February 3, 2005
Rabbis, Imams Find Common Ground
I recently returned from an extraordinary meeting that took place last month in Brussels. One hundred imams and rabbis from 20 different countries came together for four days of discussion about religion, peace, justice and dignity. Meeting in plenary sessions and breakout groups, over meals and during evening cultural programs, this conference was a public attestation of the possible.
It wasn't easy for any of us. There was plenty of politicking and internal politicking within the religious communities as well. In one of the many remarkable public statements, the Orthodox rabbinic contingent agreed to participate together publicly with the fully honored representation of Conservative and Reform rabbis.
I had the privilege of leading a breakout session in which we were mandated to brainstorm about "sharing and transmitting without proselytizing." We began with the standard sharing go-around, in which we were asked to share why we came to this conference. I was riveted by two stories.
One was told by an African imam dressed in white ceremonial robes, complete with a matching embroidered cap. I learned later that he held a high religious post in Tanzania.
Once, while visiting a Congolese friend living in South Africa, he became quite ill and felt that he was having symptoms of heart disease. The friend suggested that he see a doctor friend of his -- a Jewish doctor. The imam wouldn't consider it, because he was certain that a Jewish doctor would use his professional skills to kill him, a Muslim. As he put it, "Perhaps he wouldn't kill me outright, but he would prescribe something that would poison me undetected." He therefore decided to wait until he could see his personal physician when he returned home to Tanzania. But his symptoms persisted, so one day, he went to his friend's house and knocked on the door. But the friend was not home. Who should answer the door but the Jewish doctor.
The doctor questioned the sick man, and discovered that the medication the imam had been taking for migraine headaches could cause a very serious heart ailment, and that was most certainly the imam's problem. The physician explained quite clearly that if he continued to take the medicine it would kill him. The imam had to choose between very bad headaches or a heart attack. The choice, said the imam, was an easy one. And the doctor also prescribed a different medication that helped to relieve the migraine symptoms.
When asked if that experience had anything to do with him coming to the conference, the imam's answer was that it had everything to do with it. It was his responsibility to come and to "clear the air," as he put it.
The other story was told by a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi. I had known of him previously through his writings that justified violence in the conflict with Palestinians as a form of milchemet mitzvah, or a divinely sanctioned mitzvah war.
He was living at the time in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Although surrounded by approximately 1 million Arabs and hearing the call to prayer every day, he had absolutely no relationship with Muslims. The only contact he had was with Arab taxi drivers.
One afternoon, he was riding in an Arab taxi when it was time for minchah, or afternoon prayer. He asked his driver to stop for him where he could do a brief ritual washing and then engage in that short prayer before continuing the drive. The rabbi noticed that his driver also got out of the car and washed himself. The rabbi stood for his prayers facing north toward Jerusalem; his driver stood near him, but faced south toward Mecca. They both stood there, one next to the other, each engaging in the same act. Both offered thanks to the God of the world for their very existence.
As the rabbi put it, they were "both praying to the same God, one facing south, the other north." At that moment, he said that he came to the deep, transcendent understanding of the unity of God -- for Jews, for Muslims, for all humanity.
"We all pray to the same God," he said. "One prays in one manner; another in a different manner. One prays in one direction; the other prays in a different direction. But we are all united on this tiny world, so I realized that it was time we got to know one another."
Most of us don't have the luxury of such transformative experiences. Most of us simply go through life following the religious and nationalist scripts we absorb intuitively from our tribal environments. This is extremely dangerous.
One of our scripted Jewish positions is the self-righteous question: Where are the Muslims? Why don't they engage in dialogue? Why don't they condemn acts of violence?
The simple truth is that they do. The Brussels meeting of 100 imams and rabbis attests to Muslim concern and activism. And Brussels was not their first place of involvement for virtually all of them.
But such public acts often seem to remain somehow under our radar. We don't pick them up. At USC, where I teach, I've been told by the dean of religious life that it is much more difficult to bring Jews to programs and dialogue with Muslims than vice versa.
One of the more interesting new programs I learned about in Brussels is a project partnered by two graduate students, one Muslim and one Jewish, that connects hundreds of Jewish and Muslim teenagers throughout the world via digital photography on the Internet. They have much more difficulty finding Jewish teens than Muslim teens to engage in the program.
We will fail to break out of our current deadlock and malaise without breaking out of our assigned scripts and without becoming more self-reflective about who we are, where we stand in the world and where we are heading.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, where he is currently building the new Institute for the Study and Enhancement of Muslim-Jewish Interrelations. The Web site for the international photography project is www.children-of-abraham.org.