Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly sent his congregants a pre-Shabbat e-mail message in which he discussed the mosque. Excerpts follow.
1. This is an issue on which good people can disagree…. The key to maintaining a civil society and healthy, dynamic Jewish community is not that we should all hug each other and sing “Kumbaya” (though if that’s your thing I am totally fine with it). Rather, it is the recognition that there is a human being inside that opinion he/she is wearing and that this human being was created in the image of God just as we were. Thus, they deserve the same respect people who agree with us should get. Moreover – and this is key – we must not let the fact that others in our community, in our Reform movement, in our synagogue, disagree with us lead us to withdraw from the group, write them off, or even disengage. It is crucial that we open our ears and minds, and ultimately our hearts, to one another. It used to be the American way. It must remain the Jewish way. “Al tifros min ha’tzibbur,” Pirkei Avot pleads with us, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
2. My feelings have run the gamut from one end to the other. One reason I think good people can disagree on this is that I believe I am good and my feelings have run from annoyed (“Doesn’t the group who wants to build this mosque understand that this will upset people? Don’t they realize that they are not doing the Muslim community or the general community any favors by building a mosque near Ground Zero?”) to the paranoid (“Who’s really behind this mosque? Who’s funding it? It is bound to become a magnet for terrorists, if that isn’t the intent from the get go!”); from the righteous (“This is a free country and we must defend the rights of all to worship equally”) to the un-right-eous (“Those right-wing politicians are cynically stirring up fears to score political points for November”).
3. There are core Jewish interests at stake. Though I can respect and even empathize with almost all the views and feelings people have with regards to the building of the mosque near Ground Zero. I still believe that our history and tradition stand as a powerful guide to help us determine what is right as well as what is “good for the Jews” in this case. When it comes to the latter I strongly believe that we as a community must stand up for the religious freedom of others in this country – even when what these others do offends us. We are only a few decades away from when Jews were kept out of Tenafly, when our neighbors tried to block the building of synagogues. For many centuries the Jews in Europe were severely restricted as to when, where and how their synagogues could be built (we were to be neither seen nor heard, as we were offensive to the Christian soul). I am not saying that those who are against the mosque being built are bigots or are motivated by prejudice. Some may be so motivated, but others are not. Either way, the equal treatment of all faiths before the law must be maintained in order to prevent those who are unpopular for whatever reason from practicing as others do. There but for the grace of God go I.
4. There are core Jewish values at stake. What is the most often repeated commandment in the Torah? “Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” The “stranger” in the Torah means the “foreigner,” someone from a different group, tribe, or nation who comes to dwell among you. You must treat them, the Torah says, as equal citizens. It is most natural to be afraid of foreigners, particularly those who come from peoples who have been at war with you. There may, in fact, be people among them who are dangerous and who do intend us harm. Nevertheless, we must paint them all with the same brush, grouping the righteous with the wicked. As the Torah portion this week adjures us, “Justice, only justice shall you pursue so that you may live” – so that you may live in freedom and harmony with your fellow human beings.
May we all live in freedom and harmony – sharing our opinions openly and still loving even those with whom we disagree.