Ishmael And Isaac: Struggling Brothers

November 9, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Like many of you, I have a brother. And like many of you there have been times, when the two of us have not been on the best of terms. Fortunately, most of those occurred when we were young children, so that today we are close. He lives outside of Hartford, CT and is a big fan of University of Connecticut sports. Earlier this week he e-mailed me with excitement as the Sugar Bowl Committee was actually scouting out the Connecticut Huskies to possibly play here on New Year’s Day. Somehow, I don’t see an LSU/Connecticut game in the near future, but stranger events have happened. If that transpires, we will have to clash once again.

This week’s Torah portion includes the classic brother conflict between Jacob and Esau, but even before that was the rift involving Isaac and Ishmael. Both saw themselves as the rightful heirs of the Abrahamic tradition, but it was Isaac according to our faith who was the ultimate carrier of the covenant. However, for Islam it was Ishmael’s descendant, Muhammed, who would be God’s most important prophet.

Next Sunday, November 18 from 1:00 to 5:30 will be an historic gathering in our community, when Jews, Christians, Muslims and members of the Bahai faith, all of whom are linked to Abraham, will come together for study and fellowship. This is not the first program of this kind. The “Festival of Abraham,” as it is called, has convened on four previous occasions, but always in a neutral, university setting. This time, we will meet at the Muslim Academy in Gretna. As our Muslim neighbors open their doors to us, I believe it is time for us to open our minds and hearts to them, but there are a number of obstacles in our way.

First is our prejudice and fear. As Jews, our primary link to Muslims is that they want to destroy Israel. That made them our enemy. U.S. troops have been battling Muslim soldiers on and off since the First Gulf War. Then along comes 9/11 and the entire country thinks of them as the enemy. While we cannot dismiss a threat to our nation that is posed by Muslim supporters of Osama Bin Laden, or the violent words of Iranian leaders, we cannot assume that the entire Muslim population of America, estimated to be somewhere between 2.8 and 6 million people, is in agreement and/or out to destroy us.

The vast majority of Muslims, one of the newest and fastest growing populations in America, follow in the footsteps of other immigrant groups who went before them. Based upon a Pew Research Center study we glean that they are here to work hard and succeed financially. They are happy in their communities and recognize the need to adapt to American customs and values, while maintaining their faith. This should all sound very familiar to us.

My guess is that many of us have Muslim friends or acquaintances. They are our doctors and cab drivers, professors and store clerks, neighbors and classmates. They are our fellow citizens.

Yet especially following 9/11 they have been subject to discrimination, slander and profiling. How embarrassing and disrespectful it was when Keith Ellison was elected to Congress and there was an outcry about him being sworn in using the Qu’ran! Muslims have had to endure numerous indignities and challenges from both law enforcement and the general public.

How many of us see Arabs or Muslims boarding a plane or walking down the street with a long coat and think to ourselves that they might be terrorists? Do we refrain from hiring them in our businesses, bringing them in as consultants, connecting with them as possible friends? Our fear is real, but we cannot allow our prejudices to undermine our American spirit of fair play and equality. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, even IF most terrorists are Muslims, but which clause in that statement shall we emphasize as we live our lives?” (Rabbi Howard O. Laibson)

The second obstacle is our ignorance. What do we really know about Islam as a religion? I learned a great deal simply preparing this sermon. Upon examination, you will find many similarities to Judaism. Islam is based on six basic articles of faith.

For starters, Muslims, which is the term for those who practice the religion of Islam and means “those who submit to God,” believe in Allah, the Arabic term of the same one God, we call Adonai or Elohim. As is often taught in Judaism, Allah is eternal, omniscient and omnipotent, and Allah alone created the universe. Allah has no body and is just, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked, but balanced by mercy.

Assisting Allah are angels, who interact with human lives. They consist of light and have a variety of roles that they play on earth. Of note is that each person has two angels who follow you. One records your deeds of goodness and the other your sins.

Four books are holy to Islam: the Torah, Psalms, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Qur’an. The last is the most significant. It is the word of God spoken by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad It was in oral form during the life of Muhammad and written down following his death. It is infallible and without error.

Muhammad is the last and greatest of Allah’s messengers or prophets. Preceding him were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus, as well as others. Interestingly, often when Muslims mention Muhammad, they immediately say, “peace be unto him,” in the same way that we use the expression, “alav hashalom,” when referring to one who has died, which means the same.

