I've listened to my share of well-meaning Jewish and Muslim activists extol the virtues of coexistence. "We're all children of Abraham" is the usual refrain, as if siblings don't sometimes turn out to be the bitterest of enemies.
But it was no kumbaya evening Nov. 4 when Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Imam Abdullah Antepli, both of the Jerusalem-based Hartman Institute, took to the stage at San Francisco's Legion of Honor to discuss the state of Jewish-Muslim relations — not in Israel, but in the United States. Because it's here in America, they said, that the two faiths have the best chance of learning to live together.
Not because America is such a loving place. "When I hear that it's acceptable to say in America that there cannot be a Muslim president, or that Islam should be illegal in the United States, I remember that I was a slave in Egypt," Hartman said, referring to recent statements made by certain presidential hopefuls. But here we are not confronted with the daily deadly battles for survival that plague the Mideast.
What struck me as most original in the approach these two men took was that they spoke as men of faith, and each addressed his own co-religionists rather than presuming to tell the other side what to do.
The crowd was overwhelmingly Jewish, and I was hard-pressed to find any of the Muslims Antepli claimed were sitting among us. But still, the rabbi spoke of a Jewish imperative, and the imam addressed what Muslims need to do. Reminding us that at Yom Kippur, Jews beat their own chests and confess their sins, Hartman said, "I don't beat on Abdullah's chest and tell him that he has sinned."
The central message of the evening went further, urging Jews and Muslims to accept not just each other's culture or lifestyle, but the authenticity of the other's faith. Christians and Jews have been doing this in America at least since Vatican II in the early '60s, Hartman reminded us. It's time, he said, to extend the same gut-level acceptance to Islam.
What does that mean? For those present, it meant listening to Rabbi Hartman stand in front of us reciting the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. And he did it in Arabic: La ilaha illa-llah, muhammadur rasulu-llah (There is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God).
"We Jews have to learn not just to recite the shahada, but accept it, as Jews," he told the suddenly very quiet audience. The part about one God is easy, he said. But accepting that Muhammad is a prophet of God, that's the hard part, and that's what he insisted is required. "While there is one God, that God does not have to love one people best," he said. (Interesting that the Arabic calls Muhammad the messenger, not a messenger, a detail Hartman glossed over, but hey, let's call it a translation problem.)
If hearing a rabbi recite the Muslim creed was hard for some, the mood shifted when the imam stood up and said the Shema in Hebrew. "For Muslims, I suggest we have to recite the Shema several times a day," he said, to laughter and applause from the crowd. "We have to accept that God spoke to the children of Israel. We have to bring ourselves to a level of honesty and respect that says this is a legitimate story, with whatever that entails, and it entails that the children of Israel have a special relationship to this land."
Listening to this Turkish-born Muslim religious leader repeat the central prayer of the Jewish people, loud and clear, and then call upon his own people to acknowledge that God spoke to the Jews and gave them a claim to the land of Israel, sent chills down my spine. Good chills. Chills that said, "Yeah, let's get more Jews and Muslims to do this."
Sure, saying each other's prayers out loud won't solve the Mideast conflict. "I live in Israel, I'm not naive," Hartman said, adding that he knows he and other Jews in Israel haven't been wiped off the Earth only because their state is powerful. He doesn't know if Muslim partners for peace can be found in today's Middle East. But if partners are found in America, he and Antepli said, the lesson can travel.
"I hope that in America, Jews and Muslims can develop a relationship with each other that is not yet possible in Israel," Hartman said. "To do so we have to start with 'Muhammad is a prophet of God.' When we do that, we will have repaired our house. And who knows what will be repaired tomorrow."