Interfaith Dialogue is Tikkun Olam/Repairing the World and THAT is “Doing Jewish”

Rosh Hashanah 2017-5778
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider

A Jewish man, miraculously rescued after years stranded alone on a desert island welcomes some news crews. He shows them a bucket and says, “this is how I got my rainwater.” He shows them his coconut tree, and walks them past a snake patch he learned to avoid. And then they arrive at a clearing, with two shining Temples. The man says, “these are my two synagogues.” And the reporters ask, “if you were here all alone, why did you build two synagogues?” I bet you all know the answer… “this one, I go to every week.” And he points to the other one, with a look of disgust. “That one…I would never set foot in!” 

While this joke obviously points to a peculiarity in the Jewish psyche, it says something profound about human nature.  It is strange how our allegiances are often based upon what we know, with what we are familiar, rather than on logic or reason. How many of us are self-defined creatures of habit?  We order the same coffee, at the same location, at the same time, of nearly every day. We eat the same foods, go to the same places, read the same magazines, listen to the same music.  The thought of doing something different, going someplace different, is much more the exception than the rule. While food and music are one thing, how many of us, have felt, deep down that while we may theoretically recognize the sanctity of certain places, like churches, or mosques, practically speaking, it may be difficult or impossible to even think of setting foot in there?  It is this specific difficulty that I am most interested in, and one I think needs our attention tonight.  I want to speak with you about the difficulty we may have in not only setting foot in a mosque or church, but really beginning to attempt an honest dialogue with our Muslim and Christian neighbors. 

In a post 9/11 world, many of us are still struggling with religious differences and religious coexistence. Some of us here may even regard Islam with deep distrust and wouldn’t go near a mosque.  We may be convinced that Islam somehow compels Muslims to commit acts of terror and violence, that it applauds suicide bombers, that it is inherently incompatible with liberal, Western democracy. This is understandable, since we are constantly exposed to the opinions of media, politicians, and film-makers. 

Tikkun Olam or “repairing the world” is practically the watchwords of our faith. Tonight, I want to talk about tikkun as it relates to repairing the relationships between us and our fellow human beings. And this is through interfaith dialogue.   We can find meaning in this New Year in our lives, our families’ lives and at Temple Kol Ami when we pursue our mission of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world through interfaith dialogue. This is our task as voices of religious moderates. 

In order to begin, we must face our fears, acknowledge our ignorances and tendencies toward stereotypes. We must learn what their faith tradition truly stands for, not from Politicians, not from email “forwards,” and not from the Media, but from Muslims themselves by engaging in dialogue.   

On Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish New Year, we take personal inventory of our thoughts and actions.  Judaism encourages us, no, actually, Judaism demands that we take stock of our ignorance as well.  We need accurate information. We cannot afford to remain in a state of ignorance and fear because the stakes are too high. 

Only a tiny proportion of Muslims take part in acts of terror and violence, as proportionally only a tiny fraction of the Jews commit acts of terror. How do I know? Because I’ve been to those places demonized in the media. I have been to Damascus, Syria and Cairo, Egypt. I was honored to be chosen as a national religious leader and take part in an eight person, multi-faith American delegation sponsored by the National Peace Foundation and funded by the US State Department. My experiential workshop focused on learning about Islam in the Middle East. And this past May, I was invited by the leadership of the United Arab Emirates to join 9 other rabbis, 10 imams and 10 pastors from around the country to travel to Abu Dhabi, to, both literally and figuratively, get out of our comfort zone and engage in dialogue and relationship building.  Let me share with you what I have learned.  I am not a news analyst.  I am not a politician.  I am just one man in search of the truth. 

My US State Dept trip to Syria and Egypt was a response to Islamaphobia in America. Islamaphobia is the fear of Islam based on misunderstandings and misconceptions.  And as Jews, we know all too well how much stereotyping and ignorance hurts. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism put it, “we reach out to the Muslims because of our deep conviction that America is different, one of the very few places where the promise of true pluralism is not too wild a hope; and because we know as religious Americans that in this great country, we are stronger and safer when we transcend our fears and work together, rather than apart.” The best way to address our stereotypes, ignorances and fears is to personally experience the other through sincere and honest dialogue. 

On my trips, I met with Muslim thinkers, practitioners, writers, and activists…all of whom gave me new lenses with which to view the world. Day after day of encounters, the misconceptions I held about Islam were stripped away and seeds of trust were laid in my heart for building meaningful relationships. Beyond the dialogue of discourse, I was also blessed with the opportunity to witness positive Muslim activism – what we would call Tikkun Olam.  Muslims also feel commanded to repair our world.  In the Egyptian Province in the Nile Delta of Kafr El Sheikh, a small town two and a half hours north of Cairo, I met with twenty-something year-old activists and organizers of ‘Kinooz,’ a grassroots community development organization. The countless hours they have volunteered in establishing programs to address the needs of the community including clothes drives, computer skills and literacy training was inspirational. 

