Sunday, July 1, 2012

Good for the Jews?

In May, Congregation Kol Ami was the starting point for an “Abraham Path” walk, organized by the Southern Tier Interfaith Coalition. About 50 people of all ages and various faiths walked from CKA to The Park Church and back, and then carpooled to the Islamic Center in Big Flats for a meal and a presentation.

An Abraham Path walk recognizes Abraham and Sarah as the common spiritual ancestors of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The original idea is for groups of people to walk parts of the actual route that Abraham and Sarah would have taken from Ur, to Haran, and then to the Land of Israel. Think of Bruce Feiler’s book Walking the Bible, but with interfaith groups. The route passes through remote areas of several countries and is becoming an important source of tourism in those areas.

An alternative, for those who can’t travel to the Middle East or walk for weeks on end, is to walk a local route that includes a synagogue, a church, and a mosque. Even that is difficult here: there are plenty of churches within walking distance of either the synagogue or the mosque, but CKA and the Islamic Center are seven miles apart, with no safe walking route between them.

A confirmation class from the Caton Methodist Church arrived early with Rev. Beth Bouwens for a tour of CKA. In addition to pointing out the artifacts in the large sanctuary that would be found in any synagogue, I explained how the stained-glass windows depict the Jewish holidays in calendar sequence, plus Shabbat. Then I took out a sefer Torah, explained how one is written and how the reading is done, and invited everyone to take a close look.

As we were finishing, a group from the Islamic Association of the Finger Lakes arrived with Imam Zaman Marwat and I repeated the lesson for them. How often has a group of Muslims been invited to the bimah of a synagogue to examine the Torah scroll, here or anywhere?

As we talked, both on the bimah and during the walk, I was struck by the similarities between Jewish and Muslim practices.

To begin, we both have holy books written in a language that most of us have to learn in school (A majority of the world’s Muslims live in countries in which Arabic is not the vernacular.) Furthermore, both the Torah and the Koran were originally written in forms of Hebrew and Arabic that even native speakers of the modern forms of those languages can’t necessarily read easily. We’re both supposed to pray together several times a day—three for Jews, five for Muslims—but not all of us do so. And we both have traditions of chanting our sacred texts according to fixed melodies that aren’t indicated in the texts themselves.

We have special dietary rules that no one else follows. Furthermore, the rules of kashrut and of halal are very similar. At Mt. Holyoke College, there’s a dining hall in which all the food is both kosher and halal.

The similarities should not completely surprise us. Both rabbinic Judaism (the modern, not Biblical, form) and Islam originated in the Middle East and in about the same period. Our rabbis completed the writing of the Talmud only shortly before the composition of the Koran.

Through much of history, Jews and Muslims got along better than either did with Christians. In the Middle Ages, Jews living in Muslim countries had it better than those living in Christian countries.

A few days after our Abraham Path walk, Kansas enacted a law intended to preclude the use of Muslim religious law—sharia—in that state, not that anyone has attempted to impose it. Unlike an Oklahoma law that has already been set aside by a Federal court, the Kansas law does not specifically bar sharia. Instead, it bans the use of any law not originating in the United States. As a result, it is possible that it will meet Constitutional tests and be allowed to stand.

This should concern us because it would also preclude the use of Jewish rabbinic law. Although communities like ours convene a bet din, a rabbinic court, only to formalize conversions to Judaism, Orthodox communities also use a bet din to resolve disputes between their own members.

In New York, the decision of a bet din can, if necessary, be enforced in a civil court. That’s possible because a bet din constitutes a form of binding arbitration: it will only hear a case if both parties consent and if both promise to abide by the decision. That apparently won’t be possible in Kansas. How many Orthodox Jews are there in Kansas? More than you might think, because most of the Jewish community of Kansas City lives in the Kansas suburbs, not in Missouri. There’s a thriving Orthodox community in Overland Park.

Numbers, however, aren’t the point. We tend to ask about anything, “Is it good for the Jews?” Although the Kansas legislators expressed no fear that there would ever be an attempt to impose halachah—Jewish law—on the populace, civil laws intended to prevent the use of religious law even by adherents willing to abide by it are not good for Jews.