A Mosque at Ground Zero and Rabbi Hillel

This is my Friday night Sermon on the Mosque at Ground Zero controversy.

Shabbat Shalom

Perhaps the greatest principle in the Torah: Is Love your neighbor as yourself.   ואהבת לרעך כמוך Vahavata L’reyacha Kamocha.  It is so important that we read this passage on Yom Kippur.  It reminds us of our duties to our fellow human beings.

You all know the very famous story from the Talmud: (Shabbat 31a):

A certain gentile came to Rabbi Shammai and said: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.  Rabbi Shammai was incensed and repulsed him with a builder’s cubit that was in his hand.  When he went before Rabbi Hillel, he said to him “What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; now go and learn it.

The Talmud comes to teach us and build upon the Torah principle of Loving our neighbor.  A simple truth you know how you would like to be treated and how you don’t like to be treated.  Therefore—don’t do what is hateful to your neighbor.  And that is the essence of our faith.  Not love God, not bring sacrifices, not say a lot of prayers.  The essence of our religion.  The essence of Judaism is according to Rabbi Hillel—What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is but commentary.

We know how we are supposed to act. We don’t really need someone to tell us.  Why?  Because we know how it feels.  We know when a line has been crossed. We intrinsically know is in part what the good Rabbi Hillel is telling us.  We don’t even need a list of mitzvot to tell us how to act.  We ought to know.

And so it is with our neighbors then in Talmudic times and with our neighbors today.  We ought to know when we have crossed a line.

In recent weeks and days a line has been crossed.  Some in America have been treating our neighbors in a hateful way.

Islamophobia has reared its ugly head.  All over our country people are talking about a Muslims in increasingly hateful tones.  The commotion and questions that have been raised over the Cordoba Initiative’s plan to build a Muslim Community Center in lower Manhattan is something we in the Jewish community should be ashamed of.  And the ADL – the Anti-Defamation League—our own Jewish organization that fights Jewish discrimination was among those to add fuel to the the fires of hatred.

The Cordoba Initiative is an organization that seeks to build ties between the Muslim World and the West.  Its board has both Christians and Jews that sit on it.  This group has sought to build a community center that would also contain a small mosque in a neighborhood two blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center—known as Ground Zero.

Some have said that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero—since the perpetrators of 9/11 were Muslim extremists is an affront to those who died.  That is what the ADL said.  Not that the Cordoba Initiative group shouldn’t build a center. But build it elsewhere.   That still is hateful and hurtful.  Are we painting all Muslims with the broad stroke of extremism?  That’s like saying all Jews want to oppress women and want to settle in the West Bank.

The group that wants to build the community center (which includes basketball courts and meeting rooms—just like a Jewish community center) is a group that is dedicated to interfaith activities.  The Imam Abdul Feisel Rauf is very active in interfaith activities in New York.  He travels on behalf of our State Department building bridges between the U.S. and the Muslim world.  Rauf is no Wahabist-which is the one of the fundamentalist forms of Islam most responsible for the madrassas – the ultra religious schools that taught the terrorists.  Rauf is a Sufi—from the branch of mystical Islam known for its teachings of peace. Much of Sufism is similar to the teachings of our own Kabbalah-that focuses on the unification of the Divine Name. There is even a debate among many practitioners of Islam as to whether or not Sufism can even be called Islam.

But it is our ignorance of Islam that fuels this debate.  This is being seized on as a way to continue to drum up fear.  Play on our National In-securities.  Play on the notion that there are strangers in our midst that would do us harm rather than Americans who practice Islam as their faith.

Many Republican leaders and even Democratic Harry Reid of Nevada have opposed the Center as did the ADL and in particular the mosque as an affront to the memories of those victims of 9/11 as if all of Islam is indicted because the hijackers were fundamentalist Islamists.

Some people have turned this issue into a political football-dragging the president in as well. Who first spoke for it then he back tracked.

But this is not how we treat neighbors. And the language that is being used about Islam is often hateful and spiteful and yes, ignorant.  We can differentiate between different kinds of Christians but are we so ignorant of Islam that we cannot make any distinctions there?  We have to paint all with the brush of terrorism and fundamentalism?

In this week when the last American combat troops left Iraq on Wednesday, you would think that we might have learned something in these years of being surrounded by Muslims.  Of fighting for democracy in a Muslim country.   You would think that even as our troops are still in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-more radical fundamentalists—that we might be able to show our own good will to our Islamic American brothers and sisters who want to and do engage in interfaith dialogue and peace.

As Jews we ought to know better.  We know what it is like to be the outcasts of society. To have someone suspicious of our religion.  Because we are more accepted now—should we turn and do this to our neighbors?  This is an opportunity to build bridges and extend our hands as neighbors.  This is a chance to live out the Torah’s highest ideals—Love our neighbor as ourselves.

Will we agree with everything with our Muslim neighbors—most likely not. But I do not agree with my Catholic neighbors and Episcopal neighbors on every issue either.  But I can learn to treat them all with respect and dignity and remember to treat them as I would want to be treated.

The memories of those who perished at the World Trade Center are not diminished by the building of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.  I believe their memories are honored. For we live in a Country that celebrates Freedom of Religion and Free Speech.  These are our American ideals—and they are our patriots who died because America stands for these values. Those that murdered the 3000 plus victims of the World Trade Center on 9/11 that fateful day struck the Twin Towers because we as a country stand for those values and terrorists hate those values.

I am ashamed that some in our country want to diminish those values for others.
So let us learn from our Torah and from Rabbi Hillel—Do not do to others what is hateful to you.  And Love your neighbor as yourself.

4 thoughts on “A Mosque at Ground Zero and Rabbi Hillel

  1. Thanks for providing a rational viewpoint on what has clearly become a simplistic and politically driven alarmist diatribe against the entirety of Islam. It is the reponsibility of educated people to expose the truths behind the hysteria.

  2. I certainly counted myself as part of the nearly 70% of the country who opposed the construction of this center near Ground Zero. As a 4th generation New Yorker and someone who lost classmates and friends on 9/11, I still harbor a sense of anger and disgust at the perpetrators of that cowardly terrorist attack nine years ago. But after viewing this situation through the Hillel “ethic of reciprocity,” the so-called “golden rule” as you presented it last night, I am definitely forced to reconsider my original position. As Jews, we do have the obligation of tikkun olam–repairing the world, and part of that repair work definitely includes the eradication of baseless and senseless hatred, misconception and broad-brush prejudice. Ken Yehi Ratzon!

  3. Well said. The controversy over the Cordoba Initiative is truly frightening. During these difficult economic times, it is easy to scapegoat minority groups. There are clearly politicians who using fear and anger to divide us and to promote themselves.

  4. Well said. The controversy over the Cordoba Initiative is truly frightening. During these difficult economic times, it is easy to scapegoat minority groups. There are clearly politicians who using fear and anger to divide us and to promote themselves.

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