Tuition in Jewish day schools is rising, and housing near schools and houses of worship has become more and more scarce. There is a price tag on religious observance in America. While school vouchers may help, it is more important than ever for American Jews to unite with other religious minorities.
There is more to be concerned about – the many assaults upon men and women wearing religious garb, and we are at times accused of split loyalties.
How can traditionally observant American Jews voice their needs and explain their position effectively, being in the minority?
There is another community that faces exactly the same issues: it is the thriving and varied American Muslim community.
Thus, we have before us an opportunity.
It is the relationship of the traditional American Jewish community to American Muslims today. We can work together in so many ways, we just need the tools for conciliation; this series of articles will attempt to give you just that.
And given the sensitivities of traditional Muslims, they can at times even be a tremendous help to observant Jews. Like the time last July I was on the train back to Brooklyn for Shabbos and the trip was longer than I anticipated. I could not fool myself, sunset was coming faster than I could make it to my cousins’. Who carried my purse with my passport and everything I needed? Only one person on the train was willing to help, a Muslim woman in hijab, but I am getting ahead of myself, wait ‘til the end of this article for the rest of the story.
The theme of this first article is the scriptural basis for western political theory and American identity. I am not jumping right into the story of Islam in the USA just yet, we need a little background, so that I communicate this to you, listen up: Muslims and Jews are not interlopers on the American scene; indeed, ideals with roots in the Torah as well as the Qur’an found their way into modern political theory, and even the Constitution of the United States of America itself.
And how these ideals have been played out regarding American identity is also crucial to understand. American identity has included the pluralist (totally accepting), primordial (accepting the other as soon as she fits a definition) and predatory (totally exclusive), and affect every minority community.
I admit many of us are jittery when it comes to exploring Islam in the USA. Since 9-11 and the attacks at Fort Hood Texas, 2009, the Boston Marathon bombings, 2013, the San Bernadino killing spree in 2015, and the attack in Orlando, 2016, fearfulness is quite understandable. That is precisely why it is so important to listen to those Muslims who condemn terror in the name of Islam, and get to know those who are actively working for a peaceful Islam.
Islam in the USA – a peek
For a peek at what we will be learning about in the next articles, the American Muslim community, like any, is variegated. There are today between six to seven million Muslims in the USA, and Muslims account for about 25% of the world population. In the United States, Islam is part a renewal of its African-Muslim heritage, as many of those who were enslaved in west Africa from the 1600’s through the 1800’s and brought to the United States hailed from Muslim families. This branched into the more separatist Nation of Islam and the more conciliatory black Muslim movements. It is part immigration from Arab lands, from the 1870’s to the 1920’s, then again in larger numbers since the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, and, mostly since 1965, immigration from south Asia. In this land of religious freedom, conversion to Islam also contributes to its growth.
FIRST POINT OF CONCILIATION: SCRIPTURAL ROOTS OF WESTERN POLITICAL SCIENCE
Before America: Religion and State
The relationship between religion and state in the USA is crucial for the traditional Jewish community. The debate concerning school vouchers, which would use public funds in helping pay tuition for religious schools, will hinge on this point. So let’s put this topic in some historical context, back to the….
Revolution! No, not with guns, but with the printed word. The revolutionary invention of the printing press in the 1400’s in Europe and increased access by the lay people to the Bible spelled the end of the overarching authority of the Roman Catholic church. In the 1500’s, various Protestant or “protesting” movements were spawned in defiance of church authority that was not explicitly stated in scripture. The English Puritans were one such group. They settled the New World to create a society “purified” from practices that were not based in scripture, and to escape persecution from other Christian sects.
Now the traditional Jewish readers of this article can swell up with pride – listen up: there arose a parallel form of political science, beginning with Erastus of Switzerland in the sixteenth century. Erastus and his followers were inspired by the Seven Laws of Noah as expounded in the Talmud, and the concept of minority religious freedom as expressed in the concepts of ger toshav – resident immigrant, and tzadikei umot haolam – righteous gentiles. They studied Tanakh, Talmud, and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Why did these devout Christian thinkers turn to Talmud and other Jewish commentary? Henry Ainsworth explained in 1611, “One must consult Hebrew doctors of the ancienter sort…if one wishes to give light to… the commonwealth of Israel.” They took particular note of the concept that not all crimes in the ancient Hebrew commonwealth were punishable by earthly courts. As Erastus stated, 1568, “Although the Israelites could, of course, punish those who had committed civil offenses, there was no spiritual sanction for errors in doctrine or belief.”
Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius shared his admiration for the Hebrew commonwealth, 1601: “Within the Hebrew republic itself, there always lived some strangers (not bound by Mosaic religious law), known as Hasidei Umot….yet were allowed to live amongst the Israelites unmolested, provided that they observed a minimal standard of general morality.” This, he argued, was the basis of civil law. Indeed, Professor Eric M. Nelson of Harvard University states that although many people assume that basic human rights are a secular invention, they in fact were brought down from scripture by these and other Christians who studied – Judaism!
Scripture is more center stage in western political science than we have been led to believe.
The Dawn of the United States – Founding Fathers, Separation of Religion and State, Debating the Merits of the Ottoman Empire
The interpretation of separation of religion and state in the USA is a matter of ongoing debate, and again, we need context. In Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists of Danbury CT,1802 he reassured this minority religious group that the government will not interfere with their sect. Here is an excerpt:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. “
The context of this letter was to assure a minority congregation that the government will not interfere with its practice, yet has been used since the 1940’s to legislate a level of separation of religion and state that includes depriving religious schools of state funded school lunches and transportation, auxiliary needs that are independent of religion. Public funds were cut off to a homeless shelter that happened to be located in the basement of a house of worship in Boston MA, in the mid 1990’s. Was that really the intention of Jefferson’s letter? Given the needs of traditional communities, it is essential that the original intent of separation of religion and state be looked at in context.
Law professor Azizah Y. al- Hibri makes a case that the founding fathers studied various forms of government, and this included the study of the Qur’an and Islam.
For example, during the debates that formed the Constitution, conservative Alexander Hamilton and anti-federalist Patrick Henry we on opposite sides of the debate as they argued the merits of the Ottoman empire. Hamilton criticized the relatively weak powers of the Turkish sovereign, who could not impose a new tax and depended on the local governors for tax collection. This could lead to corrupt governors, he declared, thus the need for strong central government. Not so, Patrick Henry countered, the Ottoman empire is proof that strong local government is preferable! Either way, they were debating the merits of an Islamic country. And, strong central government or not, the very concept of a United States, that is, a collection of independent states under one nation, whose motto is E Pluribus Unum, “one of many”, mirrors both the concept of seventy nations under the Noachide covenant, as well as the Qur’anic concept of Umma Wahida, which means “many united peoples”.
Thomas Jefferson was influenced by the writings of George Sale, who was a devout Christian. Sale referred to Muhammed as an infidel, but stated that he deserved credit for introducing the Arabians to monotheism, and that the Islamic system of governance is comparable to the Christian and Jewish systems. It was Sale’s copy of the Qur’an that Thomas Jefferson consulted. Thomas Jefferson corresponded with Abbe Volney, an expert on Islam, but asked his communications to be kept private, given the political climate. Why should one of the founding fathers fear admitting his study of Islam? Let’s not make the same mistake!
Thus, the seeds of separation of religion and state, as well as tolerance for the religious minority, actually stem from our scriptures. This is familiar to us, as traditional Jews. Judaism differentiates between laws that are societal – bein Adam lechaveiro, and between a person and G-d – bein Adam leMakom, with a range of laws unenforceable by earthly authorities. It is also familiar to Muslims, as such a separation is part of Islamic shari’a.
Yes, authentic Islam also has a system of separation of religion and state, as well as religious freedom. American Muslim Arif Humayun in his book, Connivance by Silence, quotes the Qur’an as he emphatically supports these claims:
“There is no compulsion in religion” Qur’an 2:256
“So remind them! You are only a reminder. You are not in control of them” Qur’an 88:21-22
“If your Lord had willed, all the people on earth would have believe. Do you think you can force people to be believers?” Qur’an 10:99
And in support of tolerance and the diversity of humanity:
“…We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other….” Qur’an 49:13
“To each among you we have prescribed a shari’a (law) and a minhaj (custom). If Allah had so willed, He could have made you into a single Umma (faith community), 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 is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth about the matters in which you differ.” Qur’an 5:48
Humayun counters the claims of political Islam, and the militancy which accompanies it, which he states began after World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman empire. His stated goal is to “empower average Muslims to forcefully reject these twisted interpretations and peel the Islamic veneer off the terrorists’ justifications and expose the criminals.” He holds that the problems that lie within the Muslim world today can be cured by authentic Qur’anic teachings; many Muslim leaders concur, you will be hearing more about them here. Invoking something similar to the Talmudic concept of Dina DeMalchuta Dina – the law of the Land is the law, Humayan asserts that it a Qur’anic injunction to respect the law of one’s country.
