Alia Hogben: Holy Blossom Temple

Author: Alia Hogben

canvasLast week, I spoke at the Holy Blossom Synagogue in Toronto on an interfaith panel of Jews and Muslims, titled, “We refuse to be enemies.”

I said that if we refuse to be enemies, then what is required of us to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of intolerance and discrimination? If we don’t try to learn from each other and build on our shared common ground then we will continue to be isolated from each other as religious communities.

It is through interfaith dialogue that we will find our common ground so we can take concrete actions of solidarity for our common good. This is not to ignore our differences but it is to emphasize our shared values and goals for peace and the welfare of all peoples.

With the world situation of violence and hatred, there are too many people who are set to demonstrate the differences and act upon these.

As Jews and Muslims, we have much in common starting with our religious beliefs and values such as monotheism, social justice, and charity or tsedekah/sadeqa. We also share some challenges such as patriarchy, the lack of gender equality, the role of women and the use of religion to spread hatred and violence.

It is a fact that Islam has continued with many of the Jewish practices. For example, Jews face Jerusalem for prayers and Muslims face Mecca; both have prayers 5 times a day; orthodox women cover their head as do some Muslim women; there is circumcision prescribed for both Jewish and Muslim men; and more importantly, both faiths have Peace as part of our greetings… shalom and salaam.

Our shared sacred history is oft- repeated in the Quran which is full of stories of Biblical prophets, and repeatedly states that Muslims have to believe in what has been revealed before. Jews, along with Christians, are called “People of the book.”

Although Islam is described as an Abrahamic faith, Islam does state that God has sent messengers to every people, known and unknown. This means that there are other prophets and messengers beyond those identified in the Torah or the Quran.

Raised as an Indian Muslim, this openness is very important for me as I genuinely believe that the other prophets/messengers can include Buddha and Krishna.

I love the Quranic teaching that there are diverse ways of worshiping God, and that each community has its own way.

“…for every community faces a direction of its own, of which God is the focal point. Vie therefore with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all to Himself: for God has the power to will anything.”

And again,

“Those who have attained to faith in this divine writ, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians –all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds- shall have their reward with their Sustainer: and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.”

I think I am right in saying that the Jewish values are of fairness, human responsibility, and social justice. I found some quotes, one from the Talmud:

“Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.”

Another from Rabbi Hillel who said, “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.” And Maimonides thinks that the highest form of tsedekah is that the giver does not know to whom he/she has given, nor does the poor person know from whom he receives.

All three of these directives are also found in the Quran.

The Jewish examples of these values of fairness, human responsibility and social justice were put into practice in South Africa where a high percentage of whites fighting against apartheid were Jews. Another example is the number of Jews who marched in the civil rights movement in the States. The trade union movement had many Jewish leaders, and our own political party – NDP – has been led by David and Stephen Lewis.

To me as a Muslim all this is very familiar. Muslims start their prayers with Bismillah ur Rahman ur Raheem –in the name of God the Merciful, the Beneficent.

There are many misconceptions about Islam and sadly the deeds of some Muslims only bolster these making it very difficult for us to explain the beauty and compassion of the message of Islam.

Undoubtedly, the Quran has several verses which seem rather harsh and severe but were relevant when Islam was in danger in the early days. These verses are similar to verses found in other sacred books.

I wish that Muslims would pay more heed to the Quranic verses:

“Thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that with your lives you might bear witness to the truth, before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you.”

What about our challenges?

A challenge for all of us is the mixing of religion and politics which is destroying so many lives. Another challenge is the pervasiveness of patriarchy in some Muslim practices.

I am sure this is also true for Judaism, but I think you have moved on in many aspects, esp. in the Jewish Reform movement as can be seen by the appointment of your female rabbi!

What should we pursue as our goals for our interfaith work, beyond dialogue and towards actions? How about starting with our common values of social justice for all and not limited to only with those with whom we share a common religion, race, ethnicity or nationality?

After the Holocaust, Jews have been strengthened by the phrase “Never again,” and I pray that the same sentiment can be applied to other instances of injustice and horrors affecting other peoples.

Without belittling the sufferings of Muslims the world over, I pray that we learn the same message and can reach beyond our narrowly defined communities, to step forward and be counted in the pursuit of peace and compassion towards each other.

I agree with one of my favourite human being: Psychiatrist and survivor of a concentration camp – Viktor Frankl. His belief is that each of us has the freedom to choose how we will behave in difficult circumstances, and hopefully when we try to build bridges with others.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”