jewish people. This he rejects outright, and in the strongest language. So as threatening as the actions of BDS can be to many, it was refreshing to see this nuanced approach.

We need more of that. And there was.

Sheikh Abu Khalil Tamimi of Ramallah has a bearing both regal and low-key. He rejects the mixing of religion and politics. He has studied under the Tablighi Jamaat movement, a pacifist Muslim movement founded in India nearly a century ago, which emphasizes the importance of one’s personal character improvement and rejects involvement in politics. True to his position, he maintains that it matters less whether there is one or two states, what is essential is freedom of movement for all people of the land in the entire land. Arab and Jew should be able to travel and live wherever they like. Rights for all, everywhere. And he added, “according to the Qur’an, the Jews will gather here in this land at the End of Days. And this is what we are witnessing!”

The Sheikh spoke in Arabic, with Sami B Awad translating. It was just part of the beautiful atmosphere of the evening – a Christian translating as a Sheikh quoted the Qur’an.

Oslo is dead was pretty much the consensus, the majority in attendance seemed to agree that a two state solution simply does not meld with the aspirations of the people actually living here. Both Arab and Jew love the entire Holy Land. Both Arab and Jew yearn for freedom of movement in its entirety, in the entire land. The concept of – “you go get your rights over there, and not here” was held up as a mockery of justice and a solution unacceptable to both Arab and Jew alike.

Freedom of movement for all, everywhere in the land

The desire for freedom of movement for all was echoed repeatedly throughout the evening by most of the panel. Ahmed Maswade, law student from Bir Zeit university and resident of East Jerusalem, put it this way, “I want Jews to be able to go to Hebron and Arabs to be able to go to Jaffa.” He does advocate for a Palestinian state, but with porous borders with Israel and one in which Jews can live freely. Sami stated, “it cannot be that the only way I can express my Christianity is on Christmas day in Bethlehem. I want to be able to visit Christian sites up in the Gallilee, and to visit the churches in Jerusalem.” Sheikh Abu Khalil Tamimi, trained to eschew both politics and state borders, echoed this need – and we heard the same expressed by Jewish leaders as well.

Rabbi Gabriel Reiss of the Lavi organization lives in the Judean Desert with his family. With his trademark gritty passion and big-hearted concern for all, he addressed the Arabs present by apologizing “on behalf for myself at least, because how, 60-plus years after the founding of the state of Israel, can there still be Palestinian refugees living in camps?” Applause stole some time off of his ten minute slot. An advocate for Jewish sovereignty in the entire land, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, sovereignty means responsibility for all inhabitants of the Land. Two state solutions amount to a certain schizophrenia, in which no leaders need take responsibility: the state of Israel can claim, why should we invest in areas that we are destined to give up? And leaders from the PA can claim, the occupation is preventing us from improving the lives of the Palestinians. That leaves people suffering in the middle. A one state solution would mean responsibility and a better life for all.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen of Alternative Action echoed the call for sovereignty-cum-responsibility for the entire land by decrying the current water shortage in Bethlehem. “It should be considered an embarassment that anyone lacks water in the Jewish homeland.” Echoing the discussion about identity, he emphasized the importance of expanding the narrative of each community, so that all residents of the Land have a real awareness of the aspirations and experience of each other.

Rabbi Yishai Fleisher is spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron. He combines a sense of humor with a broad knowledge of history and law. His humor is admittedly tinged by a certain sadness; he explained that he is part of a movement of those holding on tightly to what they value most, and feeling under constant threat from many directions. “We are like roots, holding on tight, and roots are not always pretty.”

“Hebron!” He teased, throwing out that word to the audience, “what do you think of when you hear that word? Settlers, land-grabbing, violence? What we should think of is – this is the place where my forefathers and foremothers are buried….Think about it – the members of Hebron have a religious ideology, are armed, you would think we would be shooting every day and we are not.” And later on, attorney Jonothan Kittub, Palestinian Christian and human rights activist, decried the way the residents of Judea and Samaria have been portrayed in the media. “In order to push Oslo, the efforts of the settlers had to be put in a negative light.” An unfair portrayal he rejects outright.

And for even more nuanced views, Attorney Kittub decried ‘puppeteering’ in the form of democracy. He put it bluntly – people do not need a “parliament,” they need the representation and civil rights, not some body that marginalizes anyone who disagrees. We do not need a “state,” we need self-determination, not a sham government.

Palestinian self-determination is still part of the vision of the Arab panelists who were present, but this would not come at the expense of freedom of residency and movement for all. Their vision is that two states would have porous boundaries with Jews living freely in Judea and Samaria, and Arabs within the ’67 borders, members of both populations free to travel and work where they wish.

A representative of J Street represented her view against the occupation of Judea and Samaria very aptly, and it was moving to hear her family’s personal story which proved her love for the state of Israel and heartfelt concern that the state live up to democratic principals. When members of the Arab community from Judea and Samaria expressed willingness to live under Jewish sovereignty, as long as citizenship and civil rights were granted, she did not capture the nuanced mood of the evening. Israel must withdraw from those territories was her final word, no compromise. This was, in her words, in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. Good for Inon for inviting her and really living up to freedom of dialogue among different views; I was taken aback at her inflexible stance. That may change.

