Lee Weissman, the prominent American interfaith activist and Jewish educator, converses with Mujeeb Jaihoon on possibility of Jewish-Islam cooperation and the toxicity of sacred nationalism.
(Edited version of online interview recorded on July 10 2020)
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] Welcome to The Dialogue Box, where we dissent creatively. In today’s episode, we meet with Lee Weissman, a prominent Jewish interfaith activist based in California.
Weissman has been an educator for the past 25 years, teaching teens and adults about the Jewish faith. He has been actively building bridges between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States His twitter timeline is often charged with quotations from the Islamic saints and scholars.
Lee did his PhD in South Asian studies from Tamil Nadu, the southern state of India. And during his day in Tamil Nadu, he would visit the neighboring state, Kerala. Lee encourages positive relationships between the Muslims and Jewish community and attempts to find similarities between these two great monotheistic Faiths.
So, let’s hear it from Lee Weissman, about his love for Islamic spirituality and his activism for building peace and tolerance among communities.
JUDAISM AND ISLAM: THE ORGANIC RELATIONSHIP
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] Welcome Lee Weissman. Today we would like to discuss about the spiritual and historical relationship between the two great wonderful faiths in the world, i.e. Judaism and Islam. Of course, we know that the three great Abrahamic faiths in the world — Judaism, Christianity and Islam— have a lot of commonalities in terms of history and creed as well. For example, in the Holy Quran we find Prophet Moses as the most mentioned Prophet with so many repeated historic instances. We find in the life of Holy Prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, he had very close interaction with the Jewish community at Medina. In fact, on the day of his death he had pledged his armor with a Jewish neighbor. So we find that there is an organic relationship between these two great faiths in the world.
[Lee Weissman]: I’ll begin by saying, I know that you’re from Kerala and actually part of my interest in this talk was spurred by my trip to Kerala many years ago. I used to spend some time in the Jewish community in Cochin. I was there for a Jewish holiday and I was sitting in the home of the last of the Jewish family in Cochin. Sweets kept coming from visitors who were Christians, Hindus and Muslims.
And it was the first time I had seen the possibility of communities living together not only in peace and tolerance, certainly we have that in the United States, but in appreciation of one another.. It wasn’t just ‘hey I know it’s your holiday. It was more. Like you know what: ‘we are celebrating with you. You are part of our community’. And this was something that people did for each other. And I was so impressed with it.
At the same time, I remember going to the market in Mattanchery. When I went to buy something, the Muslim owner of the market said, ‘you don’t want that’. (It wasn’t suitable for the jewish holiday).
I guess in the course of my life I have created situations of very meaningful engagements between Muslims and Jews. We have a lot to talk about in common. As you said, we have lots of religious stories and concepts in common to talk about. Probably most importantly we have moral and ethical concepts that we share and that the world needs to hear about. The less divided we are, the more we can present those things to the world in a believable way. When Jews and Muslims are fighting with each other and have their turf wars and needless hostility over those, it delegitimizes our ability to communicate with the world ethically.
The world looks at us and says: ‘what do you people have to say’. I mean ‘given how you deal with each other what do you have to say?’ So I really believe that we have a lot to say to each other that can be meaningful and that we can both be changed positively in that interaction.
SCOPE OF COOPERATION
[Mujeeb Jaihoon]: We find, for example, after the Christian conquest of Spain, the Jews of Spain, along with the Muslims, chose the Muslim countries to live in. Besides, there was a lot of interaction and cooperation both economically and sometimes even politically. What do you think are the areas where the Muslims and the Jews can find new areas of cooperation?
[Lee Weissman]: First of all, I mean, in terms of history, you’re right that in Muslim countries, Jews, in general, were afforded certain kinds of legal protections that they weren’t necessarily offered in the Christian world.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t problems. Certainly different rulers and different polities have different policies on how they treated Jews and of course there’s the issue of taxes and so on. It was always a complicated relationship. I think there are a couple of different issues and areas where we have to talk about.
