The situation was deteriorating fast for America’s minority religions. Antisemitic hate crimes were on a steep rise, suspicion of immigrants was at a fever pitch and white supremacists were overtly and proudly spreading their creed of hate, answerable to virtually no one. It was then, in the late 1920s, that the minority Jews, immigrant Catholics and Protestants banded together to form the National Conference of Christians and Jews, weaponizing multi-faith unity against white supremacy in general and the KKK in particular.
It worked. The newly arrived Jewish and Catholic immigrants found doors opening for them through interfaith activities and—through familiarity—inclusion into the rapidly changing patchwork quilt that was America in the mid-20th century.
In our own time the cast of characters has changed somewhat but the plot is the same. Again it is the white supremacist agenda and again American Jews are at the receiving end of rising hate crime, but they are joined now by different brethren in a club that no one wishes to join. Muslims—a negligible portion of the populace a century ago, but now in numbers matching the Lutheran community—also have targets on their backs.
That Muslim and Jewish intellects and leaders would get together in an effort to bring about understanding between the two brothers descended from Abraham is not only inevitable but also welcome, albeit overdue.
One of the first of what one hopes are many fruits of this alliance is a free volume, Sharing the Well: A Resource Guide for Jewish-Muslim Engagement. A joint project of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hartford Seminary and the Islamic Society of North America the work is, as described by the editors “the culmination of almost five years of creating bridges of understanding and partnership between American Muslim and Jewish leaders,” and is available for free download.
Sharing the Well is much more than a simple Everything You Always Wanted to Know About That Other Religion But Were Too Afraid/Ignorant/Unthinking to Ask. It is a hand extended to us to learn, understand and act.
As a Jew, discouraged by the continuing bonfire of hostility toward Muslims and Jews and seeking some sign to indicate a union of minds and faiths and thus true solidarity against those who hate us, I recently downloaded Sharing the Well and found my thirst for hope satisfied, the gaps in my understanding of our Muslim brothers and sisters filled, and a wider, more optimistic perspective kindled as a result.
Sharing the Well features the knowledge and thoughts of 17 Muslim and Jewish scholars and religious leaders, each weighing in with an essay on his or her respective religion’s customs and beliefs when it comes to the basic checklist of areas universal to all faiths: marriage, family, dietary laws, prayer, scripture, holidays, charity.
The authors have written their essays for the intelligent, curious, uninformed—and possibly misinformed—reader. Included in the back is a much-needed glossary for the many Arabic and Hebrew terms necessarily used. Included too is a section, Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue, which, while it informs, also not so subtly invites the reader to seek out and participate in interreligious dialogue with a Muslim if one is Jewish, or with a Jew if one is Muslim. And if one is at a loss as to where and under what circumstances to interact with one’s brother religion, the volume’s final section offers no less than 24 Muslim-Jewish engagement programs across the country with themes varying from cultural interfaith mixers to seminars, roundtable discussions, shared meals, shared worship services, shared holiday celebrations, teen gatherings and others.
In summary, Sharing the Well is much more than a simple Everything You Always Wanted to Know About That Other Religion But Were Too Afraid/Ignorant/Unthinking to Ask. It is a hand extended to us to learn, understand and act.
“By exploring what we share, finding common ground, and building friendly relations, we will be better able to deal with the issues that divide Jews and Muslims today.”
Personally, as one raised in the Orthodox tradition of Judaism, I found the book enthralling. I would dawdle at the discussion questions highlighted in gray, sometimes engaging in debates with myself over such things as: What is faith? How is compassion related to faith? Do we show compassion because we have faith, or is it the other way around?
I was gratified to recognize as old friends many of the stories and teachings I’d absorbed in Hebrew School while finding myself aghast at my profound ignorance of even the basics of Islam 101.
In short, the book is a revelation. It’s easiest to get through if you actually participate in the discussions—even if only with yourself—and if you make liberal use of the glossary at the end. The authors have put together an earnest and joyous book. For each of them, as well as editors Kim Zeitman and Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, this was a labor of love, and it shows.
More to the point, it is a labor with a specific object in mind, as expressed in the Introduction by Imam Mohamed Hag Magid, President Emeritus, Islamic Society of North America: “Our goal is not to sidestep or ignore the difficult issues that often cause tension between Muslims and Jews; quite the contrary. By exploring what we share, finding common ground, and building friendly relations, we will be better able to deal with the issues that divide Jews and Muslims today. Respect for each other is key to making difficult conversations educational and productive.”
It is difficult to imagine things not improving with the broad dissemination of Sharing the Well occurring throughout otherwise troubled spots of Jewish-Muslim interaction and in areas where Jews and Muslims are under threat or attack. High schools and colleges would be well advised to include the book as an elective in the curriculum. Synagogues and Islamic centers would benefit from several copies in their libraries.
United we stand. Education and knowledge are the weapons that banish suspicion among ourselves and strengthen us against our enemies. Or, in the words of the editors, “As we drink from the wellsprings of Jewish and Muslim wisdom and tradition, we pray for a bright future of partnership and friendship.”