Monday, October 18, 2010



Daniel Spiro, co-founder of JIDS, dialogues
with Father Alexander Goussetis at the OPF conference
photo by Teresa Paprock 


JIDS (Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society) is led by individuals who share a bond that is very deep and powerful: the same beloved. To the critical mass of JIDS’ leadership, God isn’t just a word, or even a concept. God is reality. It is God to whom we devote our lives, and so much of our love. So when we meet people who come from a different culture but who share that love, we know we have found friends. To some degree, it’s like when someone you don’t know walks up to you and expresses appreciation for something your wife did or your children did. And immediately, you like that person. You appreciate it whenever people praise your beloved. And it is especially gratifying to find another group who not only worships a God but worships God as a unity … as the One and Only, the Eternal, Absolute, who begetteth not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him.

Those words sound like they could have been written in a Hebrew holy book. But they are taken directly from the third to last chapter, or “Surah,” of the Qur’an. They illustrate how at the heart of both traditional Judaism and Islam is the same fundamental principle – our strict monotheism. Ironically, though, JIDS started because of a speech I gave at a church of a religious organization that is anything but strictly monotheistic – the Unitarian Universalists, or UUs for short.

A little while before I met Hytham, and he brought to our common venture the scholarship and passion that was no vital to get JIDS off the ground, I was introduced to another Muslim, Kamal Mustafa, who is not so much a recognized Islamic scholar as a student of all religions. Kamal was in attendance at a UU church when I was talking about my favorite topic, God, and specifically the God of Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher whose conception of the divine many UUs find appealing. After the talk was over, Kamal and I met and became friends. We wondered why so little was going on in our area to bring the Jews and Muslims together. Oh sure, there were plenty of meetings when Jews and Muslims would say to one another “why are we fighting, we should be friends.” But what Kamal and I had in mind were sessions where we would get into the substance of the great questions that both unite and divide our peoples. Kamal and I each said the same things to ourselves: “You guys can teach us about God, because you love God too, and your God is so much like ours, and you’ve developed a whole range of scholarship about how to think about God and how to worship God and how we should treat one another. Why would we not want to open our eyes to what you’re doing? How could we be good Jews if we didn’t understand Islam? Or good Muslims if we didn’t understand Judaism?”

Kamal, as it turned out, was very connected in many local mosques and he would set up meetings between me and the leaders of those mosques. I had a calling card – a book I wrote that was recently published and that focused on Judaism and Islam. It was a philosophical novel called Moses the Heretic -- the “Moses” was a fictional 20th century rabbi named Moses Levine. Anyway, my book was warmly endorsed by a leading Muslim scholar, Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, and so when I gave it out to Muslims in the area, they saw me as a friend of Islam who was serious about religious philosophy and the challenge of making peace in the Middle East. And when I gave them my book, they started giving me books – including the Qur’an with commentary. These books were incredibly rich; in fact, they were inspiring. By the time JIDS was ready to begin in earnest, I felt like I at least understood the basic core of Islam, if not many of the details, and had already begun incorporating Islamic teachings into my thinking as a student and a writer of philosophy.

JIDS’ first monthly dialogue, in February 2009, was about God. So was the second. The first meeting had a very uptight feel. The Muslims who spoke said largely the same things about God, which relative to the Jewish perspective was much more oriented to God’s ability to act supernaturally. I’m sure many Jews said under their breath, “Gee, these guys are all fundamentalists. They don’t think for themselves.” As for the Jews who spoke, the ones on the panel gave tributes to God, but once they stopped talking and we began hearing from Jews in the audience, many of them questioned whether a God even exists. And I’m sure many Muslims said under their breath, “Gee, these guys are a bunch of atheists. Whatever happened to the Jewish God?” It was a tough way to begin. And a number of people who came to the first meeting didn’t come to the second one, but those that did sure got their monies worth.

You may have heard the old line “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” Well, it’s true. Different Jews think all sorts of things. And at our March 2009 dialogue, which was held at a mosque, a number of Jewish women spoke very disparagingly about the idea that people need to believe in God. So how did the Imam of the mosque respond? By saying that if you are not a Muslim, you’re going to Hell.

