Galilee Diary #465, November 11, 2009 Marc Rosenstein
Proclaim: "This is the truth from your Lord,"
then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve.
All is foreseen - and freedom is granted...
-Mishnah, Avot 3:15
A few years ago our foundation
facilitated, for the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel, a course on
Judaism for local village imams (Moslem religious leaders). The group of about a
dozen imams met monthly with various rabbis, and were a congenial and curious
group. A question that was asked more than once was, "How come this is one-way?
Where are the Jews who are curious about Islam?" We decided to find out the
answer, and invited, a couple of times over the past year, a local imam to speak
on Islam, publicizing the event through our usual local channels of advertising.
The attendance both times was about 15 people. Unfortunately, the speakers were
not really successful at conveying a coherent and intellectually satisfying
account of Islamic customs or beliefs, in Hebrew, and the audience went home
frustrated. The training that these clergy receive in Islamic seminaries does
not include much in the way of pedagogy or critical inquiry - or comparative
religion. Meanwhile, a friend referred me to an imam from a village a little
farther away, near Nazareth, whom he recommended for such settings. I called
Khaled Abu Ras and we arranged to meet at his home, and he turned out to be a
charming and articulate 30-something doctoral candidate in religious thought at
Bar Ilan University, a teacher in his local high school, and a Sufi (devotee of
Islamic "Kabalah"). We talked for a long time - and looked at all the photos of
him and his wife on their recent pilgrimage to Mecca, and I invited him to
We did our usual publicity,
giving emphasis to Khaled's academic credentials and Sufi affiliation; we
decided to go with a topic we thought would be attractive to a serious audience
(the concept of free will in Islam). Khaled sent us a page of text excerpts, and
we ran off 15 copies and bought a cake. For reasons we still don't understand,
over 60 people showed up, and enjoyed a fascinating evening. The audience was a
real cross section - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, left and right;
even a few rabbis - and some from as far as 45 minutes away. The speaker was
indeed charismatic and serious, open to all questions, full of illustrative
stories. And when he chanted the passages from the Kuran before we read them in
translation, he held the crowd spellbound, adding a cultural component to the
intellectual content. We learned that the view of Islam on free will is more
complicated than the stereotype most of us carry around - indeed, it shares the
ambivalence we find in Jewish sources, as both religions realize that there is a
tension between the belief that God is all-knowing and the belief that we have
total freedom of will - for if God knows what we are going to do, then are we
really free to choose? There were plenty of questions, and when the time finally
ran out, there was clear consensus that this would be the first of a series.
When the speaker ended with a short prayer for peace, somehow it seemed more
convincing than the platitudes that are usually delivered on such occasions.
On the one hand, it has always surprised and disappointed me to be
reminded of how ignorant Jews and Arabs are about each other's religion and
culture beyond superficial knowledge - which often turns out to consist of
distorted stereotypes. After so many decades of living in the same small
country, you might expect a little more mutual knowledge to have rubbed off. On
the other hand, it was encouraging to learn, from this evening, that the glass
is also half full, that there is mutual curiosity and good will, and even, if
you look, someone to talk to.