One area that we have to talk about is in places like the United States, where we are both minorities. We need to talk about what it’s about to be a religious minority and the kind of values that we have in a place like this and what can we contribute to a place like this. What does America have to learn from us? What do we have to learn from America? I think that is one example.
Another area, and I think this is now just the beginning, is to explore what it means to be Jewish in the Muslim world? I mean there are still a couple of Jewish communities in the Muslim world, probably most vibrant in morocco, small community in turkey and the second largest actually is in Iran.
We know that in the UAE there’s a small but growing Jewish community. … so what can that develop into – what kind of interaction can that be? Morocco is a great example because they have kind of opened its doors to the Jews who are in its diaspora. The Jews who have moved to Israel and other places opened their doors and said we want you to come back and invest and visit us. I was there a couple of years ago where I saw all sorts of Jews coming for pilgrimage. The other day I saw there was a service in Morocco city where expatriate Jews praying for the king of Morocco. How amazing is that.
And the third and the most difficult obviously is going to be to see what kind of engagement Jews and Muslims can have in the holy land and that of course is the most difficult and the most problematic. However, I believe that once we build relationships and are able to know and care for each other, then it becomes possible to discuss matters which are most important to us.
Too often we try to discuss those things without having built relationships. I don’t talk to strangers about my deepest secrets and fears. For us to talk about things which are really important and sensitive, we have to begin by actually knowing each other and even more importantly caring for each other. Deal making and negotiations without caring about each other are doomed because they will last only as long as it’s in somebody’s interest. If we’re operating and negotiating on self-interest, and not on caring about the other party, there really is no lasting peace or welfare between us.
THREAT OF SACRED NATIONALISM
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] Thinking about the Muslim Jewish relations, what comes to my mind is the differences in conditions before and after the 20th century. I think in the 20th century, we have witnessed a drastic increase in the spirit of nationalism in every community. Certainly it has influenced intercommunity relations around the world. Three forms of Nationalism have grown almost simultaneously or maybe within a short span of time in this period. The Zionist movement from Europe advocated for a Jewish homeland which also created repercussions in the Muslim world. Secondly, Hitler’s slogan for a pure German race idea- wherein he blamed the Jews for all the problems of Germany. Admittedly, there have been nationalist movements in the Arab world too where the Islamic identity was replaced by an assertive Arab identity and Arab nationalism. So, tell me, how detrimental and how dangerous is this nationalism to the cooperation and tolerance between the religious communities? Has nationalism actually hijacked our religious identity?
[Lee Weissman] Well, I am not an enthusiastic fan of nationalism on two grounds: one as a religious person and the second as a former high school history teacher.
If you’re a high school history teacher and you teach, for example, European history, you can take a look and see what kind of fruits nationalism has produced. The logic of nationalism is that to create this ingroup and we give it a kind of a sacred aura. Around that ingroup we also create an outgroup and nationalism becomes a permission for oppression almost inevitably. If you once put the crown on the ingroup, you’ve now given yourself permission to oppress the outgroup and I think that’s a pretty consistent logic of nationalism. This is certainly true in all nationalisms. I don’t think that any of them really are exceptions.
Is it possible that a person could have nationalistic ideas and not subscribe to forms of oppression? The answer is I think that people can, but at the same time, nationalism itself almost always creates these things.
And as you said, of course, there are many nationalist movements: Zionism is one of them. Arabism is another one and of course in Europe we have all sorts of varieties. Probably the most terrifying variety being national socialism in Germany, I mean the Nazi movement. But certainly this is from the religious perspective. The danger, and I think you said it nicely, is that it replaces religion. I mean it’s the state or the people, the ethnicity, the language – all of these things replace our preoccupation with God and our preoccupation with the sacred and essentially make us sacred and put the crown of divinity onto the head of society. That, of course, is very dangerous. From a religious perspective, that puts us in the neighborhood of idolatry – Shirk (Polytheism).
It is a subtle kind of idolatry which leaks into that dangerous neighborhood.
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] Well, I think you said it so beautifully: The crown of divinity. That’s what every believer strives for and I guess this is a very wonderful way of putting it. What you said about the idolatrous belief of nationalism, it reminds me of a verse of Allama Iqbal where he calls nationalism a curse for humanity. He was a universalist and strongly believed in the unity of humanity.
