Friday, December 14, 2018

Br/others? Chanukah in Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem

A cheap white plastic ritual washing cup (Kvort in my mother tongue, yiddish) with two handles stirred strong emotions in me. Really. I felt that I was home among my people. The feeling surprised me. It confronted me with the challenge I still face, of navigating otherness and insular identities. The Jewish festival of Chanukah is a good time to grapple with this topic. 

Muslim Washing Stations (Wudu) at Sheik Zayed
Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Jewish Ritual Washing Cup, (Kvort),
at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
I spent the first two nights of Chanukah with my Jewish community at home in Sydney. I danced with my two youngest children after lighting candles. We sang about God's miracles in delivering victory to the Jews in their struggle to stand spiritually apart. It was a triumph over an empire that tried to coerce the Jews to assimilate into the dominant Hellenistic way of life. While different Jews will have their own approaches to Chanukah, according to my Chabad traditions, Chanukah celebrates the concept of the Jews as a nation who “dwelled alone” (1). 
Shaykh Abdulla Bin Bayyah seated, with Shaykh
Hamza Yusuf, Rabbis including Mark Lustig, David
Rosen and Zalman Kastel, Lighting Chanukah
Candles. Photo by Peter Sanders

On the third night of Chanukah I found myself on my first visit to an Arab country, Abu Dhabi. I was there to participate in the Forum for Peace in Islamic Societies, which was initiated by an Islamic authority, Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. Delegates at the Forum included many Muslim leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the US. Alongside these leaders were a number of Christian and Jewish leaders. The diversity of the participants reflected the aim of the conference: advancing an alliance of virtue between people of different faiths (2).

A highlight for me at the forum was when Shaykh Bin Bayyah joined me and the other Jewish delegates as I lit my Chanukah oil lamp. He was genuinely very warm in his conversation with us. I was deeply moved by the significance of the moment and the togetherness it represented. 

The interfaith candle lighting moment reflected the inclusive spirit of the forum as a whole. Nearly every panel had Jewish and Christian panelists alongside Muslim scholars. Kosher food was brought in from neighbouring Dubai. Still, communal Jewish morning prayers there provided an opportunity for me to sing the Hallel prayer together with members of my “tribe” alone. 

Loyalty to one’s “tribe” is a significant factor in how we live our lives. One speaker at the Forum, Rabbi Dr Reuven Firestone, recalled how early Islam taught people a universal approach to justice that could override tribal loyalties where appropriate. The challenge now is to apply this approach to overcome unconditional solidarity on the basis of religion, or as expressed in identity politics. 

Another speaker, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani of the Fiqh council, Karachi, Pakistan, offered conference delegates a more technical legal approach that does not rely on transcending those ties, instead it emphasises obligations to one’s neighbours and fellow citizens. “There is an implicit pact between Muslims and non Muslims, wherever they live alongside each other, not to cause harm to each other. Violation of that implicit pact is a sin”. A Yazidi delegate man at the forum, pleaded for this principle to be applied in Northern Iraq so his people don’t live in fear and will not need to emigrate. “We are peaceful people” he declared. 

The bar set by the Mufti is not very high but it is a critical minimum. The forum usefully addressed coexistence at a range of levels. On one hand it openly confronted the problem of violent extremism on one end of the spectrum but Shaykh Bin Bayyah also called for the highest ideals of loving the stranger, quoting the Torah (3). In fact, he pointed out, the Arabic word for brother is almost exactly the same word as the one meaning other. What's amazing is that he said this in Arabic and it also works in English and Hebrew:
- Brother = Akh أخ
- Other = Akhr آخر. 
In Hebrew, Akh - אח and Akher - אחר.  

The combined message of striving for a ideal of togetherness while insisting that at least we do not harm each other is realistic and useful.

My time in Abu Dhabi wrapped up with a visit to the massive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with a Palestinian- Australian friend. From there I was back on a plane to a land very precious to both my friend and me.

I spent the final days of Chanukah with my son who is studying Torah in the Holy land of Israel. During my visit there was one more little identity conflict to deal with. I'm of Eastern European Yiddish heritage. On Chanukah “my people” eat Latkes, a kind of fried potato pancakes. But the Israelis have jam doughnut as their Chanukah food. Only partly in jest, my son and I engaged in a Latke hunt across Jerusalem, peering into numerous shop windows in the old city, only to see falafel and endless sugary doughnuts. We went to the ultra-religious area of Meah Shearim, but the elusive Latke could not be found. So we went to the yiddish speaking area of Geulah and bingo! The Latke search yielded two delicious oily specimens. I was with “my people” at last. 

Together and alone. As the great teaching by Hillel puts it. “If I am not for myself [my community] who will be there for me? But  if I am only for myself [and my kind] what am I? (4). As I reflect on my trip, I am grateful for the inspiration from the Muslim Imams, their hospitality and goodwill. I carry with me photos and memories of marble ritual washing stations in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Yet, I continued to feel a sense of home when looking at a cheap white plastic Jewish ritual washing cup. 


1) Numbers 23:9
2) This practical problem solving focus has been endorsed by Rabbi JB Soloveitchik in his essay, Confrontation, and chabad Rabbis I have discussed it with. It is also at the heart of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, the Home We Build Together. 
3) Leviticus 19:34
4) Pirkey Avot, 1:14