Tag Archives: Judeo-Islamic synthesis

Jewish Sufis in Iran

Siman Tov Melammed: (before 1793- 1823 or 1828, nom de plume Tuvyah)  was an Iranian Jewish rabbi, poet and polemicist. He was the hakham, the spiritual leader of the community of Mashad and had to deal with a variety of religious tension of the era including forced disputations with Shii Imams. In 1839, the entire community was forced to convert to Islam. They lived as relatively secret Jews until the 20th century. Raphael Patai wrote a book on them Jadid al-Islam.

We usually associate Jewish-Sufism with Bahye ibn Pakuda, Avraham ben haRambam, and other Egyptian descendents of Maimonides such as David Maimuni or Joshua Maimuni. (These have been published by Paul Fenton with French translation and have not attained a wide readership.) Melammed’s writings are the tip of a much larger world of Jewish Sufi thought in Persia and Central Asia. Melammed wrote, in Persian, a philosophic and mystical poetic commentary on Maimonides thirteen principles called Hayat al Ruh; a sufi commentary on the Guide for the Perplexed. Within the large treatise, he wrote a poem in praise of Sufis.  Vera Moreen translated selections in 2000, (Queen Esther’s Garden, Yale UP , 2000) Below are 6 stanzas out of 30 (not to run a foul of fair usage laws.).

Melammed praises the Sufis for transcending their physical bodies and the habits of ordinary life to become servants of God. They are radiant and contented from their devotion to God and they lead other back through a straight path to God.

Description of the Pious Sufis Roused from the Sleep of Neglect

Godly and radiant like roses

The Sufis are, the Sufis,

Whose carnal soul is dead,

Doused their desires, the Sufis.

Firmly they grasp the straight path,

Leaders benevolent, guides

Of those who strayed are the Sufis.

Drunk with the cup and soul’s sweets,

With love of seeing the Unseen;

Without reins in both hands are the Sufis.

Dead to the world of the moment,

Alive to the hear after;

Full of merit and kindness are the Sufis.

God’s love is their beloved,

God’s affection their decoration,

And that which veils Him from the Sufis.

The most contented of beggars,

Avoiding rancor and dispute;

Freed from the Day of Punishment are the Sufis.

The issue must have been seriously debated because there is also a poem by an unknown Jacob against Jews becoming Sufis. The poem says to follow Moses, and his father Imran and to avoid the path of the famous Sufi Majnun. One should not relinquish one’s status as the chosen people for a universal faith.

Jacob: Against Sufis

O people of “Imran’s son”

Let not Satan deceive you,

Lest you forfeit religion and faiths;

My life for Moses’ life;

Whoever abandons his faith

Becomes a sage like Majnun,

Roaming about, confused;

My life for Moses’ life.

Bravely he is called a friend.”

But he turns common instead of chosen,

[Now] what religion can he call his own?

My life for Moses’ life.

Islam as the relgion of Hesed

Dr Avraham Elqayam is head of the Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbalah Research and professor of Kabbalah at Bar Ilan University. A number of years ago he wrote an article in the journal of the Torah veAvodah movement called “The Religion of Mercy: Encounters with Islam” Deot 19, (2004) 6-8 (It is a late night freehand translation). I am not sure of his current opinion but it is a very interesting three page article. He does not draw broader implications than those presented here.

In the article, he discusses the clash of civilization that puts Jews on the side of Western civilization. He demurs:

But are Jews part of the flesh of the flesh of Western Civilization? I am astonished! My family lived under the Muslim world in Spain and afterward in a small community in Gaza City. They lived submersed in the midst the Arabic Muslim civilization.

On the identification of Judaism and the West:

The question is – do we have to continue in this direction until we reach opposition or do we need to go in another direction? The Torah recounts how Isaac and Ishmael went together to bury Abraham. It is valid to ask on the role of Yishmael in the Jewish spiritual tradition. Our modern philosophers, especially [Franz] Rosenzweig betrayed us. I will turn, therefore, from the world of philosophy to the world of mysticism and Kabbalah. Perhaps there we will find a path and a direction.

Elqayam finds three approaches in Jewish mysticism to Islam. Kabbalah, Jewish Sufism, and Sabbatianism.

In Kabbalah- the world is all symbolic of the divine realm, therefore

When you contemplate about Islam, think about Ishmael in the parashah [Hayai Sarah] Ask what is being symbolized, what is the allusion in the world of divinity. It is surprising to reveal that the Spanish kabbalists saw the essence of Islam as connected to the power of the sefirah hesed. Abraham our patriarch represented hesed and Ishmael comes from Abraham, therefore Islam represents hesed.

In its inwardness, Islam is a religion of hesed  This is the self-consciousness of the Muslims themselves. Muslims are called in Arabic a religion of tolerance. This opinion appears in the writings of Yosef Gikitilla….The destiny of the Islamic nation amidst the humanity is to represent Divine hesed.”

Rabbi Abraham Maimoni was influenced by the Sufi mystical schools. He quoted the learning of Sufis, and praised their use of music, body posture, and prostrations.

Rabbi Abraham Maimuni saw Sufism as a form of meta-religion that bridged between Islamic spirituality and prophetic spirituality. His intention was understandably to imitate the prophets and not the Muslims, except according to his opinion, only the Muslims preserved the path of prophecy. We have seen in him the spiritual possibility within Judaism that preserves the Jewish identity but which expresses the spiritual world of Islam- the Jew lived in the culture of Islam, drawing leaven from the Muslim world yet making a synthesis between the worlds as a Jew.

