OPINION: A significant step towards friendlier Jewish-Muslim dialogue

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OPINION: A significant step towards friendlier Jewish-Muslim dialogue

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis on how he teamed up with one of the Islamic world's leading scholars to forge constructive dialogue between the religions.

The Chief Rabbi with Sheikh Bin Bayyah.
The Chief Rabbi with Sheikh Bin Bayyah.

In recent times, Jewish-Muslim relations have been exceptionally challenging. While friendly and constructive dialogue is commonplace, it has too often been overshadowed by division and conflict. However, there are clear signs that a new, positive atmosphere is emerging. My public meeting this week with Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah provided welcome evidence of this.

Sheikh Bin Bayyah, one of the foremost Islamic scholars in the world and a passionate advocate for constructive dialogue, embodies the principle that we are taught in the Ethics of the Fathers, that we must both love peace and pursue it.

At our meeting, we contemplated the similarities between some of our Jewish principles and Islamic teachings. In both traditions, we celebrate our shared Abrahamic ancestry and seek to emulate the selfless warmth, kindness and hospitality of our patriarch.

Charity is a central feature of our communal lives. The Hebrew ‘tzedakah’ and the Arabic ‘sadaqa’ are both derived from a root meaning right, just and true. Both traditions, therefore, teach that charity is not an activity deserving of praise, but rather a duty which is expected.

Similarly, just as the Hebrew word for mercy, ‘rachamim’, comes from the same root as the word ‘rechem’ meaning womb, so too, the word for mercy in in Arabic is ‘rahma’ – coming from the same root as the word ‘rahim’ also meaning womb. Both traditions, therefore, teach that the mercy we show to the most vulnerable should flow naturally like the innate care and sensitivity that a mother extends to her child.

Charity is a central feature of our communal lives. The Hebrew ‘tzedakah’ and the Arabic ‘sadaqa’ are both derived from a root meaning right, just and true.

These examples show how much our faiths have in common but there is still much ground to cover. For too long, we have been largely unknown to one another. New frameworks, whether they be the Marrakesh Declaration or the Abraham Accords, mean engagement is now possible in unprecedented ways. Harnessing this opportunity is a priority.

However, there is a further reason for better engagement and closer cooperation. It is so that we can better answer the first two questions ever posed to humankind.

The first question was asked of Adam by God in the Garden of Eden. When Adam ate from the tree of knowledge, God asked him “Where are you?” meaning, what responsibility have you taken for your life and for your future? The second question was asked of Cain after he had killed Abel: “Where is Abel your brother?” In response, Cain offered the tragic answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He had abandoned any sense of compassion or responsibility for the wellbeing of his brother.

These are the two questions that all of us must answer. First of all, where are we? What responsibility are we taking for ourselves, our families, our communities and our faith? Second, what are we doing for the sake of all others on earth? Each of us has an identity that exists for the sake of our universal aspirations. There is an urgent universal responsibility of faith communities to ensure that the moral voice of faith is heard with clarity.

Sadly, the essential voice of faith is not as loud as it should be on the big moral issues of our time, from war and humanitarian aid to climate change and our increasing reliance on artificial intelligence.

Today, somewhere in Silicon Valley, programmers are making decisions about how the algorithm in driverless cars should address life-and-death decisions that were previously made by human motorists.

Sadly, the essential voice of faith is not as loud as it should be on the big moral issues of our time

It is crucially important for communities of faith to engage in constructive dialogue to achieve peace and harmony and, in addition, to work together to bring our moral voices to bear on the essential issues of our time.

We have a long journey ahead of us towards achieving that aspiration, but I believe that the meeting with Sheikh Bin Bayyah this week represents a significant further step in the right direction.

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