Sarah Bassin and Abdullah Antepli
Abdullah Antepli was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University, where he now serves as the Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs and as an adjunct professor of Islamic studies. He is also the co-creator and co-leader of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Sarah Bassin serves Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, and she was the first executive director of NewGround in Los Angeles, a Muslim-Jewish partnership for change.
Krista Tippett, host: It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and in truth, there’s a lot of laughter in what comes next: an imam and a rabbi walk into a conference of reform Jews. But amidst reports of rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, there are also friendships — and conversations like this — taking place.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Imam Abdullah Antepli: It’s so interesting — what you envy of Islam, I envy in the opposite direction, in the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin: Our inability to talk about God?
Imam Antepli: No — [laughs] your discomfort with God.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Imam Abdullah Antepli was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University. Rabbi Sarah Bassin serves Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills. I met them in a standing-room only session at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston.
Ms. Tippett: The tensions and dangers of our time are well-known. I’m also interested, passionately interested, in the stories of our time that are hard and true and proceeding with grace and creativity — stories that are not being told, because they are not violent and not shouting to be heard. One of the stories of our young century is that all over this country, synagogues and mosques, Muslims and Jews, have been coming to know one another. There is friendship. There are shared community initiatives that didn’t exist before. There are Jews and Muslims having each other’s backs in times of crisis, both locally and globally. And there are programs and initiatives, all over this country and across the world, a fair number of which these two have touched, that are patiently, and at human scale, planting the seeds for new realities across generational time. And in my mind, generational time — unlike real time, which we talk about all the time in the news cycle — generational time is faithful, theological time. It is a faithful, theological sense of time and of the possibilities it is ours to create, even in the darkest moments. So I’d like to start where I always start my conversations, by hearing just a little bit about the — how you would begin to talk about the spiritual, religious background of your childhood. Rabbi Bassin, would you like to start?
Rabbi Bassin: My spiritual journey as a child actually began in utero, because my mom actually became a Jew by choice when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with me, so she immersed in the mikvah while I was still inside of her. But the Catholic background that she had, and my exposure to her half of the family, even as I was raised solely as a Jew, was so deeply important for how I understood my spiritual upbringing, as a kid. And I got this deep and profound language of justice in the reform movement that really stuck with me, about giving me a sense of purpose and rootedness and that my faith was to be a faith put into action.
But the most lived experience that I had of that was actually through stories from my mom’s side of the family, and…
Ms. Tippett: That Catholic social justice tradition.
Rabbi Bassin: That Catholic social justice tradition. My grandfather, who died before I was born — I never met him — he was a small-town physician. And he would be the type of doctor that accepted pickles for payments. And all of the stray animals that people had would get dropped on the doorstep of that family. And I grew up with these stories about how they went to integrate the pool on the first day that it was racially integrated. And that was my sense of what faith looked like in action.
Ms. Tippett: So Imam Antepli, you were born in Turkey. How would you talk about the spiritual or religious background of your childhood?
Imam Abdullah Antepli: Mine is a little bit more eventful and problematic. I grew up in a — Turkey, especially my family background, it was violently secular. My father hated religion in general, Islam in particular, so much that he named all his children after pre-Islamic, Turkish gods.
So Abdullah is the name — in Hebrew, Obadiah, “the servant and slave of God” — is something that I took on when I became religious. And I’m not unique. In my generation…
Ms. Tippett: What was your name — what was your given name?
Imam Antepli: [laughs] Tuncay, which means “full red moon,” which shaman Turks used to worship.
Ms. Tippett: So interesting.
Imam Antepli: Can you imagine your father naming you “Krishna”?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs]
Imam Antepli: Or your father naming you “Amalek”?
So when I became very religious in my mid-teenage years, Islam in many ways came and filled the empty space that I always felt in my heart. That legal, ritualistic tradition forces you to slow down five times a day, remember God, focus internally; encourages you to grow internally, as much as externally. It just spoke to me so beautifully.