What she was hinting at was preserving a Jewish majority within the green line – what Yehuda HaKohen refers to as “demographophobia.”

Demographophohia

Activist Emanuel Shahaf mentioned that now that Israel does not rule Gaza, we need not fear a demographic threat. Jews will remain in the majority, even including Judea and Samaria. Murmurs of of disagreement with his basic premise followed. Yehuda HaKohen has spoken against the whole concept of “demographic threat”, stating that neither side should fear a member of the other population having this or that number of babies. We need a paradigm that jettisons this fear.”Demographic threat” is the main reason some want to relinquish Judea and Samaria – it is to remain in the demographic majority within the green line. Population numbers as a factor in democracy just does not work in the middle east. It may seem generous to give up territory, but this really means giving up people – we do not want to know from you, go get your rights over there and not here – not real generous after all. Many in fact actually want to live in harmony, together.

Jonothan Kittub added that given Jewish sensitivities about security, no matter what the demographics, Jews need to run the security establishment. This was a perfect example of someone who was able to conceptualize what is essential to another community – the expanded narrative that Yehuda HaKohen is advocating for. We can create paradigms that are uniquely suited to the fabric of middle east culture. One is the need to embrace overlapping identities and an expanded narrative. And fears of a “demographic threat” have to be jettisoned.

Inon Kehati graciously gave me the floor to propose the concept of Muslim and Jewish religious courts that will work in parallel and unison to adjudicate conflict and to guide our peoples philosophically. The courtroom of the media will be replaced by the adjudication of G-d fearing leaders who will rule on the issues and rumors that divide our peoples. I am quite serious – the first meeting of Sheikhs and Rabbis is scheduled in a month’s time!

This was but one example of efforts to acknowledge the Other, an effort we were all making that evening, despite our differences, getting towards a unified narrative that will serve all peoples that dwell in the Land.

Finally.

 

 

Hassan el-Shamy, A Muslim Who Gives Voice to All

Hassan el-Shamy, A Muslim Who Gives Voice to All

 

Published in the Jewish Press, September 2017

Permanently smiling, Hassan el-Shamy exudes a natural warmth. A people-loving human rights activist with a background in engineering, he chairs The Egyptian Association for Scientific and Technological Development where he moderates discussion panels, giving a platform and voice to all.

He is also a writer for the Journalists Syndicate since 2000, manager of Voice of the Arabs Union of Egyptian Radio and Television since 2005, and an accomplished novelist. But that’s only a list of titles. It’s what he actually does with them that counts.

I met him during my visit in March 2016 at the Egyptian Scientific Forum, Cairo, a conference center founded by the Minister of Education which offers forums to foster dialogue. He was there to moderate Dr Omer Salem’s presentation of his new book, “The Missing Peace.”

Hasan El-Shamy with group of Jewish and other religious leaders.
Hasan El-Shamy with group of Jewish and other religious leaders.

El-Shamy had already moderated Dr. Salem’s presentations and had had to quell a fair amount of rancor that Salem has weathered concerning his views on Arab-Jewish conciliation.

“Last night I was with the communists, tonight I am with the liberals, and tomorrow will be with the fundamentalists!” he quipped. The Muslim Brotherhood, that is. El-Shamy holds that freedom of expression is both a Democratic and Islamic value, and vital in human rights and in the curbing of extremism.

“But what about the quandary of granting freedom of expression to those who aim to later quash the same freedom for others? It is a dilemma.

“Democracy is a process. Just like we attend primary school, and then high school, democracy is something we learn over a long, long time. Everyone must be allowed to participate and express their views, that is the best antidote to radicalism.”

El-Shamy put his message to work when a member of the conference started an uproar about some misstated historical date. Furious over the inaccuracy, he gestured dramatically, voice raised, and el-Shamy went over and gave him a kiss! Dr. Salem likewise tried to calm him. Invited by Salem and soothed by el-Shamy, the fellow finally stormed out, impossible to placate. El-Shamy had put his value on free expression to work, even under attack.

His almost daily activism has some way to go. Egypt has been under military rule since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and has been in an almost continuous official state of emergency since 1967. This means that citizens may be taken into custody without charge or trial; police brutality accusations have been documented by human rights groups.

Former adviser to Anwar Sadat, Dr. Aly el-Samman commented that the assumption among those pushing for social change in the 1950’s in Egypt was that democracy would be restored as soon as the old regime was replaced. No one suspected that totalitarianism would last over half a century.

Only in the year 2005 were the first multi-party presidential elections held, though accusations were leveled that the election was fraudulent. The West has had a role in totalitarianism in the Middle East, as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice admitted, “For sixty years the U.S. has pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and has ended up with neither.” Activists like El-Shamy insist that such governmental heavy-handedness is un-Islamic and provokes extremism.

“The Qur’an calls for tolerance, acceptance, free speech, and democracy”, he insists. Then he invoked the Constitution of Medina as an example.

“In the Sahifat al-Madinah, Muhammad aleiha hasalaam consulted with all the different tribes. He asked their opinions. This is democracy right there!” Indeed, the Constitution of Medina established a pluralistic federation of Muslims and monotheistic non-Muslims in which all People of the Book had full religious freedom.

