Our jihad is to reclaim Islam from extremists. What is yours?

#MyJihad sermon delivered on Yom Kippur- by Rabbi Justin S. Kerber

By on October 22, 2013 in MyJihad News & Events with 0 Comments

Yom Kippur MyJihad

MyJihad Yom Kippur Morning 5774; September 14, 2013, Congregation B’nai Sholom, Quincy,  IL

“Eye of the Tiger”

Friends, please imagine we are walking in to a huge sports arena for a big prizefight.  Can you hear the chatter of the crowd taking their seats and placing their bets?  Can you see two fighters each in their corners? Do you see their trainers rubbing their muscles while their coaches whisper some last minute words of advice and encouragement in their ears?  Can you smell the stadium smells of hot dogs, popcorn, cotton candy, beer, and the smell of thousands of excited people all together?  If you close your eyes, can you hear the music blaring over the PA system? [hit it, Mike! Eye of the Tiger]  Now, here comes the announcer stepping up to the mic and saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen…Are you ready to RRRRUUUMBLE?”

Out steps the card girl holding up the big number 1 for the first round.  Only she’s not wearing the usual skimpy bikini for a card girl in a boxing ring.  No, she’s wearing a modest but fashionable dress, and on her head she’s wearing the distinctive headscarf of a Muslim woman called the hijab.  (OK, so I admit this neon pink hijab with the Jolly Roger logo on the forehead gives her a hip, ironic look, but this is a prizefight after all.

What’s going on here?

We, the American Jewish community, have ringside seats at a prize fight that is shaping up to be one terrific bout.  This fight matters. This fight has profound implications for the future of our country; for Israel; for our whole world and for people of faith everywhere.  This fight deserves our attention

And Yom Kippur is a perfect time to talk about this fight.

What fight?

My friends, the prize at stake in the ring is nothing less than the soul of a major world religion.  The fighter who goes home with the purse wins the meaning of an important concept for Muslims across the world. And the fighter who gets knocked out might lose the ability to define the meaning of a central tenet of Islam itself.  When I say, “Muslims across the world,” I am talking about 1.6 billion human beings. Billion, with a “b.” That’s a fourth, one quarter of the world’s population. And I am talking about the world’s fastest growing religion.[1]

Convinced yet? Does anyone here think that a fight that matters to 25% of the world might have some implications for the rest of us?  (By comparison, there are something like 14 million Jews in the world – 14 million with an m. That’s the scale I’m used to thinking about. I get vertigo thinking about more than a billion Muslims.)  I said that the gold championship belt in this prizefight is the definition of a key concept in Islam.

The struggle I am describing is over the meaning of a word.  And the word is:  Jihad.

What is a Jihad?  (Elicit: “holy” war, violence, terrorism, a struggle against a fearsome, implacable enemy)  A google search of the word Jihad found 32,500 news items in about 3/10 of a second.  Most of these items are of the sort that could make you want to well…plotz.

Items such as:

THE United States alleges that an Algerian-born Irish citizen conspired with others to devise and create a “violent jihad organization…”

“Saudi Wahabi Sheikh calls on Jihadis to kill Shiites”;

“Jihad 2020: Assessing Al-Qaeda’s 20 year plan”;

“Egypt accusing Islamic Jihad of arms smuggling in Sinai”;

Depressed yet? Are we ready for a “little victory?”  Sorry, we’re just beginning to get honest.

Google news search for “Jihadi” yields 6,680 results in 23/100ths of a second. And the news is not much better:

Wikipedia: Jihadism (also known as jihadist movement or jihadi movement) refers to the renewed focus on armed jihad in Islamic fundamentalism …

It’s not funny to find news stories like:

Jihadis gain ground in Syrian rebel movement as moderates grow desperate…

Many of these news items are accompanied with an avatar of menace – a picture of a man wearing a black knit ski mask pulled down over his face so that only his eyes and mouth show is de rigeur. Somehow, I don’t think he’s going skiing in the beautifully snow-capped mountains of Syria or Lebanon.

Google itself gives a translation of the word ji·had·i:



One: a person involved in a jihad; an Islamic militant.  Two…

Google gives no definition number 2.

Because there’s nothing else a Jihad could be is there? Jihad is the nightmarish menace of religiously inspired violence.  There’s nothing else a Jihadi could possibly be than an armed, masked, implacable, and likely suicidal terrorist.  Right?

