Opinion Articles

Religion Can Be the Bridge Linking Jews and Muslims

Judaism and Islam are sister religions with many similarities. Nevertheless, the prevailing belief among members of both faiths is that an abyss separates them, and politically, they view one another as a threat.

Yet the overlaps between the religions, coupled with the positive attitudes toward religion in general on both sides, can be transformed into a bridge. Jewish familiarity with Islam and its principles and Muslim familiarity with Judaism, gained in the education system and other avenues, including interfaith dialogue, can build this bridge and turn these religions into a moderating, constructive forces in the ongoing conflict between their believers.

Sukkot, the holiday in which Judaism turns its gaze outward to members of other faiths, is an opportunity to set this as a goal for both Jews and Muslims.
After years of studying Torah and Jewish law in yeshiva, including getting my rabbinic ordination, I began studying and researching Islam.

A fascinating world was revealed to me.

Islam, which in the view of the Israeli man on the street begins and ends with jihad, Mecca, Al-Aqsa and the muezzin’s calls, turned out to be a world with wide horizons, rich in wisdom and holiness.

Delving into Islam was an intense intellectual experience, but the most transformative part of my studies was realizing the similarity between Judaism and Islam. I discovered that the sources, sages, principles and details of Islam are astoundingly similar to those I learned in yeshiva – a reminder of human nature is ultimately the same the world over. This experience made me change my attitude toward Islam and its adherents.

The Islamic religion, as reflected in its beliefs and its written sources, is a continuation of Judaism. The father of the Jewish nation, Abraham, is the father of the Muslims. The Koran is full of Biblical stories and characters. The patriarchs, Moses and the Biblical prophets are prophets to Muslims as well.

The principles of faith are also very similar. At the center of both religions stands belief in one God and rejection of idol worship. Both religions have similar views of God’s presence, his care for his creations and the rewards and punishments he bestows on them. Belief that the world was created is a fundamental principle of both religions, as is the way the world will be redeemed with the coming of the Messiah.

Both also have a foundational holy text – the Torah and the Koran. And in both, the interpretations of that text have become sacred as well.

But the most significant point is the similarity of the holistic religious-legal worldview in both Judaism and Islam. Both religions seek to regulate every aspect of reality, from the most marginal details of daily life to the organization of the state and the world as a whole.

Both religions organize reality through total legalization. Almost all human behavior is addressed, in either positive or negative terms. And the believer’s world is framed by a long list of commandments and prohibitions which govern his private conduct, his conduct toward his God and his conduct toward those around him: family, neighbors, business partners, community, city and country.

In both religions, this legal code brings religious law into every corner of people’s lives and gives great power to religion and religious leaders, be they muftis, rabbis or imams. They are the authorized interpreters of the sacred texts; they are the final arbiters of the believer’s most personal questions; and they (in both religions’ ideal world) influence the conduct of believers and their countries.

Therefore, in both religions, a similar religious-legal conversation has developed. One finds the same considerations in making rulings, the same efforts to cope with problems like science and modernity, the same deliberations over the loss of believers to other ideologies. In both faiths, the religious arbiters’ goal is to keep power in their own hands to the extent possible.

Yes, Islam has a potential for violence, and so does Judaism. But the similarity between the two religions can be a stable foundation for building a bridge between their adherents.

A dialogue between religious leaders and adherents of both faiths could prove fertile and meaningful. The similarities of religious language and of life within a framework of religious law could contribute to understanding and acceptance of the other among adherents of both faiths. Such interfaith dialogue already exists, but it should be expanded.

Familiarity with the other faith among members of both religions could potentially result in wider influence. Adding several introductory lessons on the “other’s” religion – Judaism or Islam – to the Israeli school curricula and ensuring religious leaders and other community figures become acquainted with members of the other faith could open the door to a change of attitude on both sides. It could also help Israeli socieity adopt a more positive, more complex and less demonic view of the other religion.

Sukkot is the time of year when Judaism notes its obligation to be responsible for members of other faiths as well. This is an opportunity to look at the Muslim other, our neighbor, who is integrated among us and constitutes part of the fabric of our lives. Familiarity with each other’s religions would undoubtedly contribute to lowering the level of hatred and alienation between Jews and Muslims and could become the link between believers of both of the faiths that dwell together in this land.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, a member of the Peres Academic Center’s law faculty and a scholar of Islamic law.

This piece was originally published in Haaretz.