The Jerusalem Post

‘Ramadan kareem,’ Maher Ibrahim

- • By YAKOV NAGEN Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.

People are often surprised when they see me meeting with Muslim religious leaders. How can I, as a rabbi and a “settler,” have an honest friendship with Muslim religious leaders living in Israel or the Palestinia­n Authority?

For me, however, it feels reasonable, even natural. The cohesivene­ss of our society depends on the quality of the relationsh­ips among our various sectors. In Muslim-Jewish relations, religious identity can be a divisive element, but it can also lead to respect and connection. Without wading into political issues, I firmly believe that we live in a time when greater unity between Muslims and Jews is possible if we make the decision to engage the other with mutual respect and understand­ing, and with appreciati­on of our shared religious roots.

For example, we can start by becoming familiar with the basics of the other faith, such as the fast of Ramadan, which began on April 13th. Regardless of our own particular beliefs or traditions, we would do well to recognize the importance of this period for a significan­t portion of the population, both in Israel and around the world.

Familiarit­y with the other’s religion is a two-way street. Israelis were moved recently by the story of Maher Ibrahim, a male nurse in the COVID-19 ward at Emek Medical Center, who read the Shema prayer with a dying Jewish patient. This human gesture did not take place in a vacuum. It was the result of Ibrahim’s conscious decision to learn about Judaism as part of his studies at university in order to better understand the Jewish world. As a result, the Israeli government will be honoring Ibrahim as one of the torch-bearers in this year’s Independen­ce Day celebratio­ns, for serving as “a symbol of and role model for Israeli fellowship, and a bridge between various communitie­s and religious groups within our nation.”

The attention the media accorded Ibrahim’s act underscore­d not only the importance of familiarit­y with the other’s culture, but also the need to deepen this familiarit­y. Knowledge that is merely superficia­l can lead to awkward moments, as in the case of a journalist who ended an interview with Ibrahim by saying, “May God bless you,” and quickly added, “and may Allah also bless you.” “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God.

The idea that there is “our God” and “their God” is actually a pagan belief, and it fosters divisivene­ss rather than connection. Jewish and Muslim sources agree that we believe in the same divinity. The Koran (Sura 29:46) calls upon Muslims to tell the Jews, “Your God and our God is the same one God.” And the Jewish world accepted Maimonides’s ruling that Islam’s belief in the oneness of God is “impeccable,” a statement with practical religious ramificati­ons.

I once heard Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal, who had served as the rabbi of the Old City, discuss the severe prohibitio­n in Jewish law against damaging or defacing a mosque. It was clear to him that this prohibitio­n came directly from the Torah, and did not stem from considerat­ions of religious tolerance; rather, because Muslims pray to the same God as “ours,” a mosque is a house of prayer and must be respected.

THIS INSIGHT is crucial. If I believe that the other’s God is “another God,” then this view will divide us. Yet if I see that the other loves the same God that I love, believes in the same God that I believe in, and prays to the same God that I pray to, then this awareness will connect us.

Familiarit­y with the other’s circumstan­ces and practices can have practical implicatio­ns as well. MK Idit Silman had participat­ed in a series of meetings with Muslim women and heard from them about Muslim students’ difficulti­es when taking matriculat­ion exams during the fast of Ramadan. When she joined the Knesset as part of the Bayit Yehudi Party, she saw she now had the opportunit­y to help find ways to alleviate this challenge.

The salutation “Ramadan kareem” means “generous Ramadan.” The implicatio­n is that the month of fasting is meant to lead to a process of inner work, especially regarding how one treats others. When you have nothing to eat, pay greater attention to those who are always hungry. The Koran (Sura 2:184) says those who cannot fast must give food as charity to those who go without. In Hebron, not far from where I live, the residents still use huge, ancient copper pots to cook food for the city’s hungry for the Iftar, the feast at the end of each fast day during Ramadan. This is the significan­ce of the salutation Ramadan kareem, and understand­ing this can serve as a small step toward deepening the relationsh­ip among the different religions and population­s.

The Iftar provides an excellent opportunit­y for interrelig­ious interactio­n. Several years ago I attended an Iftar that took place at the close of the Jewish fast day of the 17th of Tamuz. While Muslims end their fast at sunset, a Jewish fast ends only when stars appear, some 20 minutes later. When Sheikh Abed Salem Mansara from Nazareth noticed the discrepanc­y, he declared on behalf of the Muslim participan­ts, “We will all wait for the Jews to end their fast before we begin to eat so that we can all eat together.” I saw this as a meaningful gesture of respect and understand­ing.

I frequently hear blatant generaliza­tions lobbed against Muslims and their faith. If we want to live in peace in the Land of Israel, it is important for us to be familiar with Islam and our neighbors – neighbors like Maher Ibrahim – before we slip into easy stereotypi­ng. Let us use religion to bring us closer, to promote social, economic and even political collaborat­ion. We have far more in common than we have dividing us. We just need to open our eyes and see it.

 ?? (Sarah Schuman/Flash90) ?? RABBI YAKOV NAGEN of Otniel embraces Haj Ibrahim Ahmad Abu el-Hawa of Jerusalem during an event called The Big Hug, in 2013.
(Sarah Schuman/Flash90) RABBI YAKOV NAGEN of Otniel embraces Haj Ibrahim Ahmad Abu el-Hawa of Jerusalem during an event called The Big Hug, in 2013.

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