My Jihad

What else might a jihad be? Another definition: “The best jihad is a word of justice to an unjust ruler.” Don’t quote me.  That standard comes from Muhammad himself.

I’m not sure if that comes from the Islamic holy scriptures called the Qur’an or the somewhat less authoritative but still sacred collection of Muhammed’s sayings known as the Hadith – but either way, maybe Jihad is not quite so cartoonishly evil as we’ve been describing?

By that standard, I think of the prophet Nathan’s famous rebuke to King David: “You are the man!” or the prophet Samuel to King Saul, “For this, the Kingdom of Israel will be torn away from you!” and I wonder, could our prophets of truth be Jihadis?

Some of you know that I’m fascinated, intrigued, entertained, and just plain distracted by social media tools like Facebook and Twitter.  One of my most fascinating finds on Twitter last year was a campaign called “My Jihad.”

#MyJihad describes itself as a public education campaign that seeks to share the meaning of Jihad as believed and practiced by the majority of Muslims.  Jihad means “struggling in the way of G1d, being goodness, justice, passion, compassion, etc. It is putting up the good fight against whatever odds or barriers you face in your life.  It is a central tenet of the Islamic creed that has unfortunately been widely misrepresented due to (a) first and foremost, the actions of Muslim extremists; (b) attempts at public indoctrination by islamophobes who claim the extremists are right and the rest of us are wrong; and (c) a selective media that understandably focuses on the sensational. This campaign is about reclaiming our faith and its concepts from extremists, both Muslim and non-Muslim. It’s about our voice, our lives, our realities.

But that’s not the best part. The best part is that the campaign invites ordinary Muslims to publicly declare what their own Jihad is.

Some of the menacing, implacable jihads espoused here are:

“My Jihad is…

–    to build friendships across the aisle. What’s yours?”

–   …always to pursue new ideas and conquer new challenges. What’s yours?”

–   “…to believe that modesty is not a vice! What’s yours?”

–   “…to bring democracy to Egypt; …freedom and peace for Syria. What’s yours?”

These slogans are now running as billboards on public buses in Chicago and San Francisco.

Ok, so why should we care? Why is this a Jewish issue?

I can see at least three reasons we should care about Jihad: because of American Jewish historical reasons; because of moral reasons; and if that’s not convincing, because of plain old selfish reasons.

Myron Kirsch – you’re a maven of American Jewish history.  I think you’d agree our story is at least in part about our struggle for acceptance in this country. A struggle which thank G1d and thank generations of our forebears from Abraham Jonas to our grandparents, we have won.

Let’s not forget that acceptance in America did not come easily. Classical Reform Temples like this one were once built in the style of Mosques – recalling in particular the pluralism of medieval Moorish Spain, where Jews and Christians were given freedom and in return gave vitality to their host country. It was no mere nostalgia that led our grandparents and great-grandparents to build Moorish style Temples and Synagogues from the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati and KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago (they’d be proud that today this Moorish architectural gem is literally across the street from the Chicago residence of our first African President) to Temple Emanuel overlooking the glittering majesty of San Francisco Bay implicitly but very consciously offered America a promise of the same deal: treat us just like you would any other American, and we, for our part, will be loyal, productive, upstanding American citizens, proud of this country and a great asset for it.

A century later – and a civil rights movement later – and a credible campaign for Vice President by Senator Joe Lieberman later – we’ve won. We’re American. There are no quotas on our admission to colleges, universities and professional schools, the very idea of a restricted country club or housing development is absurd, Dunkin’ Donuts sells more bagels than Donuts, Seinfeld, we’re free to marry whoever we like – we’re so American that we’re the first Jewish community in history to worry about being loved to death. Wouldn’t it be the American thing to do to support this generation’s minority religious struggle for acceptance? Not To Mention wouldn’t it be the Jewish thing to do?

–    Second, we should support the My Jihad campaign for moral reasons.

As liberal Jews, we know well the debate the periodically raises its ugly and stupid head known colloquially as “Who is a Jew?” We expect liberal – that is, Reform and Conservative – rulings on Jewish law to be respected by our Orthodox coreligionists but we know that they are not always. We would expect that a person who converts to Judaism under non-Orthodox auspices to be legally Jewish in the State of Israel – but authorities there have become so paranoically stringent that even American Orthodox conversions have been treated with suspicion.