I also met with the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Syria, the top religious leaders of their respective countries. They spoke from their heart about the true meaning of Islam as it pertains to Islamic Law and the need to focus on the similarities in our respective beliefs; like the oneness of God, the same God between us. By rising above our titles of Jews, Christians and Muslims, we can and must see that we are all God’s creations, and thus equal. They emphasized how we must call each other “Brother” and “Sister.”  He pointed out that too often we speak from a mindset that leads to positive or negative, superior or inferior, engagements. His lesson was a deeply Jewish lesson.  The Midrash (Jewish Tradition) asks the question, “why did God create only one Adam and Eve? So that in the future no one person could say to another, ‘my ancestry is better than yours.’” 

Since my return, many here today have asked me, “so, where is the moderate voice in Islam?” This is a fair and relevant question. I believe it is the fringes of many religious faiths that speak the loudest and are often the least representative of the mainstream. On my trip into the Muslim world, I learned that the fear we feel is also felt by many Muslims too. They have made statements against the hatred, against terrorism, against terrorist acts in the name of Islam. And I encourage them to continue to speak out even louder. 

As one put it, “Extremism has hijacked our religion, and we, as moderates, must work together to take religion back for each of us.” We can begin by dialoguing to build trust and working together towards Tikkun Olam –social justice and repair of the world. 

My experience with interfaith dialogue was taken to the next level when I went to Abu Dhabi this past May to gather and discuss religious freedom and tolerance in Muslim-majority nations and in the United States. There is currently a world-wide call for religious tolerance and peace in Muslim-majority nations and this Peace Conference I attended hoped to find ways to incorporate the values and similar thinking into our respective communities. For three full days we listened, probed, questioned, argued, discussed, and work shopped some possibilities of constructive paths forward in a world that, for the foreseeable future, will be distinctly multi-faith. We were treated to incredible hospitality and we were treated as scholars and ambassadors. 

So what did we accomplish? Well, we didn’t solve world peace. But we did begin important, meaningful relationships. We began to SEE the other when we spent time peeling back the layers of what we project out. We learned to HEAR the other and listen to THEIR story. Not just our story; their story as well. I’m honored to announce that I have been invited to travel to Marrakesh, Morocco next month to continue these relationships and conversations, not just with those that I traveled with, but with a growing coalition of national and world religious leaders. 

After returning home from my trip to Abu Dhabi in May, I dedicated multiple Friday night Shabbat talks and Wednesday “schmooze with the rabbi” sessions on unpacking what I heard and saw. The imam, pastor and I committed to an action plan: visit the church, visit the mosque and visit the synagogue. This past June, I took a small group with me for an Iftar dinner during Ramadan to their mosque. A couple weeks ago, I spoke at the church. And next week, on Yom Kippur day, the imam and pastor will join us here for Yom Kippur morning services. Afterwards, our afternoon study session will be a dialogue with you and the Imam and Pastor. Following that, we will join together for a special tri-faith healing service. I personally invite you to stay after the morning service and listen, engage, and be challenged. 

This Jewish New Year, we are given an opportunity to make changes to our perspectives and behaviors. We can choose to see each other as communal partners in completing the task of repairing, in pursuing, Tikkun Olam.  The complex and varied demands of the twenty-first century require a multitude of religious responses, both to provide a wider range of approaches and solutions. I pray that, in this Jewish New Year, we will all work together, despite our theological differences, find a common moral vision, and help to create a world that will be stable and peaceful for future generations. As our tradition teaches, “it is not our job to complete the task set out before us, but it is our job to try.” 

Let me be very clear. Our actions of dialogue do make a difference. Every act of Tikkun Olam, every move to heal and repair the world around us has the potential to create a sacred transformation. They can make a difference in ways we can see readily and in ways we will never truly know. But some may ask, “how will we know when we have made that difference?” I relate the answer with a story from our Tradition. A wise teacher asked his students “When does night become day?” One student answers, “when you hold your hand to your face and you can see it!” The second answers, “when you look out into a field and can distinguish between a fox and a dog.” And the third answers, “when you look at your neighbor and see a friend!” 

None of us here lives on an island. It is my prayer that we will learn to get along with our neighbors and work together for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, or else we will all be stranded.  

Ken yiyeh ratzon – May this be God’s Will.