Our synagogue received three unusual Chanukkah cards last week. They each begin
Dear Jewish Community,
I send this message to you as a Muslim. I share with you the celebration of spiritual light that opposes the darkness of religious hatred.
Each concludes ‘Your Muslim neighbour’ and carries a personal signature.
The Joseph Interfaith Foundation, established by Mehri Niknam, describes the project as giving ‘the chance to individual Muslims who want to extend a hand of friendship towards the Jewish community through a safe forum’.
The adjective ‘safe’ stands in sorry contrast to the noun ‘friendship’; it’s a sad world where we need ‘safe’ ways to show friendship. But few would deny that such is the case. I just received an email from a friend which closed not with our customary ‘see you soon,’ but with ‘frightening world’. It’s true.
The less safe the world, the more it matters to work at the relationships between faiths. The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) began amidst the worst persecution of Jews in history. Its terms were agreed in March 1942 under the chairmanship of William Temple, then nominee for Archbishop of Canterbury. Its key objectives were ‘To check and combat religious and racial intolerance’ and ‘To promote mutual understanding and goodwill between Christians and Jews in all sections of the community’. This Shabbat we are welcoming Bishop Michael Ipgrave, the current Chairman of the CCJ, to our community.
Later in the war Archbishop Temple addressed the Hungarian people via the BBC World Service: ‘Do your utmost to save from persecution, it may be from massacre, those who are now threatened as a result of German occupation…Help them to hide from their tormentors, help them, if possible, to escape’. If only his words had been more widely hearkened! Are we today doing as much to support the victims of religious hatred, stop persecutors, and challenge bystanders, as he did then?
Is religion part of the problem of collective hatred, or part of its solution? Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins expressed strong view on the matter.
One of the voices in my head agrees with him. Religion, with its ready-made pulpits, communities, preachers, and its ancient appeal to obedience, is an easy way to peddle identity. One’s onto a popular brand when one can tell people what they’re for, whom they’re against, what’s right, what’s wrong, and, with the aid of a convenient quote from Scripture, that God says so. No tool is so useful in identity creation than an enemy other.
The other voice disagrees. For all its flaws and susceptibility to abuse, religion is ultimately the moral and spiritual commitment to the deepest, most embracing reality. My God is never a different God from your God, though I may express my devotion in different ways. To realize God’s presence on earth, my humanity needs your humanity, just as yours needs mine.
It therefore matters to extend the hand of friendship and open the heart to understanding, especially in a time of a danger.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of the Masorti Movement. He’s authored three books: The Three Pillars of Judaism, The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, and The Silence of Dark Water. Rabbi Wittenberg has written for various publications including the Jewish Chronicle. His own blog explores a variety of topics that include the Jewish faith, nature, moral issues, and the transience of human life.