Rumi Forum's blog on Hizmet, Fethullah Gulen, peacebuilding, education and interfaith efforts.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Arthur Forman: The Importance of Multi-faith understanding and the dangers of religious intolerance

The below talk was present by Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Arthur Forman, William & Mary, Feb. 3, 2013
D.Min, D.D., Rabbi Emeritus, Ohef Sholom Temple, Norfolk, VA
Founder, Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding, Old Dominion University, Norfolk
Intermittent Chaplain, Veteran’s Hospital, Hampton, Virginia

Leonardo daVinci, perhaps the most significant figure of the Italian Renaissance, told his disciples: “ the more you know of men and things, the more you love them. From great knowledge, great love springs. To know a man or a thing deeply, profoundly, inwardly, is to learn to love all human life.”

Today we know the truth of what Da Vinci taught his disciples: that knowledge of the “other” brings understanding and compassion, and that most hate springs from ignorance and fear.

Today, I want to share with you my understanding of the blossoming dialogue that is emerging here in the United States among the different faith groups, why it has been successful here, and what we each might do to foster its growth globally.

(Because of our time constraint I’m limiting my remarks to the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.)

Most of us are more familiar with Judaism and Christianity than we are with Islam. This afternoon, I would like to share a bit of my own experience with interfaith work among Christianity, Judaism and a particular facet of Islam, Turkish Islam.

In the late 1990s, after serving our community for some three decades, it became obvious to me that great accomplishments in the area of human rights and human services would in the future have to come from the impetus of our main-stream religions. In order for that to happen, I believed, that we in our respective Churches, Mosques and Synagogues, would not only have to study and know about our own faiths, but also, we would need to learn about the faiths and beliefs of our neighbors.

History has much to teach us. Allow me a few moments to catch us all up on a few key points.

Not all of the world’s religious systems have had a long-standing commitment to respecting the integrity, the worth and total value of every human being. That concept is a modern one. But neither did the ancient religions lack any manner of ethical life. They each have had some truth to speak to the world. Even the pagan world was not so morally corrupt that it was waiting only for a new revelation to teach it ethics and morality. Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Seneca, had molded the thought of the Mediterranean world long before Christianity or Islam appeared on the scene, and gave them exalted moral codes of living. But there is one thing which they did not do: their morality lacked a driving impulse; it was not dynamic. The Stoic, for example, who was a truly moral person, was content to be moral in and by himself, to lead a calm, disassociated life, and to perfect the self; he was concerned with self-culture and self-improvement. That there was evil in the world, that there was sin in the world, that there was slavery in the world, that there was poverty in the world, that other people were weak and did not have the strength that he possessed, that seemingly did not concern him. Christianity brought into that world the Jewish ideal of service, that the highest goal in life is not self-culture but human helpfulness. The Roman knew what it is to be a master, but did not know what it is to be a servant of humankind; and the Christian brought to him the Jewish message of the servant of God, that the highest type of person is not the masterful man, but the person who subjects himself, and works unceasingly for social justice and civil rights for all citizens, even for all humankind; to be a light unto the nations.

The ideals and virtues of humility, of meekness, of forgiveness, of mercy, kindness and love were not admired by the Romans. Those ideals came from Jerusalem. But it was through the channel of Christianity that these Judaic ideals entered into the world and became part of it. Christianity taught the Goths and Huns, the Franks and Saxons, the Visigoths and Teutons a new definition of civilization…that we are our brother’s keepers and we must take care of each other because we’re all we’ve got.

These were the ideals that first leaped from the lips of Isaiah and Jeremiah, from Amos and Micah, and they infused Islam through the influence, primarily of Christianity, but also through the impact of Jewish civilization on the desert Arab tribes. If our Bible today is translated into every living language and dialect, it is due primarily to Christianity. If the Jewish heroes, the spiritual giants, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, the Prophets—if they are known to the world, if they have become part of the speech and thought of mankind, it is due to Christianity, and if the basic Jewish ideal of the kingdom, the Messianic ideal, the hope that some day justice will flow over the world like a mighty stream, the hope that some day men will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, the hope that some day each person may live under his vine and under his fig tree with none to make him afraid. The hope that some day all oppression will disappear, the hope that some day each child of God will inherit his divine patrimony…if that Messianic ideal is today the goal toward which civilized peoples are moving, then it is due, to a large measure, to the work of education and teaching which the Enlightenment carried into the world, and it is due to the liberalization of religion which has both its roots and fruition in our Democratic society, here in the United States of America.

