Feb 26, 2015

"Circle of Peace" by Michael Melchior (Feb. 22, 2015)

Circle of Peace
Michael Melchior
February 22, 2015

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.

Reporters from all over the world came to cover the emotional tribute. At the end of our prayers, we decided to hold the Havdalla ceremony marking the end of Shabbat outside, in the 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.

The event was broadcast live on television and reported in the Norwegian and Scandinavian press. I had the honor of addressing the participants and of providing the closing remarks. I chose to divide my address to the young Muslims into three parts:

First: 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.

Second : Anyone who has heard my speeches knows that I always add to them with Jewish sources. This time I made a gesture to the young Muslims by using references from the Koran. I pointed out that their actions are deeply rooted in the Koran. After the Prophet Muhammad was expelled from Mecca he came to the town of Taif, where a Christian family took him in and fed him some grapes to restore his strength. When he returned to Mecca he was still not accepted by the populace, who threatened to kill him. A family of infidels surrounded the Prophet, and the head of the family told the people of Mecca that if they wanted to kill the Prophet, they would need to kill him and his family first. In the Circle of Peace the young Muslims created on Saturday night, they continued, through their noble action, the great act that is a basis of Islam, and which the Prophet, when he rose to prominence, praised as the greatest act.

Third : 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.

Feb 23, 2015

Leadership: Always for and Sometimes Within (cross-post on HuffPost)


Leadership: Always for and Sometimes Within (cross-post on HuffPost)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Varying modes of leadership are important to identify, especially in moments of emerging need.
For a community, these transitions can include urgent financial decisions, membership growth/shrinkage, strategic professional transitions, etc. For a nation, they can include popular revolution, dramatic economic shift, international relations, and more. But in any and every setting in which a specific leadership-style is healthy and effective, it is perhaps only so in that specific moment and circumstance. The very same approach might be unhealthy in another time, another place and, in fact, many factors determine whether or not a certain leadership methodology is appropriate.
We read in the Book of Exodus of the clothing for the High Priest. Aaron was the very first in this line, his clothing both fabulous and complicated, burdensome and ornate. The instructions for the priestly clothing are intricate, including a gold headband which read "Holy to God" and a robe with pomegranate-shaped bells which sounded out with any movement. Aaron was a human being like any other, but could not move around inconspicuously. He and his descendants were servants of God, chosen from birth for a role that designated them different. We might imagine that they were hyper-aware of how they were seen by others. They were from the people, but not "of the people" in important ways.
They were not the same as their community - they stood apart.
The Torah reading Tetzaveh, toward the end of the Exodus, is unique in that it the only portion following Moses' birth in which his name does not appear. Some suggest this is due to his initial reticence at the burning bush to be God's emissary to Pharaoh, which thereby charged Aaron with a new role of Priest. The focus of the text on Aaron's clothing could, according to this reasoning, offend Moses, and so Moses' name is not mentioned, out of a sensitivity to his feelings. Their distinct roles, different models of authority and service, were, perhaps, a source of tension to which the Torah's text is sensitive.
But there is another interpretation, one which suggests that Moses' textual absence is due to the challenge he poses to God in a later moment. Incensed at the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, God commands Moses to "step aside" to allow God to destroy the Israelites and begin again with Moses. Moses steps into the breach and refuses to allow God to act, saying "You may not do this, and if You do, erase me from Your book!" God relents, but the threat has an effect and Moses' name is removed from this week's Torah portion. Moses' interconnected-ness with his people is powerfully demonstrated in his willingness to take a difficult stand in a tense situation, acting in the best interests of the people.
He is one of them, not separate, as Aaron and the priests seem to be.
Aaron is a necessary part of a community. Sometimes a religious leader must stand separate, as a symbolic exemplar, wearing her sacred purpose on her sleeve (or forehead). Sometimes a religious leader must be indistinguishable from his community, willing to be anonymous in the service of a shared cause.
It is a true ongoing test of a leader to stand always for and sometimes within their community, judging each moment and determining an appropriate response, acting with devotion and temerity, even and especially when it is uncomfortable.

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