They look orthodox, they speak human

Feb 21, 2011 by

Dialogue. You hear the word everywhere – normally in the context of “the need for dialogue”. Today I had a privilege to listen to real dialogue. Cutting across religions and nations – and putting an unanswerable question mark over the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Rabbi Telushkin and Imam Magid came together in the Slifka Center on Sunday. Not to preach, but to talk to and with  each other. The Rabbi was introduced by a Muslim student in a scarf on her head, and the Imam – by a Jewish student with a kippah on his head.

Dogma was left outside. They spoke about their religions in a way that was so open and self-critical that you could not believe they came from strictly religious observant traditions. They looked orthodox, but they spoke human.

In their short presentations both speakers focused on aspects common to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, such as the commandment to ‘love your neighbor’, the focus on the ethical realm (rather than ritual observance) and tolerance. “When you focus on ethics, you bring religiosn closer together, you do not divide,” said the Rabbi.

The Rabbi said that in Hebrew the word tolerance was etymologically related to the word ‘suffering’. Real tolerance is not easy – the first test to a passionately religious person is when they meet a person who is good, intelligent and…has different beliefs. Just as the first test of a passionately political person is when they meet a persons who is good, intelligent and…has different political views. Rabbi spoke of the “dignity of difference.” Imam, on the other hand, spoke about “diversity of design” – that world is diverse by God’s making and that racism is thus undermining God’s plan. The behavior is the measure of human religiosity – if someone is good, their faith, or lack of it, is good…

I listened to these beautiful and important words, in an auditorium full of people of all races, religions and head coverings, and I could not square it with the news and  photos from the Middle East. You could almost forget, listening to the mellifluous voices of these people,  that there are religious conflicts in the world. Why would there be? If “intolerance is in fact the result of lack of faith” as Imam says, why do people kill each other? In the hall, this tragic fundamental question acquired dramatic urgency, but no answer.

“We are in America. Everything is possible in America. We can speak to each other, exchange views, but out there people do not want to do it. Out there religion is politicized”, said one voice from the audience, with a foreign accent. Both speakers spoke of separation of politics and religion, of the need for education, for dialogue, for projects…

“What need do  we have of religion? Can’t  people be goodout of their own conscience, their own choice?” – such questions could not be posed to two religious leaders anywhere but in America. In any case I do not thinkthey would be answered anywhere but here. Not with such openness, in any case. The Rabbi spoke of the need of a higher instance of morality. Otherwise all there is are human preferences and choices – each one has the same validity, there is no moral signpost. Imam spoke of the need for accountability. The belief that the just will be rewarded and the unjust punished maintains his belief in the world’s ultimate justice.

Then they got up, they gave each other a warm sincere embrace . A mirage coming apart the moment you go on the BBC.

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