The Power of Language in Muslim and Jewish Sacred Text

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“Use words. Help me understand.” As mothers, we have both found this phrase useful from time to time in helping our children navigate the terrain of conflicting emotions. As people deeply engaged in conflict resolution and building relationships among Jews and Muslims, we also find the articulation of emotion through thoughtful language, central to our work.

This year the Jewish Aseret Yamei Teshuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance) from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur coincide with the Hajj (annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) and Eid Al Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice). We wrote the following piece together, because we believe this convergence in our calendars provides a fruitful opportunity to explore wisdom from each of our traditions about how best to use our words.

During the Days of Repentance, Jews reflect upon the missteps we’ve made over the past year. Words are most frequently at the heart of what needs repair: Words we used, words we misused, and even words we failed to use. Jews use language in different ways as part of our teshuvah – to apologize to one another and to accept apologies – in liturgy, we repeat lists of countless things for which we might need to atone.

As it happens, Muslims are also moving into a time of deep reflection, also requiring humility – and proper speech. This year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two million Muslims will perform the Hajj, a requirement for all who are able to afford the journey. Prior to the journey, pilgrims employ language to explicitly ask for forgiveness from others. This is followed with a declaration of intention, prayers, atonement for past sins, and asking for God’s mercy. This ritual journey ends with Eid Al Adha, commemorating the time – also deeply resonant to Jews during this period – when our mutual forefather, Abraham, painstakingly agreed to sacrifice his son and was granted the offering of an animal instead.

For Jews, the story of Abraham and Isaac is a many-layered story of their relationship to God, a story of loyalty, faith and covenant. For Muslims, it is a story that challenges them to be willing to give up what they love the most in service of selfless love of the Almighty, to fix their communication with one another through acts of selfless repentance. To illustrate how we work together in bringing our different perspectives to the same text, we begin with the foundational stories of our common ancestors.


Torah Reflection:

The beginning of the Torah provides models of how to use language to build, as well as cautionary tales. God creates through speech. God begins with “Let there be light,” and the universe unfolds from there. Through speech, God creates a world of order and deems it “very good.” By the time Adam and Eve have been ejected from the Garden (as a result of their response to the snake’s speech), we find ourselves embroiled in the story of entrenched sibling rivalry – which leads to the first murder – perhaps through a failure of speech.

In the story of Cain and Abel, the brothers each bring a sacrifice to God. Cain’s comes first – but it is not of his first or best (according to Rashi), Abel’s comes second, but it is “from the choicest” of his flock. Cain is understandably disappointed. God reminds Cain that he can choose to improve himself, but he should be mindful of the pitfalls if he doesn’t. As Cain comes to address his brother, the Torah presents us with a grammatical problem: “Cain said to his brother, Abel . . . and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8) The Torah uses the word vayomer, which functions like the word “said” – as opposed to the word vayidaber, best translated as “spoke” – the former demanding a direct quote of some sort. But the Torah provides none in our case. The midrash pours almost every human conflict imaginable into this pregnant gap: They were fighting over land and property, over the location of the Temple, over their mother’s love. Rashi adds that the reason itself doesn’t matter because, “Cain was only looking for a pretext to kill his brother.” These are all useful possibilities.

Perhaps the reason Torah does not include Cain’s words, however, is because there aren’t any. In this scenario, Cain approaches his brother with the intent to talk. He stammers, stutters, sputters, and then – instead of expressing frustration, anger, jealousy, resentment, guilt, remorse – his emotions erupt in action . . . and then Abel is dead. Perhaps God felt this cautionary tale of conflict resolution might be an instructive story for humans, right here at the beginning of the book — shedding light on the notion of “using our words wisely.” We might draw out from it the lesson Rambam teaches at the opening of his letter to his son: “Habituate yourself to always speaking gently to everyone, this will prevent you from anger.” Cain’s mistake wasn’t necessarily in approaching his brother to talk through his anger and resentment — a crucial element of building strong relationships is learning to talk through conflict. Cain’s mistake was in moving from “gentle” language right past “violent” language to physical violence itself. We need to be very conscious of how we engage one another through word and through action – especially in the most heated moments. In Rambam’s estimation, it helps to practice nuanced speech so that we are ready to take on those heated moments.


Quranic Reflection:

According to the Quran, human beginnings start with God naming all creation and then commanding Adam to name all animals and all things (Quran, 2:30-39). After Adam and Eve disobey God, God shows Adam how to use words and actions to repent, and grants him forgiveness: “Thereupon Adam received from His Lord certain words [of guidance], and He accepted his repentance.” (Quran, 2:37). God literally gives Adam words to seek forgiveness of the Almighty. Modeling and telling Adam to practice saying those words– first by naming creation and becoming comfortable with language and then using specific words to seek forgiveness. To err is human. And yet when one falls into error, God coaches Adam through meaningful repentance. It requires both speech and a shift in behavior – an attempt to make it right. In both of these instances, the Almighty stresses the importance of language and discernment: first in identifying creation and then in purposefully asking for forgiveness. God models for us first, that as humans we have the power to identify issues, naming them as we see them. God’s second lesson is that when we misstep, an important part of being in relationship is respectfully asking for, and granting, reconciliation.

