Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon, 5772/2011
Rabbi Dawn Rose, PhD
Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley, Lowell, MA
I recently attended a rabbinic retreat devoted to interfaith dialog. We spoke with Christians and Muslims, in person or on Skype from various places around the globe on topics as diverse and divisive as theology, economics, politics, race, and law. As you can imagine, the program was exciting and the debates lively. However, by far the strongest emotions—ranging from passion to fear to anger—were not sparked between rabbis and Christians or rabbis and Muslims but rather, between rabbis and rabbis.
The truth is, I caused the biggest argument. I merely—and innocently—I think, introduced the possibility that God still speaks to us today as God did to our ancestors. Upon my suggesting this, immediately a wall of rabbis amassed passionately against me.
“God can’t speak to anyone anymore,” one rabbi said. “If we admit that God still speaks, then people can say God told them to commit murder.”
At first I thought that was quite a giant leap to make, that just because someone might say God told them to kill, we can’t allow God to say anything anymore. Surely God has many things to say. Could we not hear those things without worrying about any far-fetched idea that God will tell us to go for the throat?
And just when I thought I might have a cogent argument, here we are, this holy Rosh Hashanah morning, reading a Torah portion in which God not only speaks, but commands Abraham to murder his beloved son. Apparently, in the Torah, as in much of the so called modern world, God commands people to kill other people all the time.
Today’s Torah portion, called the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac, is one of the most difficult Biblical passages for many of us to accept or understand. It presents a picture we do not want long to remain in our minds—our revered forefather, Abraham, standing over his son with a knife, poised to slaughter him with a single stroke of the blade, probably across the throat in the manner of sacrifices.
Over the millennia, our people have developed many good interpretations of the story that helps explain away the horror:
–From the Torah and the Rabbis historically we have learned this was a test of Abraham’s obedience, and that he passed.
–Beginning a few centuries ago and continuing today, some commentators have suggested that indeed it was a test, not of obedience but of, shall we say, Abraham’s religious evolution from barbarity to monotheism, from pagan human sacrifice to a repudiation of such. In this test, he failed, and received a visceral lesson against human sacrifice.
Whatever the interpretation—a test and he passed, a test and he failed—however people understand this story, almost everyone agrees on one particular point: Abraham was an exception, a great prophet in an age of prophesy. God doesn’t talk to anyone like that anymore. Certainly, God doesn’t tell anyone to kill anyone anymore.
Many of us would say the same about certain horrific verses later on in the Torah. Just as the wandering Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, God commands the Israelites to totally exterminate all the Canaanites that already live there.
Today, we would call that genocide.
Of course, the majority of Jews put these commands to kill everyone living in the Holy Land in context.
Theologians argue that it was the ancient Israelites who interpreted their relationship with God as requiring them to wage war in this fashion.
Archeologists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem point out that even though the Torah reports much of these killings were carried out, the evidence on the ground suggests a far more peaceful integration of Israelites and Canaanites.
Most of us then would say, the Torahitic command to kill was received in a particular historical context and does not apply outside that temporal frame.
However, today, there are Jewish extremists, in Israel, some settling the territories, who claim these texts command them still to take by genocide if necessary all the lands promised by the Torah. Not as a matter of defense but the Divine Voice speaking through the Torah still, a Voice that commands: Go. Kill. Take.
The rest of us, the majority of Jews in Israel and around the globe look on in horror. We want the world to understand these persons with the raised knife and the leveled gun believing they are commanded by God to kill do not represent us Jews or any Judaism we understand, whether or not they can point to the same holy book we hold in common and say they are commanded.
Christianity, also descendants of “our patriarch Abraham who was commanded by God to kill his son with a knife and almost did it,” has a much longer and more horrible history of murder, conversion by the sword, and genocide. As the evidence of decimated native populations of the Americas can attest, there seems to be something very dangerous about the nexus between monotheistic religion and monarchic power. Colonization of the New World went hand in hand with mass murder, enslavement, and forced conversion of its peoples.
