Virtual Talmud

Virtual Talmud

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah in Ishmael’s House

If there is one thing Rosh Hashanah teaches us, it is the importance of self-reflection and the ability to be self-critical in the way we relate to one another. Communally speaking, as we enter the High Holidays the American Jewish community would do well to reflect on the sad state of Muslim-Jewish relations and the need for a serious engagement and rapprochement with the Muslim community.
The dire need for a new Muslim-Jewish dialogue was put on display for me this week when I was asked to speak as part of a panel of Muslim-Jewish relations at the Annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention. The panel was organized by my friend, Ari Alexander, the founder and co-executive director of Children of Abraham–one of the most important, up-and-coming Muslim-Jewish interfaith groups. It was an amazing experience being one of a handful of Jews in a sea of over 40,000 Muslims. The panel was not only the first of its kind at the annual gathering, but was also part of a larger push by ISNA to reach out to the American Jewish community–a push that was highlighted by a keynote address given by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Movement. For many in attendance Yoffie’s speech was the highlight of the conference. Many told me that they personally believed that it signaled a new day in American Muslim-Jewish relations. Yoffie’s speech marked the first time the head of major Jewish organization spoke to the group.


Perhaps the most interesting moments of the panel discussion happened when the audience was given a chance to comment and ask questions. I was struck by how one audience member after another got up and made–almost verbatim–the same statement: “You should know that I know a Jew and she is a good person, a kind person, a smart person. I am friends with this Jew.” The first time someone made the comment I yawned, the second time I began to get frustrated and annoyed but by the third time someone felt the to announce to the world that he she knew a Jew and was proud of their friendship it finally hit me what was going on here. “Elli don’t you get it?” I said to myself, “These two communities have so little contact, there is so much fear and strife between them that the mere fact that someone is just friends with or even knows with a a Jew at-all is a big deal!” Man do we have our work cut out.
As Alexander said in his talk, the way things now stand Jews and Muslims are brought up being taught to hate or at best fear each other. Likewise, on a communal level many people and groups are skeptical of interfaith Muslim-Jewish relations. They compare speaking with Muslims as a form of appeasement. While I would agree that many in the Muslim community do hate Jews and wish the worst for them, I would like to pose to such skeptics a question: What’s your other option? I’m sorry to say, but there is simply no other humane option. A world war with Islam, a battle till the end, would not mean the death of millions, it would mean the end of humanity as we know it. It’s one thing to fight a country it’s another thing to fight what in 2025 will be approximately one third of the word’s population. (If you think fighting Iraq, a secular country, is no easy thing try that times 100,000 (and that will only begin to scratch the surface of what we would be talking about.) Dialoguing and building bridges is simply the only option.
A few weeks ago Edgar Bronfman asked a number of us at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation , “Why is that in the Rosh Hashanah services we read about Abraham asking Ishmael to leave his house?” The question, I must admit, is better than any answer. For too long we have let historical grievances block a path towards understanding and reconciliation. While Jews and Muslims have a long way to go, is the path any longer or more difficult than the one traveled by Jews and Christians after the Shoa?
This Rosh Hashanah we as individuals and as a community need to ask ourselves how many Muslims we even know. In most cases the answer will be none of almost none. If that is the case why do we feel so comfortable and certain about speaking about Muslims and making proclamations about what they supposedly stand for? Before we talk about Muslims maybe we ought to first talk to them.

Comments read comments(6)
post a comment
Barry Block

posted September 5, 2007 at 2:00 pm

It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’ve just caught up with my email and read this — and the very fact that nobody else has commented yet is somewhat disturbing to me.
We *are* all “Abraham’s Children,” Jews, Moslems, Christians — each in our many different varieties. And for all of our variety, we must confront the reality that we must share this one, solitary world.
It does no good to point to our differences as reasons to keep ourselves separate from others — whether we are talking about differences within Judaism (as Rabbi Waxman points out in the next segment), within Islam (today’s headlines from Iraq, whatever “today” you are looking at lately), or within Christianity, or between any of the three religions. The result is anger, the carrying of grudges (which the Torah teaches us is wrong, and which any thinking person can understand is harmful), and all of the evils that grow from these.
I am not a rabbi, I have not spent much time studying Torah or other spiritual texts, I claim no manner of authority. Yet I know this, as surely as I know that I need to breathe for my body to continue functioning: We are, none of us, in possession of the *whole* of the Truth, for we are finite creatures (indeed, is it not the essence of the human condition, that we are finite, limited in our time and space, yet with the ability to sense and reach for the Infinite?). We need to remember with humility our own limitations, we must be ready, *always*, to keep in our minds and our hearts the willingness to admit that we may be wrong, no matter how many years we have studied and even taught.
This is not the “easy way.” Accepting what we are taught, rejecting that which is different, is far less complicated. But I do not believe that we were created for such a life, I believe that if we Jews are “chosen” for anything, we have been chosen to lead humanity’s struggle with the most profound issues — why else the name, “Israel”?
I believe that we need to understand, in our very souls, that we are all climbers on the Holy Mountain, the top of which is clouded in Mystery and beyond our mortal reach. Short of that summit, we can only see one part of the Mountain and the world around it — and we need to accept that the Mountain, and the world, can look very different from the north face, or the east, or south, or west, each from the others. We need to accept, in the most profound humility, that no matter how long and closely we have studied and listened we cannot have heard more than a fraction of the Word, that it is but *one* Mountain, arising from one Source and endowed with holiness equally on every side. We need to understand that it is not the particular path up the Mountain that matters, it is the *climbing* that matters.
I believe that what we do to help each other in our climbing, whether on paths along side our own or far removed, even to the opposite side of the Mountain, is one of the very most important ways that we ourselves can climb higher, approaching the Summit. It is time for us all — and not just the Abrahamic religions, but all people everywhere — to seek out and pursue that which brings us together, brings out our connections and our shared humanity, rather than holding stubbornly to that which keeps us separated from each other. It is time for respect, and a willingness to share with and learn from those whose traditions and beliefs are different from our own, a time when we can no longer tolerate the intolerance that is inherent in the belief that we alone are right or legitimate and that everyone who does not agree with us is wrong.
Our differing religions were grown in a different era, when most people lived out their lives within at most a hundred miles of where they were born, when most people lived mostly among their own kind, when there was a far closer correspondence between religion and geography, when contact with those who were “different” took considerable time and effort. Our world is very different today, when many of us need merely walk for a few minutes from our front door to find ourselves in a different community, when technology can bring us face to face in such a very short time.
Our differing traditions so much emphasized separateness, in the world they came from, and for centuries it was possible. But while the preservation of our respective traditions and values remains important, we can no longer afford to emphasize that separateness, not in the same ways, because the world we now live in will not allow it: we must live side-by-side with those who are different from us, and the only way that we can do this is in peace, with mutual respect and toleration.
We can climb the Holy Mountain together, on all of its sides, and find the rewards of moving closer to the Summit than we could on our own. Or we can cease our own climbing to throw rocks at those on other pathways, and bring on an avalanche that will engulf us all.
As someone once wrote, “There is no way to peace. Peace *is* the Way.”

