“In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them saying, ‘Blessed be my people Egypt, my handiwork Assyria, and my very own Israel’” (Isaiah 19:24-25). Let’s take Isaiah’s admittedly messianic prophecy as an ideal with respect to how we might relate to other religious communities.
Measured against this ideal, the Jewish community falls short in failing to seriously inculcate true respect of other religious traditions. Yes, we believe in freedom of religion, but that’s a far cry from truly valuing other faiths. Alas, when an Orthodox rabbi participated in an interfaith prayer service at the first inauguration of Barack Obama, he was chastised by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) for entering a church.* (Non-Orthodox rabbis do not recognize this prohibition.)
We support the concept of interfaith dialogue, but beyond clergy and selected communal leaders, far too few of us sit down and talk about religion with members of different faiths. Because so many Jews know so little about their own religion, it’s not hard to find Jews who pooh-pooh the idea of resurrection without a clue of how central it remains to traditional Judaism.
The lack of familiarity with Islam is even more striking. Numerous conversations about this interfaith conversation about the Exodus elicited an almost universal response: “What would Muslims have to say about the Exodus?” There was no awareness of the fact that the Qur’an includes lengthy accounts of the Exodus, or that Moses is a major figure in the Qur’an, mentioned more than 100 times.*
Of course, the Jewish community includes a spectrum of views on these matters. Some are deeply committed to interfaith dialogue, to learning about other traditions and believe the existence of different religions to be a reflection of God’s ultimate will. Others shun dialogue, regard other religions as fundamentally misguided and have no interest in understanding more about them.
On another front, the State of Israel represents both a special challenge and an opportunity with respect to the fulfillment of Jewish ideals in relating to others. One serious challenge involves the rise of extremism. Some religious zealots in Israel—and their supporters in America as well—give little weight to Isaiah’s vision of reconciliation. Instead, they draw inspiration from the case of the Amalekites, a group that attacked the Israelites soon after they left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. God says, “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14) and envisions a war from “generation to generation” with the Amalekites. In the Book of Deuteronomy (25.19), God instructs the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 Muslims at prayer. The act occurred on the festival of Purim, a day when Jews celebrate their victory over Haman who plotted to destroy the Jews of Persia more than 2,400 years ago. The Book of Esther identifies Haman as a descendant of Amalek. Nowadays, some extremists identify Arabs as Amalekites, as well, and honor Goldstein as a hero.*
The words written in 1949 by Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann remain a timely reminder about the relations between Jews and Arabs. “There must not be one law for the Jew and another for the Arabs. We must stand firm by the ancient principle enunciated in our Torah: ‘There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who resides in your midst.’ . . . I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish State by what it will do with the Arabs, just as the Jewish people at large will be judged by what we do or fail to do in this State where we have been given such a wonderful opportunity after thousands of years of wandering and suffering.”*
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (5:9). In Luke’s gospel Jesus says, ”Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (7:27). Paul writes a paean on love to the community at Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). The anonymous writer of the Letter to the Hebrews admonishes: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” says the First Letter of John (3:18).
Such texts speak to the ideals of Christianity—ideals that share much with other religions. But the Bible is a complicated book that has an ambiguous heritage with regard to violence: other texts can be found that conflict with or compromise the command to be loving peacemakers. Consider that First Letter of John, which not only speaks of the imperative to love in truth and action but denounces the “antichrist,” the “one who denies the Father and the Son” (2:22).
Violence done in God’s name likely has more to do with the human proclivity to dominative power than with biblical texts. Nevertheless, such texts can be used to rationalize hostility toward the other. When religion becomes part of the mix of racism, xenophobia or nationalism, it is a danger to society.
The list of savage acts by Christians is a lengthy one: crusades, inquisitions, wars of religion, witch-hunts, pogroms, slave-owning and racial segregation.* The rhetorical and physical violence that Christians have visited upon members of other communities, as well as the “other” in their own (e.g., heretics, racial or ethnic minorities) constitutes a serious indictment of the failure of Christianity to live by its ideals. Yet the failure lies not only in the chasm between ideal and action, but also in the amnesia of many contemporary Christians who are ignorant of the “death-defying roots of their own tradition.” *
Precisely because Christianity constitutes a third of all the world’s religious peoples, it is vital to the health of our planet that we learn about and take responsibility for this history of violence against the religious other. We need to reclaim the non-violent example of Jesus’ teaching on the Reign of God that inspired early Christians to reject violence.
