I had not met Rabbi Harold Shulweis before we began to plan this live event in Los Angeles. He is known for his warm and insightful explications of the heart of Judaism. He loves his tradition and has a special regard for Judaism's core of compassion for the "other." He's written, "How we deal with the stranger tells us who we are and what we intend to become…. Reaching in to reach out is the exemplification of Godliness."
He seemed a fitting conversation partner for the brilliant Muslim jurist and author, Khaled Abou El Fadl, whom I had interviewed about fundamentalism in the months after 9/11. Abou El Fadl grew up in Egypt and Kuwait and joined an Islamic extremist movement as a teenager. He was rescued, he says, when he came to understand the deep, multi-faceted core of Islam as far more compelling than the simplistic version of Islam of his then-contemporaries.
In recent decades, he has put his life on the line in defiance of Islamic extremism. He delivers weighty analyses that earn him a voice on op-ed pages and on international human rights commissions. But I wanted to hear from Khaled Abou El Fadl on this occasion about an evocative, gentler concept that recurs in his writings — the notion of beauty as a religious value. He insists that the key to the future of Islam lies in recovering its core moral value of beauty. That is where I asked him to begin our conversation in Los Angeles. Abou El Fadl is intense and brainy, and on this night he was nervous. But he became mesmerizing when he spoke out of his passion for this tenet of his faith:
"Beauty is to fall in love with God, to fall in love with the Word of God, with the Qur'an, to read it and to feel that it peels away layers of obfuscation that I have spent numerous times building around myself. Beauty is to look around me and fully understand and feel, therein is God, in all that I see around me — and to understand my place in this, that I am integral as God's viceroy, as God's agent on this Earth, like everyone else. And at the same time, that I am wonderfully irrelevant."
Rabbi Schulweis responded in kind, recalling a Jewish counterpart, "the beauty of Holiness." In that frame of mind, in the course of the next hour, we talked about some of the most bitter issues in modern life: why religion gets us into such trouble, why our sacred texts themselves seem to pit one's faith against others, why religion paradoxically is at the heart of so much violence and war. Often when religious people are asked to speak of such things, they begin with doctrine, or grand concepts like moral imperative or divine justice. We took an unconventional route, to a fresh and intriguing critique of actions done in the name of religion: Is it beautiful, or is it ugly? This question was proposed as a theological measuring stick, a credible litmus test. Do our actions in the world reveal a delight in this world and evoke the image of a creative, merciful God who could have made it? Are we reverent before the mystery of that overarching belief that is common to both Judaism and Islam?
There was a palpable curiosity on the faces of the people in our audience at the beginning of the evening. Our conversation partners were uncertain about what would transpire, and I was uncertain about what would transpire. The possibility of surprise is a necessary precondition of an important conversation. But there is also, always, the possibility of disappointment. This was not disappointing. The audience settled, and grew enthralled. They sat in some amazement at the intellectual and personal affection that arose between these two disparate men, a passionate Jew and a passionate Muslim, before their eyes. What we experienced that night contradicted endless rancorous headlines we've all been reading and internalizing for years. Such headlines make important surprises seem less and less imaginable; they overshadow the fierce, quiet, religious force of beauty. Conversations like these — collective moments of listening and seeing differently — impel me to keep doing what I do.