Rabbi Janice Mehring is the spiritual leader of Reform synagogue, Congregation Ohr Tzafon (meaning Northern Light) and a founding member of the Peace Academy of Science and Arts. She is the Interfaith Liaison for the Jewish Community Center of San Luis Obispo and a member of the Ministerial Association of SLO County and the North County Clergy Group, both local ecumenical organizations. Rabbi Janice holds a Master's Degree in Physical Therapy, along with a Master’s Degree in Rabbinic Studies and ordination as a rabbi. She eloquently refers to her lifestyle transformation from physical therapist to rabbi as a shift from physical to spiritual healing. She is also known as the ‘singing rabbi’ and her life is devoted to prayer, music, and service. (Introduction edited by Rabbi Janice).
Rabbi Janice, in your work as an interfaith activist, what advice can you give us when it comes to bridging theological or even ideological divides?
The best piece of advice I can give is to approach this work with patience and an open heart. I find myself in spaces where there is often great misunderstanding, misconception, and even promotion of stereotypes about faith traditions which can lead to defensiveness and retreat. If we can come together with curiosity and deep respect for each other as human beings, we can come to know and honor our uniqueness. It is easy in interfaith work to find common ground but the deeper work of honoring our differences is what takes real intention and presence.
As a founding member of the Peace Academy of Science and Arts, you integrate spiritual precepts of peace and universality into the field of mathematics, arts and humanities, and science creating a balanced and holistic approach to learning. How did this come about?
I would love to connect you with Noha Kolkailah, the founder of this amazing undertaking. Briefly, this really came about following President Trump’s Muslim travel ban in January 2017. A community event was held in San Luis Obispo, California called “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor.” It was attended by hundreds of people and a chance meeting occurred between Noha Kolkailah, a Muslim and Michael Mazella, a Buddhist. They began to brainstorm the idea of a school where children of all different religions, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds could come together safely and learn about how to be global citizens.
The Academy also emphasizes that no discrimination is made based on one's race, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or nationality. Do you envision a world where all educational facilities will follow suit? And why do you think we have not, as yet, collectively caught up with such a notion?
What a wonderful vision that is to have all children immersed in this kind of education. These programs are taking place all around the globe but it isn’t a universal notion for education systems yet. Even we needed to change our language around faith to navigate the barriers and perceptions of what interfaith means. Our founding members, particularly the curriculum committee, spent many months together crafting our shared values that would be the foundation of the program. We hope our students, and other children in programs like this one, will be the change makers for the next generation. “While building bridges of respect among each other and the environment, students will experience the richness of coexisting among people of diverse faiths, cultures, and backgrounds.”
This really encompasses our aspirations.
You are known as the singing rabbi. How does singing tie into your service to the community?
I began my journey as a spiritual leader through music. I experienced something unique when I would stand before a congregation and sing. I was a vocal performer but this was different. I really felt I was a conduit of some sort, a channel for blessings to flow. Sacred music transformed me and people shared their experience of hearing me sing in that way. My community is very musical now which presents interesting challenges during a global pandemic when it is not safe to sing indoors in a congregational setting. Yes, there is virtual worship services but technology doesn’t allow for group singing in any spontaneous way. So, we remain hopeful and anticipate the day when we can share music again.
As a response to the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, you penned an article entitled Zeh baZeh -These [and] these are the holy words of God in which you referred to Claudia Rankine who stated that while police brutality may not have changed, the response has. What is the significance of Zeh baZeh in our world today?
This source for this concept comes from the great Talmudic sparring partners of Hillel and Shammai. They were the heads of two competing schools of thought around the first century CE. They and their followers (referred to as “Beit Hillel” and “Beit Shammai”) often disagreed vehemently and came to opposite conclusions about essential matters of Jewish law. However, our tradition teaches the following:
Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another. . . For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. One group said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion,” and the other said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion.” Ultimately a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: “Both these and those (zeh bazeh) are the words of the living God.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b)
Imagine if we used this strategy in our world today! Imagine if we approached people with whom we disagreed and could listen without judgment; hear opposing viewpoints without defensiveness; and then conclude by saying, “I don’t agree with you but I honor that your opinion is holy.” Judaism elevates discussion, debate and differences of opinion as long as the discourse is for the sake of heaven. We can disagree and debate if the exchange between two people leaves both parties more elevated for having participated and learned from another even if consensus is not achieved. Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai said it this way.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
(“From the Place Where We are Right,” The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, ed. and trans. Chana Block & Stephen Mitchell (Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress,1996).
Also in the above-mentioned article, your insight was encapsulated when you wrote: "We must sit with our feelings of lament, confusion, grief, and rage as painful as they are." Why do you think we find it so hard to address difficult feelings when they are the key to liberation from the prison of our egos?
I am not an expert in psychology but from lived experience and the pastoral counseling I do, I see it is the harder path for people to self-reflect and go inward. It is so much easier to project outward with blame or shame.
People are afraid of religious texts these days. But when they are read from an enlightened perspective, they open portals of compassion, harmony, and unity. How can representatives of each faith bring communities of other faiths together even amid reticence and fear?
The first step is to take the risk to reach out to others. Even if it feels scary or foreign to step outside your house of worship’s walls, you must engage with the process. Find partners of other faith traditions that are willing to be vulnerable and open hearted. I recommend inviting a neighbor or a clergy person out for coffee and you will know very quickly if you have a fellow seeker sitting across from you. Find social justice projects your communities can do together. My synagogue has partnered with churches in our town to fundraise for relief projects. We have also come together for a joint book study. Each congregation read the book and discussed with their own clergy but then we all came together for shared worship, discussion with the author and sharing refreshments.
Finally, how does spiritual work assist us in awakening from separation? And in what way can we bring the inner dimensions of the heart to the forefront of our respective spiritual paths in order to manifest a utopian world?
