“A Rabbi and An Imam”

An article from Washington Jewish Week by Menachem Wecker about my meeting with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield last week.

The rabbi wore a black knit kippah over his ponytail, a suit and a blue dress shirt, while the imam sported a light brown tunic and a gold, white and red kufi. But however different they appeared, when Brad Hirschfield and Johari Abdul-Malik began talking, they held hands, playfully poked fun at each other and reminisced like old friends.

The two addressed about 50 people at Busboys and Poets in the District last Thursday night in a program promoting Hirschfield’s new book, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. The event was part of Peace Cafe, an initiative launched by Busboys’ proprietor Anas “Andy” Shallal (Muslim), the Washington DC Jewish Community Center Theater J’s Ari Roth (Jewish) and Mimi Conway (Christian).

Sitting on a stage adorned with portraits of the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Hirschfield discussed a different set of role models, his childhood heroes, Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League, which he joined at 14, and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, a prominent leader of the settler movement in Israel.

[…]Hirschfield became disillusioned with the settler movement, which fights territorial compromise, when some settlers, chasing a terrorist into a school, murdered two Palestinian children who were caught in the crosshairs. He returned to New York in 1983, became an Orthodox rabbi and eventually assumed the position he now holds, president of the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

In his introduction, Johari, outreach director of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, assured the audience that he would repay the “tough questions” Hirschfield had leveled at him during a May interview on his Bridges TV show. He began by asking which Hirschfield had shown up to the lecture, to which the rabbi replied, a “seeker.”

Johari said isolating what drew Hirschfield to religion might help the religious community recruit others. “The beauty,” Hirschfield replied, is what drew him. He also argued that to understand fanaticism, one must realize fanatics are attracted to beauty, and therefore, one must help them find a sense of beauty. “Anyone who hopes to dissuade someone else from a fanatical position must first give up that hope,” he said, or else she or he runs the risk of repeating the fanatic’s error.

Hirschfield learned this lesson from the events of 9/11. “Religion had flown those planes into the Twin Towers,” he wrote in the book, “and I had practiced a form of that religion. It is the religion of … people who see no way but their own way, and treat people who do not support them as mistakes that need to be erased.”

The question period revealed the audience’s diversity. One woman, who credited a rabbi’s enthusiasm for the Sabbath with her conversion ‹ she didn’t say from what ‹ to Islam, admitted, “When I say this, a lot of people laugh.”

An Italian-American Christian, who proudly announced he belonged to a Jewish fraternity in college, asked Hirschfield what he would say if Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited him to return to Hebron to preach against fanaticism.

The rabbi responded that although “there should be no Jewish community in Hebron permanently,” he would return ‹ not to speak with one side, which is “like solving half an equation,” but only if he could go with a Palestinian leader who would recognize the problems in his own community and speak to them as well.

[…]It is important to know the fanaticism in one’s own community, Hirschfield told him, and anyone would kill a murderer or came after his or her children, and, therefore, no one is truly a pacifist.

Arlington’s Diana Schapiro, 23, said she found Hirschfield’s suggestion to consider opposing positions helpful, “but it’s not exactly a revolutionary concept. … In addition, the idea that each side has only one position is to assume that every member of each ‘side’ feels the same and that there are only two opposing views to these issues.”

Shallal was pleased with the event. “Yesterday’s turnout was above average,” he said the next day. “It showed the desire for people to hear alternative viewpoints and the title said it all. This was also the first Peace Cafe of 2008. Maybe people want to start the new year on the right foot.”

Read it all…

One Response to “A Rabbi and An Imam”

  1. […] My Washington Jewish Week story received two links: 1. Dallas Morning News Religion Blog 2. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik’s blog […]

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