My talk at the Muslim Jewish Forum's event for the UK's Interfaith Week 2020
Presented 15 November 2020. Posted 21 November 2020
I am Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. We were recently asked if the Forum would be organising an event to mark Interfaith Week 2020.
I suggested to my colleagues an event with the title "What I like about Religion X," and having each speaker say what they liked about a religion other than their own.
When the Executive Committee readily concurred, I used "first mover advantage" to say that I would like to talk about Judaism. I picked Judaism because it is the religion that is closest to Islam, as explained in my piece "Triangulating the Islamic Faiths."
The Muslim Jewish Forum event held on 15 November 2020 was recorded and all the talks can be watched on the Forum's website page "What I like about Religion X." I have also reproduced my own talk below.
I was speaking from a prepared text, which I have edited to match what I say in the video.
In my early 20s, when I was at university, I read the whole of the Hebrew Bible. Obviously in English translation.
I also read a book I have never forgotten. “This Is My God” by Herman Wouk, who is famous for being the author of “The Caine Mutiny.” He was an Orthodox Jew. I have been a great admirer of Judaism ever since those days.
I want you to imagine the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, roughly 3,000 years ago. In that small region were many different peoples, speaking different languages, with many different gods.
Gods of stone, of wood, of metal. Gods who struggled against each other. They had names like Baal, Dagon and Ishtar. Names that are long forgotten, just as the people who worshiped them have also disappeared.
Living amongst these peoples was a very peculiar collection of tribes, called the Israelites. Their God could not be seen. He could not be represented in any way. Their God’s name was so sacred that it could not be spoken by the people.
Their religion is still with us today and is now called Judaism. It has two historical offshoots Christianity and Islam. Combined, those three are the religions of most of mankind.
The Israelites recorded their history and law in sacred books.
They traced their history continuously from the beginning of the world.
The Hebrew Bible is full of wonderful stories.
Stories told in words so powerful that they still inspire us today.
Think of Abraham.
God spoke to a 75-year-old man called Abram and told him to leave his country, leave all his relatives, and go to a new land which God promised him. God promised Abram that He would make his descendants into a great nation and that in Abram all the families of the Earth be blessed. His name was changed from Abram to Abraham.
Today Abraham is revered worldwide, seen as the ancestor of both the Jews and the Arabs.
Think of Ruth.
She was a young widow from the pagan Moabite people. Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, was an Israelite who had gone to live in Moab. After the deaths of her husband, and of both her sons, Naomi decided to return to her own country.
Ruth refused to let the elderly Naomi return alone. Ruth said to Naomi:
“Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried.”
God rewarded Ruth for her loyalty with a new husband, and made her the ancestor of King David, and the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth.
Living today in the Hebrew Bible are the stories and words of the great prophets. I’m going to mention just two of them.
Isaiah, whose words about the future promised by God are of such power that they are inscribed on the wall outside the United Nations Building in New York City:
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more."
The centre of the Israelites faith was the Temple built in Jerusalem. This was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire and then rebuilt eventually on an even grander scale.
After their revolts against the Romans were crushed, this second Temple was also destroyed. All that remains are the Western Wall, which is the holiest place in Judaism, and the surface of the Temple Mount paved in stones, where you will find the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The Romans expelled all Jews from Jerusalem. For the next 2,000 years, both in the Roman Empire, and in Christian Europe, and in the Muslim Middle East, Jews lived as a minority.
The people and the religion did not disappear. Many great rabbis reformed the religion so that it could continue without a temple for sacrifice.
Instead of a temple, the heart of the religion became the synagogue for worship and the yeshiva for religious studies. Judaism as a religion became associated with study and learning, best evidenced by the records of religious thinking and analysis you can find in the Talmud. The word Rabbi itself means “teacher,” someone who can teach Judaism.
The names of some of these rabbis live on 2,000 years later.
Rabbi Hillel was asked by a man if he could explain the whole of the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied:
"That which is hateful to you,
do not do to your fellow.
That is the whole Torah;
the rest is the explanation; go and learn."
It is Judaism the religion that has held the Jewish people together through 2,000 years of living as a minority.
From the outside, Judaism can look like a very complicated religion. There are so many rules you have to follow. Ask a Rabbi, and he will tell you that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. However, as Rabbi Hillel demonstrated, there is a simple underlying message throughout the Torah.
I don’t have any pretensions about comparing myself with Rabbi Hillel. But I have my own way of summarising the theology of Judaism.
God tells you what it means to be a good person. Your duty is to fulfil that.
When attending Jewish religious services, I have never found anything in the prayers that I could not support with all my heart. I don’t see any meaningful distinction between how Islam understands God and how Judaism understands God.
That’s what I like about Judaism.