Friday, July 18, 2014

A Double Minyan for Peace, or, Seeing the Holiness in Others - Mattot 5774

On Tuesday evening, I experienced an evening minyan like no other. I was not here at Temple Israel, where there was the regular evening minyan at 8 PM, thanks to those who made the effort to come.

No, this minyan was unique. It was at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, and it was part of a Long Island Board of Rabbis (LIBOR) program that brought together Jews and Muslims from the area for learning and prayer. It was part of a world-wide program called Boharim BaHayyim, Choose Life, and such meetings were held all over the world: in Israel (where there were four such meetups in Jerusalem alone), in Kuwait, in the US and Canada, in several European countries. 

Tuesday was Shiv’ah Asar beTammuz, the 17th of Tammuz, which is one of the five minor fast days of the Jewish calendar, a sun-up to sundown fast, commemorating (among other things) the day upon which Moshe broke the tablets of Torah that he received on Mt. Sinai, and the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians after the siege of 586 BCE. It was also the eighteenth day of Ramadan. So observant Jews and Muslims around the world were fasting together on this day, and given the current situation in Israel and Gaza, some of us took this as an opportunity to meet, learn, pray, and break bread together after the fast. (An article about the international event also appeared on the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot’s website, and Nechama Liss-Levenson, a Great Neck writer and member of Great Neck Synagogue, blogged about the event for the Forward.)

The meeting at Temple Sinai attracted about 60 people, about half Jews and half Muslims. Among the Jews, there were representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities.

So, after some introductory speeches, Rabbi Lina Zerbarini of the Sid Jacobson JCC taught a passage from our textual tradition, which we discussed as a group. The text, from the Talmud Yerushalmi (30b), raises the question of the greatest principle found in the Torah:
ואהבת לרעך כמוך ר' עקיבה או' זהו כלל גדול בתורה
בן עזאי אומ' זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה
Rabbi Akiva taught: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Leviticus, 19:18] This is the most important rule in the Torah.” Ben Azzai says: “’This is the record of Adam’s line. When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God,’ [Gen. 5:1] And this is an even more important rule.”
Why does Ben Azzai argue that this statement regarding the creation of human in God’s image is greater than loving your neighbor? Because it is essential to acknowledge the spark of Divine holiness that is present in each of us on this Earth - rich and poor, black and white, American and Pakistani, Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim and secular and, yes, even the atheists. This latter principle should lead to the first one; that is, seeing the holiness in others should enable us to love them as we love ourselves.

A visiting Islamic scholar, Imam Ibrahim Negm, who is a special advisor to the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, invoked a similar principle from Muslim tradition. He said that you cannot call yourself truly faithful until you understand and appreciate the value of the faith of others. This fits nicely in-between the two Torah principles identified in the Talmud.

And then that minyan. The Jews went first. Temple Sinai’s bimah faces west, but the Jewish custom is that if there is a sefer Torah in the room, we face the Torah. So we gathered on the bimah together and recited the traditional ma’ariv, while the Muslims in the room sat patiently and observed in their seats. After we concluded with Mourner’s Qaddish, we returned to our seats while the Muslims, men and women, removed their shoes, gathered at the back of the room, and performed their evening prayer, known in Arabic by the name maghrib, a cognate to our ma’ariv.

I wonder how often it has happened that Muslims have gathered to pray in a synagogue? (It is worth pointing out here that both Muslims and Jews acknowledge each other’s tradition as purely monotheistic, and therefore that neither a synagogue nor a mosque is a place of avodah zarah, of idol worship. Not all Jewish authorities agree that this is the case for Christian houses of worship.)

At the end of both the Jewish and Muslim prayers is, interestingly enough, a prayer for peace. Just as we say “Oseh shalom bimromav,” they conclude by saying, “As-salaam aleikum.” How ironic, and yet not so.


Some of you may have noticed that Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi passed away a little more than two weeks ago. Reb Zalman, as he was generally known, was a key figure in the Jewish Renewal movement. He came from the Chabad-Lubavitch fold, but left them to forge his own path in the middle of the 20th century, drawing on a variety of religious traditions that brought him away from his Hasidic background. His obit in the New York Times said the following:

"His exposure to Eastern religion, medieval Christian mysticism and LSD... helped him formulate some of the innovations he brought to contemporary Jewish practice...

[Reb Zalman] “realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us,” [a friend was quoted as saying]. “Behind all religions there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.”