Needless to say, that started more fireworks, and some of the Jews who came to the first two meetings stopped coming. But there were others who could see past the hiccups and who recognized in the Muslim community their true cousins. And so we continued to hold our monthly meetings. The topics for a few months were a little less controversial – Judaism and Islam 101, Jewish and Islamic Festivals and Holidays, and the Prophets, that sort of thing. But by the end of July, we were back to our old tricks of tackling controversial topics: we had a session on War and Peace in the Middle East. In fact, we frequently return to the topic of Israel and Palestine, and both secular and religious claims to that land. You see, this is not a group of people that has the time to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon indoors singing kumbaya. As I said, we wanted to get real and address the topics that matter most to the two communities. To do that requires speaking from the heart as well as the mind, and let the chips fall as they may. It is exactly what you’re not supposed to do if you’re an interfaith organization that plays by the book – at least not in the first six months. So how, you might ask, have we pulled this off? Why are we still meeting?

First of all, there are a number of us who care very deeply about the organization. We value JIDS because we see in interfaith dialogue the path not only to peace, but enlightenment.

Our affection for JIDS is such that when the organization itself gets threatened, we do what we have to do to eliminate the threats. And sometimes, that comes at a steep price.

For example, we have a large local community known as “Ahmadiyyas” who were getting active in JIDS. The Ahmadiyyas call themselves Muslim even though they believe that an East Indian named Ahmad, who died about 100 years ago, was a prophet who God sent to deliver a message of peace. To mainstream Islam, however, Muhammad was God’s final prophet. So Ahmadiyyas are not viewed as Muslims by most members of the faith. And when I proposed to have a session in part on the Ahmadiyya movement, some of the Sunnis threatened to leave the group. Sadly, those of us who wanted to hear more about the Ahmadiyya movement backed down, for everyone realized that if we were to lose the Sunni community, JIDS would never survive.

Candidly, it made many of us sad when the Ahmadiyyas no longer felt as inclined to participate, but we knew to keep our eyes on the ball, which was to bring Jews and Muslims together generally. If that means we’ve had to shy away from discussing the Ahmadiyya movement, so be it.

A second thing that has cemented us is that we have interspersed throughout the calendar non-dialogue events. JIDS co-sponsored the world premiere of the movie Out of Cordoba, which will be viewed later today at this conference. We worked together on painting a house in a low-income neighborhood. We worked jointly at the National Capital Area Food Bank. And this summer, we created a social action committee which has planned an event to bring Jewish and Muslim youth together to get to know each other and engage in charitable activities. Some of the youth we expect to participate were the focal points of an amazing event that you can witness on our website,, in which the panel was composed of teenagers and young adults. They spoke insightfully about a range of important issues, and everyone in attendance could tell how much they appreciated the value of interfaith dialogue, and the insanity of bigotry and isolationism. I would encourage each of you to go to that website ( and watch that video. Those young people are inspiring, and they made us all wonder “was is it that happens to older adults that makes us so threatened by opening our hearts and minds to the other?

A third secret to our success is recognizing the various ways that tie our two communities together. An example is the notion that the words “Jihad” and “Israel” mean more or less the same thing: both refer to a spiritual struggle. In the case of Israel, that was the name Jacob was given in the Torah when he wrestled with an angel of God. And that’s what we Jews are supposed to be: God wrestlers. We are always questioning. That could partially explain why, when I was in law school back in the early 80s, at least 30 percent of my classmates were Jewish. Jews love to fight for justice, and we love to question what is going on and why – and that’s exactly what a good lawyer does.

That brings up a fourth aspect of our encounters that has cemented this group: we notice and embrace our differences. While Muslims get their name from the idea of “submission,” Israelites get our name from the idea of “wrestling.” So yes, there is a difference in emphasis. But as we have seen, it is also true that Muslims must engage in spiritual wrestling, and as I hope you know, a devout Jew will ultimately submit to God. So while there may be subtle and important differences between what the two communities emphasize, at the end of the day, we are extremely similar.