The Qur’an makes it part of a Muslim belief system to respect other faiths and followers of those faiths. Prophet Muhammad made many attempts to reconcile with other faiths. He grieved with the Christians of Rome when the Persians defeated the Romans (30:1-6).* When the Prophet and other Muslims migrated to Madina, he signed an agreement with Jewish tribes to live together in peace.* Isma`il R. Al Faruqi in his book Islam points out that the treaty of Prophet Muhammad with the Jews of Madina recognized the Jews as an Ummah (a religious community) as the Muslims were called an Ummah in the Qur’an. The same designation was extended to Christians, recognizing them as Ummah. When Muslims got their foothold in India in the 10th century, the Hindu and the Buddhist communities were accepted as Ummah. In this, Islam guaranteed each religious community protection of rights and freedom to exercise their religious obligations.*
However, like some verses in the Hebrew Bible, there are some verses in the Qur’an that have created misunderstanding in the interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. For example, verse 2:65 in the Qur’an says: “for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, ‘Be as apes despicable!’” This verse is cited as a warning not only to Jews but even to Muslims to respect the law of God. It is very much like Exodus 31:14 where the words “put to death” are used for those who violate the Shabbat observance, or Nehemiah 13:16-18 that says violation of Shabbat day will bring down the wrath of God. Muslim commentators on the Qur’an have interpreted the Qur’anic verses 2:65, 7:166 and 5:60 the same way. Muhammad Assad, in his commentary on verse 7:166, says that Zamakhshari and Razi interpret the “apes” reference metaphorically (mathal), not literally. This is similar to another Qur’anic metaphor of “the ass carrying books” (62:5). It should be borne in mind that the expression “like an ape” is often used in classical Arabic to describe a person who is unable to restrain his gross appetites or passions. It is unfortunate that some Muslims may take this verse literally and use it in a derogatory way against their opponents, especially in areas of conflict.
However, many would agree that Muslims made great strides during their medieval period to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding among different religions. Muslims accepted and welcomed Jews and Christians and lived together in peace. When Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands in the 7th century, Jews were welcomed back to Jerusalem and the same happened after the Crusades. Baghdad and Spain became the centers of interfaith activities, creating a great civilization of religious peace and harmony.
Since the 19th century Muslims have faced many catastrophes. They lost their political power and were colonized. They became dependent economically and lost their manufacturing capability. Colonial powers supported Christian missionary activities and Muslims were challenged religiously. Muslim-Christian relations were severely damaged and Muslims mistrusted even those Christians who were living as their neighbors for centuries, suspecting them as collaborators with colonial powers. Muslim-Jewish relations took a negative turn after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As the Palestinians were driven out of their homes and many took shelter in the Arab countries, intolerable policy toward Israel was formulated, and similarly, Jews living in the Arab countries lost the trust of their neighbors.
The political and economic downfall of Muslims had a reverse impact on Christian-Muslim and Jewish-Muslim relations. While there has been some progress in Christian-Muslim relations from the last two decades of the 20th century, the Jewish-Muslim interfaith relations are strained over the Israeli- Palestinian situation.
As many Christians and Jews are not ready to enter into interfaith relations for one or other reasons, there are Muslims who also have deep suspicion about interfaith dialogue. To encourage Muslims to participate in interfaith dialogue and remove some of their fears, Mohammed Abunimer and I wrote: Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide for Muslims, published by IIIT in Herndon, VA, 2007.
Today all Major Muslim organizations in America such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Council of American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) support interfaith dialogue. Saudi Arabian religious authorities had been a major obstacle in this effort. A major advance took place in 2008, however, when His Royal Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supported interfaith dialogue publicly and set aside funds to create a center for interfaith dialogue in Switzerland.