Last year my church held a Seder (a special meal during Pesach—Passover). Over 280 people showed up to have a rabbi lead us through the Haggadah (a booklet containing the prayers and actions comprising the Seder) and explain the symbolism in the celebration. The attendees were Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
I had arranged for the rabbi, who is a good friend of mine, to sit at our table, along with two Christians, the rabbi and myself from Jewish backgrounds, and two Muslims—both Sufi’s, or Muslims who practice the mystical side of Islam. One of the Muslims was the son of the founder of the first mosque in our state. He had also brought his Roman Catholic mother.
Some of the organizers were worried about tension between the Muslims and Jews, or that some Christians would ask the Jews why they don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah when it is so obvious in Scripture, or the Jews sitting by the door for a fast getaway. There was no need for the worries. People worked alongside each other—Jews and Muslims having some great conversations, Christians trying on the kippahs (yarmulkes) of the Jewish men, Muslims wanting to know what the Jews thought about the prophets in the Qur’an, etc. Lots of laughing and sharing phone numbers.
The conversation at our table was very interesting. We agreed that we would all share a typical prayer that we offer up before a meal began. The rabbi mentioned how hand washing was an important part of the initial ceremonies and the Muslims were able to tie this to the ritual ablution Muslims perform before their daily prayers. All of us were able to relate to the Passover theme of God rescuing people from oppressions of all sorts as well as His faithfulness in the presence of our repeated disobedience.
An interesting thing happened when the conversation came to the relationship between God’s grace and God’s justice in the world. The Jews and the Muslims were on the same page with this issue, but they listened very carefully when the Christians spoke about how they see God’s grace is larger than His justice. One of the Muslims jumped in and said that a hadith qudsi (a saying of Muhammad where the words were believed to have come from Allah but voiced by Muhammad) said that God’s mercy prevails over his wrath. The rabbi said that this is exactly how Judaism saw it. It didn’t need to be spoken how close we were on this issue but how we voiced it in very different terms that often get confused.
There was a moment when I held my breath as the conversation turned to present day Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One of the Muslims looked at the rabbi and said, “I am so sorry that too many Muslims won’t recognize the right of Israel to exist in peace.” The rabbi responded, “I am a Zionist but it is my faith that when I look into the eyes of a Palestinian I am seeing someone who was created in the image of God. I am sorry that we Jews often don’t act according to our beliefs.”
I held my breath one other time when one of the Muslims asked the rabbi what it meant when Jews say that they are the Chosen People. One of the Christians jumped in to answer after which there was a brief silence before the rabbi said, “I beg to differ somewhat. It does not mean that we are somehow more special to God than any other people. It means that we have been chosen with a heavy duty and that is to take to the ends of the world the good news of God’s desire for justice and for love to prevail in this life.” I could see the Christians nodding approvingly with the mention of “the good news.” The Muslims were smiling.
Finally, the laughs and conversation came to an end, but before we left we all decided to join together at the next Eid celebration to be held at the mosque just down the street from the church and share another meal and conversations about our faith. The rabbi and I invited the Muslim men to dinner at a local Egyptian restaurant in a couple of weeks.
We hugged, we shook hands, and I noticed that as I was driving home that I was smiling. I knew that we had covered some sticky points that are often exploited in the media, and there are many more difficult questions of faith to be touched upon, but we had developed the beginnings of important relationships. I didn’t have a word for what had happened, but then I remembered one of the parts of the Seder in which the Jews chant “Da-yenu” which means “and that would have been enough.” One of the phrases in the chant is, “and He fed us with manna in the wilderness’ everyone then responding “Da-yenu.” I remembered that the word “manna” means “what is it?” It is a question that is the recognition of a miracle while also recognizing that there are things we still don’t know about it. I like it. This Seder was manna. *
*The word “manna” also appears within the Qur’an at least three times. One time in a phrase that means “food from heaven.”