August 10, 2009
Speech to FIANZ Islam Awareness Week launch
Dave Moskovitz, 10 August 2009
Distinguished Guests, Friends, Chevre, Brothers and Sisters – Salaam Aleikum, Shalom Aleikhem, Peace be with you, i te rangimarie ki a koutou.
Ko Hinai toku maunga, Ko Horano toku awa,
Ko Hurae toku Iwi, Ko Ahekenata toku Hapu,
I wehe oko tupuna I waihongia a Iharaira.
Ko Hara toku whaea, Ko Ihaka toku matua
Ko Rawiri, David, Daoud, Dave Moskovitz ahau;
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.
I am very honoured to be invited here today, and I find it humbling that a Jew should be invited to speak at the launch of Islam Awareness Week. This invitation speaks volumes about how far we’ve come in New Zealand, and reflects decades of hard yet delicate work by many individuals and groups who work quietly behind the scenes in order to increase interfaith understanding, cooperation, and friendship. It also reflects the growing goodwill between our communities here in Aotearoa.
I bring with me today the warm greetings of Temple Sinai expressed through our President Susan Gordon and our Rabbi Johanna Hershenson who sends her apologies today; of the Wellington Regional Jewish Council through our Chair David Zwartz; of the New Zealand Jewish Council through its President Stephen Goodman; and of the Wellington Council of Christians and Jews (of which I am Secretary) through our Co-Chair Jenny Chalmers. All of these organisations are keen to encourage positive relationships with Muslims and the Federation of Islamic Associations and its constituent organisations.
As Ahl al-Kitab, or people of the book, we share common prophets, history, narratives, and many core values. Many people believe that Allah and Elohim are one and the same God. There is much to be gained by learning more about each other and our religions, and working together to help bring about balance, justice, and peace. Those of us who are exploring and expanding our common ground find the work incredibly rewarding, and we extend our hands in welcome to others who are interested in learning more about each other, and through that process learning more about ourselves.
We have a multi-layered approach to Interfaith relations. Of course there are formal functions like this one where appointed community representatives meet. But in my experience much progress happens in a more informal setting. I’m fortunate enough to belong to a small group of about 12 people, Muslims, Christians and Jews, that gets together mostly regularly in each others’ houses for informal discussions on various topics. This year was a watershed for us in that after a couple of years of getting to know each other, and discussing topics like Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, life cycle events, food, etc – we got together in February and talked about Gaza. We were understandably a bit nervous going into the discussion, and it was hard work. We didn’t expect to agree on everything (and these expectations were met) but we did come away with a greater appreciation of each others’ perspectives, and a much better understanding of why each person held their opinions. If anything, our friendships were strengthened by the discussion, in that we valued our friendships going into the discussion, and through sincerely and sensitively listening to each others motivations and guarded thoughts, we learned a lot about each other. I came away with strong feeling of optimism that if we could do this, it would be possible for others as well, and there is hope for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East based on interpersonal relationships. We created common ground over very difficult terrain, explored it together, and came out the other side that much closer as friends.
The theme for this year’s Islam Awareness Week is “Al Mizan – finding a balance in life”. And speaking of common ground, Mizan in Arabic – balance – is virtually identical in Hebrew – Maazan. The three letter root, aleph – zayin – nun, is related to the words for “ear” (ozen) and “listen” (lehaazin). You might say that our forbears knew that in order to achieve balance, one must listen. And listening to each other is at the core of interfaith work.
Achieving a balance in life can be difficult, especially in the world we live in where we must balance family and work, individual and community, religious and secular, traditional and modern, and the myriad of conflicting demands that we bring on ourselves through fully engaging with life. At the heart of each of these choices is the inherent tension between your perception of yourself and your needs on the one hand, and on the other hand your perception of the world and the needs of others.
There is a Hassidic teaching, according to Rabbi Bunim of Pshisha, that every person should walk through life with two notes, one in each pocket. On one note should be the words, Ani afar ve‘efer-I am nothing but dust and ashes. On the other note should be the words, Bishvili nivra ha’olam-The world was created for me.
The first phrase, I am nothing but dust and ashes, comes from Genesis 18:27, when Abraham bargains with God over Soddom and Gemorrah, and he strives to put his own existence into the context of the divine.
The second phrase, the world was created for me, comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37B, which says: For this reason, a single person was created, Adam; to teach you that anyone who kills a single person, is considered as if he has killed the entire world, and anyone who sustains a single person, is considered as if he has sustained the entire world… For this reason, every person must say, the world was created for me.
We are inherently worthless, when you consider that the chemicals that make us up as humans are very common and could be purchased from the chemist for a few dollars. And yet because we have our own individual identities, we are unique and unreproducible, and at our most valuable when we are working to sustain a single person or the entire world. Certainly, the world was created for each of us, so that we could go out and make a positive impact, and work together to make the world a better place.
And this is the balance we must strike on a daily basis. The art of living is knowing which note to read in each situation: I am nothing but dust and ashes, or The world was created for me. Don’t lose heart when you realise that the “dust and ashes” message is appropriate, in that this message unites all of us with each other and with the world around us. Neither should we feel hubris when the “world was created for me” message is appropriate, in that it is a call to action to work to sustain the entire world.
These two messages, while appearing to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, are really part of a continuum, and are useful tools in helping to create balance.
From our prayerbook, The Gates of Prayer, we say: The universe whispers that all things are intertwined. Yet at times we hear the loud cry of discord. To which voice shall we listen? Although we long for harmony, we cannot close our ears to the noise of war, the rasp of hate…
If there is goodness at the heart of life, then its power, like the power of evil, is real. Which shall prevail? Moment by moment, we choose between them. If we choose rightly, and often enough, the broken fragments of our world will be restored to wholeness.
For this we need strength and help. We turn in hope, therefore, to a Power beyond us. God has many names, but God is One. God creates, God sustains, God loves, God inspires us with the hope that we can make ourselves one as God is one.
So, in seeking this balance – Maazan – let us be active listeners – Maazinim, building strong relationships with each other moment by moment, and working together as individuals and communities to build peace based on understanding and cooperation so that we can contribute to and benefit from each other and New Zealand society as a whole.
Kia ora koutou, thank you, Shalom, wa Salaam aleikum.