[Mujeeb Jaihoon]: You are a person who is extremely active in the Jewish community. Also, you help to build bridges between the Muslims and the Jews. Often in your twitter timeline and other social media posts, you seem to emphasize spirituality. The thrust of spirituality, I think, is to point inwardly; and not to blame the other. Significance of spirituality can never be overemphasized. In fact, without spirituality, religion does not exist. Do you feel that there have been deliberate attempts to hijack religion away from spirituality and has affected every community including the Muslims?
[Lee Weissman] For sure. When we look at the world today, we find movements who have kind of co-opted religion for political ends for the ends of seeking power. I wouldn’t say that it’s a modern disease. Rather, it Is one of the unfortunate corollaries of religion. If one has a political idea, how wonderful it is to get God on their side. ‘Not only do I believe this is true but God says it’s true’. Well, you can’t get better than that. It’s the best endorsement you can have. And that outward looking, as you say, we increasingly see people who think that religion consists of pointing the finger at someone else. To be honest with you, my experience is that when I do that, what I’m really doing is projecting my faults onto others. I think that people should spend more time in introspection. In fact, all political action should begin with introspection. If every political leader spent a little bit of time with their own souls, I think that they would come out with much different results. But they don’t.
If we’re going to create an ethical politics, we have to begin with some kind of Spiritual Accounting to really look at yourself deeply to know what your prejudices, weaknesses and strengths are. All of those things are not just good spirituality but psychology too. I think we do see this kind of centrifugal force in the world today that pulls us outward. It’s not just in politics but in everything.
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] So you are suggesting a marriage of spirituality with all our domains of life including politics, entertainment and education? Is that so? Are you proposing a spirituality being intertwined in our daily life?
[Lee Weissman]: If it becomes more and more who we are and how we relate to the world, of course, it’s going to be reflected in our art and our poetry in everything that we do and, most importantly, in our interactions with other people. The most important thing that you do is you interact with other people with your ability to love and care for others. And if we can, we begin with that and then extend those relationships Outward. Then we’re really getting somewhere.
IMAM AL SHAFI & IMAM AL GHAZALI
[Mujeeb Jaihoon]: I have found in your twitter timeline quotes from two great Muslim personalities: Imam Al shafi and Imam al-Ghazali. Now these two personalities, of course, are excellent contributors to the intellectual legacy of Islam. However, they are apparently from two different streams. While Imam Al Shafi is from the jurisprudence or the fiqh – one of the schools of the Islamic law- and Imam Al Ghazali is to do with sufism or mysticism. How did you develop interest in these two personalities and what makes you often quote from these luminaries?
[Lee Weissman]: A very interesting question. So maybe it’s a little bit my Jewish Background. Of course, part of our kind of religious training and our study is to go very deeply into law. That’s really the kind of the meat and potatoes of Jewish study of religious law. I love the study of religious law. One of the things that I appreciate about Imam Al-Shafi is that here is a person who’s immersed in this world of logic and law, and then every once in a while, he steps out and gives the big picture. I mean he’s argued his positions with many people and then he steps back and says about arguments, ‘I don’t argue with anybody if I don’t expect to learn something from them. I don’t argue with them without the expectation that maybe they’re going to convince me’ and to me that is world changing. If a person is doing law, it’s even more world changing because it’s so easy to think that that a legal decision is black and white and nobody should argue with you.
And the second example- Al Ghazali. I’m also kind of mystically oriented. But what I very much appreciate about Imam Al Ghazali is that he of course is also a rationalist in the sense that he presents mystical ideas- if you can call them that- ideas dealing with the interiority of religion. Religion has an outsider and inside. So let’s call mysticism the inside of religion. He deals with the inside of religion just like Imam Al Shafi deals with the outside of religion. However, he’s able to present it in ways which are logical and rational. So I appreciate that very much and one of the great Jewish scholars who often by the way sounds very much like Imam Al Ghazali is Rambam or Rabbi Moshe and he said we should accept truth from wherever we hear it. If I find truth somewhere, I try to incorporate it and accept it and put it into action.