He continued, “It is only natural that Muhammad aleiha hasalaam made such a federation, for ‘there is no coercion in religion’” quoting the Qur’an, Al-Baqara 256.

El-Shamy personally identifies as a religious man: “I pray five times every day. The main purpose of all true religions is to make peace between people. If I am ‘religious’ and I do not get along with people, then I am not really religious. Some Muslims shun family members who are not part of their ideology, or who are not religious enough, and that is wrong.”

He also insists that women must participate in public life. “Only fifteen percent of the Egyptian Parliament consists of women. The percentage should be fifty plus one!” And why? “Women offer thoughtful contributions to any debate, and the men are encouraged to be more sympathetic, well mannered, and thoughtful themselves. In our family, the women are the rulers, and we are all better off because of it.”

He shared some family stories which explain his views: “In our family, the woman has more rights than the man. When my father died, my sister received the largest portion of the inheritance. My mother is the ruler of the family. I had a friend who wanted to marry my sister. I did not think it was a match because I did not feel that he would accept a wife as a leader. So he went behind my back! My mother joked, ‘if he went to all that effort, then he loves her very much, and it is good for your sister to be the loved one. You will see that everything will work out. So my sister not only became the leader of my friend, but of his whole family as well!”

“There can be no such thing as a thought crime,” he insists. “That is a communist concept with no place in Islam. There is no reason to fear the will of the people.” He holds that if the fundamentalists are granted human rights and freedom of expression, they will be less frustrated, which will result in less extremism and radicalism.

El-Shamy opposes capital punishment in practice. “A basic human right is one’s right to life, capital punishment should be done away with, it has no place in the modern world.

I countered, “but capital punishment is allowed in Islam.”

“No, there is confusion about the meaning of al-Qisas in the Qur’an. Al-Qisas means ‘equivalence’, that the punishment should fit the crime, it does not mandate capital punishment, even for murder,” he said.

“Instead, in place of capital punishment, the Qur’an states that monetary compensation or forgiveness are options for the bereaved relatives of the slain:

We ordained for them: “Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.” But if any one foregoes retaliation charitably, it is an atonement. Surat al-Maidah, 5:45

Hassan el-Shamy’s enthusiasm for his work is contagious; his ceaseless efforts towards co-existence and peace, between neighbors and nations, reflects the breadth of a vision that sees beyond simple boundaries on an international map.

An Arab Voice to Hear, Especially Now

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/17590

First published on the Israel National News site

 

A preface in light of the violence over Rosh HaShana (September 2015) in Jerusalem:

There are voices of peace in the Arab and Muslim world. They are not as loud as the voices of terror, but they exist, are working to stop the violence, and should be given voice even at difficult times. Or, especially at difficult times.

Herein is a glimpse of how good things can really be between Muslims and Jews here, about a Sheikh who exudes a Shlomo Carlebach kind of love for everyone from his hub of hospitality on the Mount of Olives.

But in view of the terrorist murder of Alexander Levlovitz Hy”d, I did lose heart, almost shelved this.

I called the Sheikh as a courtesy. He answered the phone and immediately said, “Salaam Aleikum Rebecca, I am very busy with the terrible things happening in Jerusalem, violence is not our way.”

I pushed further: “What are you doing, Sheikh, to stop the violence?” I do not know why we expect a peace-seeking Arab Muslim to go fix the rest of them, like when people expect me to go fix all the Haredim. But the question was asked.

“That is exactly what I am busy with. Right now, people are on fire. Outsiders are also interfering.” And you will see more of his philosophy, which has made him famous world over, below.

Business woman Maksoom Hussain, originally from Pakistan and now residing in the UK, added her voice to the condemnation:

“Of course I condemn all acts of terror, no matter who is responsible. Any life lost is one too many. Another family mourning their dead adds to the heartaches and pain, and this is opposite to what we all hope and pray for, which is a world where all can live in peace and nobody has to worry about their family returning home. May Allah rest brother Alexander Levlovitz’ soul and soothe his family and friends with his love and mercy.
When violence happens, we freeze and try to protect ourselves, but our Jewish family needs to hear that there are many Muslims who pray for a peaceful and pain free world for all children of Ibrahim (AS).

American Muslim Fionna Connors posted a condemnation on her facebook page: “Alexander Levlovitz died recently in a rock attack in Jerusalem. He was pelted with stones, lost control of his car and crashed into a ditch. I wish to offer public condolences to his family and to publicly condemn this attack.”

And you remember the thundering rebukes I have already quoted by Egyptian Muslim Omer Salem against the violence, both past and present, that emanates from his people and that he is tirelessly working to bring a halt to. Go to my previous articles to look them up again.

Please pause for a moment and witness real grassroots conciliatory efforts as I introduce you to the Shlomo Carlebach of the Arab world, Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa, of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.

It’s all about love here, and in Sheikh Ibrahim’s mind, love means giving freely. His home on the Mount of Olives is a hub of hospitality, boasting twelve rooms crammed with beds and a seemingly endless supply of food for all who visit.