Here in America there is the bright light of hope to promote the values we hold dear. Often we find that different faith traditions hold opposing views on important issues that affect not only the specific faith community, but because those values have implications that will necessarily affect others, they also spill out into the wider community. We might not all embrace those values and ideologies. Concepts of when life begins, the role of women in religious leadership, the origin of sacred texts and their authority within our lives, the appropriateness of dissention and diversity, the legitimacy of choice and the meaning of words like marriage and truth…these are but some of the realms where our religious traditions might find conflict. And yet, here in the U.S. we have seen time and time again, that for nearly all of us, the highest value we each hold in our diverse religious communities is discovering how to live in peace and harmony together – despite our differences. Yes, we all try to get our social agenda accomplished, but we do so in an environment of mutual respect. Even when we don’t agree with one another, most of us respect each other’s fundamental right to dissent.

Over the centuries, Judaism developed the concept of Pikuak Nefesh, that the saving of a life, takes precedence over all; This means not shedding blood over ideology; saving a life is the most crucial value. Thus, in Judaism, one can even violate the holy Sabbath, or any rite or ritual to rescue a person from harm. This means that if someone burns your sacred text, you don’t respond by destroying him; If someone denigrates your Prophet or Holy figure, you don’t shed his blood. If someone engages in a behavior that your religion finds abhorrent, you don’t resolve the matter by resorting to bloodshed. There is a line in Genesis, that all 3 Abrahamic faiths are predicated upon; and that is no matter how greatly we might be annoyed by our fellowman’s behavior, we are still our brother’s keeper, and we are responsible to ameliorate that behavior without resorting to the destruction of our brother.

It is primarily here in the United States where people have learned to differ peacefully and respectfully. People have come to understand that just as it is a sacred right of a human being to work toward shared values, so too is it a sacred right to protect our fundamental differences. And in this Democratic atmosphere of greater freedom and tolerance which has come to America, and through America is exported throughout the world, Judaism, Christianity and moderate Islam are becoming more courteous to one another.

There are today, people like ourselves, Muslims, Christians and Jews, who have inherent within them the post-enlightenment liberal spirit of Democracy, tolerance and understanding which has come into the world. It does not, of course, mean that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are becoming ONE. It does not mean that all our differences, are whitewashed. All three religions retain their distinctive coloring, their characteristic emphases, and all three are giving definitive direction to their faithful ones. But it does mean that these differences need not necessarily lead to hate and antagonism. By accepting these differences in the American spirit of Democracy, adherents of these three great faiths may yet, in a spirit of helpfulness, mutual cooperation and respect, work for common ideals, and the realization of those shared goals which benefit the common good.

The way to begin this process is precisely in forums such as this, among open-minded individuals, where presentations can be made to discuss the various possibilities to support and uphold those shared human values that can bring about healing, hope, happiness, prosperity and peace among these diverse faith groups.

For years, I have spoken in Churches and Temples about this interfaith idea. Everyone seemed to agree, but each individual Church and Synagogue, because of its primary purpose in advocating its own religious orientation, initially balked at putting the idea of an Inter-faith coalition as a primary agenda item.

But, the tragedy of 9-11 made this idea ever more relevant and crucial for our very survival as a freedom-loving nation based on Jeffersonian values and the principles of our Constitution.

I’ve worked in the interfaith community all my adult life. I have very dear and special friends in all of these religious systems. We have shared the microphone both on radio and television. But it was as faculty advisor to the Turkish-Muslim Better Understanding Club of Old Dominion University, that I learned of the broader ramifications of the Rumi Forum and Turkish Islam. In that advisory position I was invited to travel to Turkey to get a first hand experience of the excellent science and math schools being built in the Middle East and Africa by the Turkish Philanthropist, Philosopher and Scholar Fetullah Gulen, a man who continues to work for open dialogue and understanding among all races, religions and ethnicities.

With the direct assistance of individual supporters and ODU Presidents Jim Cook and Roseann Runte, we created the INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH STUDIES AND INTERFAITH UNDERSTANDING. The Institute was designed to coordinate lectures, symposia and reading groups related to Jewish history and thought, as well as continue our dialogue with Christian, Muslim, and Asian faith traditions. We believed that by presenting information about the world’s religious and ethnic diversity in a University setting, through open dialogue, we would have an ever deepening understanding of one another, and perhaps even be able to set aside some of our stereotypes and prejudices. Our target groups included the students enrolled in the University and individuals and groups from all religious denominations from the community at large. We visited a variety of Churches and Temples in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

We learned that much of modern Turkish Islam is based on the philosophy and poetry of Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, a 13th century Sufi Saint, and the 20th century scholar and philosopher, Fethullah Gulen.