THE KERALA MODEL
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] Lee Weissman, you mentioned that you had spent some years in Tamil Nadu where you had your PhD and you occasionally used to visit Cochin which has a very long legacy with Judaism. We know there’s a street called the ‘Jew street’ and it is said that the Jews came to Cochin from the time of king Solomon besides later migration also. Also there is a version of Malayalam dialect called the Jewish Malayalam which has certain loan words that are very similar to the Mappila Malayalam, the Muslim dialect of the Malayalam. Cochin is a very interesting melting pot of a lot of cultures from around the world. Can you share some Cochin experiences and what do you feel about Kerala? How Kerala manifests a different kind of ambience from the rest of the country in terms of communal harmony, education, cooperation and tolerance?
[Lee Weissman] First of all I have to tell you as a Jewish person there is nothing more shocking than seeing a street called Jew street. I grew up in Philadelphia on a street that was known as you Yew Road. It’s the name of a tree. And our street was constantly being defaced by anti-Semites and they would write Jew Road and paint swastikas and horrible things on it and that was considered to be a horrible thing. So the idea of a place called Jew street was bizarre to me. What I found was there was a very strange sense of welcoming as I arrived on the Jew street and all of a sudden I was like- ‘you’re Jewish? The synagogue’s right there’ it was just a very strange experience and I had the opportunity to spend several Jewish holidays in Cochin. And I cannot tell you how beautiful it was. When I was there, it was a little bit more of a community and the holidays were just beautiful. The synagogue was decorated with garlands of jasmine and silks on the walls and the windows were open and that beautiful fresh air was coming in this little garden outside the synagogue. The traditions of Jewish Cochin are just really unparalleled in their beauty. The beautiful lamp outside the synagogue and the synagogue – it was a beautiful and very deep spiritual atmosphere.
The language you mentioned – Jewish Malayalam- when it’s sung is beautiful too. Some of them were about the Jewish king in Kerala- Joseph Rabban – people don’t know that there was a Jewish kingdom in south India. In Kerala, there was actually a Jewish kingdom and there are stories about their songs about Joseph Rabban and other songs and the language is kind of an old Malayalam. It’s very close to what in Tamil is called ‘Manipravalam’ which is a mixture of Tamil with some Sanskrit but of course with Hebrew words and Aramaic words from the Jewish context. There are Kochini synagogues in Israel now and they continue the customs of Cochin.
In general, Kerala 30 years ago was much more educated than almost any other place in India that I visited I think the literacy rate was off the charts compared to other states
I love to have conversations and one of the things I found in Kerala was this amazing ability to converse with people that I met. Students talked about politics, religion and everything was like a very lively intellectual culture.
As you said, I mean that kind of coexistence you know. There was, I’ve heard, in Mattanchery (Cochin) a weekly card game in which there were Muslims, Christians and Jews. There was one giant guy in charge of the food because he was so vegetarian that everybody trusted him for the food. So he was in charge of bringing the snacks. You know that just does not happen in most places. Outside the synagogue on our holidays, there would be crowds of Christians, Hindus and Muslims coming to greet us as we came out of the synagogue. This didn’t happen in any place else in the world that I know of.
OPPRESSION OF INDIAN MUSLIMS
[Mujeeb Jaihoon]: The Jewish Community in Europe had to face infinite persecution under Hitler. The holocaust was an unforgettable chapter in the misery of humanity. Coming to India, in the present scenario, the Muslims are almost in a similar situation. Not only in terms of the fascist forces who are lynching and killing them, but also that people who do these things are kind of inspired by Hitler’s race idea. I remember reading one of your tweets where you mentioned, “I was privileged to be in India 30 years ago. A vibrant Muslim religious life informed by many cultural influences. I pray for the Muslims of India that they should be able to continue to enjoy the beauty of the traditions in safety, prosperity and peace”. You are a person whose heart burns for the suffering of humanity. I’ve read that time and again from your tweets. Tell me what do you feel about the situation of Muslims in India right now? The international community time and again expressed their solidarity and their sympathy for the Community. What do you feel about the situation that the community is in right now in India?
