This is the fourth my series of four High Holy Day sermons on the topic "What does it mean to be Jewish and American?" (see below). In this sermon, I note the sociological similarities between the historical experience of Jews in America with the experience today of Muslims in America, and I urge the Jewish community to collaborate with and support our Muslim neighbors.
The Fast We Desire: Building a Community of Peace among Jews and Muslims
A Tale of Two Jewish Doctors. A Tale of Two Religious Communities.
Hasdai ibn Shaprut was born in the year 915 in Cordoba, Spain. His father, wealthy, pious, and philanthropic, was a patron of the Cordoban Jewish community. Hasdai grew up with private tutors in Hebraic studies and languages and quickly showed his aptitude. He moved on to study Latin with Christian clergy as well as the language called Romance, a dialect of Latin spoken by many contemporary Christians and Muslims.
Hasdai, like so many Jews today, chose to become a physician, and it was his medical expertise that won him the attention of the Spanish caliph, ‘Abd ar-Rahman III.
In the ongoing palace conspiracies, countless princes, whether in power or aspiring to the throne, fell victim to the poisons of scheming harem members. In this treacherous environment, Hasdai became an instant star with his rediscovery of an ancient compound that was considered to be effective not only against poisoning but also against jaundice, snakebites, impotence, and the plague. Overnight, Hasdai joined the council of the caliph’s doctors.
In his new position of prominence, it wasn’t long before Hasdai was appointed by the caliph as the head of the Jewish community, and he served as an emissary between the Muslim south and the Christian north. In fact, when politics in the Middle East became unstable, as we still know today they are wont to do, Hasdai was instrumental in formulating friendly relations between Muslim Cordoba and Christian Byzantium.
As a personal advisor to the caliph and his queen, Hasdai wielded considerable influence, and it was from this position of power that he made first contact with Joseph, the king of the Khazars, an entire nation that had mysteriously converted to Judaism two centuries earlier.
With Hasdai playing a central role, the Andalusian Spanish community entered a new era of independence and cultural autonomy. Muslims regarded Jews as a prized community, respecting them for their loyalty, intellect, and creativity. Centuries before the so-called Golden Age of Spain, Hasdai helped forge strong bonds between the Jews of Cordoba and their non-Jewish neighbors.
Two hundred years later, Cordoba saw the birth of another promising Jewish doctor. Moses ben Maimon, later called Maimonides, was forced to flee his home when a fanatical fundamentalist Muslim dynasty invaded Spain in 1147. Maimonides eventually settled in Cairo, Egypt, under the rule of more moderate Muslims, and there he became a renowned scholar with the financial support of his brother, David.
Tragically, David’s boat capsized in 1173, leaving the forty-year-old Maimonides penniless and depressed. Forced to work for pay, Maimonides quickly became regarded as a highly effective physician. One of his clients was al-Afdal, the son and vizier of Saladin, the sultan of Egypt. Al-Afdal was a lover of rare books, a skilled military and financial administrator, a writer, and also, according to some accounts, and luckily for our hero, a hypochondriac. In 1187, when al-Afdal fell seriously ill, he had Maimonides brought into the official council of doctors. From here, Maimonides achieved world-renown both as a physician and as a Jewish leader.
Maimonides became the head of the Jewish community in Cairo, an influential position from which he impacted the entire Jewish world. He wrote a digest of all Jewish law, called the Mishneh Torah, utilizing a simple and direct form of Hebrew that served and continues to serve as a primary reference guide for Jewish life. He also composed the Moreh N’vuchim, The Guide to the Perplexed, an abstract tome written in classical Arabic that has remained a hallmark of religious and philosophical scholarship throughout the ages.
Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Moses ben Maimon: two Jewish doctors who thrived in Muslim lands and helped cultivate a lively and creative Jewish community in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Two doctors who have left a proud legacy of life and learning that continues to nourish Jews today.
Why do I share these stories? Why on this Yom Kippur do I invoke the names of these classical Jewish healers?
These famous physicians show us that there was a time when Jewish life and Muslim life were peacefully and intimately linked, and I call upon the memory of Hasdai and Maimonides as a beacon of hope for our communities today.
As you know, during these High Holy Days, I have been trying to formulate a t’shuvah, an answer, to the question: “What does it mean to be Jewish and American?”And I propose this morning that what it means to be American and Jewish is in many ways similar to what it means to be American and Muslim.
On Erev Rosh Hashannah, I discussed what it means to be a religious minority in the Christian-dominated United States.
On Rosh Hashannah morning, I discussed the intricate relationship between our civil selves and our religious selves.
And last night, on Kol Nidre, I discussed the pressing need for a commitment to peace in the Middle East.
All of these issues are salient and significant not only for American Jews, but also for American Muslims.
