Haytham Younis and I co-founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) at around the time of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. JIDS is devoted above all else to the principle that Jews and Muslims are first cousins in the family of Abraham. In the last seven years, we have held several social action events and several dozen dialogues. Yet I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed any of our sessions more than last Sunday’s meeting at the ADAMS Center, the Washington D.C. area’s largest mosque.
The topic of the meeting was “Pilgrimages in Judaism and Islam.” The Jews on the panel discussed their first trips to the land of Israel. On the Muslim side, we heard different descriptions of what it was like to go on the Hajj, as well as one testimonial about a spiritual voyage that led a woman to convert to Islam. The session lasted for nearly three hours, which included a break for the Muslim prayers. What was especially notable about this three-hour session was what we did NOT focus on: namely, the political situation in Israel and the tragedy of those who have recently lost their lives during the Hajj stampede. Personally, I gave an address that lasted about 10-12 minutes, and I think I devoted no more than 20 or 30 seconds to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The Shayke who spoke the longest about the Haj devoted even less time to the stampede, despite the fact that literally thousands died in that tragedy. We fully understand the importance of the topics we were sidestepping. But we weren’t going to let anything get in the way of our goal, which was to pay a wholehearted tribute to the idea of a pilgrimage.
I am reminded of a statement by a local rabbi who taught me that while Judaism used to be 10% about joy and 90% about oy, we’re trying to change that. Last Sunday evening, we were looking for a joy/oy ratio of more like 99/1. Lord knows that it’s not a ratio we could find on television. If you want to obsess about injustice and war, death and destruction, hatred and fear, you need only turn on your television set or open a newspaper. Your local newscast is a particularly good source. Surely, it will begin with a story about a shooting, political scandal, or devastating weather event. If it isn’t about pain, it’s not considered newsworthy.
Last Sunday’s event surely wouldn’t be considered newsworthy. After all, we weren’t talking about pain; we were talking about reverence, which, as Spinoza would say, is never painful. We were talking about the euphoria of standing in front of a simple stone wall that happens to be the most holy spot in the world for religious Jews, while surrounded by people engaged in the most passionate prayer imaginable. And we were talking about the euphoria of walking in a massive group of people, all of whom were wearing the simplest white clothing, while approaching a relatively small black stone building that happens to be the most holy spot in the world for religious Muslims. We spoke of how these experiences deepened our love for the Holy Name – how they made us feel peaceful, inspired, awestruck, blessed. We spoke of the pure joy of losing our sense of isolation as we began to feel oneness with our fellow human beings. Prime ministers, doctors, shopkeepers, sharecroppers – no matter who they are, as they approach the Western Wall or the Kaaba, their social status fades away. The first person singular becomes the first person plural, and the “I” gives way to the “We.” Finally, our attention turns to the One who is not plural – the Eternal Thou. The Infinite One. The God of Abraham.
One of the things I learned last Sunday was that the reason why Muslims pray towards Mecca is not because Muhammad originally came from there. Rather, an imam explained, Muslims first prayed towards Jerusalem, but then decided to pray towards Mecca in homage to the fact it was Mecca where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael in accord with Allah’s directive. We Jews, by contrast, are taught that it was Isaac, not his brother, who was almost sacrificed, and that this event took place in Jerusalem, not Mecca. But what I found most striking about this story is not the differences between the two faiths, but their similarity: in both faiths, the single most influential prophet is celebrated above all else for his humility. By recognizing Mecca as the place of greatest holiness, Muhammad wasn’t celebrating himself so much as his father Abraham, whose devotion to God represents the greatest of role models for Muhammad himself.
Last Sunday’s JIDS session was a celebration of what Jews and Muslims have in common. It was a reminder of how both peoples have shared the same beloved, and that this shared love is so powerful that it is capable of blinding us with euphoria despite all the suffering and injustice that is taking place throughout the world. As a lawyer who fights fraud for a living and devotes much of his spare time to confronting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I am constantly reminded of so much that is wrong with human society. I am also frequently reminded of the extent to which Jews and Muslims battle with each other with knives, guns, words, and visions. But no spirit, and certainly not a successful human being, can live on “oy” alone. We need to take time to recognize what is beautiful in this world, how lucky we are to be alive, and to whom we owe this life and all others. Last Sunday, a group of Jews and Muslims did just that. And what we found is that when you get right down to it, the love that binds us together is a whole lot more profound than the fear and resentment that split us apart.