Rabbanit Hadassah Froman, widow of the late Rav Menachem Froman of Tekoa, in Gush Etzion, states, “Sheikh Ibrahim was Menachem’s partner for many years, they did much together in the way of peace. Ibrahim was with us in the hospital when Menachem had surgery. I was reciting tehilim, Ibrahim was reading the Qur’an. Whenever we needed him, he was there; he was always at our house for the shiva. And he has a big family. He is a man of miracles, anyone asks him to go, and he just goes. Like Avraham Avinu, Hashem told him GO! And he just went! Ibrahim just goes, whenever anyone needs him.

“When Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel were kidnapped last summer, I organized a prayer rally, and Sheikh Ibrahim attended, demanding their recovery. If there was a “price tag” arson attack against a mosque, Menachem and Ibrahim would arrive together to comfort the community. Menachem would bring a Qur’an and say “Allah HuAkbar!” in front of the Muslims, and this really calmed the community, who of course would be very upset. Rav Yaakov Nagen is continuing.Menachem’s legacy.”

Rav Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Hevron, describes Sheikh Ibrahim in similar terms. “He is always there when you need him. I tried to contact him to invite him to a meeting and was unsuccessful. The participants gathered at a restaurant in west Jerusalem and who do I see outside, Sheikh Ibrahim! I called him in and he made time for us, as he always does.” And it is Rav Nagen and the Sheikh who are in a now-famous photograph, which unbeknownst to them, hopped around the internet world wide as a symbol of Jewish Muslim rapprochement.

I had the privilege of interviewing the Sheikh, after I attended a meeting of Muslims and Jews to discuss the Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur cycle, which this year parallels Eid AlAdha. When it came his time to elaborate, he jettisoned the academic and theological and spoke of how he employs love:

“The story here is not about how these holidays coincide every thirty three years,” brushing off the academic, “the story is about how we are all one, all from Adam and Eve. We are all from one father, Avraham. We have two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, but G-d brought us together here in this land. We are suffering because we are apart, divided. G-d never put a sign on a baby’s face like a Star of David or a cross or a crescent moon. We are all born with the same face to say that we are all one.”

“The ayah (verse) says, ‘Al Janna (heaven) is under the foot of the mother.’ The ayah does not say who the mother is, just that we are siblings. There is no attachment like that between mother and baby. A mother is something holy,” then he looked intently at me, “you are a mother, you are holy!” I felt ten feet tall.

He stood to pour drinks for those present, and thinking ‘mipnei seiva takum’ – in front of the elderly you shall stand, the Sheikh is in his seventies – I quickly rose and said, “Sheikh, let me.” He would not hear of it. This was an awkward moment, and one of many you will experience if you involve yourself in understanding the other. But we will not get anywhere if we comfortable all the time.

This was my chance to test all this free love versus a concern of mine for sure – preserving the Jewish nation. Can all this love lead to being influenced or to assimilation?

He brushed that off quickly – “very unlikely. The natural roots of a child are in the parents. They are not likely to go astray if the child has a good relationship at home. Like I said,” and again he looked at me, this time to convince me totally, “you are a mother! You are holy!” It was a confidence-building rebuke. He sat down, I followed suit, but I pushed a little more:

“There are divisions within the Jewish people. How do we deal with that?” He answered:

“The separation wall between the nations is not the wall here or the Berlin wall. The separation wall is when we do not talk to each other and when we separate from each other. You have a duty to find out how your neighbors are doing, to bring them something, even something small, to eat.” Forget the debates that fuel divisive dialectic. Eat!

“I learned from my parents to give, to love everyone whether Jew, Christian, everyone. In 1948 no one had much. My father would tell me, “take the sugar and coffee, and bring it to the children outside that need something sweet.”

Shlomo Carlebach’s father found his way to Ibrahim’s father and discussed how Jews and Arabs can get along together. Ibrahim’s father said simply, “’your people come to this land and volunteer. Let them bring school books for the Arab children.’ And they did. Then the Arab kids brought vegetables from their garden to the Jewish settlement. Shlomo Carelbach said that my father is not mother Theresa, he was father Theresa! And that we need more people like him in this land.”

“I have no passport, but I have flown around the world – I spoke in India in front of over a million people, dressed like this, (and indicated his red and white kafiyyah) I have been to over twenty states in America, and all I did to get this was to host people and give to them. The actor Richard Gere visited me here, and I visited Tony Blair and the second to the Pope.”

I left aside that strange detail of how anyone travels with no passport, though I like details. Meeting ended, I accompanied him to East Jerusalem so I could savor more, stopped at red light in Rehavia. Ibrahim nonchalantly looked out the window, warmly greeted a teenage boy sporting a black hat and litvishe style black suit. Their happy small talk ended as we pulled away, beckoned by the green light. The bachur seemed totally at ease.

“Sheikh, how do you know a haredi boy in Rechavia?”

“I just met him now, this is what I do, talk to everyone.”

At this time of year we commemorate the binding of Isaac, Akeidat Yitzchak, remembering Avraham’s test as well as his mark of hospitality, a trait which Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa emulates.