Similarly, the Crusades were marked by horrible genocide and crimes against humanity. Unutterable acts of terror including cannibalism are recorded in crusade histories.
However terrible Christianity’s crimes against non-Christians, many of the most horrific tortures and murders were committed by Christians against their fellow co-religionists. Targeted were not only converted Jews and Muslims, but also any Christians whose political/theological beliefs or religious practices were in any way divergent, Christians whose ethnic heritage made them suspect, as well as superstitious peasants, so-called witches, blasphemers, Lutherans, bigamists, homosexuals, and freemasons.
Now, except for the most radicle of the religious right, skinheads, and descendants of the KKK, the vast majority of Christians I think would repudiate such horrific violence against Christian or non-Christian.
Unfortunately, there are still Christian extremists who periodically try to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or succeed in murdering scores of people in Oklahoma or, more recently Norway. I do not label these terrorists as representative of Christianity overall.
While I remain horrified at the tortures of the Inquisition and the genocide of the Crusades, I believe, that, just as the vast majority of us Jews have grown and evolved and learned over the years, ever refining and redefining what we believe God requires of us, so also I believe Christians can and do as well.
We might, then, be just on the cusp of allowing the voice of God to grace our ears without the fear of the command to kill were it not for the third and last flock descended of Abraham. Islam has been designated the most violent descendant of all. This morning I want to as honestly and thoroughly as possible given my own humble limitations examine the validity of this characterization of Islam as a violent religion. I want to do this first because it is a matter of social ethics: if all of Islam is violent, we should indeed fear Muslims; if it is not true then we are obligated to educate ourselves and each other and to help protect our Muslim neighbors from harm.
Our focus this morning will be the historical context of the Koran and the life story of the prophet who wrote it, known as Mohammad.
As we all know, Islam was begun by this man, this prophet, named Mohammad, who lived between 570-632 in what is now called Saudi Arabia. Over the course of many years, Mohammad received the revelations which now comprise the holy book called the Koran.
The Koran was put down by one man over the course of his life and is not arranged in an historical or narratival fashion. Still, there is a historicity to the Koran, history as big and important to Muslims as the Exodus is to Jews. Just as many things God says to the Israelites in the Torah relate to particular time periods and events, so to in the Koran.
Early revelations in the Koran came to Mohammad in the beginning of his prophethood, when he was living in a city called Mecca. Mecca at this time was a growing, international city, complete with Christians, Jews, and numerous Arab tribes worshiping various idols.
As a burgeoning city, Mecca was witnessing a breakdown of the tribal social structures and safety nets. There was a rising population of poor without familial or tribal support. Orphans and widows, for example, once the responsibility of the tribe, now starved in the streets without help or hope.
Much of what Allah revealed to Mohammad at this time has to do with the context in which it was received. It is a compassionate social vision of shared wealth that insured the support of the helpless poor. From this time, we find also many passages that speak of respect for and peaceful coexistence with Jews and Christians.
Mohammad shared his revelations with anyone who would hear, and slowly gained a circle of faithful followers. Given that he preached against idols and greed, he also gained many enemies. Mecca became a dangerous place for him. Another, smaller city, known as Yathrib, now Medina, invited Mohammad to come be their mayor. Yathrib was experiencing conflict between its many religious and ethnic groups and was looking for a peacemaker.
Mohammad came and was able to bring harmony. During this early time in Yathrib, as he was bringing peace between disparate tribes and religious groups, there were more revelations concerning peace in interfaith communities.
According to the history Islam shares about itself, in Yathrib now, Islam, the religious idea, now had a political/economic manifestation. Here was an actual city in the desert, governed by the rule of social equity and compassion. Analogous times in Jewish history might be in welcoming tents of Abraham, or Jerusalem under the reign of David and Solomon.