What attracted me to God and religion in the first place, one of the most consistent central emphases in Islam, is, God is not an intellectual game. It’s not a vertical relationship. You cannot experience the presence of God in your life only with your relationship with God. If you claim to love God, it has to manifest itself in the horizontal service of humanity. You have to make a difference in the life of others. And “Abdullah” — I felt it was just capturing that: “the servant of God,” “slave of God.” And I hope I am living up to that name.
Ms. Tippett: So there’s a definition of — ecumenism is intra-Christian relationship, conversation, which — I was born in 1960, and it’s hard to remember how in 1960, where I grew up, a “mixed” marriage was a Methodist-Baptist marriage.
We forget that we have come a long way, in many ways, as hard as things are. And my favorite definition of ecumenism was from this great Paulist priest who actually was Pope John XXIII’s liaison to non-Catholic observers to Vatican II. And his definition of ecumenism was: “Ecumenism is that which we would have more of, if we had a better word for” — “Ecumenism is that which if we had a better word for, we would have more of.” And I’ve been really aware of this for many years, and so I’m saying that by way of saying — so even the phrase “interfaith relations,” or “Muslim-Jewish dialogue” — we need these words; we can’t get rid of them, but they’re so clinical. And I think they — so I’m just saying that by way of saying, as we continue to speak, I’m gonna try to avoid them, because I think these words don’t convey the beauty, the depth, and the transformation that happens in these experiences, and that it’s really important that those of us involved in these use a great ecosystem of words and stories to talk about what happens to us.
Imam Antepli: If I may, one of those words is “Abrahamic.” I just hate that term, but I don’t know — I don’t have a better one. “Abrahamic family,” Abraham — Jews and Muslims, “spiritual cousins” — every time anyone says “Abrahamic family,” I wonder if these Hindus and Buddhists, they look at us and say, “What a dysfunctional family.”
What is family? And putting Abraham, the old guy, in the center — again, glorifying men, as if none of the women in the story makes any meaningful contribution.
Ms. Tippett: It’s a good example.
Imam Antepli: We should find some new terms.
Ms. Tippett: It is meaningful, but it has limits. All these phrases are meaningful. They have limits. I guess — so the question I want to ask, coming out of that is, if I said, how would you start to convey that, what this does to you and to your identity and your own tradition?
Rabbi Bassin: The language that I’ve used to describe that is: a feeling of “holy envy.”
Ms. Tippett: Holy envy?
Rabbi Bassin: Holy envy, that — I say that there are a lot of things that each religious group does particularly well. And I think that often, when people encounter the Jewish community, one of the things they really admire is our diversity of opinion and our way to argue and how rich and how alive that conversation is. But we’re also not that good at talking about God. And we also don’t have, woven into our fabric, on anything other than an annual basis, what actual forgiveness looks like…
Ms. Tippett: You mean in Jewish —
Rabbi Bassin: In Jewish theology and Jewish practice. So when I look at Christians and see how they internalize that language of forgiveness and have this model in Jesus of what that looks like, I want to know what that is, in my language. And also, when I look at Muslims and see the way that this language of God just flows through you without any sort of self-conscious awareness, I want that. I’m envious of that. And it’s not an envy that does anything detrimental to me. It’s an envy that actually makes me want to dig for it in my own tradition.
Ms. Tippett: Right. There’s a Rosh Hashanah reflection or sermon from you on the way Jews speak of “our Father, our King.” Here’s what you wrote — it’s beautiful: “So why do we conjure up both notions of God in one breath?” And you say, “I believe that this prayer is trying to teach us an essential life skill, that of holding two contradictory ideas in our heads simultaneously, without rejecting either.”
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah, it’s complicated, that interfaith relations — for all the limitations of that term — that it’s simultaneously enriching and deeply challenging and frustrating. I walk away from conversations feeling fulfilled and transformed, but I also walk away feeling really agitated, sometimes, because the other person doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, or “How can they not get how important this particular concept is to me?” That both things are true at the same time.