I entitled this article, “The Shlomo Carlebach of the Arab World.” But I do not know if Sheikh Ibrahim sings. A better title would have been, “A Living Link to Avraham Avinu.” Meet him. I need not supply the address, just wander up the Mount of Olives, either you will find him or he will find you.

(Explanation: Eid AlAdha takes place in the month of Dhu Al Hijjah, which parallels the Hebrew month Av, and commemorates the test of Avraham Avinu regarding Ishmael, who according to the Qur’an 37:100-112 interpreted from his dreams that he was to sacrifice Ishmael, then age thirteen. Parallel to Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac),this has been interpreted as a test of Avraham’s love for G-d above even his love for his own son.”

 

Dr. Omer Salem, A Bridge for Peace?

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/18199

First published on the Israel National News site, January 2016

Determined to pursue peace with the Jewish people, Egyptian Muslim sheikh, Dr. Omer Salem, just completed a whirlwind tour of Israel.

He spoke in venues including a Young Ambassador’s high school program, yeshivot in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish Agency, and in a wide spectrum of synagogues and mosques. He was presenting a call for peace based upon scripture, and in this regard could almost be mistaken for a Jewish revivalist, with his call to Jewish people to deepen their attachment to Torah and mitzvot. The closer Jews are to their book, he insists, the more they will be viewed as Ahlul Kitab – people of the book – by Muslims, and the more they will earn respect in the Muslim world.

For some background, Salem attended primary schools in Egypt, his homeland, then studied at Berkeley and Stanford Universities, journeyed to India where he is research fellow at Darussalam University, then onto Yale University where he attained a master’s in religious studies, (still lives in New Haven with wife and kids), then a PhD from Al Azhar University in Cairo in which he defended the Jewish people as “Ahlul Kitab”, or “people of the book”.

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva asked Omer, during his speech there three years ago, “Does their acceptance of your thesis mean a certain amount of agreement?” “Yes, it does,” Salem answered in his mild mannered way. And that amounts to a lot of hope for relations between Muslims and Jews.[1]

As to what motivated him to get involved in Jewish-Muslim rapprochement, Salem sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as central to solving the conflicts in the Middle East. “I have friends and family back in Egypt, I want them and my people to be at peace and to prosper, and I see making peace with the people of Israel as key.” He has condensed his proposals in his new book, The Missing Peace, the Role of Religion in the Arab Israeli Conflict.

He holds that any solution in the region must be based upon scripture, both Torah and Qur’an, as this is what ultimately unites Muslims and Jews both theologically and historically. ”Read!” he insisted to the students at the Young Ambassadors high school program, Petach Tikvah, “check out the sources for yourselves!” “This really impressed me” one student remarked, and the idea that Islam can indeed support a Jewish state was new information to them.

Salem demands recognition by Muslims that Jews are people of the book and deserve the respect and protection of Muslims. Once this is established in the Muslim psyche, all else falls into place – Jews are no longer “kafr” – heretics – but coreligionists. He brandishes the Qur’anic verse 49:13: “O Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other.” And 5:48 “To each among you (Muslims and Jews) have We prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues.”

Dr Salem regards this verse as invoking multi-covenantism – Jewish law for the Jews, Islamic law for the Muslims – a teaching demanding more than mere tolerance, but actual acceptance of the other faith community.

Dr Salem emphasizes that the Jewish people’s loyalty to Torah will enhance their reputation in the Muslim world, for people of the book must indeed follow their book. He boldly stated at his speech at the Jewish Agency that Muslims will actually help the Jews build their Temple once they see the Jewish people as loyal to Torah.[2]

Salem’s profile is rising; his visit was reported in Olam Katan, Ma’ariv, Israel HaYom, and the Jerusalem Post. Not everywhere was he received so kindly; in fact he was harshly heckled and philibustered for five full minutes during his presentation at the University of Haifa, shouted down by an Arab student who identifies with the Communist party. The student had to be forcibly removed from the auditorium. Omer simply quipped with his trademark even keel, “that student does not like religion and he does not like peace.”

An Example to Other Muslim Moderates, Condemnations of Terror

Few have the talent to be a total lone wolf. You wonder to what extent Salem represents other Muslims, and more so, if it is true that others do share his tolerant vision, where are they? Furthermore, if we are deserving of protection as people of the book, where are the similar Muslim voices condemning terror?

His courage in meeting with Jewish leaders in a conciliatory way has inspired other Muslim leaders to follow suit. He has inspired Sheikh Ahmad Erdowan of Amman, Jordan and Dr Mohammed Al Fiqui of Al Azhar University to become more active in Muslim-Jewish rapprochement.[3]

During his talk at Kehilat Yedidya synagogue, Jerusalem, Salem explained the lack of vocal condemnations of terror from moderate Muslims that we crave. “Moderate Muslims are between a rock and a hard place. If they condemn the terror attacks publicly, they are at risk of being attacked themselves. So in that regard they are scared.” Salem did concede that yes, the moderates do give some emotional support to the jihadis. Muslims world wide feel hurt, they feel downtrodden and frustrated, so when attacks happen, even moderates do not condemn as they otherwise would. It is also difficult for Sunni Muslims to condemn other Sunnis, a certain intra-religious loyalty exists that precludes loud and public condemnations.

