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The Essence of the Human Being in Judaism and in Islam — A Journey to the Ancient Texts

Participants explore the leadership of Moses and Pharaoh, as part of a journey into ancient Jewish and Muslim texts, and draw conclusions regarding models of leadership today

​​Over the last three months, we experienced a fascinating journey into our ancient, primary sources, both Muslim and Jewish. As part of this journey into our roots, we shared learning, insights and realizations, delved deeper, and returned to ourselves and our current individual reality.

The journey included four study sessions and a retreat for graduates. The first two meetings were facilitated by Dr. Muhammad Al Atawneh of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a scholar of modern Islam and the development of Muslim law, and by Dr. Ruth Calderon, a former member of Knesset and a Talmud scholar. The third and fourth meetings were facilitated by Dr. Calderon and Kassim Alsraiha, a faculty member of the Mandel Center for Leadership in the Negev.

The first session focused on the essence of the human being. It began with introductory remarks about Judaism and Islam and about the development of the various movements within each faith. This was followed by hevruta study (study in pairs) of texts from the Torah and the Koran. It was interesting to find that both the Koran and the Talmud include the statement that anyone who saves one life is considered as having saved an entire world and anyone who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed an entire world. When the entire group reconvened, we discussed what we had read and understood from the texts.

The second session focused on martyrdom. Dr. Al Atawneh began the meeting with a fascinating lecture that analyzed the concept of jihad – an emotionally charged topic today – and discussed its true meaning, as it appears in the Koran and was interpreted by the Islamic sages. He spoke about jihad of the spirit, which requires human effort each day, and jihad of the sword, which includes strict laws of ethics during warfare. Following this, he discussed who may be defined as a "shahid" (martyr) in Islam.

Dr. Calderon then facilitated a study session that connected the concept of the shahid in Islam with that the concept of martyrdom in Judaism. We read an excerpt from Tractate Berakhot of the Babylonian Talmud describing the conversation between Rabbi Akiva and his students during his execution. The time for the morning recitation of the Shema had arrived, and Rabbi Akiva insisted on reciting this statement of faith in complete acceptance of his fate, experiencing the sacrifice of his life as an act of absolute love for God.

At the end of the session, we discussed the importance Judaism ascribes to martyrdom and the similarity between Jewish martyrdom and the essence of the shahid in Islam.

The third session focused on the story of the Binding of Isaac. Although it is a foundational story in both faiths, the Binding of Isaac is a complex story that is at times difficult to accept. During the meeting, we read the account of the Binding of Isaac in the Koran and in the Torah and noted the similarities and differences between the two stories. For example, we learned that in the Jewish story, Abraham goes with Isaac to Mount Moriah in agonized silence, without telling his son what he has been commanded to do. In the Muslim story, however, Abraham tells his son what God commanded in his dream and asks his son for his viewpoint. His son, in turn, asks him to obey the command and, in essence, submits to God's will together with this father.

It was also interesting to learn that the name of Abraham's son never appears in the Muslim story. The reason for this seems to be that it makes no difference who the son was; the purpose of this religious story is not to teach us history, but to teach us something about ourselves. When we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, we must think about where it finds us and what we can derive from it for our day-to-day lives.

The final session explored the leadership of Moses and Pharaoh, a topic that was particularly relevant, since the session took place just after Passover. First we learned how the hostility to the nation of Israel developed, moving from a situation of Jewish coexistence with the Egyptians to near-genocide of the Jewish people. The turning point began when a pharaoh arose "who did not know Joseph," who saw the growing nation of Israel as a threat. The texts depict Pharaoh as a leader who is motivated by fear and who motivates by intimidation. He divided the Egyptians and caused everyone to suffer. Moses, in contrast, is presented as a leader who possesses humility, justice, and faith. We can learn from the stories of Pharaoh and Moses that leadership based on compulsion is ephemeral and destined to meet its demise in the Red Sea, while leadership based on inner strength and vision leads to liberation and to good.