Shouldn’t we avoid doing what is hateful to us? When the question of Who is a Jew? comes up in our own internal debate, we resent those who do not take seriously our liberal interpretation of Judaism. So, if the equivalent question Who is a Jihadi? is in play among our Islamic brothers and sisters – oh, yeah, that’s what they’ve called me when I’ve visited mosques! Consider the compliment returned! – when that question is being fought on their side, shouldn’t we stick up for those whose support we would want?

–   But if history and morality are not convincing, let me suggest that good old standby: self-interest. What’s in it for me?

There are about 6 million Jews in North America today, according to the Pew Center on Religion in Public Life (that’s counting those who self-identify as Jews of whatever movement).  And there are right now a little over 3 million American Muslims. (By the way, American Muslims are immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and far eastern nations like Indonesia; as well as native born American Muslims.

Let me ask: Do we think we’ll outnumber American Muslims 2:1 for long? Really?

The state of Michigan, with its huge Arab Muslim population, has been hotly contested in every presidential contest since 2000. Do we think American Islamic political influence will not only continue to grow? Do we think national politics will continue to care about Jewish concerns as much as they have in the past? Wouldn’t we rather a tolerant, liberal, American Islam take root?

So we should care about #MyJihad. WHY would we discuss this on YOM KIPPUR, the holiest day of the year? Don’t we have something more important to talk about today?

Please think for a moment about the non-Muslim wing of the anti-Jihad extremists. Let me ask: Have we stood up to the hysterical rantings of the Jewish members of that anti-Muslim extremist coalition?

Wouldn’t the My Jihad campaign better serve the State of Israel’s interests in peace and conflict resolution?

I just have to ask: Did we learn nothing from 1930s Germany about demonizing another group?

Did we expend so much time, labor, love and energy winning such acceptance in America so that we could demonize and deny that acceptance to others?

Isn’t the commandment to love and show mercy to the stranger because we ourselves were strangers in Egypt the most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah?

But is it our fight?

I was blessed with some wonderful professors during my five years as a student at the Hebrew Union College. One of my very favorites was learning Talmud with Prof. Michael Chernick. As an Orthodox Jew teaching Talmud to the new generation of Reform rabbis, Dr. Chernick knew a thing or two about standing up for religious ideals and not letting raised eyebrows get in his way. So I’ll never forget Dr. Chernick’s parting words to our class in Jerusalem: “Be a Muslim,” he advised. “In the sense of trying to be someone who submits to G1d’s will,” he quickly added.

All those invitations on the website – “My Jihad is…what’s yours?” must have really whetted my appetite for Jihad.

My Jihad.org says I can have a Jihad of my very own.

Friends, I so wanted to.  I was going to be interviewed on Late Night TV as “The Jihadi Rabbi!”  I was so totally going to be famous for 15 minutes.  But then I thought about something I’ve learned as a chaplain in Catholic hospitals: the Catholic Church says I can perform a valid baptism.  But for me as a chaplain in Catholic hospitals, it’s a real possibility that I’ll be asked to do so. If and when that happens it will be my right to refuse but my responsibility to do so delicately and sensitively as well as firmly.  Because even if it’s OK with the church, it’s not OK with me. I can’t take part in another faith’s sacred religious ritual; I can only observe.  Sadly, I have to conclude that no, I can’t have a Jihad.  Closest I can say is, “If I could have a Jihad, My Jihad would be…”  Mine would probably be about submitting to just and rightful authority.

But we can –

Support our Muslim friends and neighbors; build relationships!

Challenge the news media’s portrayal of Jihad and Jihadists or Jihadis – write letters, e-mails, and spread the word of MyJihad.org through social media.

Would somebody please tell Google to balance out their definition? Merriam-Webster, The Oxford English Dictionary, American Edition, Wikipedia, and even Urban Dictionary, for crying out loud, have far more sophisticated definitions of Jihad than Google’s single bleak description.

Maybe we could reach out to our Muslim neighbors here in Quincy.  And invite the local news media to learn a thing or two.

If Jihad means to struggle to fulfill religious aspiration, then we can do the work of Yom Kippur – to practice self-affliction for self betterment on this day; and we can be Israel in its best sense: we can be those who wrestle with G1d, who struggle to bring about the redemption of our world through peace among God’s children on every day of every year.

Keyn y’hi ratzon – and make no mistake, there are wicked ones out there — may the wicked ones of the earth not be defeated by force of arms, but may they be persuaded that the way of love, peace and righteousness is better, so that they might turn from their evil ways and live.

[1] Pew Reearch, Religion & Public Life Project, The Global Religious Landscape: Muslims

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