Fifth is the belief in afterlife, which includes resurrection and judgment. Those who have followed Allah and Muhammad will go to heaven; those who did not, go you know where.

Last is the belief in predestination. Allah determines what will happen to us, but this does not mean that our free will is taken away. Rabbi Akiba said the same.

With this is as the basis of belief, a Moslem fulfills his/her duties through publicly testifying with the words: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.” Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. They are required to give at least 2.5% of their income to the needy, fast during the month of Ramadan and at least once make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Just as in Judaism and Christianity, there are a variety of expressions of Islam. As we know from the news, one sect does not readily recognize the other as fellow Muslims and open conflict ensues. With perhaps as many as 1.1 billion Muslims in the world, Sunni are the largest with 940 million followers.

They are considered the mainstream traditionalists who are linked to Muhammad’s primary successor. They have been comfortable pursuing their faith and adapting to secular society.

The Shia or Shiites followed a different successor to Muhammad with approximately 120 million followers throughout the world. Iraq is divided between majority Sunni and large minority Shia, which accounts for much of the ongoing warfare, while Iran is predominantly Shia, supporting the minority in Iraq. Sunni is also the majority in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

While certainly there are aspects of Islam that are problematic for us as Jews, there is much in Islam that is compatible with Judaism and we can admire. Historically there have been periods when Jews and Muslims lived alongside one another and thrived, most prominently during the 9th – 11th centuries in Babylonia and the Golden Age of Spain. However, there have also been moments when we suffered under Islamic oppression. There is much more for us to learn.

The final obstacle to opening ourselves to connecting with the Muslim community is our love for Israel. When we consider the history of the modern state, some feel it is an act of disloyalty to even be civil to those perceived as Israel’s enemies. Yet without dialogue there is not even a chance for peace. Earlier this year, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to the Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest organization of Muslims in the United States.

Eric is not one who minces his words. He was both tactful and direct. Addressing the issues of the Middle East he made it unequivocally clear that American Jews have “an unshakable commitment to the State of Israel.” At the same time he acknowledged “the ties of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans to the Palestinian people.” He then outlined his vision of a fair and lasting peace by saying:

“For peace to be achieved, territorial compromise will be required of Israel. Unconditional acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State will be required of the Palestinians. Jews will need to accept the reality of Palestinian suffering, and understand that without dignity for the Palestinians, there can be no dignity for Israel. Muslims will need to accept the reality of Israeli vulnerability, including the vulnerability of that tiny nation’s ever-threatened borders.”

To reach these goals he called upon Jews and Muslims alike to embrace three ideals. First is to support our government’s attempts to bring about a fair settlement. We will be hearing much more about this in coming days with a peace conference scheduled but not absolutely confirmed to take place in Annapolis.

Second is the idea that the conflict between Israel and her neighbors needs to be approached as a political issue primarily and not a religious one. Judaism is certainly not at war with Islam and we need to urge our Muslim brothers and sisters to approach us in a similar way. All too many Muslim extremists, as well as some Jewish extremists advocate for Holy War, as opposed to acknowledging a conflict over land and water. If their will prevails, all is lost.

Lastly Rabbi Yoffie calls for both communities to categorically reject acts of terrorism, where innocent men, women and children are murdered in the name of God. He teaches,

“You cannot honor a religion of peace through violence; you cannot honor God if you do not honor the image of God in every human being; and you cannot get to heaven by creating hell on earth.”

At the upcoming convention of our Reform movement, the leader of the Islamic Society will come to speak to us, an historic first. We can only hope that his words will similarly build bridges of respect and understanding, and that he will share those words not only with us, but his community as well. Dialogue requires real partners.

I am not so naïve to believe that all we have to do is sit down and meet with others with peace and harmony resulting between our two communities. There are serious long term issues that must be addressed, trust to be established, relationships created. As Rabbi Yoffie concluded his comments, so will I: “Interconnected since the time of Abraham, thrust into each other’s lives by history and fate, and living in a global world, what choice do we really have? Surely here, in America, as Muslim and Jew, we have a unique opportunity to reclaim our common heritage and to find a new way and a common path. Brothers and sisters, let us begin.”

Ken yehi ratson… May this be God’s will and our resolve.



This sermon benefited by the writing of Rabbi Eric Yoffie and his “remarks to the Islamic Society of North America,” Rabbi Howard O. Laibson’s September 12, 2007 sermon, “Peace Between Cousins: Muslims and Jews in America,” and internet research on Islam   and

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