November 16, 2018

A Jew Walks into a Mosque in the Middle of the Night

As I listened to the speech of Imam Shahin in Davis several weeks ago, my heart sank and my anger burned. Anger for the violence of the words themselves, being addressed to my community and my people, but also because of the violence done to the Islam I have learned from my Muslim friends across many different communities. And my heart sank knowing how much work it was going to take to repair the rifts — both in the Davis community, and down here in Los Angeles.

My mind wandered to sermons I heard in synagogues struggling righteously with the Torah portion which commands us to to wipe out Amalek. There were inflammatory ones, too.  I once had to leave the Bratslav shul in Jerusalem because my Hebrew was good enough to understand the equation being made between the Arabs and Amalek. Another time my husband felt compelled, during synagogue announcements to stand and say, “The sages say there are 70 faces of the Torah. I am sure that was not one of them” in response to a drash arguing the Biblical basis for total war against the Palestinians. I remembered the confusion, shame and anger at seeing the texts I love being used in such hateful ways.

Last week I watched my Facebook feed fill with fear and indignation from Jews, and with clear and unequivocal condemnations from Muslim friends and colleagues, expressing sentiments reflecting a similar combination of shame and anger as I had when my texts were being used to inflame. Behind the scenes I watched the Muslim Jewish network activate to confront the unacceptable rhetoric that had been derived from a tradition that Muslims loved too, challenging in the strongest possible terms and leveraging relationships to create a process of healing.

Our texts can be used to divide or heal.  As the final days of Ramadan approached this year, a 17 year old girl, Nabra Hassanen, was murdered in Virginia. It was a difficult time for my Muslim friends. I found myself pulled toward the Islamic Center of Southern California for Taraweeh prayers — not only to support my friends, but for my own experience and understanding, as well.

Taraweeh is a set of late night prayers recited after breaking fast during Ramadan. I had been at other Muslim prayer services, but never this one. I imagined it might have a similar feel to the slichot prayers Jews recite late a night or early in the morning before the High Holidays.  

I arrived a little late alongside other stragglers.  As Program Co-Director at NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, the ICSC has become a second home to me. I am there for Fellowship sessions and meetings at least twice a month. I knew I would be warmly welcomed as I had been any time I stepped across the threshold of the building on Vermont and 4th.

As I stepped into the women’s section, the evening’s sermon was already in progress. I worked my way to a corner from where I could respectfully witness. As I settled in, I heard the speaker say “Many of these verses talk about women, but this one talks about the Torah.”

What?! I had just stepped into a mosque. Why are we all of a sudden talking about the Torah?

The speaker, Dr. Laila al-Marayti, continued: “‘There is a parable: those who were graced with the burden of the Torah failed to bear this burden; it is like of a donkey that carries a load of books.’ So what good are books to an animal that can’t read them? Often we look at this as an admonition for the Jews, but this is really for all of us, lest we take our Quran for granted and we get used to just using it in a ritualistic fashion without really reading or understanding it.”

She had taken a verse that has been deployed against Jews, and turned it into an opportunity to explore the universal experience of failing to search for deeper understanding. Dr. Al-Marayati’s remarks were framed by the larger question about how we “balance mercy and justice” in our daily relationships, a question so familiar to me from repeated Jewish sources advocating that God and humans balance “rachamim” with “din” (compassion with judgement).

Perhaps, as according to both our traditions, herein lies the key.  We certainly need justice. We need to hold one another accountable — and hold our own communities accountable — for the ways in which we speak about one another. But that accountability must be balanced with compassion. Compassion comes through relationship. In building empathetic and vulnerable relationships we begin looking not only for one another’s culpability, but beyond it, as well. These relationships may offer us the gift of catching one another off guard — in acts of compassion. And it is in the context of these relationships that we, like those who delve meaningfully into the Quran and into the Torah, can learn to read and understand one another on a deeper level.

Andrea Hodos is Program Co-Director at NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change and along with Tasneem Noor facilitates the Professional Fellowship. They are accepting applications for the 2017-18 cohort through August 18th.