January 22, 2019

Islam in the Hood

Is Islam a religion of war or of peace? Is it both? How did it start? What are its connections to Judaism?

These and other questions lit upmy house the other night as part of an unusual Torah salon that has been gracing the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for the past 10 years.

It was started by writer and film producer David Brandes and has been informally called the Avi Chai group, after the Avi Chai Foundation (which until recently supplied the funding).

What’s unusual is that this is a group of 20-25 mostly unobservant Jews, many of them writers and filmmakers, who like to go very deeply into Jewish texts. For many years, the class was led by a scholarly Orthodox rabbi and author, Rabbi Levi Meir, whose approach was to dissect the many layers of an original Torah text by delving into Rashi and other classic commentators.

In other words, it was your basic hard-core yeshiva class for Hollywood hipsters.

I participated in several of these salons over the years, and I can tell you it is a sight to behold bright, hip Jews who haven’t spent a minute in a yeshiva take on a Torah scholar on the microscopic difference between two interpretations of a text. Put a black hat on the men and make the whole thing in Yiddish and you wouldn’t be too far from Mea Shearim.

What I also find remarkable is that many of the same people have been coming back, month after month, year after year. I find this remarkable because their deep attachment to Judaism has little to do with their level of observance. They have not chosen a religious lifestyle, which would obligate them to learn regularly. They are learning about their religion, rather than learning how to become more religious.

And as you’ll see, they are very adventurous in their learning.

Lately, under the tutelage of Rabbi Abner Weiss, the class has expressed a greater interest in history and theology, including how Judaism compares to other religions. The class the other night was the first in a three-part series on Islam.

After it was over, there was a strange silence among many of the participants. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to wake up my kids, or that my mother’s desserts had sucked up their attention.

There was a sense that we’ve all been cheated. Not by the class — which was electrifying — but by the lack of serious reporting in the general news media about history and theology.

People were wondering: Why do we rarely hear about the history of Islam, about the role that wars and coercion played in its conception, about how the prophet Muhammad felt slighted by the Jews of Arabia, and about the many similarities between Islam and Judaism?

In an hour and a half, we gained more knowledge on Islam than in 1,000 reports of any major newspaper or news broadcast.

Did you know that according to the late professor Louis Ginzberg, the eminent authority on Talmud, Arabian Jews at one point actually prayed five times a day, and that the five daily prayers of Islam “were undoubtedly ordained by Muhammad as a result of this early Jewish practice”?

We also learned through the scholarship of professor Abraham Katsh (“Judaism and the Koran”) that the Islamic concepts of “ethical monotheism, the unity of God; prayer; consideration for the underprivileged; reverence for parents; fasting; penitence; the belief in angels; the stories about Abraham, the Patriarchs, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon; the injunction of a pilgrimage to Mecca; waging war against the enemy; the status of women; and the position of prophets, all have their antecedents in Jewish tradition.”

Of course, we also learned that Islam refashioned many of the original teachings and stories of the Jewish Bible, that military conquest and coercion played a huge role in the birth of Islam and that many Arabs and pagans in pre-Islam Arabia (particularly in what is now Yemen) had a real admiration for Jews and even converted to Judaism.

In short, our minds were provoked and our curiosity aroused. Many of us have tracked down the books quoted by Rabbi Weiss to learn more, and there is a great sense of anticipation for the next class.

Why is all this historical and theological learning so important?Because it gives us a context by which to understand current events. The information we routinely get from the media on a complicated and delicate subject like the religion of Islam seems so limited to the newsy, the violent and the politically correct that it is limiting a much needed debate.

One reason attempts at Jewish and Muslim dialogue fail is they’re too schmaltzy, like some innocuous therapy session that is overly focused on process, at the expense of knowledge.

What we need is less bridge-building and more knowledge-building; fewer dialogue sessions and more learning salons.

I’d love to see Jewish and Muslim groups engage in civilized debate on some of the hard, divisive questions of theology and history that are too often suppressed, or left to be debated in the obscure halls of academia. It may be unpleasant for both sides, but in the long run, the relationship stands a better chance.

Maybe the bridge builders can come to our next Torah salon on Islam, right here in the hood. If the subject becomes too painful, at least there’ll be my mother’s Moroccan cookies.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.