Muslims offering the evening prayer at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. RNS photo by Jeffrey Salkin

Jews, Muslims and holy envy

(RNS) “Tell me again about this bar mitzvah thing.”

Those were the words of Shaikh Shafayat Mohamed, the leader of the Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

He and 10 of his young people were sitting in my study in Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. – along with 10 of our Jewish young people.

We were spending the evening together — studying and eating and talking — about how we want to combat fear. We knew that there is only one way to do that – and that is to combat ignorance. 

I started with a prayer – "May God/Allah bless this conversation, in which our cousin faiths, descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Ishmael, would come to learn about each other’s lives, faiths and cultures."

We opened our hearts to each other: about spirituality, the role of religious law in our lives, the role of gender, our twin struggles with modernity, and fundamentalism.

We talked about the chains of tradition – "shalshelet ha-kabbalah," and the Muslim "silsila" – that bind each of us to the past and to the future.

When we encounter the other, it sharpens our own identity.

Our young Jews are unambiguous in their connection to the Jewish people. One young woman said: “I hope to marry a Jewish person. I want Judaism to continue. We lost too many people in the Holocaust. We need more Jews.”

Our new Muslim friends nodded. They expect to marry Muslims. They, too, want Islam – an Islam that will successfully interact with modernity – to continue and flourish. They, too, are afraid of ISIS.

They have seen the many compromises with tradition that American Jews have made, and they neither like it, nor envy it.

But where is our holy envy: What, in the faith and culture of the other, do you most admire and covet?

Our kids craved the certainty of their new Muslim friends, the sense that Muslim culture offers a sacred order to life – an order that they know Judaism also has, but they have not yet fully accessed.

And what did the Muslims crave in Judaism?

Bar and bat mitzvah.

Islam knows of serious life change at puberty. During the teen years, for example, Muslim girls can make the choice to wear the hijab.

But, they lack any kind of ceremonial way of marking that passage, and that is what they want.

Their longing reminds me of other American groups that have taken the imagined success of bar and bat mitzvah, and have decided to adopt it for their own use.

Some Episcopalian churches have created Rite 13, a group ceremony for 13-year-olds (that they got from Jewish confirmation, which Jews, in turn, got from German Lutherans).

Why shouldn’t contemporary Muslims “take” bar and bat mitzvah? Quite often, in the shared history of Jews and Muslims, ideas and customs, literary motifs and longings have flowed back and forth between our peoples.

Our Muslim guests did not know that the great Maimonides learned his philosophical moves from Muslim theologians.

Our young people did not know that the great Jewish poets of medieval Spain were jamming on themes that they got from Muslim poets, that Jewish mystics knew about the great Sufi poet, Rumi, and vice versa.

Judaism and Islam have more in common with each other, in terms of our life rhythms and structures, than either has in common with Christianity.

In that sense, we are common strangers in a strange land, trying to maintain our traditions, lest they be washed away in the great American assimilation machine.

The evening was getting long, and we were all getting hungry. We knew that there was much unfinished business that would take us beyond kumbaya. That would have to wait until next time.

But, before we could eat dinner, our Muslim friends made a small request. They had to pray the evening prayer.

That was my turn to become envious: How can liberal Jews retrieve that kind of prayer devotion?

Was there a place where they could pray?

Without hesitation, one of our young people suggested: “How about our sanctuary?”

And so, 10 Muslims kneeled in Temple Solel’s sanctuary. Rarely has its carpeting hosted such fervent prayer.

Ours was an act of sacred hospitality.

It was the kind of hospitality that our joint ancestor, Abraham (of whom Muslims say: peace be upon him – the exact translation of alav ha-shalom), demonstrated in the wilderness of his time. The ancient legends say his tent was open on all four sides, so as to be able to both see and welcome parched and hungry strangers into his tent.

So, from the supernal Garden of Eden, Abraham was smiling.

And so was God/Allah.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. He writes the Martini Judaism column for RNS)


  1. Am I alone in thinking that if we didn’t teach our kids to believe in competing, rationally dubious, unevidenced concepts we wouldn’t have to try to find ways of coping with the problems that inevitably follow?

  2. Not alone but definitely in the minority.

  3. If only people did not use their faith as a weapon against others, there would be no need to offer healing, physical, spiritual, or otherwise, to those others.

  4. The weaponization of religion tops all complaint lists against organized religion.

  5. So far, sadly, no affirmative responses to the event described. Allow me to offer one. While I differ with both Jews and Muslims theologically, I can certainly applaud the spirit with which this joint venture was infused. My only regret is that a like number of Christian youth did not participate. Combating both fear and ignorance, while gaining insight from others is a laudable goal. One need not sacrifice one’s own theology to engage one another cordially. An interesting and telling comment by Mr. Salkin: “Judaism and Islam have more in common with each other, in terms of our life rhythms and structures, than either have in common with Christianity.” Such an apt point might benefit Christian youth eager to share their faith with others.

  6. The same could be said about gay people and straight people, Edward. Exactly the same thing. We have far more in common than we have differences.

  7. Sometimes they are “our kids”…in this case they are NOT. what I teach my kid about God, I don’t think is your business.

  8. I know the Emam. My sons pray at his mosque. Jews and Muslims are partners in America at this moment in time and if we don’t see it now, with all this hate going on, we never will.

  9. We disagree

    What you teach your child is up to you, that means you are responsible for the consequences of that teaching – whether it is about your ideas of “God” or anything else.

    If the consequences of that teaching impinge on others it is valid that those others are concerned, and can, in extreme circumstances, intervene. I imagine that you and your children do not live in a bubble isolated from the rest of humanity. Whilst I am not implying that you would abuse your children those who do so in the name of religion are often sincere and confident that they are doing their version of God’s will. By abuse I mean wickedness that includes not sparing the rod, denial of the natural variation within human sexuality or refusing to take children to the doctor in case it upsets an unevidenced, unnecessary and rationally impossible deity.

    Do you think that the abuse of children is not the business of society or the state? Do you not realise that children taught to disrespect others because of their differing mythology are learning the first step of the totalitarian state: that “not-we” are not as valuable as “we”. And if you don’t believe that is what they learn why is it considered necessary to break that learning through events such as that described in this article?

  10. I agree, and such dialogue is necessary if only for common courtesy’s sake, and the sake of the commonality to which you allude. However, though you and I generally maintain a civil dialogue, neither of have moved in our basic point of view. I have learned from our dialogue to frame my comments with more sensitivity than in times past with mea culpa’s and caveats. Still, I am having some difficulty with other’s, wherein the effort to be civil is a greater struggle, precisely because we differ fundamentally over what the biblical text actually says, and the responses are not as measured, perhaps on either side, as they ought to be.

  11. We do maintain civility because we are both civil people. We disagree, but in no way do I ever sense that you are vicious, mean, or evil, intent on working harm towards people you despise. In fact, I would be surprised if you despised anyone, an I suspect we would be friends if we knew each other that way.

    But, note your last sentence. Are those disagreements with atheists and gay people, or with other Christians?

  12. It’s like a Cantonese Restaurant menu; take one from Column A, one from Column B, and one from Column C, though from the Christians it tends to be those who identify as, or those in solidarity with gay Christians. As you know I tend to be uncompromising in my beliefs as I understand scripture, so in a sense in this instance it could be construed as an internal disagreement between believers, but the attacks often become personal even as I endeavor not to throw the first stone. Sometimes I’m assailed for my point of view with respect to scripture and my “audacity” for declaring it. I strive very hard to avoid the personal. So much for the free and civil exchange of differing points of view. I thank you for your kind remarks above, and will strive to live up to them.

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