The connection between our peoples goes back to our common patriarch, called Avraham in Hebrew, called Ibrahim in Arabic. The connection between our peoples was powerful and influential in medieval Spain, Africa, and the Middle East. And the connection between our peoples continues even into modern history, on the shores of the New World.
As we look back on Jewish and Muslim history in this country, we can easily see that we Jews once were where Muslims are today.
Take, for example, the issue of religious leadership. One critique that has been leveled against today’s Muslim-American community is that all of their official religious leadership comes from overseas. Though there are currently seeds for a small number of modern Muslim seminaries, it remains true that every authoritative imam must come to America from outside the country. But we would do well to remember that, until Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded the Hebrew Union College in 1875, there were also no Jewish seminaries in the United States. For two hundred years, American Jews relied solely on non-American religious leadership before slowly learning to develop their own.
Look also at immigration. Muslims have been coming to America in significant numbers since a more tolerant immigration policy was adopted in 1965.  Today, Muslims make up about 1% of America’s total population.  Likewise, Jews also took advantage of liberal immigration policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and at the beginning of the 20th century, Jews made up about 1% of America’s total population.
What’s more, many of the Muslims who immigrate to America today do so as refugees, fleeing tyranny and persecution in their home countries.  So, too, did Eastern European Jews turn to the United States as a sanctuary against the repressive violence of their rulers.
The record is clear. In many ways, we once were where Muslims are today.
But today’s American Muslims face a far greater challenge than did yesterday’s American Jews. Most Jewish immigrants to the United States were of European descent, and as Europeans, Jews were easily able to integrate ethnically into the American majority. But Muslims from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa carry their ethnic distinction on the outside of their skin.
This racial difference, especially for Arabs, earns many Muslims undeserved affiliation with the terrorists who were to blame for the attacks of September 11th. Since those attacks ten years ago, a fear of Islam and a fear of Muslims has gripped this country, sinking in to its bones and growing like a cancer in its flesh.
While anti-Semitism in America has, at times, been fierce, it has never been a government-sponsored, well-worn mantra of political, social, and religious life like the fear of Islam has become. Even when many Jews faced unfounded accusations of communism during the Red Scare, America’s fear of Jews never achieved the pitch that our fear of Muslims today has reached.
So not only are Muslims often easy to identify, but when we do identify them, more often than we may care to admit, we are afraid.
Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to violence. And it is violence, not only physical violence but also political, social, and religious violence, that we as Jews are committed to prevent.
We see such violence directed at Dar Al-Hijrah, a large mosque in Falls Church, VA. For years, public opinion has linked this mosque with terrorism because two former members of the mosque were hijackers on 9/11. Dar Al-Hijrah is largely attended by conservative Muslims, but its leadership has always condemned and continues to condemn, both publicly and privately, any acts of terrorism.
We also see such violence directed at the Park 51 Community Center, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” This community center came under attack two summers ago, with allegations that Muslim Americans were unceremoniously and irresponsibly co-opting sacred American ground for the religion that gave birth to the 9/11 terrorists. In truth, Park 51 is a progressive project, committed to developing a modern American Islam that rejects the kind of religious authoritarianism that breeds fundamentalism. Park 51 embraces interfaith dialogue and seeks positive community relations, and the fact that it received so much bad press reveals a startling distrust of Muslims in the United States.
The prejudice and fear leveled at communities such as Dar Al-Hijrah and Park 51 is a pernicious form of violence.
And we must respond.
The experience of anti-Semitism in America compelled thousands of Jews to become active in the Civil Rights movement, driving them to work for a society in which individuals of all religions and ethnicities would be embraced with open arms. Many battles were fought and won during the Civil Rights Era, but today, those battles are resurfacing. American Muslims are far too often called terrorists. They are far too often derided for their religious garb, And they are far too often considered a threat to American security and American values.
Our common history with American Muslims gives us an uncommon perspective on their suffering. And it is our duty— as Americans committed to religious freedom and as Jews committed to making peace where there is strife— to lend our aid and support to the Muslim American community.
Our holiest of Holy Days, the Day of Atonement, commands us to commit ourselves to the betterment of our world, urging us to take up causes such as this one.
Our Torah reading this morning shows us the difference between evil and good, between death and life, and urges us to choose life and good, not only for ourselves but for all those we would include in our community.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us in our haftarah reading that we fast not for the sake of fasting but for the sake of remembering all of those who are in need.
And when we turn to the book of Leviticus in this afternoon’s Torah reading, we will read from the Holiness Code, which teaches us that greatest principle: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Like the prophet Jonah, we cannot escape these days unchanged, and like Jonah, each of us must bear a message of t’shuvah— of repentance, of answering, of change— to the outside world.