Imam Antepli: That’s really beautiful. And my biggest holy envy of Judaism is, absolutely, Shabbat. This is something — the world needs more of it. Imagine — when the world’s largest, most effective and influential religion, capitalism…
…is telling you, “Work more, harder. Buy more. Study harder,” there’s one voice from Sinai for 5,000 years, saying, “Once a week, don’t do that.” It’s so interesting — what you envy of Islam, I envy in the opposite direction, in the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Bassin: Our inability to talk about God?
Imam Antepli: No, [laughs] your discomfort with God, your wrestling with God, your ability to question. One of my mentors at Shalom Hartman, the president of Shalom Hartman, he wrote a book titled — he’s a rabbi, orthodox rabbi — Putting God Second. But only a faithful Jew can say that. Only a faithful Jew can develop a respectful language, even — you know the famous Talmudic — when rabbis were arguing, finally God speaks and takes the side of one rabbi. And the other rabbi says, “That’s not your position to argue.” [laughs]
And they say — they put God into his own place.
There is no way, no stretch of imagination, even an imam smokes anything that he wants to smoke — we can’t go there.
We just can’t. That’s not — that will really fundamentally challenge — but it’s so good that you can. So I can look from your shoulder and enjoy that that’s possible, that I don’t have to be content with always — I can be uncomfortable in certain — that’s a holy envy, for me. And Jews do this better than anybody else.
Rabbi Bassin: I have to say that that richness and that diversity is actually part of what has rooted me in a sense of feeling deeply authentic in doing interfaith work, because inevitably, you get the challenges of — that it’s fluffy; that’s it’s not real; that it’s surface-level. But if we take seriously that there are 70 faces of Torah, if we take seriously that minority opinions are just as important to incorporate, if we take seriously machloket l’shem shamayim — that we’re supposed to argue for the sake of heaven — then why are we limiting that to only an internal conversation? And absolutely, you have something to add to my understanding of Torah, especially because you’re not on the inside — that you have a different way of holding a mirror up to me.
[music: “Alice” by Grandbrothers]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, as part of the Civil Conversations Project, a live conversation at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston. I’m with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Sarah Bassin. Imam Antepli was the Muslim Chaplain of Duke University, and Rabbi Bassin serves Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills. She was the first executive director of NewGround in Los Angeles, an organization started by young Jews and Muslims tired of being captive to an old, hard fight. They call it a “partnership for change.”
[music: “Alice” by Grandbrothers]
Ms. Tippett: You’ve both, at some point, felt compelled to get involved, to wander into this space — and not just to get involved, but to create some new forms to do it. And you’ve each had tipping points that really also are flashpoints in our life together, writ large, as I’ve been reading into you. So Rabbi Bassin, I think a tipping point for you was 2009, when you were working at the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis. Want to tell that story?
Rabbi Bassin: I was an intern for the Board of Rabbis, which is the body of rabbis associated with the larger Jewish community, cross-denominational. And while I was working there, it was one of the conflicts that broke out in the Middle East. And outside of the federation building, there was actually a protest that was breaking out, a pro-Palestinian protest that was starting to emerge, and so all of us who were on the top levels were told to go downstairs and be ready to counter-protest. We have to show strength in numbers. And when I went down there — I have this vision seared into my head of this one guy who was just nervously and anxiously pacing back and forth and mumbling to himself, “We have to get a bigger megaphone. We have to get a bigger megaphone” — because we were disorganized, because we weren’t as effective as the other side. And I just remember sighing in frustration, of: “Really? That? That’s what’s gonna solve this, is a bigger megaphone?” All that’s gonna do is add to the problem, and if we don’t figure out a way to do something other than scream at each other across the street, then this is never going to solve itself.