report abuse

laura t mushkat

posted September 5, 2007 at 3:41 pm

First we must talk to them? How? Many of us live in areas where they do not exist except in the news on tv and the internet.
And who was speaking to them? The head of the Reform movement. Here is the US that is probubly just fine because Reform is a big accepted movement. In Israel this important man wouldn’t even be called a rabbi recently in a very public forum by other Jews. These are the people who need to learn how to get along with one another more then the USA.
This is important first-why? Because those of Arab decent give money and aid to Arab causes in the mideast and the Jews give money and aid to Jewish causes in the mideast. Those here will follow the lead of those living on top of each other in the middle east. Till then we can really try our best to tolerate each other if and when we see on another.

report abuse


posted September 9, 2007 at 1:33 am

IF Rosh Hashanah means self reflection and the time to think how we relate to one another, why has taken so long for the Muslin-Jews-Christian Communities to see themselves as belonging to one group? Since we all belong to the human race, what makes us so different?
we all love our families (funtional or disfuntional), we love our children, we love our friends, we want to make a living wage and more, we all even want clean water!! so what makes us so different?
A Religious Belief that makes one group superior, more powerful and all knowing!! who has the truth? who’s God is allmighty? who is there to decide? a sellective few? a geographical isolation? a politician/religious human? Please, someone explains to me what is the KEY ingredient that makes us so different, even though we all belong to the human race??

report abuse

Julia M. Fielder

posted September 9, 2007 at 7:41 am

Hello, I was looking for Rosh Hashanah, the actual days of celebration in September. I have tried to believe in what it stands for. I also agree with the writings of Barry Block (written on my birthday). As St. Paul (a very famous Jew)taught: now we see through a glass darkly, but then shall we know… I believe he spoke of this same “summit” which the writer alludes to and which we all have to try and reach, if we are in earnest, and trying to be tolerant and understanding. (Persons of good will). Speaking of other pathways, could you, being Jewish deal with a German who was going to school in Nazi Germany, but yet has good memories of Jewish neighbors she had met in her childhood? I ask along with Celina (9/09/07) what is the key ingredient that makes me (or us) different, even though we all belong to the human race? Peace and love, and Shalom: Julia.

report abuse


posted September 9, 2007 at 10:51 am

According to little green footballs ISNA is an unindicted co-conspirator in the ‘Holy Land Foundation’ terror trial, and is a front group for the Muslim Brotherhood.
So it makes a lot of sense for Rabbi Yoffie to attend their conference. It will also be the first time any reform leader has seen 40000 people in one place.

report abuse

Pingback: We Need to Get Our Own House in Order - Virtual Talmud

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

The Task Is Never Finished
It has been heartwarming to read the warm responses to Rabbi Waxman's post asking Beliefnet to reconsider its decision to cancel Virtual Talmud. Virtual Talmud offered an alternative model for internet communications: civil discourse pursued in ...

posted 12:31:46pm Apr. 03, 2008 | read full post »

Some Parting Reflections
Well, loyal readers, all good things must come to an end and we’ve been informed that this particular experiment in blogging as a forum for creating wide-ranging discussion on topics of interest to contemporary Jews has run its course. Maybe ...

posted 1:00:29pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

Obama's Lesson and The Jewish Community
There are few times in this blog’s history when I have felt that Rabbi Grossman was one hundred percent correct in her criticisms of my ideas. However, a few weeks ago she called me out for citing a few crack websites on Barak Obama’s ...

posted 12:09:08pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

The Future of Race Relations
As a post-baby boomer, it is interesting to me to see how much of today’s conversation about racial relations is still rooted in the 1960s experience and rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, and the disenchantment that followed. Many in the ...

posted 4:04:41pm Mar. 25, 2008 | read full post »

Wright and Wrong of Race and Jews
Years ago, as a rabbinical student, I was one of a group of rabbinical students who visited an African American seminary in Atlanta. My fellow rabbinical students and I expected an uplifting weekend of interfaith sharing like we had experienced ...

posted 12:50:11pm Mar. 24, 2008 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.