Shabbatai Zevi converted to Islam and his followers created a synthesis that mixed both religions, they were Muslims who also kept Jewish practices including the Jewish holidays. [He gives several examples of the syncretism]

He conlcudes:

We need to reconnect the fine threads and the gleanings– that bring us to our brothers Ishmael, that are almost lost to us. It is possible that the time has already passed but we are required at least to try. It is incumbent upon us to begin afresh to build a spiritual bridge between Judaism and Islam, to this I desire.

Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin (1908 – 1989) was a Orthodox Jewish-German-American writer, scholar, and feminist activist. She co-founded, with her husband, the School of the Jewish Woman in New York in 1933, and in 1939 founded the Jewish Spectator, a quarterly magazine, which she edited for 50 years. She was an influential critic of the Christian- Jewish dialogue. She was also a critic of Rabbi Steven Riskin’s first years at LSS, which she perceived as modernizing away from traditional synagogue practice.

One of her little discussed books is Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue (Sept 1967), written right after the Six Day War. The journal Tradition accepted that the victory was God’s hand in history, but we should avoid open messianism. In contrast, Weiss- Rosmarin was cautioning that victory does not occur on the battlefield but in the winning of the peace afterwards.

She affirmed that Israel is a successor to the ancient Jewish states in the Middle East, but bemoans how it is presenting itself as an outpost of the West. She considers as proof of this Western exclusivism the attitude of the European born elite toward the immigrants from Arab countries, treating them as the “second Israel” and judging them by Western mores. Israelis have to become integrated into the Arabic middle Eastern society around them.

A product of Europe and its civilization, Zionism was caught up in the notion of the superiority of Western, i.e., European civilization. This notion caused the Zionists – ad Jews as a whole – to look down upon the Arabs and their ancient culture in the manner the British looked down upon “colonials.” The Jews came to Palestine with the determination to make the country an outpost of Western civilization and to “civilize the Arab nations.” The unequivocal cultural identification of the Yishuv with the West and the failure to support Arab nationalism in its post-war struggles with the Allies disabused the Arabs of the hope, expressed by Feisal, that the “Jewish cousins” were cousins by Arab definition. (6-7)

If Zionist movement and Jews generally had been more humble in their encounter with Muslim civilization (and the “Second Israel”) and if they had not come to Palestine waving the flag of “Western civilization,” Israel might well have benefited from Arab tolerance and humaneness.(9)

If henceforth Jews will assign to Jewish-Muslim dialogue the importance that is its due, the Arabs, in whose nationalism religion is as important as it is in Jewish nationalism, will eventually-and perhaps sooner than cold-headed realists will dare expect-rediscover that the Jews are their cousins, descendants of Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, who was Isaac’s brother. (44)

If the young State of Israel is to survive and prosper it must become integrated into the Arab world and be accepted by its neighbors. The crucial challenge confronting Israel is how to conclude an alliance of peace with the Arab nations. We believe that with a complete reorientation, especially a muting of the insistent harping on the theme of “Israel is an outpost of Western civilization” the Arab nations would accept Israel on the basis of the kinship which unites Jews and Arabs. (40-41)

Weiss-Rosmarin advocates the return and revival of Hebrew and Israel to its Near-Eastern roots. A complete reorientation to see Judiasm as part of the Arab world.

If there is to be “dialogue” between Israel ad the Arab countries, Israel will have to project a new image of herself-the image of a Semitic brother-state in the midst of Semitic brother-states. Instead of proclaiming itself “the outpost of Western civilization,” Israel should emphasize that Hebrew is a Semitic language and a sister-language of Arabic. The setting of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is not Europe but the Near East-its deserts and its fruitful regions. The biblical ideal of feminine beauty is not the Western dream. It is “the dark and comely beloved” of “Song of Songs,” who is swarthy as “the tents of Kedar” and –as Arab tents are to this day.(10)

Our prayers for the end of Exile and for the Return plead: “Renew our days as of old.” The renewal in the State of Israel should be a renewal of Jewishness in the traditional pattern of Hebrew civilization which was born, matured and produced its choicest fruit in the Middle East among kindred Semitic neighbors with kindred mores and, after the birth of Islam (622) in cross-fertilization and symbiosis with a kindred religious civilization. (11)

She cites the works of the Jewish Islamisists on the Judeo-Islamic similarities and synthesis. We lived together for more than a millennium. Islam is monotheism and law. We both have oral traditions and diverse schools of legal reasoning. But she adds her own observations on the similarities of the modern trajectories. We have the same problems of Madrasas and Yeshivot wanting to keep modernity and secular education out. Judaism and Islam both had secular nationalisms rise up to create modern states. She even paints a picture of common suffering.

The identity of Jewish and Muslim fate and suffering at the hands of Christians, during the Crusades and in Spain, has not received sufficient attention. It was a period of shared agony and confrontation with a common enemy. This deserves to be better known by Jews and Muslims. The shared fate of oppression and persecution under “Christianity triumphant” is a strong bond of Jewish-Muslim brotherhood. (30-31)

As practical steps, she calls for (1) American Jewish organizations to foster Jewish Muslim dialogue.(2) Jewish institutes of higher learning, especially the seminaries, should introduce courses on Islam and Arabic culture.  (The way Ignatz Goldziher and Jacob Barth, both observant Jews, taught respectively at the Budapest and Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminaries.) (3) Jewish Institutions should assign priority to hosting Muslim lecturers, the way they host Christian lecturers. (4) There should be adult education courses fostering Jewish Muslim dialogue. [42-43]

This was in 1967.

Update- Here is the full text from The Jewish Spectator

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin – Toward Jewish-Muslim Dialogue