Unfortunately, however, just as Israel was attacked by Babylonia and Rome, so also Yathrib was besieged, as it happened, by a coalition of Meccans–Arabs, Christians and Jews. Whatever the historical reasons for the attack, Mohammad and his followers took up the sword to protect their city. Revelations given to Mohammad respond to this historical crisis. Just as there are verses in the Torah that command the killing of seven Canaanite nations, so also are there verses the Koran that command war against Arab, Christians and Jewish attackers.
As with the Torah, it’s all about what you do with these verses, their placement, priority, and interpretation.
Just as the vast majority of Jews I think would say that the order to commit genocide against the inhabitants of Palestine was specific to an historical period, most Muslims similarly contextualize the command to kill non-Muslims as specific to either the actual place and time of the battles around Yathrib, later known as Medina, or as a response to warlike aggression.
Jihadist readers of the Koran choose to ignore this historical context. Their first act of aggression is against their own holy book, ripping ayot, or verses out of place and time, thereby perverting their meaning and subverting their purpose.
Jihadist theologians and strategists, misinterpret the Koran in ways that are even more shocking. Moreover, the historical narrative of Mohammad’s life—which for Muslim’s around the world was centered on the principles of serenity, co-existence and compassion, has likewise been twisted and reinterpreted by Jihadist theologians to support Jihad mentality. In their warped framework, the two stages of Mecca and Medina become three.*
According to many Jihadist strategists, the first stage of revelations and teaching in Mecca is interpreted not as a time of the gathering of faithful, but rather as a period of building an inner circle, the underground movement. It is at this time that the leadership of a secret society of future terrorists is formed.
The next stage is called Medina, where that secret inner circle achieves sovereignty over a political entity such as a town or a country and establishes Islamic rule. Think Kabul. Think Afghanistan, which was in fact referred to by Ben Laden as a Medina.
From there, the third stage is launched, that is the conversion of everyone else by edge of the sword.
Thus has the very life of the gentle prophet as he is known by his followers been warped and contorted beyond recognition. It is kind of like saying that the message of Abraham’s life is that we should raise sons in order to sacrifice them, or that Moses’ mission was to bring plagues and incite genocide. Thus have the likes of Al Kida perverted their own religion in order to commit atrocities.
The thing is, not only have the Jihadists perverted their own holy book to justify war and terror against non-Muslims, but they have also used it to foment their own Inquisition. For what else can the actions of the Taliban be called but the Inquisition? Taliban commit the worst oppression and violence against other Muslims. What they call the rule of Sharia, of Islamic law is unrecognizable to Muslim populations under their heel. Imagine the profound sense of dislocation experienced by the millions of Muslims under Taliban rule being forcibly told that the gentle religious path of compassion and of peace practiced by them and their ancestors for centuries is criminal and impure. Imagine their terror.
We hold this in common with the Muslims of Afghanistan—we are all terrorized by the same perverters of Islam. We are, Muslim and Jew alike, their targets and potential victims. It is the Muslims of Afghanistan who bear the brunt of this terror every day.
Muslims in America also bear the burden of Jihadi Muslims and heinous crimes. After 9/11, it seems that any American thinks they know more about Islam than all American Muslims put together. At the opening of his insightful book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Khaled Abou el Fadl, professor of Islamic Law at UCLA and frequent commentator on CNN, NBC, PBS, and NPR, relates the following story:
Not too long ago, at the end of an invited lecture, I was asked to name the most emphatic moral values taught by Islam. The answer was easy enough—it would have to be mercy, compassion, and peace. After all, these are the values that each practicing Muslim affirms in prayer at least five times a day. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when some members in the audience chuckled as if to say: “Come on, get real!” (p. )
American Christians and, perhaps, Jews, disrespecting the teaching of a Muslim law professor at UCLA, because of course, after 9/11 and the war on terror, we all know better than any Muslim what is the real Islam.
I belong to an interfaith book group called Daughters of Abraham that meets here in this sanctuary once a month. One of the leaders of the group, a Muslim woman, has been to several services here. Many of you may have seen her the evening of my installation. She stood up and identified herself and the mosque were she belongs.
