I recently had a chance to visit Jerusalem to attend the Second Global Forum of the National Library of Israel. It was a significant event that gathered dozens of scholars from both the Jewish state and the world to discuss “the fate of secularism.” For me, it was a chance to listen to mind-opening intellectuals, hear new arguments, and feel the holy city, once again, in all its intimate majesty. It was yet another chance, also, to note the similarities between the three great Abrahamic religions of our world – especially the two most similar ones, Judaism and Islam.
One moment in the conference that struck me in that regard was a panel that gathered two different voices from Israel. One of them was Emuna Elon, a prominent Israeli author and journalist
who represents a more religious outlook on the world. In her moving speech, which included the imagination of Israel
as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, she referred to the destruction of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
“Our holy city was destroyed,” she suggested by quoting an ancient source, “because of our sins.”
Then the other panelist, Amos Oz, the world-renowned Israeli author and peace advocate, took the stage. In a criticism wrapped in kindness, he offered his version of what happened to Jews 2,000 years ago. “Jerusalem was destroyed not because of Jewish sins, but Jewish fanatics,” he said. “And if it will be destroyed again, it will again be because of Jewish fanatics.”
I loved this panel, and also thought that we could have the exact same discussion among Muslims. We could hear, in other words, Muslim voices saying that the calamities that hit the umma in the past two centuries were God’s punishment for our sins. The solution, they would add, lies in going back to piety. On the other hand, we could hear Muslims arguing, just like Amos Oz, that our problems are created by our fanatics. The solution, they would add, lies in opening up our minds and going back to reasonableness.
These would be, roughly, the “fundamentalist” versus “reformist” views within Islam. (To complicate the matter, I could suggest that maybe God is indeed active in history, as the fundamentalists suggest, but what He is punishing is our fanaticism, as the reformists argue. But that is a whole different discussion.)
What I took from that panel was that intra-Jewish discussions are not too different from intra-Muslim discussions. This is something, in fact, I have noticed for quite a while and have been keenly observing. I follow the news from Israel
about religion and society, and see so many familiar disputes. How are women supposed to participate in public life? Well, some believe that the government should impose “modesty guidelines” to make sure that they are properly dressed. Or what are we supposed to do with homosexuals?
Ugh, a conservative rabbi comes out and says that according to Jewish law, they should be executed.
Such debates also take place in many Muslim societies, and there is a good reason for this: Both Judaism and Islam are “law-based” religions. And their legal traditions, the Halakhah and the Shariah, respectively, include many dictates that do not accord well with modern liberal values. Whether to condemn those values, or to reinterpret the tradition, is a major question both religions have faced in the modern era. That is why they can, and they should, learn from each other’s experience.