I certainly am not satisfied with his explanation concerning the lack of condemnation of terror, and the crowd at Yedidya responded with unified murmurs of protest. And as to being in fear of one’s rulers, and thus voiceless? Omer clearly got a surprise at the crowd, who again together insisted that fear of the government would not prevent them from speaking their mind!

Author and translator Dr Jeff Green of Kehilat Yedidya remarks about Salem’s talk, “Omer claims that religion is part of the solution, and that Muslims feel hurt and downtrodden. Yet when a member of our audience countered that there are Muslim sovereign states, Omer responded that none of the Muslim states are truly Islamic. That was a little hard for me to hear. Still, to think he may be bringing other Muslim leaders to visit and possibly teach in Israel is an accomplishment.” And Omer received a few hugs and thanks at the end of his talk. “You are a breath of fresh air,” one listener remarked

At his speech at the Jewish Agency, Salem stated that Islam has no theological conflict with Judaism. He notes that Islam does have a long standing dispute with Christianity over two topics. One – the trinity is viewed by believing Muslims as idolatrous. Two – Christians wish to proselytize to Muslims. Judaism is considered strictly monotheistic, and does not call for proselytizing any more than spreading the Seven Noahide Laws, which Muslims already keep.

Both issues are totally absent vis a vis Judaism, and should serve as another point of conciliation. He was asked if Israel were run according to halakha, would it be more acceptable in the Muslim world? Perhaps even be considered a Muslim state? “Yes!” Salem responded unequivocally. It would show the Muslim world that we are truly people of the book. One student said he left the talk feeling inspired and hopeful.

“Falsehood has been spread on both sides. The falsehood on the Islamic side is to say that all Jews are kafr, the falsehood on the Jewish side is to say that Arabs have no place in this land. It has to be replaced with an alternative narrative, and the alternative narrative must be – Jews are Ahlul Ktab and this land is the Holy Land.”

Caliphate

At his presentation at “Tikkun”, hosted by Meir Buzaglo, professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, Dr. Salem emphasized two points: the importance of jihad al nafs (similar to the Hebrew “nefesh” – soul, the struggle for self perfection) and that this is a higher form of jihad than what is unfortunately being waged nowadays – jihad al sayeef – the struggle of the sword. He invites Muslims to favor what is considered in Islam the higher and more difficult path of ongoing self improvement.

His second point – Muslims are dreaming of a worldwide Caliphate. He declared that in the minds of many Muslims, this is an inevitability and that just like the Jewish people yearned for political emancipation with the Zionist movement, Muslims yearn for a Caliphate. He insists it need not be a threat to the Jewish people, as long as they cleave to Torah and are seen as coreligionists. Efforts such as his thesis at Al Azhar are part of attempts to get the Muslim population to regard the Jewish people in a more favorable light.

“What can we do to ease the situation?” one woman asked. One, cleave to Torah, he said yet again. Two, give a podium to the moderate Muslims (like I am doing right now). “But won’t that just make you appear like a puppet of the west?” she countered. That is a real concern, revealing again the position that moderates are in – their catch-22, between a rock and a hard place. Give them a podium, hear their condemnations of terror and conciliatory overtures, and their own people may just reject them, and worse. Omer has indeed received threats from Muslims who do not appreciate his efforts at normalization.

But Omer Salem is taking that risk. He functions more as a messenger between camps, apparently seeing himself as merely communicating the heart-felt and the inevitable. Indeed there are those who have asked of him to be more preacher than messenger, in terms of condemning terror and in cooling aspirations of political Islam, which certainly are of concern. Can’t he say something to his brethren on these two points? “I cannot stop a moving train,” he can only enhance the status of Jews in the eyes of any future Caliphate, adding that he has never seen a situation in which condemning terror reduces it. [4]

Dr Salem insists that both Jews and Muslims can prosper side by side. They can live and coexist together, it is not a situation in which one side goes up and the other must fall. “Our ancestors prospered in parallel” he declares, “when both sides respected the other. I do not want to rule the Jewish people and I do not want the Jewish people to rule me. We each have our self rule.” And only, he reiterates, when done according to scripture.

Again, he is relaying heart felt messages more than preaching, communicating central concerns between the Muslim and Jewish communities, a role not always popular on either side. But he is, perhaps surprisingly, supporting Jewish observance and revival and bringing more moderate Muslim leaders to the forefront. In this sense he serves as a vital bridge.

Sources:

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSHO-h-MTA

[2] December 24 2015 Jewish Agency  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKJQpmj9Bzk

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0EOH1YZKsc

[4] One example of him relaying a message between camps occurred at an Abrahamic reunion event in Utah, October 2015, when Dr. Salem took the podium unexpectedly and explained the Israeli position on the separation wall, and on increased difficulties for Arabs to travel from the West bank to inside the Green line. This was after the wall had been criticized as an attempt at land-grabbing. Not so, Dr. Salem insisted. “The Israelis see it as necessary for their safety,” he explained. Skip ahead to minutes 48-50: http://livestream.com/accounts/3116574/events/4361388

 

Muslims Who Advocate for Peace: Nusantra and Ramadan

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/17207

First published on the Israel National News site, July 2015

Part one of a two part article.