What can this community do? How can we dedicate our Yom Kippur fast to working for the betterment of the Muslim-American community?
I offer three possibilities.
The first is to commit ourselves to speaking with wisdom and compassion about Muslims and Islam. As the book of Proverbs teaches us, “The lips of the righteous sustain many.”
When we have occasion to speak about or consider Muslims or issues related to Islam, let us remember the common bonds between our peoples. Allah is the God of Abraham, the God whom we address in our Amidah prayer, and our Hebrew and Arabic devotions are often more similar than they are different.
We all know that there are Muslim extremists, but this tiny minority does not represent the whole. When we consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let us not label Muslims as Israel’s enemies, nor let us consider every Arab, in the Middle East or here in America, as a potential terrorist.
The way we speak about Muslims, the way we think about Muslims, can change the tenor of our communal relations.
Second, we can also reach out to Muslims in our very own community. Lynchburg is home to the Greater Lynchburg Islamic Association, a fairly new Islamic community that features regular prayer meetings, a Sunday School, and communal holiday celebrations. There are approximately 60 families that belong to this congregation on Airport Road,  and their vision is one of peace. Their community offers a message of welcoming and collaboration, as their website states:
We condemn all kinds of extremism whether practiced by people or governments around the globe! There is a greater need now than ever before to have a dialogue between different faiths. We need to unite against hatred whether it is based on race, religion or any other narrow idea. We believe in peace and love for fellow human beings.
On Rosh Hashannah, I spoke of community – perhaps this community’s circle can include, at times, the Muslims of Lynchburg who must surely feel similarly about living here as do the Jews.
Finally, I encourage every individual here to become knowledgeable and active in the national campaign to treat Muslims with equality and acceptance. In response to the attacks on the Park 51 Community Center, people of faith around the country, including many Jews, spoke out against this intolerance and contributed to a growing movement to actively seek fair and equal treatment for American Muslims.
One organization, founded by a Reform Jew and an evangelical Christian, has been working tirelessly for the past two years to safeguard Muslims’ basic rights. Religious Freedom USA speaks out against intolerance and proactively works to build better relations among Muslims and non-Muslims in America. They proclaim:
On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists took the lives of 3,000 innocent Americans. We cannot allow them to take the soul of America, too. Religious freedom is an American value that must be protected. Please join our movement and stand with the Park51 community center as part of the tolerant vision of our Founding Fathers.
The work of Religious Freedom USA is critical to today’s society. To help you learn more about their efforts, I will distribute some basic information about the organization at the conclusion of today’s service.
As Jews, we are commanded not to sit idly by while our neighbor bleeds. As Americans, we must recognize that Muslims in this country are our bleeding neighbors.
Let us therefore commit ourselves— personally, communally, and nationally— to doing what we can to give aid and support to the Muslim American community.
As we turn our eyes to the past, we may take heart in the model of peaceful coexistence in the communities of those famous physicians, Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Moses ben Maimon. We can draw inspiration from their example, and we can take heart from their successes.
Maimonides in particular has given many gifts to the world, and among them is a physician’s creed, recited throughout medieval Europe and considered today as an alternative to the Hippocratic Oath. May these words inspire each of us to work as healers, healers of the world and healers of all the world’s inhabitants:
The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all times; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.
May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.
Grant me strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend infinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.
Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today.
Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation, and now I turn unto my calling.
 All of this material, some word-for-word, is taken from Jane Gerber’s The Jews of Spain, p. 46-47.
 Called theriaca.
 All of this material, some word-for-word, is taken from Jane Gerber’s The Jews of Spain, p. 80ff.
 End citation from Gerber.
 Tweed, Thomas. “Islam in America: From African Slaves to Malcolm X.” http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/islam.htm.
 Pipes, Daniel and Khalid Durán. “Muslim Immigrants in the United States.” http://www.cis.org/articles/2002/back802.pdf.
 Sheskin, Ira M. Dashefsky, Arnold. Jewish Population in the United States, 2010. Current Jewish Population Reports. North American Jewish Data Bank. 2010: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=10190.
 “Imam serves as public face of an embattled mosque.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/imam-serves-as-public-face-of-an-embattled-mosque/2011/08/31/gIQA9vB2cK_print.html.
 Rabbi Akiva refers to this verse as a klal gadol, a “great principle” in Sifra Kedoshim, parasha 2, perek 4:12.
 Leviticus 19:18.
 Proverbs 10:21.
 “A way of life.” http://www2.newsadvance.com/lifestyles/2009/feb/01/a_way_of_life-ar-215242/.
 “Greater Lynchburg Islamic Association.” http://www.gliaweb.org/index.htm.
 Religious Freedom USA. http://religiousfreedomusa.org/about/.
 Leviticus 19:16.
 Gerber, 83-84.
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