The lens through which we see the world is expanded when we are open hearted and connected to each other and the common energy of humanity. We will all use different words to describe the work of being spiritual leaders. But ultimately, it is about seeing the Divine in every creature. In Jewish tradition, we believe that everyone is created B’Tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. To me, this doesn’t describe a physical manifestation but that the God spark is within each of us, and if we embrace this, we are all one. There is no separation. As Rabbi Arthur Green wrote:
“We are created in the image of God, if you will, and we are obliged to return the favor. The inner drive to imitate the ever-giving source of life calls forth in us an unceasing flow of love, generosity of spirit, and full acceptance, both of ourselves and of all God’s creatures.”
Rabbi Arthur Green
(Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology, Jewish Lights; 1st Edition (April 1, 2003)
Victor Ghalib Begg is an Indian-born Muslim American author, activist, community organizer and community builder. He worked for decades building interfaith coalitions and advocating inclusion. In his 2019 memoir, Our Muslim Neighbors—Achieving the American; an Immigrant’s memoir, he writes, “Getting to know our neighbors is one way to allay current rising tide of divisions. There is power in simply knowing one another.” His wife, Shahina Begg, co-founded “Women’s Interfaith Solutions for dialog and outreach in Metro-Detroit.” He is also a co-founder of the multi-ethnic Muslim Unity Mosque in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was 2009 recipient of the Detroit News Award “Michiganian of the Year” for his leadership role in advocacy work and promoting unity in the community. Victor Begg also received the “Peacemaker” Award by the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University. (Introduction edited by Victor).
Most of your activism revolves around getting people to understand that though our belief systems may differ, beyond the respective labels we are more similar than ever. Why is it so difficult for us to comprehend such a notion?
Not so difficult, if we get to know our next-door neighbor. In doing so, we may remove the labels we unknowingly attach to the people we may have stereotypical notions about. We will better understand our shared values and aspirations with that simple outreach. Loving one’s neighbor is part of the universal teachings among all of our faiths:
Said Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:31
And be good to the neighbor who is your relative and to the neighbor who is not a relative. Quran 4:36
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18
Prophet Muhammad said, “The Angel Gabriel kept on recommending that I treat the neighbors in a kind and polite manner, so much so that I thought that he would order me to make them my heirs.” In Sahih Bukhari, arguably the most influential compilation of his sayings.
I strongly believe we must share our personal stories—at the core, we are all humans with similar dreams, regardless how we worship. As a Muslim, in writing my book, I shared my family story, in all its vulnerabilities; it offered a window into the daily life and beliefs of ordinary Muslim Americans—to get to know who they really are was one of my goals. That shouldn’t be a difficult task—begin with your next-door neighbors, invite them to your home for a cup of tea. Show your love to fellow human beings, whether they agree with your belief system or not. Love and goodness overcome fear and divisions.
In an interview with The Arab American News last year, you stated that you remained optimistic even in the face of discrimination. You were able to reach out to other communities through writing and socially engaging with the 'other.' Tell us the catalyst behind such a decision.
An example I can share is that of post-9/11 terror attack in New York. In the face of a major tragedy, the interfaith community came together, to pray for peace. In the process of planning for that joint service, I raised my hand and told the gathering of diverse faith leaders, “We need more than a prayer.” Although, it was an unexpected proposal from a lay person like me, at a time like that, the faith leaders and other community leaders responded enthusiastically. That simple call for action, to go beyond simply holding hands and praying, prompted an initiative resulting in forming an institution that vies to bring communities together to this day—Interfaith Leadership Council of Metro-Detroit. Such willingness by faith leaders, to step up to do good at short notice, should give us hope and optimism. We rose from the ashes of a major act of violence, to join hands, promote cooperation, peace, and inclusion.
There are so many more examples where average members of the community, as well as the leaders, rise to the occasion. During the COVID-19 epidemic, we are finding the faith communities—mosques, churches, and synagogues uniting to face a common invisible enemy of humanity. People, across the faiths, bind together in helping elderly neighbors, and feeding the hungry regardless of their background. I have written editorials about it.
Back in the dawn of the interfaith era, fifty years ago, we had to plan elaborate dialogues in Detroit so that our various faith communities could meet—often, for the first time. Today, young adults feel more comfortable with diversity. They live, study and work in mixed communities. If a particular cause interests them, most are happy to join with people of other faiths and cultures. They stand up for each other. As I see this unfolding future, how can I not be optimistic?
You refer to yourself as an 'accidental activist' in the first chapter of your memoir Our Muslim Neighbors. What is an accidental activist? And how did that come about?
I began that chapter in my book by quoting an ayah (verse) from the Quran: “Nothing will transpire except what God has prescribed for us.” Quran 9:51
In summary: My goal, in coming to America in 1970, was to get my college degree, find a job, and build a good life. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, touching off the longest hostage crisis in American history. That was the initial catalyst for my activism. For 444 days, the hostages’ plight and Imam Khomeini’s politically motivated revolution in Iran flooded the news cycle. The initial anger about the hostage taking and Khomeini’s later fatwa against author Salman Rushdie began to center [more] on Islam, less on Khomeini and Iranian politics.
At the time, I was not so religious. Early in my life, for example, I attended services twice a year, on the two main religious holidays. That’s just like many Christians who jokingly call themselves “Chreasters,” attending only on Christmas and Easter. Nevertheless, I was involved in that era as a guest on radio talk shows, articulating perspectives about Muslims many Americans were not hearing. That added to my urge to speak up when needed to publicly articulate about issues.
