In the Mosque: How Good, How Pleasant

This is a story about how a nice Jewish boy from the Midwest ended up forehead to the ground in a mosque two weeks ago with a protestant minister on one side and a nice young man from Burma on the other.

Well, it will be. But to tell you about it, I first need to tell you a little about the parashah we read this week, called Tetzaveh. In this Torah portion, Moshe, on the mountain, receives instructions for the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle, where the people and God will be able to meet and speak to each other. And Moshe receives instructions for the establishment of the priesthood. His brother Aharon will begin the priestly lineage. He and his children will offer up to heaven the people's sacrifices and God's blessing will flow down in return.

And special garments are to be made for the priests: breastplate, robe, tunic, turban, skirts with alternating pomegranates and gold bells on the hem, to be worn over linen breeches. And when all this is ready, it will be time for the High Priest to be anointed. With some pomp, one imagines, maybe poetry or song or drumming or silence, the best oil - extra virgin presumably - mixed with frankincense and cinnamon, would be poured on Aharon's head. It would flow down like blessing, trickling onto his beard and dripping onto the beautiful priestly garb.

Imagine what that was like for the Israelites to see such a moment when it finally came about! For a people enslaved for hundreds of years, this was inconceivable. At last, freedom to have their own religion, their own practice, their own holy place, and now the anointing of a priest who would smooth their interactions with God! The very thought that they were worthy of interacting with God was new.

When at last it happened, it couldn't help but make an impression: passed down from parents to children, until the image of it unexpectedly resurfaces in Psalm 133, one of our shortest and most memorable psalms, one that includes Hebrew words known by heart by most Jews:

Shir hama'alot l'David: Hineh mah tov umah na'im shevet achim gam yachad.

The entire 3-sentence psalm reads like this:

A song of ascents for David. Behold, how good and how pleasing it is for brothers and sisters to sit together. Like the fine oil on the head, trickling down onto the beard - Aharon's beard - that descends over the edge of his robes. Like the dew of Mt. Hermon that seeps down on the parched mountains. There Adonai gave the blessing of life forevermore.

This psalm, near the very end of the Book of Psalms, in the section containing all the hallelujahs, conveys that the experience of sitting together as achim, as brothers, as sisters, is like anointing oil pouring down the High Priest's beard. A strange and kind of wonderful thought. Why such a quirky and lofty comparison?

The idea of brothers and sisters sitting together in peace is a potent one. Because it isn't always easy to sit peaceably with one's achim. If the psalm had said, "how good and pleasing for friends to sit together," that would've been easy. We like hanging out with our friends. That's why they're our friends.

We have a tendency nowadays to read this hineh mah tov psalm in a very abstract way - that it is not about brothers at all but about brotherhood. But- as we understand it in our modern, secular, Christian-influenced culture. In fact, to my ears, the word "brotherhood" even sounds Christian. It suggests a kind of polite cooperation for the common good. Noble, but rather remote from the actual experience of being brothers.

Meanwhile the word sisterhood rings as either political comradeship - as in sisterhood is powerful, or as a reference to that assemblage of ladies, including our mothers, who, in the synagogues of our childhoods, would welcome new members, raise money for tzedakah and keep the hungry congregation fed. I feel closer to both these images of sisterhood better than I like any image of brotherhood. But neither seems terribly close to the actual experience of being brothers and/or sisters.

Because the relationship of siblings can be a challenging one. Our roots are tangled and we fight for the same sunshine. The wounds inflicted by siblings can be some of the most painful.

And Torah, when it says, hineh mah tov, understands this. Because there are many examples of siblings in our Bible, and those relationships often don't go so well. Our archetypal sibling stories come out of Genesis. And what does this first book of Torah teach us about what it means to be a sibling? Let's see. Siblings are people to cheat out of birthrights and blessings, people to flee from, squeal on, unhappily share a husband with, throw in a pit and sell into slavery, or even kill in a jealous rage.

But Torah also offers us some sublime moments of sibling reconciliation. Jacob and Esau fall on each others necks, kissing and weeping after two decades apart. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers who had thought him dead at their very hand, and he, who had cause to play the injured party, instead saves his brothers, and we see all of them crying together as well. When the Psalm says hineh mah tov umah naim shevet achim gam yachad - how good and pleasing it is for us to sit together like achim - like brothers and sisters - it is not taking this metaphor lightly. The relationship of siblings is fraught, and messy, and beautiful, and worth every bit of love and cultivation we can muster. No one will ever know you as well as your sibling. And once you get over the embarrassment of that fact, how good and how pleasing it can be!

But in all those miserable sibling stories of Genesis, there is one more worth mentioning: Isaac and Ishmael. Both sons of Abraham, one by Sarah our matriarch and one by Hagar, her Egyptian handmaiden. If you were going down the list of sibling conflict in Torah, you'd probably mention the two of them. But if you were pressed to say why, you might come up empty. Because Torah does not in fact paint them as enemies. We only actually see them together twice. First, as children, there is Ishmael doing something to Isaac - the Hebrew word is m'tzachek, from the same Hebrew "laughter" root that forms Isaac's name: Yitzchak. We don't know exactly what m'tzachek means. And while our later commentary suggests all sorts of terrible things, it is most likely that Ishmael was making Isaac laugh. At worst it means Ishmael was teasing the baby. There is no birthright-stealing, no murder. And then they are torn apart not by their own conflict but by the politics of their parents. We get to see them together one more time, at Abraham's death. Isaac and Ishmael together, burying their father. No indication of hatred, no indication of reconciliation. Just two brothers together, doing what brothers are supposed to do.