That brings me to the fifth basis for our success at JIDS: our core group has become friends. That allows us to say what we really think. We know that our cousins may disagree with our positions, but we have faith that those disagreements won’t make anyone angry – at least not the core group of the organization. We all have each other’s backs.

And frankly, that the key to the sixth and final reason for our success that I’d like to discuss -- the attitude we bring to our events. Our dialogues are hard-hitting and sometimes contentious, but rarely boring. That’s the way we like it.

What helped me become enthusiastic about JIDS from the very beginning is that the Muslim leaders I met said that they had no interest in the “I’m OK, you’re OK” pablum that they associate with interfaith dialogue. I started thinking about when my daughters were little and they used to watch Barney, the purple dinosaur, and he would sing these insipid songs about how we need to love each other. It would drive me nuts! I was thrilled to know that JIDS would not become Barney but for adults.

To be candid: rarely do I feel that my intelligence is insulted quite so much as when I attend certain interfaith events. The points that are made are just so obvious, so basic, that it feels almost patronizing. Like when Muslims go on for minute after minute to explain that they’re not a violent people. I’ve read the Qur’an. I know that Islam preaches peace. So do the other members of JIDS. We know also that Islam preaches the other basic values that commonly go by the name of Judeo-Christian, but really should be known as Abrahamic. (The word Judeo-Christian should be thrown out of the dictionary – there are three faiths of Abraham, not two.)

Look. I understand why so many interfaith leaders speak on such a basic level. There are a lot of uneducated bigots in the world who need to hear the simple truths about religious diversity. They might need to hear, for example, that Jews don’t have horns or kill babies or hate Jesus or Muhammad. But the great thing about JIDS is that our members are way past all that stuff. When we have a dialogue, we’re ready to hit the ground running and challenge one another’s intelligence. And I think that is a critical reason why people keep coming to our events.

Of course, we would love to have more people come. So one question you might have is, what has been our biggest limitation in finding more?

I’ll tell you what has not limited us – we don’t hear a lot of people bad mouthing the organization. In theory, everyone thinks Muslim-Jewish dialogue is a great idea. Or at least they say they do. Most Jews don’t want to admit that they dislike Muslims. They don’t even want to admit that they fear Muslims, even though there’s obviously some element of that going on. So when they hear that I’m so involved in outreach to Muslims, most will say that they wish us all the success in the world.

But when I ask them to get involved personally, suddenly, I stop hearing quite so much enthusiasm. One problem is that they likely don’t see much of a role for themselves – they haven’t studied the Qur’an so they don’t feel they have much to add to the dialogue. And I suspect that most people don’t viscerally appreciate what a conversation between Jews and Muslims in Irvine, California or Bethesda, Maryland can really contribute to peace in the Gaza Strip or in Tel Aviv. They don’t, for example, understand that only if a Jew or a Christian is involved in interfaith activities can they fully appreciate why many of us feel so strongly that the Cordoba House must be located in Park51, and not in some more marginalized outpost, where it would be much less able to empower Islamic moderates in their efforts to change the status quo.

And then there’s the biggest obstacle of them all -- the members of our respective communities are busy people. They only have so much time to devote to spiritual activities. And the first priority, for most of us, is prayer, or other activities that are not generally associated with interfaith. Now personally, I love praying with Muslims at mosques, with my yarmulke on. I absolutely love it. And I encourage Christians, Muslims and others to find a good synagogue and pray with Jews there. But let’s face, prayer is not the meat and potatoes of a dialogue society. Dialogue is. And not many people think it’s worth their time on a Sunday afternoon to engage in dialogue with people who see the world largely differently than they do. They’d rather be with their families. Or relax somewhere else. Say what you want about intelligent, substantive interfaith dialogue. It is not the most relaxing activity I can imagine.

