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Interfaith Programs

Jerusalem Interfaith Forum: Models of Interfaith Respect

Acre, Israel - A group of 25 academic and religious leaders as well as social activists gathered in the second largest mosque in Israel (after Al-Aqsa), the Aljazar Mosque in Acre, for an interfaith dialogue on Jan. 28, 2013. The ancient port city was built on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the northern part of Israel. Thirty percent of Acre's inhabitants are Muslims, living peacefully side by side with the Jewish population. This successful model is largely attributed to the warm personal relationships between the two prominent religious leaders of both communities, the chief imam and the chief rabbi of the city.

The Chief Imam of Acre, Sheik Samir Aasi, opened the forum by greeting the guests, followed by a short slide show describing the dialogue and peace activities he initiated.

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Next to greet the guests was the Chief Rabbi of the city, Rabbi Yosef Yashar. He talked about the responsibility of the religious leaders in Acre. He gave as an example the riots that took place in Acre several years ago. Those riots, he said, were the exception, and they were instigated by political extremists who wanted to disrupt the calm and harmonious life in Acre. However, they eventually failed to do so and the heated spirits were calmed down thanks to the cooperation of the chief religious leadership of the city.

Following the greetings, participants resumed the forum's pattern of studying religious texts. Rabbi Yaakov Luft was the first speaker. He read from the comments of the renowned Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandatory Palestine. Kook, a Jewish thinker, famous Torah scholar, and one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th century, is considered one of the fathers of religious Zionism.

Rabbi Luft shared with the participants an intriguing idea of Rabbi Kook in which he depicts three aspects in each community: the national, the religious, and the universal aspect. He believes that each of the aspects is necessary for the existence of a nation, and therefore he sees them not as contradicting one another but completing one another. Moreover, according to Rabbi Kook's concept, each person should appreciate the other person who is different from him, seeing the differences not as a cause for enmity but as a needed completing aspect of himself.

Rabbi Luft explained while reading that to accept this concept means that the one who is different than me and who opposes my opinions is at the same time also strengthening me, since he supports other important aspects of my life and my nation. More than that, accepting the other, and seeing the positive aspects in the one who opposes me, saves me from my pride and my arrogance. That is so because I understand that the other, by being different from me, is also supporting me as I define myself, just as there is no day if night doesn't exist and the meaning of light can be understood only through the existence of darkness.

Rabbi Luft concluded his presentation by applying Rabbi Kook's idea to the interfaith challenge: The world is a combination of contrasts and opposites, and each culture and religion has its spiritual way to reach God. We should accept the differences as part of the variety of the world and as part of what preserves and defines my uniqueness.  

The participants showed deep interest in those ideas and expressed the wish that this thought would be accepted and expressed as much as possible in any aspect of life.

Professor Efraim Meir, the head of the department of Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, said that he is happy to hear those ideas, since they express that we are always connected in different ways and aspects, and yet, at the same time we are special and unique individuals.

Sheik Samich Natur from Dalyet el-Carmel said that he was surprised to hear those ideas, since Rabbi Kook identified with religious nationalism and linked to nationalists movements who tend to be intolerant to other religions. Rabbi Luft responded to the question with the answer that Rabbi Kook had a wide thought and had students from the entire political spectrum.

The second speaker was the Druze representative, Sheik Jaber Mansur, who gave a fascinating lecture about the prophet Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, who plays a main role in the Druze religion and is known in Arabic as Nebi-Shueb. Sheik Jaber Mansur talked about the way Jethro supported Moses even though they were from different nations and religions and thus demonstrated a model of cooperation and mutual relationship between religions.

Jethro preached against idolatry and oppression and was known as a judge who pursued justice. He advised Moses about ways to carry out justice: he advised Moses to let other people judge the people in minor issues and he should be the supreme judge for the major issues; otherwise, he wouldn't be able to bear all the burden of leading the nation. Jethro said that the people Moses anointed should be "People of truth, people who hate greed." (Exodus 18:21)

Jethro believed in being a role model of justice, first in his own nation and then for other nations. He believed in universal justice, according to which one should respect the other, regardless of the others' religion, and behave in dignity and fairness.

Since the common knowledge about the Druze religion is usually limited, the participants were very attentive and happy to learn new things about the Druze religion.

At noon time the participants were invited to attend the prayer at the mosque. After the prayer, the forum resumed, hearing from Sheik Samir Aasi about the Muslim prayer tradition and the Friday sermon. A Muslim must pray five times a day. He can pray in any place, not only in the mosque, but on Friday he is obliged to come to the mosque for prayer and to listen to the sermon. The women can come and hear the prayer, but they are not obliged to do so, since their work with the children at home is considered to be as important for them as prayer.

Before prayer the Muslim washes his face, his hands, and his feet, as a symbol of cleansing the heart before the prayer. The prayer starts with raising one's hands up and proclaiming "God is great," thus expressing the idea that God is in me, I put everything else aside, and I am present in prayer only with God.

The bow of the Muslims during their prayer is meant to express in front of God: "We wish to be with you even if our head is cut off." Also, by bowing to the ground the Muslim reminds himself that he came from the soil, created by God, and his life will also end with God. The prayer is the same prayer all five times a day, including Fridays.

The religious discussion was concluded by reading a chapter from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong … Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude... It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… "

During lunch a lively discussion among the participants took place. A gracious host, Sheik Aasi, set a traditional table and served all the participants, as a proper response to the spiritual food from the early session. The participants were happy to talk with each other and found it difficult to depart.

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