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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright 2003 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.
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