One evening at the Daughters meeting she was asked to define her religion. She said Islam was a path of compassion, and serenity. From the Koran and the life of the prophet Mohammad, this is what she has learned. Tell me, is there anyone among us who is qualified to tell her otherwise?
In the same way we separate out the KKK from the Southern Baptists and the skin heads from the hair impaired, the same way we make a clear distinction between ourselves and Jews who advocate the extermination of all Arabs, let us too use discernment with our Muslim neighbors. There are indeed those who kill in the name of an Islam that is considered a perversion by Muslims around the world. And then there are all the other Muslims around the world, following a religious and spiritual path of compassion and peace.
Khaled Fadl, author, again of The Great Theft and UCLA professor, tells another story following the one I told above:
…after President Bush appointed me to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, [I received messages from people I did not even know] asking: What could a Muslim possibly have to contribute to the cause of religious freedom and tolerance in the world?
This morning, I would like to suggest that, even though the majority of us do not consider ourselves prejudiced against Muslims, many of us would quietly ask the same question:
What could a Muslim possibly have to contribute to the cause of religious freedom and tolerance in the world?
All most of us know of Islam regarding religious freedom is that Islam is used to suppress freedoms of almost any kind in the countries where it is touted as the Law. Let us, on the start of this New Year, our holy Rosh Hashanah, humbly admit ourselves ignorant.
Islam has existed for centuries and is the fastest growing of the Abrahamic religions around the globe. And in the majority of the world, Muslims live at peace with their non-Muslim neighbors. Our own Golden Age as Jews came to fruition during Muslim rule. If we truly want to live in peace with our non-Jewish neighbors, we must learn how to learn from them. We must learn to speak and share and listen. We must allow Islam, the path of peace and of compassion taught by a gentle prophet to abide peacefully and safely here in Lowell and around the world.
As members and friends of Temple Emanuel, we have a unique opportunity to begin sharing and learning this Thanksgiving. On the Friday before Thanksgiving, our traditional family Thanksgiving service will be an interfaith service lead by me and members of GLILA, the Greater Lowell Interfaith Alliance. Preceding the service will be a meet-your-neighbor with GLILA and members of the Islamic Center of Greater Lowell. After our service here, we will continue our Thanksgiving observance at the mosque on Stedman Ave, with prayers and then an early Thanksgiving dinner, Muslim style.
What can Muslims teach us about thankfulness? I cannot wait to learn. I can only share that already my own heart is brimming over.
A few months ago I met with the Imam of the ISGL, the Islamic Center. After discussing with me the Jewish and Islamic understandings of our common ancestor, Abraham, he shared with me his amazement and gratitude to be here in Lowell, in Massachusetts, in America. He told me that where he came from, Pakistan, he would never have the opportunity, or even be allowed to sit and discuss Abraham with a Jewish rabbi—never mind that I am a female to boot.
The door of the mosque is open to us, as is the door of our temple open to them. As our Board President, Marylin Gallant said, ‘the opportunity is priceless.’ Let us embrace the teachings of Abraham and truly welcome our guests in Thanksgiving and accept their hospitality in the same evening, for they have learned the welcoming of the stranger from Abraham as well.
And the Abraham of today’s Torah portion, the Abraham who raised his knife prepared to sacrifice his son, let us take note that he was stopped by the voice of the Divine. Whether it was a test that he passed or a test that he failed or a Leap into the Absurd, God stopped his hand. God commanded him to not kill. This is the God I recognize in my Judaism. This is the God of Jews, and, at the risk of having to confess the sin of hubris next week on Yom Kippur, I will say this is the God of Christianity and Islam as well. The God that stays the knife and stops the hand. The God that says
Thou shall not kill.
This rabbi is indebted to the following book for much of the information on radical Islamist Theology.
- Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, by Mary Habeck