I have been quiet on this blog for too long, focused on other responsibilities. But as the chorus of anti-Muslim hatred has gained in volume in recent days, I have felt that I must be silent no longer.
This evening, along with Jews around the world, I will enter into Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration, and the beginning of our “Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah,” or “Ten Days of Repentance/Turning.” Rosh Hashana is a time of solemn prayer about God’s grandeur and human frailty, of festive meals with friends and family, and of heartfelt wishes for a good year for those we love and for the world.
The ten days are filled with thoughts of repentance: how have we lost focus and balance in our lives in the year gone by? What must be done to atone for harms committed, and reorient our lives to God and to our deepest truths? Finally comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a 25-hour fast day devoted to atonement for wrongdoing.
This year, the second day of Rosh Hashana coincides with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, and the special Shabbat (Sabbath) immediately following Rosh Hashana falls on September 11th. On that Shabbat, September 11th, I will have the honor of giving the sermon at my synagogue home in California. I will talk about the usual things: about repentance as a sacred practice of transformation, about the innate impulse to grow and transform our lives, about our longing to return to what is most true for us. But before concluding my sermon, I will speak about September 11th, including the following words:
"Terry Jones, the pastor of a tiny church in Gainesville, Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center, has declared today, “International Burn a Koran Day.” When I first learned of this, I dismissed it as the insignificant ranting of extremists. But my interfaith colleagues locally and around the world have been horrified and deeply concerned. In recent days, the chorus of condemnations has increased in volume and visibility, including statements from Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who invoked George Washington’s timeless principle, 'to bigotry – no sanction.'
There are aspects of post-9/11 politics and policies about which good-hearted Americans, and members of our own community, may well disagree. We certainly have good reasons to be concerned about terrorist acts performed around the world in the name of Islam.
But I must say on this 11th of September that I am deeply troubled by what I see as a resurgence of anti-Muslim hatred in our country, raw prejudice that is quite different from clear-headed debate about public policy. Having one’s holy books burned, at a sacred season of the year, no less – this should remind us of the cruelties of the Inquisition and the intentional acts of hatred and humiliation perpetrated against us by the Nazis.
We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have had our books burned and our sacred practices mocked; we have been hated for no reason but that we are Jews. Therefore, as Jews, we must assert unwaveringly that to hate another people - - 1.5 billion adherents of another religion – is a sin deeply in need of atonement. I hope that America is only in a period of regression in this respect, and that we will soon collectively repent and reclaim our nation’s lofty ideals of religious tolerance and respect.
And so I close this sermon, as many Jewish leaders around the country are doing today and Christian leaders will do tomorrow, by honoring the Kor’an as a sacred book. While the Kor’an surely contains some difficult passages, there is also much sanctity there, and many texts that closely parallel our own sacred writings. I share just a few of them here with you, as a response to religious leaders who today are using their pulpits to perpetrate bigotry and hate.
To pick just three brief examples: 'Your god is one god; there is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.' [Kor’an 2:163] Does this not sound just like our beloved prayer, the Shema, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One'?)
'When My servants ask you about Me, I am always near. I answer their prayers when they pray to Me.' [Kor’an 2:186] Does this not sound just like our own Psalm 145: 'God is near to all who call upon God; to all who call upon God in truth'?
'Your Lord has decreed that mercy is His attribute. Thus, anyone among you who commits a transgression out of ignorance, and repents thereafter and reforms, then He is Forgiving, Most Merciful.' [6:54] Does this not sound like the descriptions of God’s mercy that we recite over and over again this holiday season?
I will close my sermon with prayers for the new year—for good health, blessing and boundless possibility for us, for the people we love, and for all humankind. And I will pray for peace and for healing of hearts that today are infected with hate. May it be so.