And so by the time I actually started NewGround, when I was a new graduate from Cooper Union College, when I was starting this and seeking out mentors’ advice, people who had done interfaith relations, I sat down with a mentor who told me that I was wasting my life and that I was never gonna be hired in the mainstream Jewish community again because of the people that I was working with.
Ms. Tippett: And NewGround — and Los Angeles is especially heated. This has been hard everywhere, but it was especially entrenched in Los Angeles. And it was a lot of young Muslims and young Jews who created NewGround to chart a different path.
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah, the dysfunction had played out in city politics at the city level, and so NewGround was formulated to not reach the top levels of the community leaders and to start one level below, where it could be a little bit more under-the-radar.
Ms. Tippett: Which I think is also a new form. We’ve been so focused on what’s at the top, and that’s just so broken.
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah, and so when you have a quieter conversation, it has more potential to be more permeating into different parts of the community. And that, for me, is the greatest sense of pride that I had — not gathering the people who are already predisposed to it, but getting the people who were suspicious of the conversation to start to be curious about it.
Ms. Tippett: And so we are gonna go into what — some really granular things that you’re learning. But I — so for now, I just want to set the scene, in terms of how you both stepped out of the old models. And so I think a tipping point for you — and obviously, there were many, but these were the ones that jumped out at me — was when you organized a trip through Wesleyan University when you were — you were at Hartford Seminary at that point, I think?
Imam Antepli: Yes, I was a student there, but working as a Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan.
Ms. Tippett: And I guess you went to Turkey and to Israel. And it was a trip that — I guess the Turkey part of it was very successful, and the Israel part was a failure. And that really got you reflecting, it seems like.
Imam Antepli: Absolutely. I think what you are referring to is those moments in life, in the life of your community, where you feel there’s a prophetic moment — “prophetic moment” meaning — both in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — when a prophetic moment emerges, usually that really requires very radically questioning the collective wisdom, which you see, it’s failing; that most of the attempts to solve the problem are making things worse. And both in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, when a prophet emerges, none of them come to their community and say, “God loves you. You guys are awesome and amazing. You don’t have to change anything.”
They come and say, “You guys screwed up. God is angry. You are falling short in your ethical, moral commitments.”
What that trip told me, and consecutive conversations with the American Jewish community and American Muslim community — we are not understanding each other. And our sources of information, vis à vis each other — the way in which — if we cannot develop a common language without triggering social anxieties, existential anxieties in each other, we will never go anywhere, because it was very clear that we were looking at the same picture, but what appears in the Jewish mirror, what appears in the Muslim screen, is completely different than reality. It was very clear evidence of that.
Ms. Tippett: And you also described how — when you’ve talked about that trip, you did things like organize debates that had one Palestinian and one Jew, in order to understand both narratives. And it didn’t do anything differently than what it does in the political sphere, which is, start a fight.
Imam Antepli: It just made things worse. It just — that kind of partisanship, that kind of debate culture, throwing self-serving facts, United Nations resolutions, to one another — that shouting match, it only increased the partisanship which is plaguing us, which is intellectually killing our curiosity, which is killing our willingness to listen to people who may disagree, or our ability to see that there is actually some point. You don’t have to agree; you don’t have to endorse. But at least to come — that debate model is unfortunately ruining our intellectual, especially moral, and spiritual lives.
Ms. Tippett: I remember, actually, Rabbi Hirt-Manheimer, when we met, years ago — maybe — was that five years ago? Ten? It feels to me like it was — yeah. It feels like to me, it was the early post-9/11 years. And you were talking to me about all the experimenting and probing that, especially, Reform Judaism was making into relationship and dialogue with the Muslim community, and how you were discovering a kinship, and even a kinship that was different from the more familiar Christian-Jewish dialogue. And I think, as a journalist, when I started my work, also, in those early years of the century, one thing I was aware of is, in the newsroom, whenever you had someone on from a tradition, the people in the newsroom would say, “At the top of the show, you have to say — you need to tell us, what do they believe?”
