Friday, February 27, 2015

Oslo Synagogue Muslim Peace Ring - Gestures and Garments - Tetzaveh

The shame of some Muslims’ hate, it has been disapprovingly claimed, ‘was being covered up this week by inspiring media reports of a circle of Muslims protecting a synagogue in Oslo’ (1). This heart-warming and graceful gesture followed the murder of a Jewish volunteer guard in Copenhagen by a Muslim extremist. An eye witness account by a Rabbi who participated in this event described his moving experience of the circle of peace. It was “initiated by Muslim teenagers to convey the message to terrorists that if they want to harm the Jewish community in Oslo, they would have to go through them first (2)”. However, initial glowing reports were followed by articles and comments that questioned the number of Muslims and the value of the gesture.

The critics are wrong. Three different first person accounts confirm that Muslims turned out in very large numbers for this event (3). The critics also fail to account for the power of ‘gracious spectacles’ to create reality, or what might be termed the spiritual qualities of mere garments.

The backlash against the Oslo ring of Muslims who stood around a Synagogue is ironic. Late last year
I joined Christians and a small group of Jews from the inner-West Chavura in a gesture of solidarity with Muslims on the steps of Lakemba Mosque. One critical Jewish leader asked when Muslims would come to a Synagogue to reciprocate the gesture. Now that it has happened, it is not considered good enough. The fact that one of the organisers, Ali Chishti, had expressed anti-Jewish sentiments some years earlier, in 2008, was trotted out.  However, at the peace ring event, Chishti apologised for his hateful words against Jews demonstrating the potential for haters to change.

These gestures are more than a commitment to coexistence - they also contribute to the construction of a reality of togetherness. This reinforced reality counters the extremist narrative of hate and the broader “us & them” perspective. It is not good enough to be peace loving in our hearts, although that is ultimately what matters. Yet, there is power in the spectacles of peace in the long hard battle for hearts and minds to embrace diversity and reject hate.

External appearances matter. Adam and Eve’s dignity was restored after they ate forbidden fruit, having been provided with clothing by God himself (4). The text speaks of clothing made of hide (Or,- עורin Hebrew), perhaps that of the serpent (5), however, the Midrash renders it as clothing of light (אור Also pronounced Or, but spelled with the letter Alef instead of an Ayin) (6). The word “naked”, carries connotations of shame and is used figuratively to refer to the feeling of being emotionally exposed.

In the Torah reading this week we have specific divine instructions relating to garments of “honour and glory” (7) to be worn by the priests. These garments are to be made in order to sanctify Aaron and to turn him into a priest (8). The garments themselves brought atonement for sins, the hat for arrogance, etc. (9). Our sages go so far as to say that “for all the time that their garments are upon them, their priesthood is upon them and their holiness endures in them, (but if) their garments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them (either) (10).  Appearances can create reality!

The importance of “clothes” in its various forms is contested. One scholar suggests that “in truth” the clothes of the priests merely point to the “inner garments that the priests of God need to dress their souls with, that is the ideas, emotions and good dispositions which are the garments of the soul” (11). Perhaps the interplay between the external garment or gesture and the inner reality it relates to reinforce each other (12). A gesture is meaningless if there is nothing in the heart for it to express, a fancy tie only helps express the gravitas of a person of some accomplishment; however positive sentiments and integrity are reinforced by an elegant expression. This has been accomplished in Oslo and has been rightly celebrated as one significant step on the long journey to peace. 


1) is one example of the negative commentary, whose assumptions about attendance and interpretation of the event vary greatly with three eye witness accounts I have reach such as the one in footnote 2.
(2) Here is an abbreviated first person account by Rabbi Michael Melichior who participated in this event, shared by him on Facebook 23.02.2015, Circle of Peace:  As Shabbat ended yesterday evening, all us attending synagogue in Oslo that day had a very moving experience. A group of eight Muslim teenagers decided to ignore their fears, to show contempt for prejudice, to put aside all the pressures and previous notions they may have held and to take action following the terror attack in Copenhagen.

The young Muslims encircled the synagogue, in which we were praying with a human chain in order to convey the message to terrorists that if they want to harm the Jewish community in Oslo, they would have to go through them first. These young people created a Facebook group entitled, "Circle of Peace" in which they invited Muslims to join the initiative. Contrary to the expectations of all the skeptics and people "in the know", their Facebook call was shared by hundreds of Muslims, and as I left the house and was walking to evening prayers at the synagogue, some 1,400 Muslims, mostly young people, had already collected along the narrow street….

