In an area of the world where three major religions overlap and sometimes collide, there is also a shared tradition and spirituality going back thousands of years.
On Dec. 6 at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders came together to shed light on what the Holy Land means to them personally and what they believe it means to other faiths.
Following a kosher Middle Eastern dinner, they spoke and then answered questions from the religiously diverse audience.
“We recognize that Jerusalem is holy for Jews,” said Levant Koc, a Muslim and chief executive officer of the Peace Islands Institute. Formerly the Interfaith Dialogue Center, the institute is a Newark-based nonprofit founded in 2003 by Turkish-Americans to foster dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions. The institute and Neve Shalom cosponsored the event.
Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Gerald Zelizer said the Jewish connection to Israel has remained unbroken from biblical times to modernity, beginning with God’s covenant with Abraham. The connection has been reinforced continually by the line recited at the end of the Passover seder and the Yom Kippur service, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The Amida, recited three times daily, speaks of the longing for return to Jerusalem as do the prayers after meals.
Zelizer said even the Koran quotes Mohammed, the founder of Islam, telling the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula to “go back to the land God promised to you.” Paul in the Christian Bible makes the “startling statement” that “God’s promises to the Jews are still valid.”
Koc said because Islam recognizes as prophets many of the revered figures of Judaism and Christianity — including Moses, Abraham, kings Solomon and David, and Jesus — it also reveres the sites they made holy.
Additionally, he noted, Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven from Jerusalem and brought back gifts to Earth.
“We don’t consider ourselves to be a separate religion,” he added. “We consider ourselves an extension of Judaism.”
The Rev. Jeff Markay, senior pastor at the Caldwell United Methodist Church in Essex County, recalled as a teenager going on a church-sponsored pilgrimage that left him with a lasting impression of Israel as a place “where so many people of faith walked.”
The trip was a “powerful experience” in “the land of the prophets” where Jesus drew his inspiration.
“Everywhere we went felt prayerful,” he said — from Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where, Markay said, he stuck a message between the cracks, to the Dome of the Rock, the shrine on the Temple Mount that is holy to Muslims.
To “walk where Jesus walked” was uplifting, Markay said, before noting that he was extremely sensitive “to the pain caused to the Jewish community in the name of Jesus.”
“I am trying to discover a more mature Christianity, one that doesn’t insist only on our way,” he added. “One that is not triumphant, but rather expresses humility. This tit for tat is getting us nowhere.”
Koc recalled a period during the Ottoman Empire when Jews and Muslims coexisted in peace in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem. He said Mohammed himself in the Koran “ordered the people not to fight with the people of the book,” meaning Jews and their Torah, and Christians and their Bible.
“As a Muslim I am hopeful there will be peace again,” said Koc.
However, Zelizer said, he believed that “this hatred within Western religion is a function of monotheism, the underside of monotheism” that pushes all to believe their beliefs are better and that others are “infidels and sinners.”
“In that sense I’m looking for a more mature monotheism,” he explained, acknowledging there is one God, but many ways to worship that deity, much as light refracted through a prism is reflected in many colors.
“That is what is being refracted in this room,” he added, “but it is not what all monotheists think.”