By Rabbi Nancy Kasten
The Internet has made it much harder to perform meaningful teshuvah or to accept the teshuvah of others. Nonetheless, as Jews we are required to do both. I believe that Imam Omar Suleiman was sincere when he apologized in August of 2017 for statements he had “ever said, written or done” that harmed anyone who felt threatened by his words. I believe him not because of what he wrote and said then, or what he has written and said before and since, but because of the person he has always been, a person who daily performs acts of lovingkindness, and who embodies true commitment to human life and dignity. In February of 2017 Omar delivered a card signed by nearly 100 members of the Valley Ranch Islamic Center to the Dallas JCC, in the wake of a bomb threat, that said, “We are here for you.” In October of 2018 Omar sat in the front row at Congregation Shearith Israel at the memorial service for Jews gunned down in Pittsburgh. When he traveled to help bury the dead after the attack on Muslim worshippers in New Zealand in March, he sent some of his Jewish partners and friends this text message: “I’m holding you all in my heart in Christchurch. Every time I see one of our Jewish brothers and sisters here, I think about how blessed I am to have you all in my life. Thank you.” Many Jewish leaders in our community reach out to Omar when they want to talk to a widely respected Muslim leader, learned in his own tradition and in the complexities of working across lines of difference. Omar has offered his hand and heart to our Dallas Jewish community in solidarity, empathy and compassion time and time again, even when his overtures have been rebuffed out of fear or distrust.
I have sat with Omar in restaurants and in my living room, sharing stories and asking questions about past experience and hopes for the future; struggling to understand and accept each other’s narratives. In my experience, Omar tries repeatedly to understand and respect the narratives of others while refusing to negate his own. That is a quality we can all strive to emulate. Omar and I share a conviction that our communities have more that unites us than divides us, a concern that the futures of both the Jewish and the Muslim communities in this country are under threat, and a commitment to building trust between us so that we can effectively work together. We also share a sad suspicion that social media outlets are being manipulated to engender fear and distrust among would-be allies in the fight against racism, xenophobia, jingoism and white nationalism. Jewish and other social media outlets that choose to saturate their networks with “anti-Semitic” tropes by progressive Muslims and “pro-Israel” tropes by conservative evangelical Christians are sadly succeeding in dividing the Jewish community from our allies, making it harder for us to build the power necessary to combat discrimination and violence.
In the Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides states the following:
“You must not show yourself cruel by not accepting an apology; you should be easily pacified, and provoked with difficulty. When an offender asks forgiveness, you should forgive wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit. Even if the offender has caused you much trouble wrongfully, you must not avenge yourself, you must not bear a grudge. This is the way of the stock of Israel and their upright hearts. “
I hope that our local Dallas community will not be afraid to share our lived experience of Imam Omar Suleiman with others who may not have had the privilege of personally interacting with this humble, patient and wise young faith leader, a person whom our Jewish community rightfully calls a friend. Let’s not let the Internet prevent us from doing what the stock of Israel is required to do: performing our own teshuvah and accepting the teshuvah of others.
Rabbi Nancy Kasten was recently named Chief Relationship Officer of Faith Commons, an organization working to strengthen faith communities and communities through faith.