Not many journalists recognized the importance of including the voices of Muslim community leaders in their news reports in that era. In fact, Muslim-Americans were not even recognized as a single entity—we were identified as Arabs, Indo-Pakistanis, Black-Muslims, and Iranian et cetera. I decided to write an op-ed piece for the leading newspaper on the current crisis with Iran as a Muslim-American. Editors rejected my submission. Frustrated, I asked whether The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press would let me purchase an advertisement to publish a statement by a nonprofit group focused on cultural understanding. This turned into a humiliating and costly experience, as they asked for Thirteen Thousand dollars for less than a quarter page editorial. Our shared frustration within the Muslim community, over these refusals to even include our viewpoints, became a springboard for my actions. Americans want to hear from Muslim leaders who condemn violence in the name of our faith—and the vast majority of American Muslims do condemn.
I learned that developing relationships with media professionals is essential if we are to have our voices heard. Next, I naturally moved into civic, interfaith, and political participation, along with building Muslim community organizations. As I recount such memories in my memoir, you’ll find in the twists and turns of my life that these stories represent decades of struggles in America to organize and build an inclusive community. I had never dreamed of doing all this work. We make those accidental turns as we travel through our life journey. We have come a long way since then. Today, the same newspapers that once rejected my submissions out of hand now regularly seek my input. The Detroit News recognized my years of activism with the prestigious ‘2009 Michiganian of the Year Award’—a newspaper that had refused to publish my well written op-ed piece. I have included a copy of that well written editorial in my book.
We have weathered so many crises since the hostages were taken four decades ago. September 11, 2001 was the watershed—it was the first day of a new calendar for all American families, including those like my own, who truly follow the faith of Islam. Soon, our nation would engage in a series of overseas wars. Muslim Americans would be viewed as a suspect community, our constitutional rights violated with impunity in far too many cases.
Muslims like me were catapulted into the role of defending our cherished American values of freedom and equality—on a national stage with extremely high stakes. That certainly wasn’t part of my American Dream when I first set foot on these shores, but life in this turbulent era led me step by step, from one moment to the next, until … until … well, until one day I woke up staring at an entirely new landscape for Muslim-American relations and I found myself, accidentally, in a very public arena. I am proud of how I responded, but this was not the trajectory I had envisioned half a century ago.
In recent years, the barbaric ISIS group rose its ugly head. My wife and I had moved to Florida, to retire. But, the retirement is not happening. Living along Florida’s Treasure Coast today, I began contributing regularly to local newspapers and eventually became a regular guest writer on Muslim issues. I joined the local association of religious leaders. The charged election primaries in 2015 began with the demonization of Muslims and Islam. ISIS-inspired attacks continued. Once again, I have become as busy in Florida as I ever was in Michigan in my work with media and interfaith networks, promoting both peace and accuracy in reporting on Islam.
I cannot retire as an activist. Ominous headlines never seem to stop. In the early hours of June 12, 2016, I woke up to the news of the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. Hearing the awful news, I prayed: “Lord, let it not be a Muslim!” Eventually, reporters revealed that the shooter was Omar Mateen—a man from our local community. My heart sank!
I asked my wife, “Shahina, what is Brother Siddique Mateen’s son’s name?” She thought it was Omar. We knew his relatives well, although we did not know Omar. I did not want to believe these reports about him! His father, an Afghan immigrant, had been heavily traumatized by the war there. Now, his whole family was in deep shock over Omar’s horrifying crime. National media descended upon our small town. Our mosque leadership, afraid all Muslims would be forced to account for this young man’s rampage, was unprepared to deal with this awful situation and asked me to be their spokesperson.
I was caught in a hurricane, once again. Events beyond our control were suddenly affecting all Muslims by association, especially those who live in Florida. I wrote a guest column in the Treasure Coast Palm newspapers that week, denouncing the crime. I helped organize an interfaith memorial service at the Community Church of Vero Beach and a candlelight vigil at the Riverside Park. These were planned jointly with the LGBTQ community and deeply appreciated by all. A thousand mourners congregated! What I understood so clearly after 9/11 were three simple words: Interfaith activists act!
The most emotional moment of the evening was when Sana Shareef, a Muslim teenager, played the Christian hymn Amazing Grace on her clarinet before I expressed Muslim community’s sadness about the horrific tragedy. I will never forget a gay man who was on stage with me that evening, so overcome by the experience that he reached out and hugged me. Resting his head on my shoulder, he cried.
The Fort Pierce Police Department asked for my help in holding cultural competency training for its officers. The goal was to promote an understanding of Islam and the local Muslim community, in the aftermath of that terrorist attack.
Working with colleagues across this region, my wife and I were able to make a positive difference. Unlike decades ago, news media professionals, political leaders, law enforcement officers and other community leaders have warmly welcomed our efforts. This tells me that Americans are open-minded and accepting of diversity—if only they can get to know their Muslim neighbors—only if we stay active and engaged in our ever-shrinking world.
Activism has increased around the world. On the one hand, this is good news, because it means more people are standing up for others. On the other hand, it is a sign that we have a lot of work to do still. When it comes to interfaith activism, what is, in your opinion, the greatest hurdle for people when it comes to connecting with those outside their faith?
Yes, we have good news and some bad news.
There is much work needed in many other parts of the world like India and China where extremist movements and government actions are causing inter-religious strife. These are some serious challenges we face, and hurdles to overcome. Rather than fading in the years since 9/11, 2018 ushered in a new era of demonizing our neighbors with efforts to establish a Muslim travel ban or add other restrictions based on one’s faith or country of origin. Unfortunately, there are those who will demonize the other for political gain—the study by the bi-partisan think tank, Center for American Progress, in its study: The Fear Inc. has elaborated such threats to pluralism and democratic values.
The bad news is that, while we may have won many cultural contests, we haven’t won the broader campaign to reach a consensus in this country that interfaith diversity is a positive American value.
