An unlikely gathering of Haredi Rabbis and Muslim Sheikhs met together earlier this month at the estate of the Abu Awad family in Gush Etzion to discuss conciliation between our peoples. It is the hope of this author that such meetings will become the norm.
The Abu Awad family is a prominent Muslim family living near Hebron and who are vocal proponents of nonviolence. The brothers Ali and Sheikh Khaled have traveled the world promoting their vision, and have won a growing number of influential supporters from the local population.
The family has designated part of their property in Gush Etzion as a meeting place for conciliation work. In this pastoral setting, groups including Roots/Shorashim/Judur and the Interfaith Encounter Association hold conferences.
On Sunday July 9, the Abu Awads hosted a meeting between Haredi Rabbi Yoel Schwartz and his associates, and prominent sheikhs from the Hebron area. Rabbi Ben Abrahamson (my husband) presented his personal dream – interconnected Islamic/Jewish courts – a dream that turns out to have more precedence than we thought.
Though the theme was courts in Islam and Judaism, the Rabbis and Sheikhs introduced their views in a decidedly non-normative fashion.
Rabbi Yoel Schwartz: God brought us together for a reason
Rabbi Schwartz is a lecturer at at Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim, and an adviser to the Nachal Haredi branch of the Israeli Defense Forces. He studied at Yeshivot Ponovitch and Mir, and is actively involved in work pertaining to the Seven Laws of Noah. In this vein, he is author of “Light Unto the Nations”, and is the spiritual adviser to the Jerusalem Court for B’nei Noah. Rabbi Schwartz has also been active in meeting with Muslim sheikhs from Hebron, Ramallah, and surrounding villages. He hosted an Iftaar at his home in 2015. And what he said then, and at the meeting this month, may surprise the reader.
“I am not here to talk about religion, because religion only divides. When we split into religions, we start warring. Cain and Abel split into two different religions, so then Cain killed Abel. When we look for G-d, then we are united. I am here to talk about faith, because faith is what unites us. If everyone would ask himself, ‘What does God want from me?’ that would bring us together.”
At the Iftaar two years ago, Sheikh Ibrahim from Ramallah was very moved by this statement, and would quote it with great enthusiasm at subsequent meetings. Here too, the Sheikhs were visibly moved. Why did this speak to the Sheikhs so much? Because a parallel ayah/passuk is found in the Qur’an; one can refer to it as the quote of the “common word,” as Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad shared:
‘Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for Lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64) and he added, “the sentence is in the plural, so it includes others, including Jews.”
Rabbi Schwartz continued, getting right to the spirit of the law: “We can teach commandments and rules, but laws just mean we can call the police and go to court, and that is not enough. We have to teach derech eretz, good manners first. We need to ask what God wants from us, educating our children in derech eretz from kindergarten. We begin with God and humanity, not “Judaism” and not “Islam;” this can be our common language, how to find grace in the eyes of God and humanity.”
So Rabbis and Sheikhs were sitting around, jettisoning religion? Yup.
“God brought Jews and Arabs together in this land for a reason.”
Then this septuagenarian shared his memories of growing up here; “I remember as a child, this land was desert. If we needed vegetables, we bought them from Egypt. God made a huge miracle here, now, Israel can even give water to others. This land is supposed to give to the world, to shine truth to the entire world. God brought Jews and Arabs together in this land for a reason, and that is to grant education and law to the whole world.”
Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, Rosh Kollel of Yeshivat Otniel in Hebron, gave focus to Rabbi Schwartz’s statement, opening it up to response from the Sheikhs, “the Rav’s fundamental question is how to educate our children to do good.”
Sheikh Khaled Abu Awad: Our inherent goodness
“We have faith in God, and also in the inherent goodness of people. Laws guide us, but each human being is born with ‘fitna’, that is, inherent goodness. This means we are born pure, clean, knowing what is right and wrong. In this sense we are all born believers, then we are shaped by our environment.” In this spirit, newcomers to Islam are referred to as “reverts” and not converts, that is, they are merely reverting to their true nature of belief in God. This reminds us of the term “ba’al teshuva”, the Jew who becomes religiously observant is actually “returning.” I personally love it when concepts in Judaism and Islam echo back and forth.
Despite our shared conviction of our inherent goodness and desire to do what is right, Sheikh Ahmed from Hebron offered a warning: “When we do evil, it is because we were influenced. Still, we are punished for doing wrong, and we must strengthen our faith in order not to fall off the path.” Again we see the shared concern that we maintain our observance, even using the same language – we both us the term “the straight path” to connote correct religious observance. Another echo, great.
