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Isha Bekia

Jews and Muslims' Faith, Community and Country

Dec 20, 2007 | Current Affairs


An extract of a speech delivered at the Chief Rabbi’s Enriching Tomorrow Forum which was also addressed by the then Premier, Ebrahim Rasool, on the topic of ‘Jews and Muslims’ Faith, Community and Country’. The speech was also published in the ‘Sunday Times’ during December 2007.
As Jews and Muslims, we share so much in common. And as the Talmud says: one of the great miracles of creation is that G-d created all beings from the same mould and yet no two beings are the same.
While we are all unique, we share in common that we are all human beings, and that we are all descended from Adam and Eve. And so to be human is to have two components – uniqueness and commonness or the particular and universal. And we need to be able to embrace both identities The two human dimensions contained in the South African motto of “Unity in Diversity” are all about the unique and special on the one hand and the common and universal on the other hand.
We cannot only focus on the unique. In the Book of Genesis, it says it is not good for man to be alone, we have to reach out. To be alone is to be unique and different. We have to reach out on all levels. As individuals, we are alone, and we reach out to another person and families are created. Families then reach out to other families and communities are formed. Communities reach out and form societies. Societies reach out and form countries, and countries reach out to form a global humanity. At every stage, as we reach out, we leave behind that dimension of what it means to be alone. It requires us to reach beyond our particular identity to find common ground and to become more than just who we are.
We can be true to our particular, but we cannot reach out unless we find that common ground and that’s what it means to be a great person.
So, we don’t assimilate – we hold onto who we are but we expand beyond that. We need to have that sense of individuality as a society, as a faith and then to reach out.
As Jews and Muslims, we need to search for common values that we all hold dear and harness them for building South Africa. I believe that the common values dear to Jews and to Muslims are family, community and faith.
We both have a strong sense of commitment to family. And this is articulated powerfully through the way that the Book of Genesis tells the story of human civilization. It is the story of the history of the world but if you read it carefully, all it is a story of families, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s families. In that, G-d is telling us that history is made in our families. History is not written in the headlines of the newspaper or on the battlefields. Strong families are what is important to G-d and they are the secret of a strong society. Strong families are about honouring parents, caring for the elderly and a passion for education. It’s about a commitment to the concept of marriage and having children.
To be successful, the new South Africa has to be based on strong families. Jews and Muslims can share their love of family values with the rest of the country and use it to contribute to moral regeneration. And that’s why Aids orphans are such an important challenge to us. We have to confront this problem with enormous vigour because the question of children growing up without parents and without a stable home environment will affect the very foundations of our society.
The second value is that of community and it says in the Ethics of Our Fathers that you may not separate yourself from the community. Family is not sufficient, we need a broader frame of reference. We can’t only have a strong government and strong individuals. Jews and Muslims have a very strong appreciation of the value of community, active community organizations, places of worship, welfare organizations, and schools. These are the very lifeblood of our communities and to build a great country, we need strong communities.
And the third value is faith. Faith in G-d is about faith in people. Because we belief in G-d, the Spirit of G-d rests in every single human being. In believing in G-d, we believe in the greatness of people. There are those who say being human is merely an accumulation of molecules, nothing more than physical matter without a spiritual dimension. They deny the soul of a human being. By saying this, you remove the spirit and we become disheartened. The spirit of the human being is that energy and power, that presence of G-d in every single one of us. So living with faith in G-d, is living with a belief in people and principles. And life isn’t just about what there is to be gained on a practical level. It’s about living with vision, it’s about living with ideology, it’s about living for a higher cause. And that’s what Jews and Muslims are good at because we are faith communities. That is what motivates us and gives us our vision for the future. That is what the new South Africa is.
If we have a sense that we are not just having a dialogue, we actually want to practically make a contribution to South Africa, the way we can do it is to take these values and harness them for the good for the country. Ironically, there is so much communication and information in the modern world but, at the same time, there is so much disconnection. We are disconnected from one another. And that is why the modern world is crying out. It’s a world that is atomized, where people are alone, where they don’t belief in family any more and don’t believe in community and they have no faith any more. And so what has happened to the modern world? It is an atomisation of people, exacerbated by globalization.
So these values of family, community and faith – they are as important to the modern world today and particularly in South Africa because we are involved in one of the most exciting human experiments ever conducted. It was a society driven by prejudice, hatred and suffering that came together as South Africans to say we will change it, we will make it better. We can only do that effectively when we have reverted to these values of family, community and faith. That is who we as Jews and Muslims are. We as a society can come together and say it’s not good to be alone – we have to reach out and together help build a great country.