… I explained to those gathered that we want to spread the scent of Shabbat, the day of rest and peace, into the remainder of the week and to also spread the special scent of this historic moment in order to establish a new reality together.

One after another, in the freezing cold, the youngsters from the organizing group stood up and called on their brethren to take back ownership of Islam. That out of faithfulness to Islam, they are saying NO to anti-Semitism, as well as NO to Islamophobia and YES to building a shared society. Such a simple, accurate and true message. Each and every one spoke in the name of Allah the Merciful and Compassionate and it was clear they really meant it.

I had the honor of addressing the participants and of providing the closing remarks...

“Exactly one week earlier, Oslo's sister community in Copenhagen was gathered to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of the young girl, Hannah Bentov. The murderous perpetrator, who intended to create a bloodbath, managed to murder only the guard at the gate, Dan Uzan. After the funeral, I visited the parents of Dan and told them about the planned initiative of the young Muslims in Norway. With tears streaming down his face, Mordechai, Dan's father stood, embraced me in a tight hug and told me that this was the first time he had managed to find meaning in the brutal death of his son. Perhaps because of young Muslims in Norway, Dan's death would not be in vain. Maybe we'll be able to isolate the evil and we can join hands to build a better world. I promised to pass Mordechai's message to the young Muslims and so I did.

…Their circle is a circle of peace, brotherhood, love and solidarity, formed to protect a house of prayer, a Jewish kindergarten and a Jewish nursing home. Their circle is actually breaking a different circle, which is a cycle of fear and hatred that leads to bloodshed and murder.

I concluded, to the sound of their applause, that as a believer, I share their belief in Allahu Akbar - that G-d, in His Greatness alone, is present in every space throughout the world. And that in particular, He is present in the space between their moving circle and us Jews. For, where there is humanity, Allah wants to be more than anywhere else in the world.

(3) Part of the controversy was fuelled by photos in the media of a small number of Muslims standing holding hands.  This was used as proof that only a small number of Muslims actually attended. The real story is as follows:
a) The Synagogue is part of city block. It was impractical to circle the synagogue which is why a few people stood in front of it to symbolise the ring of peace. 
b) As witness Jude Rose stated “At the behest of the Synagogue's security people, the organisers of the event agreed that they would let about 20 mainly young Muslims inside the Synagogue's security perimeter. Those 20 symbolised the other 1300 attendants who filled the street. Look at the Rabbi's picture, taken from the Synagogue's forecourt..”
c) See previous footnote
(4) Genesis 3:21,
(5) Pirkey DRabbi Eliezer 20, cited in Torah Shlaima Bereshis Chapter 3, p.286, note 183
(6)  Beresheer Rabba 20, highlighted by Benno Jacobs, cited in Leibovitz, N., New Studies in the weekly Sidra, Shemot, Exodus, p. 529
(7)  Exodus 28:2
(8)  Exodus 28:3, see Rashi, “to sanctify him, to bring him into the priesthood through the garments that he should become a Cohen/Priest”
(9)  Chizkuni, the trousers bring atonement for sexual sins, the tunic with its noisy bells for evil speech or gossip, the plate on the forehead atones for brazenness etc. 
(10)  Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima Exdodus, Tetzave, p.157, note 24

(11)  Malbim Exodus on 28:2, Malbim differentiates between the physical clothing made by the craftsmen and the inner garments that Moses himself is commanded to make for Aaron his brother in this verse
(12)  The Lubavticher Rebbe Likutei Sichos vol. 36, p. 159, comments on the symbolism of the very long belt that the Kohanim would wear. He sees its purpose as the Kohen following the principle of “prepare yourself toward your God, oh Israel” (Amos 4:12), as a finishing touch to the garments. He links this to our own service of God and the need to prepare ourselves more generally through being humble (or more specifically the concept of Bittul which is translated as “nullifying ourselves”) before God. The belt was 32 cubits or arms lengths long, it was tied around and around the Kohen’s body, this process is symbolic of the need to humble ourselves before and give ourselves to God is a an on-going process rather than a once off. Chasidic texts link the belt to the level of the soul known  as Yechida, unity or unified, linked to  becoming one with God.


  1. Wonderful post but the footnotes gave me pause. A 32 cubit long belt? It must be tough being a Kohen ;)

    1. thanks Gary, the long belt's weight might have helped him stay aware of his role and need for sanctity.