In the post 9/11 world, because we worked on building interfaith relations, we succeeded in bringing diverse faiths together. I believe that that was due to the efforts of likeminded men and women, working for inclusion. I am deeply troubled that divisionary environment began to deteriorate again in 2015, with the new openness to anti-Muslim voices, and cultural biases burgeoned during the Trump campaign and other efforts from the far right.
These are some of the bad news reports.
The good news is: Interfaith movements in the United States, in Europe, and the Middle East, however, are trying to mend a broken world with compassion and justice and by concrete action. This is the good news. Person by person, friend by friend, good-hearted people can change the world, given the opportunity. In the days immediately after the anti-Semitic murder of 11 Jews in their Squirrel Hill synagogue, Pennsylvania, the Muslim community felt a sense of urgency for building bonds between people of different faiths (including those with no faith, at all). The Jewish community responded with the same spirit in the aftermath of New Zealand mosque shooting. For in doing so, we saw a glimpse of hope of a mended world.
Once again, five years later in 2020, with an increased interfaith cooperation, we feel the environment is getting better due to faith leaders promoting interfaith friendship, in spite divisive politics of the country. We need leadership at all levels to promote and care about unity, however, it is the interfaith leadership that steps up to the challenge of joining our hearts.
Social media is both good and bad news—a double edged sword that can be employed to spread good news bringing people together and spread love, or add to demonization, hate and mistrust. We ought to be wary of the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even emails for example.
Those who commit acts of violence in the name of their faith create fear and divisions. We need a visible outpouring of interfaith solidarity to make it clear to potential perpetrators that violence was not an acceptable response. The peace “activists” must, first and foremost, act. As important as prayer is in all of our religious traditions, we had to envision ways of working together that go beyond interfaith prayer. We must work to break down the walls that separate us and to educate us about those who might seem so strange at first but might become heart friends if given the chance.
We must invite others who had the same activist passion to take interfaith relationships to a higher level everywhere. If the terrorists and extremists are going to hijack our faiths for violence, we must do the hard organizing and community building to turn people back to our faiths’ deeper roots of love, mercy, justice and peace.
And, conversely, what have you found is the easiest way to engage with the so-called other?
Nothing is easy. Blessed are the peacemakers, but they are not always blessed with an easy job.
In order to bring change, an organized effort is required. Parts of the answer I covered above in my I answers. We need to reach out to one another, get to know your neighbor. A number of interfaith movements, and a large number of religious congregations are including interfaith dialog in their agendas. If this trend continues, the path to know the ‘other’ will become easier.
I may be preaching now, unintentionally. I wrote a book to provide a window into the family, community and spiritual values of ordinary express hostility toward us. One Pew study showed that only about one third of Americans have had meaningful contacts with Muslims. That leaves a majority of Americans more prone to adopting without question the myths and biases so prominent in contemporary media. I hope when people read or hear heartfelt stories of the so-called other, they will discover how much they share.
Divine scriptures all promote diversity and love of the other. However, followers of religions are convinced their truth is the only truth. Why are we listening to our egos instead of our books?
We often only pay superficial attention to our scriptures. If we dive deep into our faith, we will see scriptures preach love and peace in their essence. I often reflect on Rumi’s famous verse about calling people together, no matter what their faith might be. He lists groups that often were considered enemies of one another in the turbulent 13th century. In English, his words are:
Whoever you may be—come!
Even though you may be
An infidel, a pagan, or a fire-worshipper—come!
Ours is not a brotherhood of despair.
Even though you have broken
Your vows of repentance a hundred times--
Every day, millions of American say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” They are seeking deeper truths. I believe, it is only a minority that places their egos above the yearning of their spirits for love.
Whatever our individual religious traditions may be, consider the fact that the most universal greeting in our world today is still this: “Peace.” Jesus is “Prince of Peace.” One of the 99 names of God, in the Quran, is “Peace.” We may pronounce that word differently: Hindus say shanti; Jews say shalom; Muslims say salam. At the root of who we are, as humans, all of us hope to come together, one day, in peace. We all dream of finding harmony and wholeness.
My faith speaks of a God of the “worlds” with a universal presence. As Muslims, we do not think of Islam as a new religion. We are following God’s timeless calling, as the Quran’s 41:53 states: “We shall show them the signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” As we look around and contemplate on the nature, we will see the truth—we are a single humanity on this planet. There is much more commonality in our scriptures than we fathom.
These are some of the words that Muslims can join Jews and Christians in affirming.
God encourages us to reflect on the world’s great waters. The Quran 21:30 states, “We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” In 45:3, the Quran states, “In the heavens and the earth there is evidence for the believers.”
If you are unfamiliar with the Quran, then you may recall these passages from the Bible: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Those are the opening words of Genesis.
Psalms sings of the power of nature to remind us of God. Psalm 90 begins, “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”
The Quran reminds us of the fleeting nature of this world: “You will think that you lived (in this world) but a short while!” (Quran 17:52)
These words may sound familiar to Jews and Christians. Psalm 90 puts it this way: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past.”
The Quran’s first chapter, Surah al-Fatiha or The Opener, is an appeal for guidance:
In the Name of Merciful Redeemer of Mercy;
Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment;
You alone we worship,
Your aid alone we seek;
Show us the right way; the path of those You favor;
Not of those who earn your displeasure and have gone astray.
That traditional English translation of the Arabic may not sound familiar to Christian readers, so I invite you to ponder a few of the words: “Your aid alone we seek.” Christians pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
We pray: “Show us the right way; the path of those you favor, not of those who earn your displeasure and have gone astray.” Christians pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Adding to that, what advice can you give us to surrender spiritual superiority for the greater cause of building loving communities in which all sacred ways are respected?
