Dear Muslim friend [parashat Vayetze 5776]
Dear Muslim friend,
I thought of you, last week. Several times. Mainly, while I was saying my morning prayers. I am quite a traditional guy so I recite my morning service in traditional attires, tallit, tefillin etc. This comes to a surprise for many non-Jews; to some Jews as well! For them, it’s not usual to see a man wearing a prayer shawl over his head or binding a leather strap around his naked arm for purpose of prayer (seven times: three for the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; four for the Matriarchs: Sarah Rebekah Rachel and Lea).
Because of the perplexed expressions that sometimes I meet while I do my prayers I thought of you, my Muslim friend. You probably experience the same, while kneeling down, bowing, rising up, standing during your prayers. Facing the suspicions, when not the open hostility, when you are praying must be uncomfortable … let me be straight: it certainly is uncomfortable. And unjust.
You, my Muslim friend, pray several times a day. Just like us Jews, you strive to relate with God, or at least to try to communicate with God, in these moments of spiritual elevation. Nevertheless, those who do not share our faiths, feel threatened by the view of us at prayer.
In worship, just like us Jews, you also connect with other people of your faith, who maybe you will never meet, but you know they are doing the same thing you are doing at the same time.
We live in a very individualistic world, my Muslim friend. And we know that things should be different. Both my faith and your faith teach that we human beings are part of a community, and in prayers, you and me, experience that sense of connection with our communities.
Both our prayers are indeed physical acts. It’s not a purely interior dialogue with God, as in other spiritual traditions. It’s gestures, movements. It involves the word, the thought and the body. And these unusual movements can be performed everywhere, — which is difficult to understand, for those raised in Christianity, they pray in churches.
And there is another important similarity between our two faiths, my Muslim friend. Both are text-based. We do not worship human beings. Our Prophets, Moses, Muhammad, as great as they are, they are not divine beings, (barminan, God forbid, is the Aramaic expression, I think Arab as well). They are human.
When we worship, you and me, my Muslim friend, we quote from our holy books. When we are in need of spiritual guidance we don’t look for miracles and we both tend to be sceptical of supernatural events. We look in our Scriptures. Our highest spiritual authorities, Rabbis and Sages, are not miracle wonderers. They are literate, cultivated teachers, who know by heart our holy writings and help laypeople, like you and me, to look better into them.
Religious texts are the centre of our prayers, as well. We Jews lay tefillin because our Holy Book tells us to bind its words to our hands and to our heads. And I understand you sit, you bow, you kneel, because your Prophets said so, and your Sages espoused that on the basis of what your Prophet has said in the Qoran.
Speaking of Holy Writings, my Muslim friend, this week we Jews have read the story of Jacob. The mysterious dream he had, and how he woke up frightened and how he perceived the presence of God. And his words Mah Norah haMakom Hazeh How great, how terrible, how fear-inspiring is this place, where I perceived God. God is of course everywhere, (we know that, my Muslim friend, don’t we?), but in that place, Jacob felt God’s presence in a more intense way — some say because he was on the run, but anyway that place triggered in Jacob some unspeakable, dreadful feelings, and he built the first place of worship of human history.
Out of this sense of fear, out of this feeling of being minuscule and powerless. And because he felt God as great. Jacob felt God as we Jews feel God, which is so similar to the way you Muslims feel God. Imposing, majestic and powerful. Who rules our lives as individuals and our life as collective, as peoples. No matter how great we think we are. God is higher, God is greater and God is more powerful. Jacob knew that.
Later in life Jacob became very, very wealthy. He was successful in life. But he never forgot that humbling feeling. He never forgot that moment in his life, the moment when he perceived that human beings are nothing in the eye of God, and that God is norah, a great ruler of all the rulers, and all powerful, and his power is beyond every possible human imagination.
Now, my Muslim friend, we both know that handling that norah-feeling is not easy. To me, to you, it’s just so obvious that humankind should follow the ways of God, should not question God’s existence, should pay attention only to God’s will, expressed in our holy writings. God is norah, as Jacob experienced. God is majestic. God demands complete obedience. And it is our duty, as men of faith, to make God’s will clear for the benefit of our fellow human beings.
Now, my Muslim friend, I know there are in your midst those who take this commitment very seriously, above all the other demands of God. They recur to violence in the name of God. Worst, they think there is no other way to teach God’s will than violence. They reject many other aspects of your wonderful religion, that are so similar to our own and so much have benefitted human beings. They reject mercy, they reject compassion, and they reject charitable giving: all these duties that our religion teaches as well as yours, count for nothing for a minority of other Muslims who have reduced your religion to violence and oppression.
My Muslim friend, we are people of faith. We both belong to minorities. We Jews empathise with you. We know what prejudice means. We know how important it is to raise our children in our faith. We are on your side, my Muslim friend. Can you help us to support you, in challenging prejudices and racism? Can you help us to welcome you, and your wonderful heritage, in this country and make your faith, like our own, a force for good? Can we stop those who abuse religion, those who use Islam as a weapon of war, those terrorists who harm you and us, and the whole of humanity, in the UK, in Europe, in Israel, in the Middle East and in the whole world?
Can you, our Muslim friends, help us, and the whole world, to stop terror?