In our postmodern age, it’s fascinating to note that Jews still widely observe several biblical-era practices. Two among them stand out: brit milah (ritual circumcision) and Pesach (Passover). It’s also worth mentioning that Elijah the prophet plays major roles during both. Elijah is the honored guest at every circumcision, with a special chair — the Kisei Shel Eliyahu — reserved for him. He is also the honored guest at every Pesach seder, with the fifth cup of wine — the Kos Shel Eliyahu — poured especially for him, and he is treated to a special welcome when we open the door for him.
Elijah, the prophet of redemption, also redeems mankind and leads us to a state of perfection. The metaphysical imprint stamped on the collective unconscious of the Jewish national soul senses that these two practices are among Judaism’s most ancient commandments — that they stretch back to antiquity, even before Sinai, and link us to the very origins of the Jewish people.
Curiously enough, Elijah also holds a special place for Muslims, and is one of the prophets mentioned by name in the Quran.
Could Elijah be the bridge that helps us find common ground with Muslims? Could Elijah, a religious icon of both our traditions, help us work through the clash of civilizations?
In an age when advanced technology and modern communication enable us to talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time, it should not be a daydream or wishful thinking to hope for better relations between Jews and Muslims. We certainly won’t agree on everything, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to tear down the walls that separate us and seek new channels of communication and cooperation.
In San Francisco, for example, Jewish and Muslim groups are working to oppose a potential citywide ballot initiative that would criminalize male circumcision. In Brooklyn, N.Y., Jews and Muslims are building coalitions for immigration advocacy.
On Capitol Hill, Indiana Rep. André Carson (D-Indianapolis), a Muslim, has a warm relationship with the Jewish community, is an enthusiastic partner on social issues and a reliable voice on Israel. After the Gaza military operation of 2008, Carson supported a resolution backing Israel, a vote that triggered criticism against him from pro-Palestinian activists.
Despite the profound and prodigious differences that exist between us, there is much common ground that we can work on together, and these social encounters can broaden our own experience and deepen our understanding of issues, events and people by helping us grasp the shape and meaning of these shared experiences and values.
Passover’s powerful message of freedom and tolerance, as described in the narrative of the Torah, has gripped the human imagination for several thousand years and continues to offer thought and commentary on human life that sometimes surprises us with its continuing relevance.
The Passover haggadah, which we return to again and again, is a limitless source of inspiration that can lead to profound changes in human life. The seder, with its myriad symbols, has stood the test of time and has opened minds and propelled them beyond their previous limits.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik taught that a pivotal message of Passover is that the experiences and memories of our bondage in Egypt should inculcate in each and every Jewish soul a strong sense of social commitment to which we should always be devoted. Our suffering and pain in Egypt should sensitize us to the sufferings of others and lead us to join with them to redress those injustices.
Sometimes, the most effective way to address cultural differences comes couched in terms borrowed from similar traumas, and perhaps through that very door that we open for Elijah will also come the legacy of creating a wider community and new friends.
If the Catholic Church gave up centuries of enmity and learned how to embrace Jews, couldn’t Muslims do the same? Perhaps it’s up to us to take the first step.
When urged to write his autobiography, Saul Bellow used to say there is nothing to tell except that he’d been unbearably busy ever since he was circumcised. The Torah teaches us, in Parashat Vayera, that immediately following Abraham’s circumcision, while he was still recovering, he left his comfortable tent and went outdoors on a brutally hot Middle Eastern day to see if there was anyone he could help and invite into his home. Abraham’s first act as a circumcised Jew was to build a social network with three strangers. We, who invoke the name of Abraham in the very first blessing of our Amidah prayers, must not let him down.
Let’s get busy.
Rabbi Marc Mandel is a rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation (bethjacob.org), a Modern Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills.
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