Extremism in religion is the problem—a cause for divisions. We should find a link as human beings who are not only physical, we are also spiritual. Saying we all worship One God sometimes is not true unity. Yes, we do, but the story is more complicated. We need to respect the spiritual paths people seek in their own individual ways. Yes, we are proud and dedicated to our own faith, but others too also love their faith and equally dedicated. My faith teaches: “There is no compulsion in religion. Quran 2:256”, meaning don’t force anyone away from their chosen path.
The centuries-old Sufi tradition sings hauntingly of that yearning, describing a profound longing for the divine. Spirituality has an important role in the practice of my faith. That’s why am surprised when people tell me, “Victor, you’re a moderate Muslim.” I say, “No, I’m not. I’m a Muslim. I’m an observant Muslim, like most American Muslims. At the moment, our approach to the faith may seem ‘moderate’ to you because of the crazy acts of extremists who have misused the name of our faith.” I go on to explain that I have been inspired by the great Sufi teachers and that I see no barriers that should prevent us from seeing Shia and Sunni Muslims as brothers and sisters.
We fight about God aplenty. How can we set aside theological differences and just be present with one another?
Religion remains a potent force for good—or for political conflict. Community by community, we must decide which path we will take. The good news is that the interfaith movement has become a burgeoning cottage industry. Many public meetings now include interfaith invocations. If we only recognize our own exclusive understanding of an Almighty God, then these inter-religious prayers couldn’t have taken place.
That’s startling to me today, as one of the pioneers who ushered in this movement with the help of my interfaith partners, staring in the nineteen-eighties. We had recognized the need to put our differences aside.
Today, we see advertisements for interfaith comedy shows, interfaith art shows, interfaith concerts and interfaith Habitat for Humanity builds. Theological differences matters little when we do events and projects together.
And finally, tell us why living through our heart is the portal to our individual and collective awakening.
We need to use our personal and social connections to work together. If we do so, as one of my Baptist friends puts it, we become ‘heart friends’.
We can broaden our mission by building relationships among religious leaders, so as to actively engaging entire congregations. Synagogues, churches and mosques members are made up of families, interfaith gatherings in our diverse places of worship would offer opportunities to build friendships. Our goal, and this may be more applicable in an American context, was to extend the benefits of interfaith relationships to the grassroots. And, the outreach must also include those who call themselves ‘nones’, meaning of no faith.
By caring for each other, our hearts would lead to cooperation in multiple ways. A few example of what the Detroit interfaith community was able to do because we cared:
Interfaith blood donation program, interfaith health screening for those who have no health insurance—an initiative of Muslim and Jewish doctors, together with Iraqi Christians, Chaldeans. We really wanted to make a statement—an interfaith statement that, in our city, we’re about working together to better the community.
Even many business entities are finding values in bringing diverse groups together. In 2001, the Ford Motor Company Interfaith Network was established, and its members became staunch supporters of interreligious projects both within the company and in the larger community.
”We have to agree to disagree in a civil way—and remain friends afterward.” That’s a bit of wisdom I will never forget from David Gad-Harf, the public face of southeast Michigan’s Jewish community right after 9/11. During one particular flare-up in Middle East conflict, The Detroit News interviewed both David and me as spokesmen for our respective communities. Just as I expected, David warned me that we would be pulling no punches. “Victor, sometimes our community-relations goals conflict with our respective advocacy needs”.
In an article titled Self-Reliance and Liberation from Poverty for the Parliament of Religions, you stated that "[w]hen we talk about [the] enlightened mind, we do not make any distinction between male and female. Enlightenment is beyond gender. This realization is very powerful and enables each one of us, male or female, to strive with equal perseverance toward this spiritual goal." Your life work is an embodiment of these words. How can we balance the roles of males and females within our respective spiritual traditions in a patriarchal-based society?
Reading through Buddhist texts, we are overloaded by patriarchal values. We, as Buddhists have to realize this. The texts were completely in the hands of male monastics. For this, it is important that female monastics record our work now for the future.
Reading Buddhist texts. we have to take it with a grain of salt; in the context of writing down the texts, it was at least 450 years after the Great Passing Away of the Buddha. It gathered patriarchal values from Indian and Sri Lankan culture. We need to read it with this understanding. It is important that we understand the core message of Buddhism which remains the same through the passage of time—that is, suffering can be freed. When we talk about Nibbana, it is the mental stage of total freedom accessible to all, both male and female beyond time.
We, as female monastics, need to keep our goal straight ahead of us and not get sidetracked with so much value-added patriarchal society.
At the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, you are affectionately referred to as Luang Mae which translates to Mother Abbess. What is the symbolic significance of the feminine when it comes to bridging divides in communities?
To be in touch with the positive aspect of feminine and express it through our heart, speech and body. Nobody can turn away from the soft and cooling air of motherhood. When in a confrontational circumstance, we can simply address the issue which is seemingly from “the other”, and then, with the positive energy of the feminine, we can slowly draw them to their interest, which is also our interest, and indeed the interest of all.
You are a signatory of the Global Buddhist Climate Change. How can we realize our interconnectedness with nature, animals, and the environment—not from a selfish standpoint for the preservation of our species, but from a selfless, compassionate, all-embracing love for all life?
Indeed, the nature of human being is dependent—connected and inter-connected. We are from the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. But we only borrow these four elements from the larger existence which is Nature. When we die, we simply have to return what we have borrowed from Nature back to Nature. We are the small version of nature as part of Nature. Realizing this interconnectedness is important for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of Nature, which includes you and me.
Travel is a part of your lifestyle. How have your encounters with those within and outside of the Buddhist faith shaped your worldview?
I am so grateful that I had much exposure to the larger world view not only through my textual study but also the actual exposure to the many countries to which I have travelled. My heart is open to see the sameness in all. While in Argentina, I encountered a kind and gentle black African man who attended the same conference on Ecology; and through this experience of talking to a friend, overlooking completely that he was black and that he was African.
