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Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters

On the top of the front page of this past Tuesday’s New York Times print edition, there is a beautiful photo of two women embracing. One of the women is light-skinned and gray haired, the other is dark-skinned, her head covered by a hijab, the traditional covering worn by some Muslim women. These two women were among 500 Muslim and Jewish women who gathered at Drew University for the third annual gathering of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

At this organization’s first annual gathering, 100 women attended. Last year, 200 attended. It will surprise no one that in the wake of our recent presidential election the numbers swelled to 500, with many more interested who did not attend. Driven by fear of our President-elect’s campaign promises to discriminate against Muslims, and by the precipitous rise in anti-Semitic speech on social media and anti-Semitic incidents around the US during Trump’s rise – not to mention the rampant misogyny and racism that have also been unleashed – these Muslim and Jewish women find themselves drawn together by common cause, to mobilize to protect themselves and their families, and to defend the American values that make it possible for us to live together despite our differing backgrounds.

My eyes were drawn to the photograph for a very personal reason: the light-skinned woman with the beautiful gray hair is Barbara Breitman, one of my oldest friends and a precious Jewish colleague. A brilliant psychotherapist and teacher, Barbara directs the Spiritual Direction program and teaches Pastoral Counseling at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, my alma mater. Barbara has influenced a generation of rabbis through her guidance and personal example. I felt such pride seeing her representing my Jewish people and our highest values of love and tolerance as she beams from that photograph with her fellow participant Shabiha Sheikh.

Here at the WJC, we are also taking steps to break down barriers and increase understanding. We are partway through our current course, “In the Tent of Abraham: The Mystical Heart of Islam, Christianity and Judaism”, which I am co-teaching with Rev. Matthew Wright from St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, and with two fabulous teachers of Islam and Sufism, Karuna Foudriat and Rabia Gentile. Having read some books and taken a graduate school course in Islam, I thought I knew something about what it meant to be a Muslim. In fact I know next to nothing. My academic investigation has not even scratched the surface of what a committed Muslim feels about his or her faith, and how that faith feeds their spiritual journey and guides their moral behavior.

I’m learning about why Muslims revere Muhammad as their founder and prophet, and how they try to model their own lives after his example. I’m learning about the spiritual underpinnings of Muslim practice. Karuna and Rabia, our teachers, have no illusions about the way their beloved traditions have been desecrated and hijacked by Salafi and Wahabi Islamists, who practice the fundamentalist and warped version of Islam that destroyed the World Trade Center and terrorizes so much of our world, including of course the Muslim societies that they inhabit. But by observing the fundamentalist and militant versions of Christianity or of Judaism, we see the same capacity to ignore teachings of love and instead elevate teachings of exclusive claims of truth and utter disdain for others. Nonetheless, it remains true that underneath all of that human folly and perversion, the spiritual heart of Islam still beats, inspiring committed Muslims on their path to fuller realization. And that remains true for Judaism and Christianity as well. It is, of course, up to committed practitioners of all three faiths to keep that spiritual heart beating, and to continue to craft the best versions of our traditions that will honor and support the true diversity of the human family in our planetary era. Those versions are embraced by millions, even billions around the world, and I won’t allow the bullies and demagogues of my tradition or any other to tell me different.

I’m learning so much. I feel that because of this course I will be able for the first time to approach a Muslim and have a conversation with them about their practice and their faith. I’m learning about the common practices and related beliefs that link Islam with Judaism, and with Christianity, even as I’m working to understand the origins of the age-old conflict between Islam and Christianity. I already knew about the fertile interchange between Judaism and Islam during the medieval period known as the Golden Age of Islam, but now I can revisit that remarkable era with deeper understanding.

This is so important to me. I am acutely aware of the extreme hatred toward Israel that has been infused in Moslem countries throughout the Middle East. I am not lowering my guard about geopolitical matters. But the United States has always been a laboratory testing the hypothesis that many and differing groups can live together in one society, that we can know each other, share school assemblies together, sit in doctor’s offices together, visit each other’s houses of worship, even marry and make families together. This model makes it possible for American Jews and American Muslims to reach out to one another, and to build bonds of mutual concern, friendship and even love. The United States at its best is an idea and an ideal in action, and at our best we model and export that idea and ideal to the rest of the world: we can share our society. As our new administration prepares to take office, I am not only fearful for the physical safety of minorities in our country, including Jews; I am fearful for the crippling of an idea that is our best hope for humanity on our crowded planet – the idea that we humans can transcend our basest natures and instead nurture our capacity to welcome the stranger into our midst.

In our class session this past Tuesday, WJC members Susan Rosen and Carol Fox Prescott reported to us that they had made the trip to New Jersey and had participated in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom conference. Susan and Carol described the love that was palpable among the women at the gathering. In our Tent of Abraham class, and in everything that we do at the WJC, we are doing our best to extend that feeling of love to our community. I want us to continue to create a sanctuary in which truly everyone can feel welcomed, where we can share our hopes and fears and aspirations with one another, even (especially!) if we do not all agree. May our participation in the Woodstock Jewish Congregation help us transcend our stereotypes about others, nurture our courage, and support us to stand up for that which we hold dear.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

PS You can read the entire article about the conference at this link, although you will not see the photograph I described above: