‘Ramadan kareem’: Learning more about Islam, Israel’s neighbors – opinion
We would do well to recognize the importance of this period for a significant portion of the population, both in Israel and around the world.
by Yakov Nagen | April 15, 2021
People are often surprised when they see me meeting with Muslim religious leaders. How can I, as a rabbi and a “settler,” have an honest friendship with Muslim religious leaders living in Israel or the Palestinian Authority?
For me, however, it feels reasonable, even natural. The cohesiveness of our society depends on the quality of the relationships among our various sectors. In Muslim-Jewish relations, religious identity can be a divisive element, but it can also lead to respect and connection. Without wading into political issues, I firmly believe that we live in a time when greater unity between Muslims and Jews is possible if we make the decision to engage the other with mutual respect and understanding, and with appreciation of our shared religious roots.
For example, we can start by becoming familiar with the basics of the other faith, such as the fast of Ramadan, which began on April 13th. Regardless of our own particular beliefs or traditions, we would do well to recognize the importance of this period for a significant portion of the population, both in Israel and around the world.
Familiarity with the other’s religion is a two-way street. Israelis were moved recently by the story of Maher Ibrahim, a male nurse in the COVID-19 ward at Emek Medical Center, who read the Shema prayer with a dying Jewish patient. This human gesture did not take place in a vacuum. It was the result of Ibrahim’s conscious decision to learn about Judaism as part of his studies at university in order to better understand the Jewish world. As a result, the Israeli government will be honoring Ibrahim as one of the torch-bearers in this year’s Independence Day celebrations, for serving as “a symbol of and role model for Israeli fellowship, and a bridge between various communities and religious groups within our nation.”
The attention the media accorded Ibrahim’s act underscored not only the importance of familiarity with the other’s culture, but also the need to deepen this familiarity. Knowledge that is merely superficial can lead to awkward moments, as in the case of a journalist who ended an interview with Ibrahim by saying, “May God bless you,” and quickly added, “and may Allah also bless you.” “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God.
The idea that there is “our God” and “their God” is actually a pagan belief, and it fosters divisiveness rather than connection. Jewish and Muslim sources agree that we believe in the same divinity. The Koran (Sura 29:46) calls upon Muslims to tell the Jews, “Your God and our God is the same one God.” And the Jewish world accepted Maimonides’s ruling that Islam’s belief in the oneness of God is “impeccable,” a statement with practical religious ramifications.
I once heard Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal, who had served as the rabbi of the Old City, discuss the severe prohibition in Jewish law against damaging or defacing a mosque. It was clear to him that this prohibition came directly from the Torah, and did not stem from considerations of religious tolerance; rather, because Muslims pray to the same God as “ours,” a mosque is a house of prayer and must be respected.
THIS INSIGHT is crucial. If I believe that the other’s God is “another God,” then this view will divide us. Yet if I see that the other loves the same God that I love, believes in the same God that I believe in, and prays to the same God that I pray to, then this awareness will connect us.
Familiarity with the other’s circumstances and practices can have practical implications as well. MK Idit Silman had participated in a series of meetings with Muslim women and heard from them about Muslim students’ difficulties when taking matriculation exams during the fast of Ramadan. When she joined the Knesset as part of the Bayit Yehudi Party, she saw she now had the opportunity to help find ways to alleviate this challenge.
The salutation “Ramadan kareem” means “generous Ramadan.” The implication is that the month of fasting is meant to lead to a process of inner work, especially regarding how one treats others. When you have nothing to eat, pay greater attention to those who are always hungry. The Koran (Sura 2:184) says those who cannot fast must give food as charity to those who go without. In Hebron, not far from where I live, the residents still use huge, ancient copper pots to cook food for the city’s hungry for the Iftar, the feast at the end of each fast day during Ramadan. This is the significance of the salutation Ramadan kareem, and understanding this can serve as a small step toward deepening the relationship among the different religions and populations.
The Iftar provides an excellent opportunity for interreligious interaction. Several years ago I attended an Iftar that took place at the close of the Jewish fast day of the 17th of Tamuz. While Muslims end their fast at sunset, a Jewish fast ends only when stars appear, some 20 minutes later. When Sheikh Abed Salem Mansara from Nazareth noticed the discrepancy, he declared on behalf of the Muslim participants, “We will all wait for the Jews to end their fast before we begin to eat so that we can all eat together.” I saw this as a meaningful gesture of respect and understanding.
I frequently hear blatant generalizations lobbed against Muslims and their faith. If we want to live in peace in the Land of Israel, it is important for us to be familiar with Islam and our neighbors – neighbors like Maher Ibrahim – before we slip into easy stereotyping. Let us use religion to bring us closer, to promote social, economic and even political collaboration. We have far more in common than we have dividing us. We just need to open our eyes and see it.
Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.