Celebrating our Common Cultural Heritage
By Akbar Ahmed
Religion News Service
June 18, 2003 – Early this spring, M. Bruce Lustig, the senior rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, invited me and my family and a few Muslim friends to share a special interfaith Passover Seder with members and clergy of the congregation.
He said it would be “unique interfaith Freedom Seder” emphasizing “the universal struggle for freedom and human dignity.”
Lustig said he believed we could “make an important contribution to better understanding in our community” in the warm and intimate setting of breaking bread (matzo) and sharing the songs and words of hope and faith, personal fellowship and camaraderie.”
This would be my first Seder. I had asked several distinguished Muslims to join me, including Hatem Atallah, the Tunisian ambassador. We had come to know and admire the rabbi and we were looking forward to the occasion.
Shortly before driving to the synagogue I addressed the leading ulema –orthodox Muslim leaders — from India. They were guests of the State Department and in my talk at American University I let them know I had to rush to another appointment.
But during my talk I raised the question of interfaith dialogue. Did they believe in it? They said they strongly supported it. Had they ever been to a synagogue? No, they said. Would they come with me to the Seder? They agreed to accompany me although I told them that at this late hour I was not sure whether our hosts would be able to find the extra places.
We drove into the parking lot of the synagogue and I wondered what to do next. I knew the rabbi would be inside and surrounded by his guests. I saw the security was tight.
And I was aware I had with me, now disembarking from the van, a group of distinctly Muslim-looking men — long beards, Muslim caps and traditional clothing.
This was when divine intervention appeared to take place.
My friend Joan Greenbaum, chairman of the Committee for Community Issues and Social Action, drove into the parking lot. She took the situation in quickly, welcomed us, and escorted us through the crowd of guests to the rabbi.
The rabbi was as gracious as he was warm in receiving us. Two full tables were quickly allotted to us. And before dinner the rabbi even managed to take us for a tour of the synagogue. The scrolls in the sanctuary carrying the words of God visibly moved the ulema.
The celebration began with the rabbi reading from a published booklet, the Haggadah, developed especially for this interfaith Seder. The collection itself was remarkable. It had biblical and contemporary Jewish, Christian and Muslim references. Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were part of it. There was a reference to the suffering of the Jews but also the suffering of others, including Muslims.
The rabbi read: “Welcome to our Seder! Tonight we observe a festival of most ancient origin and most modern significance. For more than 3,000 years, Jews have gathered to retell the tale of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage; from those times until these, freedom-seeking people in nations all over the world have identified with and are inspired by the story of the Exodus.”
The rabbi asked the gathering to read: “Tonight, we participate in the Seder as members of communities that have known the struggle for freedom. We were oppressed, we were enslaved;our task tonight is to remember that history. We dreamed dreams, dreams of equality, of justice, and of peace; tonight we meet together to refresh those dreams.”
As the evening wore on the guests indeed began to feel a common sense of a shared history.
At one point the rabbi called on me to read from the text: “When Moses asked Pharaoh to free his people and Pharaoh refused, God visited 10 plagues upon the Egyptians. We now recite those plagues. As each is named, we pour a drop of wine from our cup of joy. The tradition explains this custom by reminding us that our own joy is diminished in the face of the pain of others; even though the plagues are an essential element in the saga we celebrate, we derive no pleasure from them, we do not gloat at the suffering they caused.”
We Muslims were participating in the ritualistic feast but adapting with our own customs. For example, while others drank wine, we sipped apple juice, which had been provided for this purpose.
We felt wonderfully familiar with the stories that we heard of our common ancestors as the evening wore on.
The themes of suffering, faith, freedom and the importance of compassion were repeated again and again.
At one point, Lustig requested the Rev. Lewis Anthony of the Metropolitan Wesley AME Zion Church and myself to join him.
“We are the children of Abraham,” the rabbi declared.
We embraced. This was a powerful visual metaphor of Abrahamic kinship. I was deeply moved. So were the guests — especially the Muslims at my table.
Rabbi Lustig is a man of vision reaching out to the community and beyond to other Abrahamic groups in these troubled times and creating desperately needed bonds.
The Interfaith Passover Seder reinforced Jewish tradition but also allowed others of the Abrahamic faiths to rediscover their common cultural heritage.
Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.
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