A related issue is that just as most of the rank and file members of our communities don’t want to take the time to engage in interfaith dialogues, you can say the same for the clergy. We all know how important the clergy are to our communities. Unless they fight to bring out their congregations, it is almost impossible to get people to show up in large numbers. So we in the interfaith movement depend largely on buy-in from the clergy. But talk about busy people. The clergy are responsible for doing all sorts of things – crafting talks, providing pastoral care, putting together worship services, working on whatever social action activities they’ve decided to emphasize. With a few exceptions, interfaith dialogue is something they have to fit in on the margins of their schedules – it’s not the meat and potatoes of how they make their living.

And then there’s another, more subtle, reason why clergy support is so luke warm. Most of the activities planned by clergy are things that they alone can control. And from what I can tell, these are people who like to be in control. After all, it takes a decent-sized ego to choose that career path. And in some cases, the egos are larger than life. So when you put all this together, why should our clergy take the little spare time they have and engage in activities that are inherently difficult to control, where they have to share the pulpit with laypeople, and which do not necessarily support the growth of their own communities? What’s in it for them?

The answer is very simple. Unless we speak together, we can’t work together. And unless we work together, we can’t make a difference in the world. And if we can’t make a difference in the world, what is the point of being spiritual in the first place? What is the point of calling ourselves men and women of God? To honor God, which I think is the whole point of our faiths, is to be a person who makes a difference in the here and now. That, after all, is the ultimate value of prayer – other than as a vehicle to express our love for our divine beloved – we pray in order to gain the strength, the wisdom, and the compassion to help out. And if that’s important to us, I’d suggest we take the time to engage in interfaith activities.

In conclusion, whether you are Jewish, Muslim, Christian or subscribe to a world view that doesn’t trace its origins to Abraham, we must continue our efforts to dialogue with one another in ways that are stimulating, challenging and authentic. There is so much wisdom available to us from so many different traditions. No single tradition can even come close to a monopoly. I, for one, would not be the same person had I not been exposed to meditation, read the Vedas, reflected on the Trinitarianism of Paul Tillich, gazed at the Madonnas of Botticelli, or wept at the piety of Muhammad. And I dare say, there is plenty in my own Jewish tradition that every gentile absolutely must embrace if they wish to be as enlightened as is humanly possible. Anyone who avoids the Talmud or the Kaballah, the teachings of theologians like Buber or Heschel, or the philosophy of Maimonides or Spinoza, does so at the price of their own ignorance. At a time when so many young people are turned off to religion precisely because they think that it foments ignorance, let’s make sure that interfaith activities stimulate us intellectually and challenge us emotionally. Let’s make sure that we in the interfaith community come to be known for our courage and our muscle tone, and not just our commitment to peace.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Justice is the key. I applaud JIDS efforts. If you give in to the Sunnis then what are you going to do when the Shias say that the Sunnis are not Muslims or so on and so forth. 72+ sects amongst Jews and Muslims who are you going to cater to.You have dropped your cardinal principle of dialogue by acquiescing to Sunnis who claim Ahmadiyyas are not Muslims. Are we now going to decide who is a Jew or a christian or a Muslim? The very concept is against the teachings of Islam and the the prophet. You want controversy get the Ahmadiyyas back. Find out what irks the Sunnis. Get a spine. Yours will soon be a political organisation if you do to adhere to the cardinal rules. All the best

12:28 AM  
Blogger AC said...

Very disappointed by the comment: "If that means we’ve had to shy away from discussing the Ahmadiyya movement, so be it."

Sure this may be expedient in the short term but caving into a group that claims to be able to tell another group they are not Muslims is dangerous. As the previous commenter wrote, where do you stop?

Have the courage to hear what the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has to say in their own words and not what others say about them. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

I just recently took part in an interfaith dialogue between Jewish and Ahmadi Muslim leaders in New York City which led to their very favorable view of our community. Also here in New York, our current mosque resides in a former Jewish temple and their congregation is still on very friendly terms with our community.

I would encourage you to learn more about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community because it truly is a voice of moderation and peace.

8:07 AM  

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