An outspoken advocate of dialogue, Gulen writes: (and I quote)“(We are all surrounded ) by enemies. Given this, we cannot afford to argue among ourselves. Moreover, we must temporarily forget some focal points of controversy between Christian and Jewish spiritual leaders and us, and seek dialogue with them. The uncivilized may think they will accomplish something by hitting and fighting, while noble and enlightened spirits believe they will realize their goals by thinking and talking. I pray we have left the period of brutality far behind. Victory in civilization and acceptance of truth will be accomplished through persuasion, discussion, debate and dialogue….”(end quote)

The Rumi Forum, an organization in Washington, DC, based on Gulen’s teachings and principles, recognizes and acknowledges all of the great religions, Eastern and Western, which ask the eternal human questions and seek answers to these dilemmas: As Gulen asks (with us): “Where can we find purpose and meaning in our brief days on earth?” “How can we live more in touch with what is real?” “How can we continually renew our quest for freedom, social justice, democracy and peace in an often torn and struggling world?”

The Rumi Forum emphasizes that dialogue will infuse our ethical actions, that through dialogue we will long continue to celebrate each other, so that we might see the future as an opportunity to be transformed, and to make our world worthy of redemption.

So where then is our energy to be spent if we are to encourage such dialogue?

In the 12th and 13th centuries Islam flourished; it created science and poetry, literature and art. But because there was no concomitant development in the area of modern scientific Biblical (or Koranic) higher criticism, there was backsliding and regression. As long as people remain locked in a dogmatic, authoritarian, fundamentalist position, claiming that only they have the right and correct way to God and exclusive rights to “the keys to the kingdom of heaven”, then it is almost a vain effort to propose dialogue toward mutual understanding.

Gulen’s movement, based in the Secular Government of modern Turkey, is the nearest thing we have to anything that might be called: “Liberal Islam.” Just as the Bible and the Torah have been interpreted in a modern, analytical way, thus leading to the development of Liberal Judaism and Liberal Christianity, so too must Islam, if it is to further a partnership in our Post-modern world, develop a Liberal Islam, with modern reformist ideas, addressing gender equality, human authorship of sacred texts with its accompanying fallibility, and full complement of modern religious hermeneutics to remain the vital faith that resides within its great history?

The nearest thing to Liberal Islam today, are the schools of science, math and technology that are being built around the world by the Gulen movement. This is a shining example of modern Islam in action! There are glimmers of light because of the work of Fethullah Gulen and his disciples! For example, here in America there is a movement in Islam to reclaim “jihad” as an inner personal spiritual struggle, a self-imposed battle for personal improvement, a “jihad” of the heart! “Jihad” is not to be interpreted exclusively as a physical battle, but the term has been appropriated for this exclusive negative meaning by extremists and terrorists. The word “Jihad” literally just means to struggle - and like Jacob struggling with the Angel to find his best self and his place in the world, so each of us must struggle in our quest for the divine to find the meaning we so desperately seek.

It was only in our Democratic Country that Judaism and Christianity were able to integrate science and liberal thought into their religious systems. Just as the United States originally imported liberal Christianity and liberal Judaism from Germany, then reworked them over and over again, finally exporting American Liberal, reformist, progressive Christianity and American Reform Judaism back to Europe, Israel and other lands, so it is in America that we can best foster a more Liberal Islam; and building upon the Gulen movement, encourage that faith community to share its new-found sense of openness, and consequently perhaps even influence Islam around the world.

And so we are met at this forum, in dialogue and friendship, to reaffirm those core ethical values in our own respective faiths, and to grow toward a better understanding of one another; and as one loving family, come together with the reaffirmation to heal and repair this wonderful world of potential that God has given us.

The great 12th century Jewish philosopher, Judah Halevi, in his famous text, the “Kuzari”, speaking of Christianity and also of Islam, said: “These people, these religions, are the preparation for the Messianic day which is to come. Just as a seed must break up and separate into parts in order that it might absorb the fruits of the soil; the rain and the sun, so that it might become reintegrated later on in a fruit and a flower, true to itself and its nature, so Judaism had to separate, in a sense, disintegrate, into other faiths besides itself, so that it could absorb the strength of the whole of mankind for its own ultimate growth in the fulfillment of its destiny.”

Great and eternal is the debt that these great religions owe each other. Now it is up to us to learn and to teach, to understand and to share, to speak and to show by the example of how we are living our lives, that the grand humanistic teachings of these three ancient yet modern faiths can yet be carried out, so that together, we might tap the mind of the One God of us all, and see the future as an opportunity to be transformed, and to make our world worthy of redemption!

Thank you.