Contemporary Quranic scholar Fathi Osman illuminates the cause of the violence between Adam and Eve’s children. He is concerned that they were caught up in a conflict of “power due to superiority/inferiority complexes” (Osman 70). “And convey to them truthfully the story of the two sons of Adam: When each offered a sacrifice [for God], and it was accepted from one of them, whereas it was not accepted from the other, ‘I will surely kill you,’ said one. [The other] said ‘God accepts only of those who are conscious of Him. Even if you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch my hand to kill you: I fear God, the Lord of all the worlds (Quran, 5:27-31). One brother kills the other because his gift is rejected by God – evoking deep feelings of hurt and pride that lead to rage.

We have an extraordinary opportunity, as did Cain and Abel. While the Quran does not specify which brother made an offering from the earth, it is clear the Quran is upholding the model of the brother whose offering was accepted. He both brings his best, and when provoked, he does not take the bait, even if the consequence is death. The example is to offer your best to those around you, and even when they try to hurt you, use words instead of force, and remain conscious of God. The consciousness being a deep awareness of your own motivation, so that you do not respond from a place of pride and rage.


Lessons from the text:

At NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change we use words to build relationships and work through differences of opinion. We draw from the wisdom of Muslim and Jewish tradition, as well as contemporary conflict resolution strategies, in helping us to illuminate how to listen deeply, hear the other, offer value to the relationship and problem-solve together.

For all of us, just as in the stories of biblical human beginnings above, it is incredibly challenging to overcome our own pride and self when we feel that what we have offered was rejected. It hurts, and it can paralyze our curiosity and language – the very tools we need to better understand how we wronged another party and how we might actually, meaningfully rectify the situation. Cain went to his brother to talk, but he couldn’t use his words. Many times, when in a charged and heated moment, we lose our ability to reason and find words. In these  moments it is best to pause and give ourselves time to find the language – to ask questions that are curious instead of provocative – to both advocate for ourselves, and make sure we fully understand the concerns of the other. We express our understanding as we see it, ask questions that lead to greater clarity around how the other sees the same situation differently, and ask more questions about how we might offer a solution of value to one another – recognizing that it hurts when we feel that what we have already offered is not adequate or enough. A hurt that requires us to look past our own egos in service of a greater goal can lead to reconciliation. Indeed, it can make our relationship deeper and stronger.

In both of our traditions, the story of Adam and Eve’s children leaves us with some important models for overcoming our egos in our interactions with one another. In both contexts, the story reminds us to watch for the obstacles that might stand in the way of slowing down our reactions and modulating ourselves in the heat of the moment. Ultimately, when provoked, it’s a choice to take the bait or not, and we can choose the path of forgiveness and mercy.

The rituals associated with each of our holidays also give us clues about how to tame our egos and speak with one another from a place of reflection. The Hajj, the most important pilgrimage in Islam, incorporates an exercise of running in another’s shoes. All pilgrims, from every corner of the earth, must run between two hills, the Safa and the Marwa, seven times, to re-live the sacrifice of Haggar, a mother, chasing mirages in search of water to quench the thirst of her baby, Ismail. A humbling exercise required of all who seek to cleanse their spirit. Muslims will be cleansing their souls anew through intention, words, and action – and literally running in the shoes of another. After engaging in this exercise of empathy, they will ask for forgiveness and mercy of the Almighty. They emerge pure – as if newly born.

As Jews stand in synagogue, from Slichot services to Yom Kippur, pounding their chests, uttering the famous formula, “For the sin which we have committed before You…” they will bear in mind Rambam’s method for achieving full repentance: identifying the sin, removing it from one’s thinking, resolving never to do it again, declaring it out loud, and, finally, when faced with the same situation again, making a different choice. As part of their cleansing process, they will need to speak words of reconciliation out loud – both to people with whom they need to make amends, as well as to God. When the gates of repentance close for the year, they will emerge cleansed and ready to engage the world and one another more productively and clearly.

It is a blessing for us that, during this time, every individual from both of our communities – Muslim and Jewish – has the opportunity to reflect and make changes to begin anew. To think about how we use our words for good, to heal rather than to harm, as building blocks rather than as weapons.

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[column]Aziza Hasan is the executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a community-building nonprofit organization that creates, connects and empowers Jewish and Muslim change-makers. NewGround convenes public programs, offers a professional fellowship and a high school leadership council (MAJIC: Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change). These programs empower participants with the skills, resources, and relationships to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in America and advance a shared agenda of being able to work on areas of common concern.[/column]
[column]Andrea Hodos completed the professional fellowship last year and is beginning her second year as the Jewish facilitator for MAJIC. Andrea also directs “Sinai and Sunna” — a performance-based project designed for Muslim and Jewish women to collaboratively explore the intersection of their traditions and contemporary society.[/column]


Photo Source: JewishJournal.Com

L: Andrea Hodos, R: Aziza Hasan

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