For another example of a Muslim expression of Dina De Malchuta Dina, W.D. Muhammad, African American Muslim Imam, in 1975 held the American flag in front of his congregation at the Masjid Muhammad mosque, Washington DC, and proclaimed, “you have an obligation to support, defend and protect our society”, inspiring members of his congregation to serve in the armed forces.
The copious claims out there that Islam is incompatible with western freedoms amount to comparing apples and oranges. Judaism has its range of laws that decidedly do not spell personal freedom, we have restrictions on speech, tenets of modesty, but again, these are in the bein Adam lemakom category. Indeed, Jews and Christians should not only have no problem with the existence of Islamic influence in the west, it should actually be a source of pride! Put simply, as far as “Islam can from Judaism and Christianity”, well, concepts from those religions naturally made their way into Islam.
But is the similarity between the above Qur’anic quotes and Constitutional rights a mere coincidence? Not according to what we find in the US Supreme Court, Washington DC. In a frieze paying homage to that which inspired the US Constitution, the Qur’an, in Arabic, is clearly portrayed.
Now that I have made a case that Muslims and Jews, and devout Christians for that matter, are decidedly not interlopers in the American scene, let’s discuss identity.
SECOND POINT OF CONCILIATION: BOTH JUDAISM AND ISLAM ARE A BLEND OF PRIMORDIAL AND PLURALIST IDENTITIES
Every immigrant group has had to deal with the question, “what is American identity?”
Sociologists discuss three basic categories of personal and national identity: predatory, primordial, and pluralist.
Primordial identity is that part of one’s identity that stems from stable factors such as core beliefs and customs. It holds that a nation has a basic identity to which a new immigrant must assimilate. An example of a Puritan primordial leader was Reverend John Eliot, who was missionary to the native American Indians, several hundred of whom converted to Christianity and became the “Praying Indians.” Among the Founding Fathers, George Washington is said to have been primordial in his view of the native Americans, hoping for the day they would assimilate into American society. Both primordial and pluralist approaches are tolerant, with the following difference: pluralism accepts the Other as she is, primordialism accepts the Other into a new group identity.
Pluralism assumes coexistence of a variety of cultures, all of which have positive qualities. Instead of the assimilation demanded from the primordial view, the emphasis would be on integration. No attempt to change the Other would be made by the dominant culture.
Puritan theologian Roger Williams was pluralist. He quoted the Bible in his stand that the state could only enforce laws that interfere with the functioning of society, reminiscent of Erastus and his followers. He told the English colonists that the natives were “free of robbery and murder”, i.e., the English could learn something from the Other. A century later, Thomas Jefferson penned in pluralist fashion, “Neither pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” In the 1950’s, President Dwight Eisenhower attended the opening of a mosque in Washington DC, saying, “the very fabric of the constitution and the American hearts and minds was to be inclusive, and embodied the American Muslim communities. For Americans not to coexist with Muslims was to go against the very fabric of what America is and was intended to be.” President John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were pluralists.
The predatory identity holds that ethnicity is a prime factor in identity, and different ethnicities or religions can never be accepted in the dominant culture; hierarchical exclusion, banishment, or annihilation are the only ways to relate to the Other. Here are two examples: four Quakers were executed in The Massachusetts Bay Colony the 1650’s for heresy. Two centuries later, president Andrew Jackson expelled Indians who dwelled in the southeast in a forced march westward, with many dying along the way. This became known as the Trail of Tears (1830).
We really want to avoid predatory identity. Just wanted to make that clear.
At times a predatory identity can be a reaction to a perceived threat. Once the threat is removed, that exclusive identity is replaced with a more accepting one. It is my hope that greater understanding will lead all individuals and nations out of any tendencies towards predatory identity and the extremism and inflammatory rhetoric it accompanies.