While in Canada, studying towards my Ph.D., a very dear friend was a white French lady who took me to attend mass every Sunday.
With such exposures, to name only a few, I felt comfortable and safe among friends of different races, cultures, languages and religions. Also, there is the realization that there is much to learn from them, much to learn from those who are seemingly different. The difference is only in the packaging and not the essence. We are from the same essence.
Several people today view activism as a form of resistance. As an activist yourself, how can you help us change this perception and see it for what it is: a diamond in a mine?
Activism arises out of the condition of mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others.
Thus, the Buddha said for such a person, he or she is a great person. The true activist is one who is activated out of compassion. The best picture of compassion is a mother breastfeeding her baby.
From her own blood, she is feeding the baby; that is an expression of total giving of herself.
Christ on the cross is also a picture of action out of total compassion, giving up his self for the suffering world.
Many of us are conditioned to believe that our way is the truth. The further we go along the spiritual path, however, the more our consciousness expands. We begin to realize that the truth is one, but the paths are many. In your opinion, how can we transfer this individual realization into the collective thought matrix?
We became Buddhists with a strong faith in the Buddha; we believe that Prince Siddhartha was enlightened. That enlightenment is true for him and it can also be true for us. With his open hand, he showed us the path, but we need to walk the path ourselves. While on the path, we also extend our hands to show others.
Do we need to be enlightened ourselves before we help others? This is an attitude found among many Theravada practitioners. If I have learned A, B, C, D, E, F I have not gone to Z yet, but I can still share with others my knowledge of A, B, C, D, E, F. Do I wait until I myself am enlightened before I could teach others? With such an attitude, I end up not helping others at all throughout my whole life and I am still not enlightened.
The Buddha taught us 84,000 Dhammas. Put the dhamma—even one of them—into practice, and we can teach others from our own practice based on what we have witnessed.
Unity begins inside us. What tip can you give us to resurrect it and manifest it in our reality?
As monastics, we lead a contemplative life. When our contemplation is full, it overflows. It overflows naturally to action. This contemplation allows me to tap into others and allows others to enter into my realm. There is no you and I; there is only we who are serving the course of the practice. The Buddha, after enlightenment, still served for 45 years. We Buddhists have such a great example before our eyes.
And finally, how can we live in a heart-based paradigm?
The Buddha spent forty-nine days after enlightenment pondering how to make his spiritual discovery accessible to the masses. He chose to begin his teaching from a heart-based experience—that is, suffering. Suffering is common to all; it comes from the heart and not from the head. Wisdom is from the heart, always. Only that which is from the heart can truly bring about changes. We need to make a great shift, a paradigm shift from our head to our heart.
Rabbi David Rosen is one of the most prominent Jewish interfaith activists in the world today. He is the American Jewish Committee's International Director for Interreligious Affairs and is on the Board of Directors of KAICIID (King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious Dialogue). He is also the President of the International Jewish Vegetarian and Ecology Society and is an honorary advisor of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Interfaith Relations. Rabbi David was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his extensive work in promoting interfaith harmony and received a Papal Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory for his contribution to Catholic-Jewish relations.
Rabbi David, you have worked tirelessly to bridge religious divides. Your work has taken you across the globe. Based on your encounters with those of other faiths, what have you learned about fear of the other?
“Fear of the other” can be motivated and sustained by different factors; but what enables such fear (and as a result, hostility) to flourish, is ignorance and lack of true knowledge of one another. It is actually Islam that has an explicit Scriptural injunction in this regard. This of course is the famous verse in Al Hujurat 49:13, “O humankind, We have created you from male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another…” Now why is it so important to know one another, with Allah Himself declaring this to be humanity’s raison d’etre?! Because it is not possible to promote the religious goal of peace in society if we are ignorant of one another. Ignorance breeds prejudice and bigotry, and feeds fear, hostility, and violence. But it is not only peace that is promoted through respectful encounter with the other and his/her heritage; it is in fact the greater love and appreciation of God Himself, who has created us in all our wonderful diversity, which includes the different ways and traditions of worshipping and coming close to Him and His Attributes.
In February of 2020, you traveled to Saudi Arabia, making you the first rabbi to be greeted personally by a Saudi monarch. This trip is a testament that what we refer to as a pipe dream can actually manifest into reality. What steps, albeit baby ones, were taken during this historical visit?
Allow me first to mention what facilitated this visit. This was the fruit of the initiative of the previous Saudi monarch, the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who first convened a conference in June 2008 in Makkah of more than 500 Muslim scholars from around the world for the purpose of promoting dialogue between the Muslim world and other religions and cultures on earth. With the backing of these Islamic authorities, the following month King Abdullah together with King Juan Carlos of Spain hosted a three day World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid in which Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Jewish leaders, joined their Muslim counterparts.
The end product of this initiative was the establishment of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) by Saudi Arabia, together with the governments of Austria and Spain, and supported by the Holy See. KAICIID was set up in Vienna, but its programs are truly global, ranging from training and ensuring future generations of religious practitioners of dialogue from all religions, to addressing religiously motivated or connected conflicts in our world.