According to Torah, these seem to be peaceful brothers. Anything else is something we've added to the story later. It's important to remember this because we, and the world, regularly use Isaac and Ishmael to symbolize Jews and Arabs, or Jews and Muslims. And that is reasonable - Isaac is our patriarch and ancestor of Moshe; Ishmael is, in Muslim tradition and ours, the forebear of the Arab people and ancestor of the prophet Muhammad. But the world tells a story of the enmity of Jews and Arabs, and the enmity of Jews and Muslims, a story that seems to have biblical origins, but actually does not.

The history of Jewish-Muslim coexistence has certainly been a varied one. During the millennium and a half that Jews lived in Arab lands, there were many periods of peace, with great friendship and shared interests in philosophy, law, music, poetry, art. And, yes, there was the bad stuff too. Violence and forced conversions of Jews, although notably less than we experienced under Christian rule in Europe. And in the modern era, the establishment of Israel on land that had for a long time been home to Palestinian Arabs resulted in the violence and bitterness and cycle of retaliation that we are all too familiar with.

But even though Palestine and Israel remain locked in their deadlock, that is not the whole story of Jews and Muslims. We must remember that Jews and Muslims are not at war. Jews and Muslims are not enemies. That is a story that we must resist and that we can reshape. Now, here in America, Muslims are in a position that we Jews find distressingly familiar. As politicians talk about their loyalty and their foreignness, and they debate their expulsion and consider closing the doors to their refugees, this can only remind us of so many moments of Jewish history in Europe, none of which ended well. And we must voice that particular Jewish insight to help our Muslim neighbors whose turn it now is to have reason to fear. How different might the Jewish world be today if others had spoken up for us in the past?

Which brings me to me on the floor of the mosque. As part of a delegation from the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County, I visited the Santa Rosa masjid two weeks ago. We have been working on a campaign of people of faith speaking out for the rights and safety of the Muslim community. The visit to the mosque during Friday prayer was an outreach effort and an honor.

On my way there it occurred to me that I hadn't thought through the question of whether I would participate in any of the prayer or just be an observer. Would I get down? When I'm in a church, I sit respectfully, I listen for points of connection, but I never kneel. But that's different - in a church it is either an image of Jesus or a symbol representing his divinity that is the thing people are kneeling before. That is a way of understanding God that I cannot share.

But Allah is. Allah is Elohim. Allah is our shared, most basic monotheistic idea of God, plain old God, garden variety God, voiced in another language. So would that make it okay? I wondered "What would Zalman do," meaning Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, who was famous for his work on deep ecumenism, doing interfaith by finding the shared kavanah behind our differing religious practices, and trying them on when the kavanah was beautiful and the form or words didn't violate basic tenets of Judaism.

So would bowing violate any basic tenets of Judaism? We Jews do have an allergy to bowing down, for sure. But it arises from being forced to bow down to human kings. We have no prohibition on bowing to God. In fact, in every service, during the aleynu prayer, we say, va'anachnu kor'im umishtachavim - we bow and prostrate ourselves, even though in this era we do so with a polite little bow and only get flat on the floor on Yom Kippur afternoon. Meanwhile, the Arabic prayers said during the prostrations would not mention Mohammad, a place where we and Muslims are different, but would only say, "Glory to my Lord, the most high," a place where we are very much the same. If articulated in Hebrew - kavod ladonai elyon - the phrase would be a completely reasonable line of Jewish liturgy.

At the service I was warmly welcomed. There was a general feeling of gratitude that other faith leaders and, I think, especially a rabbi, had not only visited to offer encouragement and support, but were joining in prayer. I was welcomed, sort of, like a long absent brother. And I kind of felt that about them too.

Finding the places where we meet: that is how we make peace. What we share. Family. Hope. Livelihood. Loss. And worship too. Yes, there have been rocky times, but Jacob and Esau reconciled, Joseph and his brothers reconciled. And Isaac and Ishmael were never estranged.

During the prayer, I mostly meditated, I davened some of our prayers in my head. Somewhere in the background was the smell of incense and lunch being cooked for the hungry worshipers. The chanting of the imam was spellbinding. And together the room bowed down. K'vod ladonai elyon. Each time we would come up from the prostrations and sit on our heels, shoulder to shoulder, Protestant minister on my left and Burmese student on my right, the room filled with Africans and Arabs and South and Southeast Asians and more Christians and Quakers from our delegation,  I would think, hineh mah tov umah na'im shevet achim gam yachad. This is what it feels like to be siblings. Nervous, uncertain, hopeful, fearful, curious, awkward. But also good. Also pleasing. And I felt blessing pouring down. Like clear oil trickling down the beard of the High Priest. Like dew seeping into parched earth. 

I am grateful to Rabbi David Evan Markus, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, David Hoffman and the Islamic Society of Santa Rosa.