How this affects traditional Jews in the USA
I will venture to say that traditional Judaism is a blend of primordial and pluralist identity. Each traditional community has a strong core identity, but recognizes other groups as representing authentic Judaism if they are shomer Shabbat – Sabbath observant. The strong identity of each community is primordial, with each group welcoming newly religious and converts who assimilate to that traditional community. Our pluralism is expressed in acknowledging other Jewish shomer Shabbat communities as authentic, though lifestyles may differ widely among the various traditional Jewish communities.
Regarding our relationship to the nations of the world, we are primordial in our hope that the nations will adhere to the seven laws of Noah, and pluralistic in recognizing the variety that each nation will have in expressing its adherence to the seven laws. And remember the Midrash Rabbah which proclaims, “Where there is wisdom among the nations, believe it.”
Again, this is parallel to Islamic teachings. Islam is also a blend of the primordial and pluralist, having a living system of accepting all who practice monotheism, Jews, Chrisitans, and “Sabeans”, which is their equivalent of Noachides, even those not observing Islam as we know it. In the words of Qatada, seventh century Muslim, “al deen wahad, al sha’aria muchtalifa” – there is one basic deen/din/law, and many acceptable covenants.
But fear does a lot in cowering us into labeling an entire Other as inherently dangerous. When my husband Rabbi Ben Abrahamson began his study of Islam over a decade ago, it was in response to his having survived a terror attack in Israel. He was seeking the roots of terror in Islam, so he opened the Qur’an to hunt them down. Instead he found sources for coexistence – and discovered Muslims who are promoting authentic peaceful ideals, in the name of Islam. These Muslims provide chapter and verse, history and precedent, for true peace.
Mutually beneficial relationships do a lot to build trust. Unfettered in the city last July, I made my way to the Bronx mid Friday afternoon to meet Sheikh Moussa Drammer. Former businessman turned Imam, Sheikh Moussa offered the dwindling Bronx Jewish community part of his mosque to serve as a synagogue. It is the only mosque-cum-synagogue in North America , now talk about mutually beneficial! I had hit the jackpot in meeting more Muslims who are community activists and work for peace – Aldo Perez of the New York City Alliance, Mazeeda Uddin of SAFEST, who advocated for kosher and halal meals in New York public schools.
But I misjudged the time it would take to return to Brooklyn in time for Shabbos. As I prayed for kefitsas haderech, I realized I would not reach my cousins in Brooklyn on time. I looked around the train and began asking around if anyone could carry my bag for me, it had my wallet, my passport, I was really in trouble. One woman was incredulous, a man flatly refused, but the Muslim woman in hijab agreed to help. She took my purse and as we got off the train she asked me about the Jewish Sabbath and I praised her for helping a daughter of Israel keep the sharia of Moses! A neighborhood away from where my cousins live, we ascended the steps of the first house whose lights were on, I figured I would have to explain the Jewish Sabbath again, but, wait, Hebrew letters adorned the front door! A Chassidishe woman opened it, heard my tale of woe, showed Samira, my Muslim helper, a place to deposit the bag! Hugs and praises all around, now that is an example of real life conciliation!
Islam is not going anywhere, and neither is Judaism. With the above intellectual framework and historical backdrop in place, we will look at Islam in America and how the traditional Jewish community can relate. Next stop: the first American Muslims – the enslaved west Africans, Black nationalism, and the more conciliatory African American Muslim movements; “Rising Above Race to Faith.”
Rebecca Abrahamson is active in cultural diplomacy and editor of husband Rabbi Ben Abrahamson’s book, Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims
How 70,000 Muslim Clerics are Standing up to Terrorism 2015 Huffington Post
Journey Into America, the Challenge of Islam, Akber Ahmed 2010
Connivance by Silence : How the Majority’s Failure to Challenge Politically Motivated [Mis]interpretation of Qur’an Empowered Radicals to Propagate Extremism, Arif Humayun 2010,
Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources in the Transformation of European Political Thought, Eric M Nelson 2012
The Missing Peace. Dr Omer Salem 2015
The Dangerous Mr. Nelson Diana Applebaum 2012 article in Jewish Ideas Daily
Sons of Abraham Imam Shamsi Ali and Rabbi Marc Shneier 2013
Meezan Javed Ahmed Ghamidi 2012
The Construction of National Identity – on Primordialism and Instrumentalism, Viera Bacova, Human Affairs 8 1998 vol I
America Muslims: South Asian Contributions to the Mix, Karen Leonard, UC Irving
Islamic and American Constitutional Law: Borrowing Possibilities or a History of Borrowing? Azizah Y al Hibri