For great numbers of Jews, the Jewish people is family, its concerns always primary in our hearts. Many take this to mean that we must always attend to our own community’s needs before working on issues of universal concern. Yet from our earliest history, Jewish tradition has contained universalist as well as particularist themes.
The High Holy Days liturgy contains many powerful prayers for all of humanity: “May all humankind become one single family to serve You wholeheartedly.” “May all people come to serve You.” “This is the fast I desire: To let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke.”
These sacred words, along with many others from Jewish tradition, express a dream of commonality, harmony and well-being for the whole human family, far beyond the needs of the Jewish people alone.
While Sukkot is surely a uniquely Jewish festival, the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the 70 bulls offered in the ancient Temple on Sukkot were sacrificed in order to atone for the sins of the “seventy nations”—biblical language for the entire world. Think about it: The priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem prayed (through the ancient form of animal sacrifice) for the atonement and well-being of all the nations of the world. A radical concept.
I recently had a beautiful experience of religious leaders reaching across religious boundaries to pray together and work for the common good. I participated in the interstate Caravan of Reconciliation sponsored by the Maryland-based nonprofit Clergy Beyond Borders.
In 15 days the caravan traversed 3,000 miles, addressing some 5,000 people at university campuses, synagogues, churches and Islamic centers in 15 cities. We offered teachings from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in support of engaged, respectful engagement with people of other religions. We spoke of the dangers to American democracy posed by rising trends of religious intolerance, particularly against American Muslims. We shared our personal stories of passionate commitment to interreligious cooperation and intoned prayers for peace.
Back on the bus together, there were countless moments of spontaneous prayer, strategy sessions about pedagogy and media relations, hilarious exchanges of self-deprecating religious jokes, hugs and loving laughter. Traveling hundreds of miles a day in a small, crowded van, we were a microcosm of the world we seek to build in which people of different religions connect deeply with one another and join their particular religious commitments to work together for a more just and peaceful society.
Our first Shabbat together, at The Temple in Atlanta, after a warm and joyful evening service, our friend Imam Yahya Hendi rose to deliver the sermon. He looked around the sanctuary, where 250 Jews greeted him with an air of welcome expectation, and he began to cry. Deeply moved to be received so warmly, as a Palestinian-born imam addressing a Jewish congregation, he began, “My sisters and my brothers, I love you all. We are one family.”
Sprinkling his sermon with references to Jewish liturgy, he spoke of the unity of all people. “Shema Yisrael,” he said, “Hear O Israel,” referencing the most beloved prayer in all of Jewish liturgy, “Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
We are one, he asserted: Jews and Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Westerners, old and young, black, brown, white, red and yellow. All of us come from dust and to dust we will return. We are on this earth together. Together we can build a better nation and a better world.
His sermon was greeted by a resounding ovation, rounds of hugs and many tears. The imam had won the hearts of this community of Jews, and the synagogue was luminous with joy.
Our two weeks together included many such radiant moments, as well as moments of challenge. While we spoke to many supportive audiences, we encountered conservative Christians and Muslims who feared that interreligious understanding meant jettisoning their own religious beliefs and practice. In Tennessee, the caravan encountered people working to enact anti-shariah legislation, prohibiting Muslims from following their own religious law, just as many Jews turn to halachah/Jewish law to guide their lives.
I was sad to leave my treasured friends after our intense mission of peace building, filled with love, laughter and prayer together. But I will take with me the precious memory of this group of leaders, all of us passionately committed to our own religious lives and devoted to working together to build a better world.
Is this a Jewish way to be?
Just as the priests in ancient Jerusalem prayed for all the nations of the world, my friends and I commit to praying and working together for the benefit of all.
(Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a consultant at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning in St. Paul, Minn.)