Nusantara – an Indonesian word for archipelago, or cluster of islands. Composed of six thousand islands, Indonesia hosts three hundred ethnic groups and seven hundred and forty languages all under one flag. Echoing its all-inclusive connotations, Imam Shamsi Ali chose this term when he founded a Muslim charitable and outreach organization based in New York City.

Founded in 2013, the Nusantara Foundation’s stated purpose is to promote a peaceful Islam, integrate the Muslim community into American society, reach out to non-Muslims to build greater understanding between religious groups, and provide social services to all – Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

An upbeat tone permeates the Nusantara website[1], and an email forwarded to me beckoned:

“Greetings from the Nusantara Foundation! We are committed to promoting a peaceful and moderate form of Islam….Islam Nusantara is the form of Islam that reflects the deep, universal characteristic of Rahmatan lil-alamin, or “merciful blessing for all humankind.” Islam Nusantara emphasizes friendship, peace, and love. We firmly believe it is time to replace the rigid, narrow, obsolete, and cruel public images of Islam with an alternative — the Islam that is friendly, sociable, rational, visionary, and capable of advancing friendship and cooperation above antagonism and conflict.”

Imam Shamsi Ali, Nusantara’s founder, exudes a youthful exuberance. Raised in rural Indonesia, he studied in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before immigrating to the United States in 1996 at age 29, whereupon he earned a PhD in political science. His collection of awards and honors includes being named one of the most influential religious leaders in New York City by New York Magazine in 2006, the Ellis Island medal of honor award in 2009 and 2010, and he was chosen as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Jordan, and by Georgetown University.

“I’ve been known informally as the face of moderate Islam in the west,” Imam Ali says, and it was he who was chosen to represent the Muslim community after 9/11 to visit the scene of the attack on the twin towers, hosted by president George Bush.

Rejection of violence

But this all-embracing love and acceptance takes a sharp turn when rebuking any acts of violence that occur in the name of Islam.[2]

“…(ISIS) has risen against the very spirit of Islam and broken every single covenant prescribed by Islam – all while shamelessly calling itself the Islamic State. We call upon all to stand firm against this dark force and to stop them in their tracks, that they may indeed be the “losers” God has condemned them to be.” This follows a quote from the Qur’an: “Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: They are the losers” .

In this same article he severely condemns the murder of Rabbis Moshe Twersky, Calman Levine, Aryeh Kopinsky, and Avraham Goldberg in November 2014, also brandishing Qur’anic verses in his harsh condemnation of an inexcusable act.

This condemnation of violence extends to the murders that occurred at the Charlie Hebdo French newspaper, January 2014[3]

In a discussion between Imam Ali and Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton synagogue, NY, the Imam explains his work in combating violence in the Muslim world. “It is all a matter of education.” He notes that there is nothing in the Qur’an that allows any Muslim to kidnap girls, referring to the kidnappings in Nigeria. Again underscoring the need for education, “Bin Laden never formally learned Islam, he was a business student, he may look like a good Muslim but he never formally studied the religion.”[4] More about the Imam’s efforts in strengthening a peaceful Islam later, now I want to turn to the Imam’s collaboration with Rabbi Marc Schneier.

The above noted interview was one of many projects between the Imam and the Jewish community; his work with the Rabbi had a slow start but turned out to be a very productive partnership, including the advancement of Holocaust education in Austria, the prevention of the threatened ban on circumcision on the European continent, and their joint book, “Sons of Abraham” [5], which has an introduction by President Bill Clinton.

First stage – building trust

Trust building is an important first step in Muslim-Jewish relations, and the Imam and the Rabbi underwent their own journey before being able to work together. But first a…

Flashback!

She grabbed me by the elbow, I was startled, she was shaking. “You are naïve! I saw you sitting there, you think you can talk to them but they turn around and stab us in the back!”  – A Jewish woman hastily whispered as she intercepted me. I had just exited a meeting in a Jerusalem restaurant with Muslim leaders. Raking me with a warning look she nervously walked away.

It would be easy to call her an Islamophobe, or label me naïve. I knew her feelings were coming from a fear I was all too familiar with. And her stance was not foreign to me. How do you move from heart-felt fear to trust-building? And I say trust-building – it is a process.

Imam Ali addresses this; he learned nothing good about Jews during his upbringing in Indonesia. He slowly got to know the Rabbi after 9/11 and the perceived need for some kind of reconciliation between the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Imam Ali notes that his trust for Rabbi Schneier grew out of a few key points:

– As he got to know Rabbi Schneier, he saw that what Rabbi Schneier says in private to the Imam is the same as what he says in public to everyone else.

– He saw Rabbi Schneier’s emphasis on ethics – honesty, friendship, building community.

– He saw that Rabbi Schneier defends and fights for others. The Rabbi’s advocacy for Muslim Americans led to the Imam’s advocacy for Holocaust education in the Austrian Muslim community, which will be illustrated below.