And that is a Christian question, and you can do that with Christianity, although it does — it’s very superficial; but you can do that. You can say, “They believe this.” You can’t do it with Islam or Judaism. These are traditions of lived piety. And so that’s one thing I saw at the very beginning, in terms of this kinship — as you say, with this simplistic, “Abrahamic” thing.
Imam Antepli: Clinical — absolutely right. If anybody tells you, “Islam is” whatever; “Christianity says…”; “Judaism believes…” — shy away from these people. At its best, they are just naïve and uninformed. At its worst, they are just lying. No religion of 1.6 billion people, 1,400 years of history, says one thing or believes in one thing or strongly condemns or endorses one thing. That’s just not — and Christianity is not what New Testament says, only. Judaism is not what Tanakh says, only. Islam is not what Qur’an and Mohammed said 1,400 years ago. Islam is what Muslims do. You have to see the human manifestation of that text over time, and not just one community, one episode, one time period, but over centuries. What we have been doing, or what we have done, is our religions, our tradition.
Rabbi Bassin: I would say, though, one point of kinship that is actually a point of difficulty in the conversation between Jews and Muslims is that both of us, when we enter into an interfaith conversation, we’re used to being victims. And when Jews enter into a conversation that’s interfaith with Christians, we come and we say, “OK, we’re victims. Now we’re ready for the apology.”
We can’t do that with the Muslim community, because the Muslim community also comes in with a narrative of colonialism and their own narrative of victimization. So we’re sitting here, and we’re waiting for an apology, just as the Muslim community is coming to that conversation, waiting for an apology too. So while it’s the shared approach and the shared experience of history, it actually creates a flashpoint and a complication when we talk to each other.
Ms. Tippett: So let’s talk about some of the things that you’re learning. And I believe, Rabbi Bassin, you’ve actually, in one of your — it feels like you’ve done so much, at such a young age. But at some point — where were you? With the U.S. Muslim-Jewish Relations at the Center for — you were at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, which is at USC, directed by Rabbi Reuven Firestone. And you were part of a project that was actually mapping — you were mapping the new landscape of what we’re not gonna call —
Rabbi Bassin: It feels like it was forever ago, at this point.
Ms. Tippett: OK, and we’re not gonna call it “interfaith relationship,” whatever that is, that kinship relationship, new conversation. Just tell us about — and I guess, as you say, it feels like forever ago, and the landscape has continued to change and grow.
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah, the landscape has evolved tremendously. That was probably 2008, 2009, maybe, that I did that, and it feels like a world of difference. I think, when I was doing that report, part of it was a hunger, for me, of looking for people who were like-minded and doing this work, and trying not to feel so alone. What would it look like for us to feel more networked and to feel like there were more energy and power, rather than these isolated things that were happening sporadically? And since then, the network has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and there is a sense of — I knew about Imam Antepli, well before I ever met him, and vice versa. There’s this sense of, we know who the players are. We know where this good work is being done. And we’re all relying on a lot of the same tools to make it happen.
Imam Antepli: As the fuller side of the glass is quite impressive, but also, I think, since 2008 and 2009, the emptier side of the glass is also very significant. Landscape changed for better; also, for worse. Muslim anti-Semitism is worse than what it was, and the Jewish Islamophobia, the anti-Muslim bigotry in the Jewish community is a lot worse, a lot sharper.
Rabbi Bassin: And I just want to jump in here, because you have been so clear about being vocal of the anti-Semitism in the Muslim community, and it’s appropriate and right and fair for me to say that Islamophobia really is a significant problem in the Jewish community, as well. And it’s not a truth that we like to face, but it’s one that is deeply ingrained in our understanding of self and particularly manifests with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of, or prism through which we view all Muslims, and the fear that we have towards even our Muslim neighbors in the United States — this internalized Islamophobia from the larger culture that has this particularly Jewish flavor that we add to it from our own experience.