[Lee Weissman] I am not sure I have the words. I can’t even imagine how scary it is. Muslims in India are as Indian as anybody else and so fully partake in the culture. It is terrifying that people could be so disenfranchised so quickly and based on such an ugly ideology. The Hindu nationalist ideology has progressed so fast into this racial kind of theory and is headed into that direction so fast that it’s really mind-boggling. Nobody really could have been prepared for that really. I remember seeing the beginnings of it already 30 years ago and I never would have anticipated that it would get where it is today. I really feel for my Muslim brothers and sisters in India to feel so insecure and to feel so under threat and to have it kind of undergirded by this kind of Nazi-like ideology is really painful.
I saw recently that somebody had built a shrine to the murderer of Mahatma Gandhi. I have trouble fathoming this. My heart just can’t accept it. I don’t know what to say. I mean here was one of the most brilliant ideas of non-violence to appear in the world and a man who had an incredible struggle with himself and really as a model for all of us. To dishonor his memory that way…! I also feel for their disenfranchisement. It would make me sad to see them move away from that very tolerant Islam that you do see in India. What I saw was an acculturated Islam. I guess the Mappilites are probably a pretty good example. Mappilites are as essential to Kerala as any group could be essential to Kerala. When I think of Kerala, I think of Mappilites and to feel disenfranchised from that and separated from that either socially or even religiously would be really sad
ETHICAL LEADERSHIP SAYYID SHIHAB THANGAL
[Mujeeb Jaihoon] You mentioned Mappilites. I remember once you quoting a line from the book ‘Slogans of the Sage’ which was attributed to Sayyid Muhammad Ali Shihab- a great Mappila leader. What did you feel when you came to know about his personality closer?
[Lee Weissman] I was just talking to somebody about that book today because I was talking about this interview and I said that one of the things that impressed me about the book was that I’m always looking for ethical leadership. I’m always looking for people whose world view is not just about the politics of power but of principle. One of the things that inspired me is that there seemed to be a lot of principle in the way that he saw his role as a politician and leader.
Now the world is really lacking in leadership at the moment and what we have in the form of leadership is mostly power-mongering and I don’t see how the world can benefit from that. It’s a pleasure whenever I see somebody who’s in a leadership role who also is operating on principle.
CHALLENGES OF INTERFAITH ACTIVISM
[Mujeeb Jaihoon]: Interfaith activism is not an easy walk. It takes guts and a lot of courage to love one another and to propagate the love of one another. Hating is very easy: it’s in fact an act of cowardice. So I’m sure you would have come across many who appreciate your hard work and your love and tolerance. But I’m sure you might have met with a lot of opposition also- both from within your own community and sometimes from the Muslim community who misunderstand your mission. Can you share what it is to be an interfaith activist?
[Lee Weissman]: Certainly there is opposition and that does happen. Really, from both sides. At the same time, I try to weigh the benefits against the losses and whenever I do that, I see the benefits are much greater than losses. I live in a much nicer world than almost anybody I know because I live in a world of people who are friends, and if they’re not my friends yet, they will be. What I found is that it’s really transforming from the inside out; you become a different person because you have a real appreciation for the value of humanity. We have an expression in the Torah which is a little controversial for Muslims that ‘Man is in the image of god’. Now we don’t mean that God has an image. God is not physical or anything like that. However, there’s something about human beings which deserves respect. We should be able to see something divine in human beings and let’s call it a soul and the soul that was breathed into Adam. The more you attend to that, the more joy you get in being around people. I feel very blessed and changed by it. The opposition, well, okay we deal with that. Life is struggle and at least it’s a struggle for the good
[Mujeeb Jaihoon]: We pray that more souls like you would remain in the world to help bridge our communities and to do away with the hate and all the extremism that is among the religionists. May you succeed in your mission to build more peace. Every believer is ultimately a peacekeeper and a peacemaker as well.
[Lee Weissman] thank you so much. my pleasure.