Sheikh Ahmed continued, getting to the topic at hand: “it would be good to have courts that work together, but the political climate makes it impossible now. So we are left with self evaluation.”
Now the sheikh does not understand Hebrew, and he entered the meeting after Rabbi Schwartz had completed his sermon. Amazingly, his message was almost identical to that of the venerated Rabbi, “A person must examine himself. Then he examines his family. Then he examines his community. If everyone would be the best person he can be, that would solve most problems. We will then be brothers in humanity.
“Politics will make it difficult to have Muslim-Jewish courts. Islamic law is very different than how Muslim countries are today. We cannot go back to the past, courts will not work.” Then he quoted the Qur’an, “’There is no compulsion in religion’, because truth and goodness are obvious. We would get strength from God to participate in such ventures if we would examine ourselves. We are not getting strength from God for such endeavors because we are not examining ourselves.”
But the Qur’an acknowledges a variety of legal systems.
“To every people (is given) a law giver, when their law giver comes before them, the matter will be judged between them with justice and they will not be wronged.” Surat Al Yunus (10:47)
“If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you are different.” Surat Al Maeda (5:48)
In Islam, a proper member of an ummah is a Momin. Momin means two things: one who believes in God, and one who is trustworthy. Here, “trustworthy” means being a good citizen, and does not necessitate that the trustworthy person is deeply religious. Islam accepts many people as Momin, including Jews and Christians, and “Sabeans”, who were monotheists and are known in Judaism as Noahides.
I was not so happy with the Rabbis and Sheikhs on their non-normative stance. It felt to me like avoiding the issue. Both religions have commandments to set up courts of law, how can we cop out of this by saying: just be good, repent, and all will be well? I protested, quoting Deuteronomy 18: “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God gives thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment”… and found support from a prominent Muslim patriarch of a local village, who was in attendance.
Sheikh Omar has the permanent smile and confident disposition of one who has inherited greatness in leadership and has continued the tradition of his family as being head of his rather huge tribe. I will refrain from counting people here, but his descendants, cousins and followers number in the thousands. His word is law, a good friend to make. Muslims do not tend to wink, that is considered a form of lying, but he gestured camaraderie to me across the discussion and said, “Ideally there is no separation between religion and state. If our religions could work together, if we could have courts that communicate with each other, this would solve all the problems.”
In this vein, Rabbi Ben Abrahamson offered, “In order to have peace you need a credible legal system. The problem with civil court is that it needs political sovereignty. Religious courts cross political boundaries. From the Muslim point of view, we can use the Constitution of Medina. Qatada Ibn al Numan was a Sahaba – a companion of Muhammad. He said, ‘there is one basic law – din/deen, and many covenants – Shari’a/Brith.’”
A participant visiting from Egypt said, “But we cannot base anything on the Constitution of Medina today because of political differences. Arabs in Israel are discriminated against,” — he was quickly cut off by our talented translator, Rachel Shofar — who hotly defended the existence of civil rights for Arab Israelis. Another sheikh said, “’Eye for an eye’ really means payment with money, or with exile.” He turned to Rachel and countered, “What about the girl who was recently killed by Israeli soldiers, when all she had was a knife?”
We needed to focus on the issue, not get sidetracked, so Ben cut in, “But we can fix small problems. What if a Jewish child is playing a ball game and breaks a Muslims’ window by mistake. We can take that to a religious court. Let us start small, then we can solve bigger problems.”
Rabbi Dov Stein is a Rabbi on the Sanhedrin court in Jerusalem. He added: “What you call “Muslim” is what we call “children of Noah”. It is not enough to believe, we need a framework to live together. It will take much research to have joint courts.”
But the precedent is there, and Sheikh Omar added that there were such joint courts under the Ottomans.
Eliyahu McClean, founder of the Abrahamic Reunion, gave more evidence: “the very founding of Medina involved Jews and Muslims working together. The Chief Rabbi of Eilat said that his grandfather was a Rabbi in Aleppo, Syria. When there would be a problem between Jews and Muslims, the Muslims trusted the Jewish courts so much that the Muslims learned Jewish Law – the Shulchan Aruch. The grandfather of the Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan was a Rabbi in Libya. This Rabbi learned the Qur’an, and the Muslims called him ‘sheikh al yahud’ – the Jewish Sheikh. Jews used the Muslim courts to solve disputes in Libya. All across the Middle East, Jews and Muslims supported each others’ courts. It is only in the last 100 years that this partnership ceased.”
Time to begin that partnership anew.