Imam Antepli: Thank you, Sarah, but — not “but,” “and” — my dismay and disgust, deep disgust for Muslim anti-Semitism is not a demand for a reciprocal gesture, quite honestly. I despise Muslim anti-Semitism, because I know what hate does: in an individual; to a community. When hate becomes unchallenged, if it goes freely — and often masked under certain political arguments, it erodes the ethics and morals of that community. If we allow Muslim anti-Semitism to grow louder and stronger than what it is now, it’s going to destroy American Islam. I have all the selfish interest, in all honesty, to save the soul of American Muslim communities, to make sure, in its earlier stages, we are gonna quarantine that cancer and wipe it out.
[music: “Me Is All I Am” by Jacob Montague]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Sarah Bassin through our website, civilconversationsproject.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Me Is All I Am” by Jacob Montague]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, as part of the Civil Conversations Project, a live conversation at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston. I’m with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Sarah Bassin.
Ms. Tippett: So — and you probably can’t answer this question, and I’m not sure how much of a difference —
Imam Antepli: Try us.
Ms. Tippett: I’ll try you. And it’s the kind of question I ask, and I’m not sure how much difference it makes, but I guess the question I want to ask about this phenomenon that you’re actually both seeing — is this fear and this…
Imam Antepli: Hate.
Ms. Tippett: Hate, is it actually — is it spreading? Is it truly more and more people? And/or is it that these voices are louder and more trusted and — or see some authority that wasn’t there before? Maybe it’s all of those things. I’m always curious about this.
Rabbi Bassin: I don’t think it’s more widespread; I do think it’s deeper. I think that the people who…
Ms. Tippett: The places where it might have been before —
Rabbi Bassin: Where it already had a hold, it now it has a stranglehold. But I’ve witnessed — even in my own community, since coming to Temple Emmanuel — some really transformed perspectives, through actual lived contact with Muslims. We had this experience, at the beginning of the year, where there were all those bomb threats that were coming into Jewish institutions. And there was a palpable fear. And the vast majority of us were pretty sure that it was going to be a Muslim who eventually was going to be revealed to be the person behind it. Of course, at the end of the day, it wasn’t. It was somebody who was Jewish.
But in that moment, that’s when my NewGround network got activated. And one of our alumni came to — brought a group of Muslims to seven different synagogues on seven different Shabbatot, as a statement of solidarity. And when she showed up — it touched my heart, the depth of relationship and what those years of building that relationship actually looked like. And that moment, it felt like it paid off, in a kind of way. But the way that it touched my community, it just tore down those walls and tore down those barriers. So I don’t think that it’s wider. I think it’s louder, and I think that that hate is deeper, but I don’t think it’s wider.
Imam Antepli: I have a slightly different take. I think all the causes, causations of this cancer and tumor is absolutely right, but I think why it’s so — more visible and hurting us more is, our immune system is deteriorating. Our ability to resist and detect hate is — the wider community is losing its immune system. That’s why I’m saying “cancer.” What cancer does is, it’s not getting any stronger, but it makes you weaker, that even a small dose of it can destroy you.
Ms. Tippett: I think, Imam Antepli, there’s something — the way you — and I think part of what we get into with “interfaith” experiences is the representing a whole tradition, so I don’t want to say “the way you represent Islam…” But…
Imam Antepli: [laughs] I do that all the time.
Ms. Tippett: You do. The perspective and the position you take is — you say, very clearly, that it’s not true to say that ISIS, people in ISIS, are not Muslims and that their ideology has no connection to Islam. And you also say things like this: that the reason religion has become — “One of the reasons religion has become such a divisive force in the world is that the crazies and nut jobs of our faith communities hijack the faith as they zealously promote the narrow, exclusive, and even violent interpretations of our faith traditions.” So again, there’s one of those both/ands.