While it is established as an inter-governmental institution as mentioned, it is directed by a Board of nine religious leaders – three Muslims and three Christians; the Buddhist and Hindu representatives are women leaders in their communities; and I was appointed as the Jewish representative. You will appreciate that for Saudi Arabia to have approved the appointment of a rabbi from Israel to the board of an institution that it had launched was not a small thing. I would also like to point out that it was not King Abdullah’s idea to name the center after him, but the desire and request of the Board recognizing that aside from the institution’s uniqueness as an intergovernmental institution directed by a board of religious leaders, its provenance made it a unique force within and from the Muslim world. Indeed, I believe that even though the name has posed challenges, it highlights its credibility even within some of the most conservative elements in the Muslim world. It was also clear from the beginning that Saudi Arabia’s entry into the field of interreligious dialogue would have to be a gradual one and that not all expectations could be met immediately. Thus we understood that meetings of the Board (which mostly took place in Vienna, but also in Madrid and Rome) might not be able to take place straight away in Saudi Arabia itself. However the hope was openly expressed that this would come to pass. About half a year ago we were informed that the Board had been invited to hold its next meeting in Riyadh. Such an invitation from the Saudi Kingdom’s authorities to a multifaith delegation would have been unthinkable in the past, and it is a mark of the significant changes in recent times that it was extended at all. To our happy surprise, when we arrived we were informed that we would also be received by His Majesty King Salman at the royal palace. To be the first rabbi ever hosted by the Kingdom and to be received by the Saudi King was a great honor and, as I say, was an exciting sign of the times. Obviously, there are many issues that Saudi Arabia still has to address and there is a long way to go, but this was a momentous event. The conversation with the King was particularly fascinating. His main purpose, he indicated, was to thank us for our engagement and support of KAICIID and to express his own commitment and that of the Kingdom to KAICIID’s work. But he added some fascinating insights into his understanding of the importance of interreligious understanding and cooperation, and about Saudi Arabia’s own history in that regard. He told us that Islam in his land was originally tolerant and embracing of religious diversity, but that political factors had led to a insularity and exclusivism. I assume that he was referring to the rise of extremist ideology and violent fundamentalism. Now, he declared, we are returning to the original tolerant and embracing authentic Islam, and KAICIID is a symbol of this direction and commitment.
Whether one accepts the King’s analysis of history or not, the vision articulated is a very encouraging one. One of the most exciting moments during our visit was meeting with some sixty or seventy young Muslim men and women, most of them university graduates and professionals - all fluent in English - who were graduates of the third Salam program for the promotion of multicultural dialogue in Saudi Arabia. The opportunity to meet with these young people was as exciting for us as it seemed to be for them, and they saw our presence there as a testimony of a new era of increasing openness that they were part of.
Pursuant to this and on the occasion of the forthcoming G20 meeting that is due to take place in Riyadh in the fall, KAICIID will be organizing a multi-faith event in Riyadh. If we are still restricted by the impact of the Corona pandemic, then this will have to take place virtually; but I do hope that we will be able to participate in this event there in person.
Many people tend to seek historical and scriptural knowledge from scholars and experts in the field. This can narrow the scope of interfaith outreach programs. Is there a way for non-scholars to be taken seriously in the promotion of multifaith understanding even without expertise?
Actually it is critical that interreligious outreach is not restricted to scholars and religious leaders, but must take place at the grassroots of societies. There are many forms of dialogue and one of them is often referred to as “the dialogue of life.” Just getting to know one another at a very basic level—what a late colleague of mine used to refer to as “tea and sympathy”— is not to be sneezed at. Discovering the world of the other, celebrating the similarities and respecting the differences, is of enormous importance. If one is blessed to live in a multi-religious society, then one can go out and encounter others directly or through interreligious and intercultural organizations in those societies. If one lives in a homogenous society where such opportunities are very rare or even non-existent, today we are blessed with the technology to enable us to encounter others in ways that were not possible before. So people must be encouraged to discover the world of others as they understand their worlds themselves. This incidentally is one of the three golden rules of dialogue that were articulated by the late Bishop of Stockholm and former head of the Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl. In addition to understanding others as they understand themselves, he also urged us to always view the other community through the best within it, and not to judge it by its worst members; and his third point was that we should always leave room for “holy envy.” By this he meant that we should see nothing disloyal to our own faith tradition in being able to see something special and admirable in another faith tradition. So we need to encourage all people in our respective communities, to make a sincere effort to get to know the other as honestly and authentically as possible, directly or electronically. As mentioned earlier, for Muslims this is a Quranic imperative, but it must be a moral and spiritual imperative for us all.
In addition, let me add that where people from different backgrounds can work together on projects, especially those that seek to alleviate pain and suffering and provide health and security for the needy, the promotion of friendship and mutual respect and knowledge can be very powerful indeed.
Lovers of God recognize the oneness in all divine scriptures. What are some qualities you notice in lovers of God?
Judaism declares that the most important of all the precepts in the Torah is the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18.) Moreover, our sages teach us that we cannot truly love God, as commanded in the Torah in Deuteronomy 6:5, if we do not love others—all created with the Divine spark.
Thus, a true lover of God is a lover of humanity and will always encounter others with graciousness. Being conscious of the Divine presence in one’s life, and in others and in the world around us, should also make us aware of our limitations, vulnerability, and transience. This means that a true lover of God cannot be an arrogant and egotistical person; and therefore will always possess true humility.
I do not mean self-abnegation and putting oneself down; on the contrary, that would be disrespecting the Divine within oneself. But we should always be conscious of our temporariness and our limitations. To live in such a way should be a goal for all of us and most of us never achieve it anywhere near fully, but we must strive to do our best in this as in all things.
How can we ascend from the realm of ego when we are sometimes conditioned for exclusivity?
I think my previous comment provides a significant part of the answer to this question. Whatever one believes one is chosen to do or be, whatever gifts one has been blessed with, one should always see these as God given opportunities to serve—to serve those closest to one and also those as far away as you can reach.
Such humility is not only a personal quest; theological humility is crucially important too. It should be obvious to us—but evidently it isn’t so to all!—that if God relates to all of us -His Creatures – in all our diversity; there must be diverse ways of relating to Him. The idea that any one Tradition can totally encapsulate the Divine is ridiculous. Indeed, it is a heresy, as it seeks to limit the unlimited Omnipresent Divine. God is more than any one religion! When we understand this very basic and, as I say, obvious truth , we will not allow exclusivism to limit our conduct and comprehension. Exclusivism is often a reaction to persecution and disparagement: we know the proximity of a “superiority complex” to an “inferiority complex.” However, ultimately exclusivism is a reflection of a deficiency of imagination and love.
