Jewish tradition teaches that a Shabbat/Sabbath day lived in deep contemplation of the joys of life is “a taste of the world to come.” This week I experienced such a Shabbat, but in an unusual way.
Our “Caravan of Reconciliation” (see previous blog post), including rabbis, a Lutheran minister and our beloved imam, had arrived in Atlanta, Georgia for the weekend. We settled in to a beautiful Shabbat service at The Temple in Atlanta, where the senior rabbi was a former student of our executive director. Already, the personal connections were deep and sweet.
After a warm and joyful Shabbat evening service, our Imam Yahya Hendi rose to deliver the sermon. He looked around the sanctuary, where 250 Jews greeted him with an air of welcome expectation, and he began to cry. He told the group in a mixture of Hebrew and English that he was deeply moved to be received so warmly. “My sisters and my brothers,” he said, fully aware of the power of his words, as a Palestinian-born imam addressing a Jewish congregation, “I love you all. We are one family.”
Sprinkling his sermon with references to Jewish liturgy, he spoke of the unity of all people. “Shema Yisrael,” he said, “Hear O Israel,” referencing the most beloved prayer in all of Jewish liturgy, “Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” We are one, he asserted: Jews and Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Westerners, old and young, black, brown, white, red, and yellow. All of us come from dust and to dust we will return. We are in this predicament of life together. Together we can build a better nation and a better world.
His sermon was greeted by an ovation (unusual in a synagogue), rounds of hugs and many tears. The Imam had won the hearts of this community of Jews, and the synagogue was luminous with joy.
Next morning, my colleagues spoke at a public event at the Islamic Center of North Fulton, in suburban Alpharetta, where a long negotiation with neighbors had broken down and the city council had unanimously rejected the Center’s downsized plan for expanding its facilities. This was sure to be an important meeting, but I needed to be at synagogue, and so, a bit lonely heading off without my friends, I headed to Ahavath Achim, a synagogue I had often visited on past visits to Atlanta.
The rabbi of the synagogue, an old friend, had offered me the opportunity to speak about my experiences with the caravan. I spoke of the blessings and curses described in the weekly Torah portion: curses for those who fail to live in accordance with God’s desires, and blessings for those who align themselves with the divine. I connected the biblical curses of “insanity, blindness, and confusion,” with the scourge of religious intolerance afflicting our country, proclaiming the message of religious pluralism. Aiming far higher than mere “religious tolerance” (as in “I hate you but I am forced to tolerate you”), I exhorted the congregation to seek out relationship with people of other religions, for the sake of creating a stronger tapestry of community, for the sake of enriching our own religious lives, and for the sake of peace in the world.
I challenged the congregation to remember that while we Jews have much experience being the religious minority most subject to discrimination, that dubious distinction now belongs to our Muslim brothers and sisters here in America. As Jews, I insisted, our obligation is to champion the rights of those facing oppression. Most of all, I appealed to the rich tradition of prayer for peace in Jewish texts.
Dozens of people rushed to congratulate me after the service, to tell their stories of enriching interfaith encounter, to speak of their own sources of inspiration for the work of creating relationship across boundaries of religion and race. The air was thick with inspiration and hope.
As darkness fell, my colleagues and I headed for Al Farooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. It was a magnificent house of worship, the most beautiful Islamic Center I had seen in this country. The deep, reverent silence of the prayer hall moved me deeply, and the audience of 150 people listening with rapt attention had a sense of hushed momentousness. We gave our presentation, “From Fear to Faith: Advancing Religious Pluralism,” and were greeted with resounding applause, a round of encouraging, thoughtful questions, and much engaged conversation after the formal session ended.
My colleagues were heading into Tennessee, in which a debate rages about enacting “anti-shariah” legislation, prohibiting Muslims from following their own religious law in ritual matters, as do all religious groups in America. This was sure to be a challenging and fascinating leg of the trip, but it was time for me to go home to attend to other obligations.
I was terribly sad to leave my treasured friends after our intense week-long mission of peace and interfaith education, with many precious hours of love, laughter, and prayer shared together. But I had tasted the blessing of living as one family across religious lines, a time rich with blessings. Surely, this is how the world to come will taste. But why wait till then?