Speaking as one who stands up and advocates for Jewish tradition on a daily basis, I must confess that some of his ideas were too far beyond the pale of what is normative in Judaism to be appealing to me. But what does indeed resonate with me is the idea that all religious traditions have similar objectives: to get us in touch with the Divine, to encourage us reach out to one another in healthy, inspiring ways, to spur us to do good works in this world.

He was, in this regard, not too far away from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, from whose work the Reconstructionist movement emerged. Rabbi Kaplan rejected the idea of Jewish chosenness, arguing instead that all religious paths to God are effectively equal.

Now, I know that these sorts of ideas make some of us uncomfortable. If all religions serve the same goals, why should we be in any way particularistic? In other words, why be Jewish, when being Christian might be just as good and much easier? Kaplan’s response to this is that the Torah is ours; our ancestors have carried it with them for centuries and given it to us. I would add the rhetorical question, “Who are we to leave such a rich, glorious tradition? Who are we to deny our own heritage, to abandon what we have received from our parents and grandparents and all who preceded them?”

But the larger point here is that just as our tradition is rich and glorious and valuable and meaningful, inspiring centuries of Jews and, let’s face it, launching other religious traditions, so too are the teachings of the other great religions. And while we differ over dogma and rituals, the goals are ultimately the same. Love your neighbor as yourself. See the holiness in yourself as well as others. Pursue peace with all your being. Our tradition teaches this, and we should learn it and live it; and likewise for everybody else.

We need not fear the other. On the contrary, we should strive to see the divinity in each human being on this Earth. We cannot live a holy life until we understand and value the needs of everybody else around us, and appreciate their life and faith and fundamental human rights.

We must instead cooperate with all of the good, open, moderate people in this world, the ones who are willing to talk, and to bypass and constrain the bad actors. In our own corner, we have to work to eliminate the Jewish extremists like the group that carried out the brutal murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir. And across the border, we have to reach out beyond Hamas to the people of Palestine and Gaza. (A credible poll from the past week by Palestinian pollsters indicated that roughly 70% of Gaza’s population does NOT support Hamas.)

Let’s face it. Just as Gaza has been hijacked by terrorists, who are more insistent on shooting rockets into Israel then taking care of their own people, so too have certain parts of the Muslim world been hijacked. And parts of Judaism and Christianity. There are even violent Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and Hindu nationalists in India who have persecuted Muslim minorities there.

But about 30 Muslims came the other night to break bread with Jews right here on Long Island, and hundreds more around the world did the same. We need to find more ways of bringing people together, not just one day a year, not just in the 30 or so gatherings that were held on Tuesday evening around the world, but again and again in more places and more contexts, in synagogues, in mosques, in churches, in ashrams, in temples of all sorts. We need to seek and appreciate the divinity in others.

As I wrote these words, I received the not-particularly-surprising news that Israel has launched its ground invasion. I hope and pray with all my being that our valiant IDF forces are able to take out terrorist infrastructure with a minimum of pain and loss and suffering on both sides, a minimum of lives lost. But we know that people will die, some ordinary people, some good people, some civilians. We should not lose sight of the divinity of a single person who loses a life or is injured, and we should continue to pray that this round will pass quickly.

But we should further pray that a long-term solution is found more quickly, that the good people of Gaza throw off the yoke of Hamas, that the good people of Israel are safe and secure and never again subject to hourly bombardment by terrorists of any stripe.

As a part of the illustrious tradition that God gave to us, every weekday, three times a day, we offer in the Shemoneh Esreh, the weekday Amidah, a series of berakhot / blessings that follow the pattern of: Praise - Request - Thanks - Peace.

I really wish, some times more than others, that we could save those thanks to God for when we get the peace. But tefillah / prayer does not work that way. On the contrary, it’s a blueprint for what could be. We thank God in advance for what we hope will be a better world.

And that goes double for the ma’ariv / maghrib minyan in which I participated on Tuesday evening. A blueprint. An aspiration. A hope.

I assure you that I am not as naive as I might seem. But I am filled with hope. We have to keep hoping for peace, concluding every service with a plea to God for peace, and taking baby steps toward peace, even in our darkest hours.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/19/2014.)


  1. Well put, but I fear in a congregation like Temple Israel, mainly falls on deaf ears. I hope I am wrong, though...

  2. Indeed, Rabbi, these are very dark hours that have come upon us even as we inch our way to Tisha b'Av in little more than a week.

    I fear in some ways we have hardly progressed at all in the twelve hundred years since the Talmud was "put on trial" and burned in the streets of Paris in 1242.

    It is difficult at times to have hope in such a dark world; obviously, we must try.

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Elissa S.