Rabbi David, you have risen above the tragedy of antisemitism. Any tips on how to sidestep phobia and work from a place of faith?
Thanks to God’s grace, I have been very blessed in my life in many ways, not least of all in that I grew up in a home that was deeply rooted within my own heritage of Jewish Orthodoxy, but at the same time a home that inculcated in me with a sense that I was a child of the world as a whole and of its culture and science. I, therefore, did not grow up feeling threatened in any way. I don’t think I even really knew what Antisemitism was until I was a teenager (interestingly in the fifties, the trauma of the Holocaust was still so intense that it was rarely spoken about even within the Jewish community itself); and I never really experienced it personally. Of course I did encounter antisemitic epithets as an adult, but generally these were the result of people disagreeing with me, particularly on political or ethical issues such as my open opposition to apartheid in South Africa when I was rabbi of the largest Jewish congregation there. As a result, I think it fair to say that I was never “wounded” by Antisemitism and feel myself to be free of the legitimate hang-ups that are widespread among very many of my co-religionists.
But I think above all, as mentioned before, if one is conscious that one is the creation of God and loved by Him accordingly, and that others are also creations of His and also loved by Him, no matter how much they may stray and corrupt their souls, then one is far more capable of overcoming the adverse behavior of others.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that never before in history has there been more cooperation in the field of interreligious understanding. Can you elaborate on that?
One should not really need to elaborate on such a statement, because it is a simple fact that there have never ever been so many multi-religious organizations and initiatives as we have today. This is an exponentially growing “industry” and, as a result, there is more communication, collaboration, and understanding between people of different religions than ever before. Of course this is still a very small proportion of humanity that is engaged in such activity. But as I say, it is gigantic in comparison to any and every age before. However, many if not most people are unaware of this reality. Why? In no small part it is precisely because it is good news. We are far more fascinated by negative, sensational, and violent actions, and these are the things therefore that get media attention, boost TV ratings, and serve to increase sales. Moreover, as modern technology enables us to discover news from around the globe, we become overwhelmed with information about all the destructive things going on in our world. But the truth is that there is far more positive activity than we have ever known as well, and in terms of intercultural and interreligious cooperation, we are actually in a golden age. Of course, it is always easier to demolish than to construct, but I am inspired by the enormous amount of collaboration and joint initiatives between both leadership and the rank and file of diverse peoples, cultures and religious traditions in the world today.
As the president of the Jewish Vegetarian and Ecology society, you show the world that spirituality encompasses all aspects of living. As a matter of fact, you are a vegan. How did that come about?
Authentic religion should be “a way of living”. Thus it should not only concern our personal connection with the Transcendent, but our connection with society, humanity, and the creation as a whole. Indeed, anyone who believes that the natural world around us reflects the Divine Presence—which we describe as the Divine Creation—must surely consider it a religious duty to preserve and protect that Creation, as we are commanded in the Hebrew Bible at the beginning of the book of Genesis.
My religion, like many other religions, has teachings which accordingly not only forbid waste and wanton destruction, but are also against causing cruelty to animals. While the consumption of animal products is allowed, and probably was necessary in many times and places where people might not have had access to a nutritious plant based diet, these are allowed under severely restricted conditions (the laws of kosher foods) that are, inter alia, designed to cause minimal animal suffering. Nevertheless, it is clear from our texts that these are concessions to human need and weakness, and not an ideal. The Garden of Eden is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as an ideal society and is one in which the first diet of humans is a plant based one, involving no exploitation of animal life. Moreover, the Messianic vision of the future ideal society is one in which all creatures live in harmony and “none shall cause any harm or destruction”—to quote the prophet Isaiah.
Today we are able to live a very healthy plant based diet and there is no need to cause any animal suffering for our benefit. However, the modern Western diet actually involves flagrant transgression of the prohibitions that Judaism teaches regarding the consumption of kosher (appropriate) food, as the livestock trade today involves terrible cruelty that was not even envisaged, let alone practiced, in the past. This is all in order to satisfy mass human indulgence of animal products. Moreover, because of this mass production, animals and fowl are injected with hormones and antibiotics on a massive scale, all of which are retained in the flesh that passes on into the humans who consume it, causing serious consequences for human health which loses its capacity to resist disease and infection and generates superbugs, viruses, and pandemics of various kinds such as we are currently experiencing. All of this transgresses the religious injunction in the Hebrew Bible (in the book of Deuteronomy) to protect and take care of our own health. In addition , the enormous livestock industry not only involves massive waste of water land and vegetative resources, but has also caused widescale deforestation, the destruction of human and animal habitat and species, environmental degradation, and global warming that threatens our whole planet. Adopting a plant based diet and a vegan way of life today should be an imperative for every religious and spiritually sensitive person who cares about the wellbeing of him or herself, other humans, animal life, and the natural environment around us that all reflect God’s handiwork, His Creation, and His love.
And finally, Rabbi David, what is the role of our heart in bringing communities together?
Obviously when you refer to the heart, you are not referring to the muscle that pumps blood to the various regions of our body, but to the heart as a metaphor. However, in Jewish sources, the heart is used a metaphor for many impulses and attributes. It is used to refer to the mind, intelligence, and moral discernment. Perhaps, more than anything else, it is referred to as the seat of emotion, but not only in a positive sense. I assume that you are using it in the sense of positive emotion. In that sense, it is synonymous with love. As already mentioned, love of God and love of fellow human beings are the essential foundations for religious life and for bringing about what we call the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth—i.e. an ideal society. So in the sense that you are using the term, one may say that “the heart is the key.”