The Globalist Takeaway: What Role Should Judaism and Islam Play in Today’s World?

by Marissa Dearing:

As the sun streamed into the Slifka Center on a quiet Sunday morning, Rabbi Telushkin and Imam Magid spoke of their shared conviction that both Judaism and Islam call for a return to our common duty to love and protect one another. From this perspective, Judaism and Islam affirm rather than contradict one another; both remind us of the moral obligations to which we are bound by our humanity.

Speaking first, Rabbi Telushkin, author of the foundational text Jewish Literacy, lamented that religion has come to be “associated only with religious observances,” with specific ceremonies dictated by religious texts. Although one might get the “odd impression” that in Judaism, “ethics are an extracurricular act,” an examination of the holy texts reveals just the opposite: religion isn’t about ritual or pious appearances, but about the spirit motivating those public manifestations. For Telushkin, that underlying spirit, in the words of the eminent rabbinic figure Hillel, is “what’s hateful unto you, don’t do unto others. . . . The rest of Torah is commentary.” As the rabbi emphasized, the command to love your neighbor as yourself is echoed in myriad religious traditions. The true measure of piety is “not about what [you] do in [your] place of worship, it’s about what [you] do outside” in your interactions in the world.

Rabbi Telushkin stressed “the dignity of difference.” Although many orthodox believers (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian) may consider their faith “the only religious expression of God’s will,” Telushkin believes the “particularist monotheism” of such faiths establish “one god but not necessarily one faith. God is the god of all humanity but [one] faith doesn’t have to be the faith of all humanity.” Perhaps “God doesn’t want all faiths to be the same” in the same way that parents don’t want all their children to be the same. For Telushkin, an “ethical monothesism” holding that the demands of God in the ethical realm cut across cultural and religious lines is incompatible with intolerance. He believes you “can’t just say, ‘I’ll be tolerant,’ you have to try to understand what’s going on in [the] minds” of those with whom you disagree. It is essential to sincerely and fairly consider the reasons they might hold a conflicting view. We must “judge people by their behavior far more than by their beliefs” because although “it’s hard to explain religion” and its mysteries, at their core, our ethical beliefs might coincide to a remarkable extent.

Rabbi Telushkin and Imam Magid in conversation. (Josh Satok)

In a poignant aside, Telushkin observed that children who are praised most highly for their looks or their achievements are lead to believe “in some way parental love is about producing,” but if the highest praise were reserved for acts of kindness, we would produce a generation that associates love and affirmation with kindness, a generation that would perhaps regard their aims and role in the world quite differently.

Strongly echoing such sentiments, Imam Magid, the head of the Islamic Society of North America, emphasized the common belief in the “oneness of God” (tauheeb in Arabic), from which “comes all the other aspects of Islamic belief”: belief in a God with “infinite power, mercy, knowledge” affects one’s behavior toward all people, the environment, and the universe as a whole. Citing the words of the prophet Muhammad, Magid explained that “Islam is to be conscious of God wherever you may be. . . . God cannot be worshiped only in a building but in every aspect of life.” The presence of God, then, extends even to within the self: you must constantly self-examine, “follow bad deeds with good deeds, be humble, and deal with humanity in the best manner.” Believing in God means humbling yourself because you “have to believe in the infinity of God and the relativity of humanity.” Like Telushkin, Magid maintained that true piety goes beyond appearances: “Piety and righteousness are in the heart.”

Magid added that to believe in the oneness of God is to believe in the equality and  importance of all human life: no life is more precious than another. You must “treat the people the way they want to be treated” without “impos[ing] your cultural and religious beliefs. . . . Treat people with dignity and honor.” Genocides and tragedies like the Holocaust happen because “people misunderstand that they are not the most powerful,” they forget that “God is the most powerful.” Magid stressed that if one God created all people, “you can’t discriminate based on color, creed,” or any other arbitrary distinction. To be racist is to reject the wisdom of God in creating the world. It’s “saying God made a mistake.” Thus, the imam urges the celebration of diversity as “diversity by design,” as meant to be. “Intolerance is absence of faith.” The most important thing is that Muslims and Jews, and all those suffering in conflict, understand each other and really “know where the other person is coming from” because, in light of that knowledge, “you respect them more.” Magid emphasized that “the more distance you have, the more misconception you have.” Smiling as he discussed similarities between Muslim and Jewish tenets, Magid affirmed, “God is very consistent. He does not make mistakes.”

Marissa Dearing ’14 is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at