Rallying together

Likewise, Imam Ali’s trust in the Jewish community was encouraged when the Rabbi publicly defended American Muslims in March 2011; Representative Peter King had ordered hearings entitled, “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.”[6] Rabbi Schneier organized a rally and publicly objected that Islam alone was being singled out. Tragically, we have ample evidence that there are other sources of home-grown terror in the United States:  the murder of Muslims Deah Barakat, his wife Yusour and her sister Razan in February 2015,[7] the massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston NC and the rise of the neo-Nazi movement in America.[8] All sources of violence and radicalization should be investigated.

The Rabbi a softy? Sellout? Perhaps that is what you are saying after watching the video of the rally.[9] But look where it led!

Imam Ali – “to have Jews supporting the Muslim community and saying that anything that is against Muslims is against us, really boosts our spirits. For me it has become a personal responsibility to say that any anti-Semitism is an attack on me, and any Muslim who denies the Holocaust is denying my rights.”[10]

And Holocaust education in the Austrian Muslim community followed right on its heels, here is how:

November 2013: Rabbi Schneier was invited to speak by the Jewish community in Vienna about the Holocaust. He brought Imam Ali, who in his speech unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism and the silence following Kristallnacht, and it was the Imam who got the president of the Austrian Muslim community, Dr Senya, to promise to introduce Holocaust education to the Austrian Muslim community.[11]

That is the result of fighting for and defending the other. And anyone can do that, in whatever position they find themselves.

I felt it essential to add an addendum about this month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with the Hebrew month Tammuz. This month long daytime fast is binding on all able bodied Muslims from the age of eight years old. Evidently sharing a common root with Sefirat HaOmer, Ramadan corresponds to the Hebrew month Iyyar. After Pesach, the barley offering was brought in the Temple between Pesach and Shavuot, this spans the month of Iyyar, and until it was offered, it was forbidden to eat barley, wheat, spelt, oats, and rye.

Leviticus 23:14 – “And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering unto your God…”

After the Temple was destroyed, the barley offering could no longer be offered, and in a grain-based culture like Arabia, the Sadducean Jews observed this period as almost a total fast. They took the verse, “until the selfsafe day” to mean that the fast occurs during the day.

Rabbinic Jews living in Babylon prohibited new grains but allowed other foods. For them, this period became a time of mourning – some Jews would in fact fast, and weddings and music were forbidden.

“You who believe! Observing As-saum (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become pious….but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the same number should be made up from other days…Allah intends for you ease…and you must magnify Allah for having guided you so that you can be grateful to Him.” Qur’an Al-Baqarah 2:183-185

Note the assumption in this verse that fasting did not start with the ministry of Muhammed, but preceded it.

Renee shares that her women relatives back in Morocco used to cook the iftaar (break fast) for their Muslim neighbors so that they could rest in the afternoon and look forward to a prepared meal. This implies a few things – Islamic law allows members of the People of the Book to cook for them, Muslims can fully accept Jews as Jews by holding that they need not fast during Ramadan, and we had a symbiotic relationship in the past that can be reclaimed.

In my mind the month of Ramadan implies not just a tolerance for, but a need for the presence of non-Muslims in society, as in our need for the “Shabbos goy” who are essential staff in religious hospitals in Israel. The symbiotic, interdependent relationship of Jews in Muslim society is nostalgically recalled by my older Sephardic neighbors, and Muslim leaders like Dr. Omer Salem.[1]

Renee also shares that likewise, in Morocco, Muslims would bring flour to Jewish families to celebrate the Maimouna festival, or what Moroccan Jews referred to as the end of Pesach. Muslims would join in sharing the mufleta (pancakes) with honey and butter, savoring the first taste of chametz, facilitated by their Muslim neighbors.

I would think that western universities can make exam periods flexible to accommodate the fast. We are certainly familiar with the difficulties presented when our Days of Awe conflict with the very beginning of the university semester, breathing a sigh of relief when the Holy Days fall on the weekend. Our need to leave work early on Fridays in the winter, days off for holidays and no work on Saturday even if there is a deadline will of course inspire us to accommodate Muslims – we are not the only ones who have obligations vis a vis the sanctity of time.

Muslim acquaintances have told me that it is okay to eat in front of a Muslim during Ramadan. But help them out by giving a supportive thumbs up and an “alright! You can do it!”

It is just another form of standing up for the other.

[1] https://www.academia.edu/1404941/what_could_happen_if20

Sources:

[1] Nusantara Foundation http://nusantara-foundation.org/

[2] November 18, 2014 – Nusantara Condemns Slaying of Peter Kassig; Jerusalem Violence http://nusantara-foundation.org/?p=233

[3] http://nusantara-foundation.org/?p=245

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pku10xZ3KR0

[5] http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/226732/sons-of-abraham-by-rabbi-marc-schneier-and-imam-shamsi-ali/

[6] Rep Peter King’s Muslim Hearings http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/09/AR2011030902061.html

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/us/north-carolina-jury-brings-three-murder-counts.html?_r=0

[8] Analyst: Charleston Suspect Steeped in Supremacist Sites http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/22/south-carolina-church-killings-writings/29126461/

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7l7oYS0AP0

[10] http://nusantara-foundation.org/?page_id=2

[11]The Rabbi who got Abbas to Denounce the Holocaust http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4517923,00.html

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