December 6, 2005
Unprecedented visit of Chief Rabbi UK to home
of Muslim scholar in Washington, D.C.
By Melody Fox
The above headline almost seems lifted from some fictitious interfaith newspaper, because such an event rarely, if ever, has occurred. But on the cold but crisp and clear autumn morning after Thanksgiving Day, these words came to life at the home of Professor Akbar Ahmed. Here, on November 25th, an intimate gathering became a historic occasion and a living celebration of thanksgiving for friendships forged over seemingly drastic differences.
Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at Washington D.C.’s American University, hosted a breakfast at his family’s home in Bethesda, Maryland in honor of Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. Along with his wife, Rabbi Sacks was visiting the Ahmed home for the first time. The other distinguished guests included Bishop John Chane, the eighth Bishop of Washington and his wife; Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Senior Rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation and his family; Imam Magid of the ADAMS mosque; Dr. Haru Haisa Handa, a Japanese artist, Shinto priest, and Chancellor of the University of Cambodia; Dean Nanette Levinson of American University’s School of International Service; and Rabbi Kenneth Cohen of American University. (Clockwise from top right: Lady Sacks, Rabbi Sacks, Dr. Handa, Imam Magid, Rabbi Lustig, Bishop Chane, Rabbi Cohen, Dean Nanette Levinson.)
Rabbi Sacks is the leader of the Hebrew congregations of the United Kingdom, and is known and respected worldwide for his enlightened and forward-thinking approach to faith in the modern world. He stopped at his Muslim’s friend’s house in the midst of a packed schedule of lectures and speeches that would take him to New York City later that day. When he and his wife arrived, they sat down with Professor Ahmed and his family in the living room where the Ahmeds work, watch television, and relax. Rabbi Sacks blessed the family using the words of Abraham, the patriarch loved and revered by both Jews and Muslims. He called for wisdom, strength, and patience to continue the urgently necessary, yet difficult and even dangerous work that encouraging tolerance and bridge-building can be in times of conflict and fear. Although this is a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens daily and passions and hate run high between Muslims and Jews, the sight of Akbar Ahmed and Rabbi Sacks praying together for peace provides a strong symbol of hope for the future. Rabbi Sacks presented his latest book, “To Heal a Fractured World” to the Ahmed family, inscribing it: “To Akbar and family – a true leader of compassion and courage, in cherished friendship and great admiration, with blessings, Jonathan Sacks.”
Ahmed thanked his guests for visiting his home and sharing a meal with his family; culturally a highly personal and significant event. These leaders and scholars were not participating in another sterilized and choreographed lecture on campus or shaking hands for the cameras, but had privately come to spend time together on a holiday normally spent with family recovering from the previous day’s Thanksgiving meal. And here, at the Ahmed home, the guests were doing just that - spending their holiday together as family.
The guests enjoyed a delicious and all kosher breakfast of bagels, lox, cheese and fruits. They ate together in the sitting room, seated randomly in a casual “interfaith roundtable”: Dr. Honda next to Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Lustig next to Bishop Chane, Imam Magid to his right. The conversation flowed – a highlight was the positive and successful discussion between Dr. Handa, a senior Shinto priest, and Rabbi Sacks about the common bonds that exist between the Abrahamic and Shinto religious traditions.
Aware of the at-times incomprehensible nature of their close friendship to others, Bishop Chane, Rabbi Lustig, and Professor Ahmed discussed the background of how they met and became friends (Professor Ahmed was seated next to Amy, Rabbi Lustig’s wife, at a dinner one night. Amy then introduced Ahmed to her husband, and organized a dinner for the three at their home. The three stayed talking late into the night about what they could accomplish together, fueled by the flame born from encountering instant kindred spirits).
Each has faced opposition from their congregations, colleagues, and the general public – Bishop Chane being called a “Muslim Bishop”; and all three receiving hate mail and threats. Rabbi Sacks lauded the three “spiritual musketeers,” as they are also sometimes called, for persevering in their work in spite of the difficulties they face. (He admitted to very nearly losing his own job over his book, “The Dignity of Difference”). Rabbi Sacks praised them for showing different people how to “see each other” and become friends, referencing the biblical story of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac, who were driven apart when Ishmael and his mother were expelled into the desert. Many Jews and Muslims trace the roots of their historical antagonism to this ancient fraternal conflict, overlooking the fact that the story ends with reconciliation and forgiveness. After their separation, the two brothers peacefully came together when their father died about seventy years later (Genesis 25:9).
Bishop Chane invited Rabbi Sacks to join him in residence at Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral, where along with Rabbi Lustig and Professor Ahmed he has formed an Abrahamic Roundtable that meets regularly. American University’s Dean Levinson emphasized the importance of creating global educational ties and invited Rabbi Sacks to speak at AU.
After a morning of lively conversation, new ties formed and friendships strengthened, Rabbi Sacks drew the gathering to a thoughtful close with a story about the symbolism of “two hands joining”. In the Hebrew language, there are many words that carry a double meaning. One of these words is “fourteen”, which can also mean “friendship”. As Rabbi Sacks explained, in each of our hands, there are fourteen joints. Join two hands together, and twenty-eight joints are linked. The word for “twenty-eight” can also mean “strength”. Thus, out of two hands joined in friendship, comes true strength.
Adding to this powerful metaphor, Rabbi Sacks offered a truism summarizing the theme that continues to unite these scholars and leaders of different religions, cultures, and nationalities together, saying: “If we were all so different, we could not communicate. If we were all the same, we would have nothing to say to each other”.
As a young American committed to promoting interfaith dialogue and bridge-building, being part of this historic gathering was moving and inspiring to me on a level rarely felt before. Too often, people segregate themselves into safe worlds neatly organized by religion, color, nationality, or whatever other category is available. Stepping out of the bounds of the familiar to encounter someone different than ourselves on a deeper level often has the surprising result of showing us that the “other” is much closer and familiar than we thought. And opening ourselves to partnership has the potential to elevate our hearts and minds to accomplish far more than we could alone and limited to one world. I believe that the constant encounter with the other and the open embrace of diversity is what makes America so great, and hope that events similar to this gathering will be repeated across the world to the benefit of us all.