On Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days in the Jewish year, I displayed a Koran to my congregation, spoke about its meaning, and kept it within the Reader’s Desk during our reading of Torah.
Not just any Koran. This Koran, which I own, is a mid-nineteenth century illuminated manuscript, bound in leather and written entirely in Arabic. It was given to me as a gift by the late Albert “Bud” Haas, a former president of KAM Isaiah Israel congregation in Chicago. Bud was a docent of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute, an archeology buff, and a collector of rare books. When I ended my tenure as Rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel, he gave me the book as a present.
As the Torah service began, I explained to my congregation that, like many rabbis, I had written an introduction to the Torah reading, which on that day concerned the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But in light of recent events, I continued, I felt it necessary to dispense with my prepared remarks and hold up this valuable Koran for all to see.
In a day or so, a “minister” in Florida was planning to burn copies of the Koran to demonstrate his hatred of Islam and the radicalism of its followers. I said that if one clergyperson in Florida intended to declare his willingness to burn the sacred scriptures of Muslims, it was my duty as a clergyperson in New Jersey to hold up a copy of the same book and declare “We don’t burn the holy scriptures of another people.”
Like many, I have been increasingly troubled by the wave of anti-Islamic fervor that has swept our country. Not only is there opposition to building an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the former World Trade Center, but there have been attempts to halt the building of mosques in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and California. Vile things have been said about Islam and its followers; one pastor recently declared on national television that Islam was “filth from the pit of hell.”
Rational conversation is all but impossible. I believe that there are good arguments to be made on both sides regarding the location of a mosque in Lower Manhattan, but reasonable discourse has fled our country, making genuine discussion all but impossible. I have come to the conclusion that the extreme comments and downright racist statements made regularly about the followers of Islam need to be opposed, forcefully and clearly, by religious people of good will. Holding up a Koran on the Bimah on our Holy Day was a dramatic, but clear representation of my position that the principles and values of Judaism do not allow us to demonize the other, and certainly not burn their books. We know too well the evil of book burning and to what it leads.
I am blessed with a wonderful congregation. I enjoy a free pulpit, and no one contests my right to speak, even if they disagree. Many congregants appreciated that the issue of Koran burning was addressed clearly and unambiguously on Rosh Hashanah. Some members agreed with me absolutely in principle, but would have liked more attention paid to the legitimate concerns of those who live in the shadow of terror, particularly in Israel.
I tend to be traditionally minded on the High Holydays. I usually speak on teshuva, repentance, on the joys and stresses of life, and on living joyfully as a Jew in the coming year. But this Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi held up a Koran.