Imam Antepli: Sure, sure. I wholeheartedly — I feel very passionate about this: solution to the ills and the evils of our communities are not disowning them. It is so easy and cheap and quick to say, “ISIS is not Muslim. Hezbollah is not Muslim. Hamas is not Muslim.” You can’t say that. As much as they turn my stomach upside-down, as much as I am disgusted, what they represent, I cannot disown it. I cannot say, “Osama bin Laden is not Muslim.”
And I cannot tell you, one of the biggest pastoral crises related to this is, unfortunately, Muslim crazies are so publicized, unfortunately, many Muslim kids are internalizing this. I cannot tell you how many times I broke into tears — at home with my kids, or my students at Duke University — whenever they see a crazy Jew or violent Christian, it’s amazing, they come and say something like: “We don’t own all the crazies in the world” — like, almost, misery likes company, which is quite horrible.
Solution is not to divorce ourselves from our moral responsibility. We have to own this cancer, and we have to defeat it in its theological, ideological ground, and we have to defeat it in its social, political, and cultural ground. Those well-meaning Muslims, whenever they say, “No, it has nothing to do with Islam,” they don’t realize how much they look like an ostrich hiding his head on the sand, unfortunately.
But at the same time, there is a moral crisis that — in all faith traditions, the crazier you are, the more publicity you get.
Ms. Tippett: That’s just true of — that’s the way — well, that’s also the way journalism works, these days. It’s also true of politicians and…
Imam Antepli: I don’t understand what — exactly.
Ms. Tippett: Unfortunately, religion is caught in this.
Imam Antepli: Absolutely. If I hit Sarah, it will be in The New York Times. But this is not gonna make front page New York Times.
Rabbi Bassin: But it’s also depicted, in some ways, as the more “authentic” version of what religion is too, and that’s where I think all of our responsibility comes in, in saying: “That is not the only thing that religion is.”
And I completely agree with you. The Jewish approach to dealing with our crazies is to dismiss it as a statistical anomaly or to say that “That’s not my type of Judaism.” We may not say they’re not a Jew; we’re really big on the peoplehood concept. But we’ll say, “That’s not my type of Judaism,” which does that same distancing. And I think that we actually have to have that internal battle for the soul of our religion, to try to move that center back to a place where it embraces the love over the violence. But both are pieces that we have to wrestle with.
Imam Antepli: Also, I think it’s a very common intellectual disease that the authenticity is only seen as externality. The way you look — I will never forget, one of my students, I was gonna do his wedding, said, “Can you not trim your beard for three weeks?” — because it’s not long enough. It’s just — as if the authenticity and the piety is in the length of my beard. I don’t have to bust my brain to read more books and get more knowledge; all I need to do is not to shave and look a little bit like as if I just rolled out of my bed.
That’s, unfortunately, a common human intellectual disease. What makes, traditionally, somebody dressing up like a Polish aristocrat — thinking Moses walked in the desert like that — what makes him more authentic than somebody who is living internal Jewish ethics and morality in the most devotional way possible?
Rabbi Bassin: That goes along with how often I get told that I don’t look like a rabbi.
[music: “The Slowdown” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, as part of the Civil Conversations Project, I’m with Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Imam Abdullah Antepli. Rabbi Bassin serves Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, and Imam Antepli was the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University. He’s also the co-creator of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We are at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston.
[music: “The Slowdown” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: One of the things, Rabbi Bassin, that you’ve talked about is, there’s this — there has been this habit, in this sphere, of diving right into the conflict — diving right into the conflict or avoiding the conflict entirely. And both of those fail. They just — they fail.
But there are some simple things that you’ve both been involved in, just different framings and starting points and exercises, to walk people into a different space, Muslims and Jews. So one of the things I noticed — and I just want to talk about this a little bit. You were telling this story about — in NewGround’s fellowship program — and I know, NewGround, again, which was started by young people on both sides, has just really been so innovative in creating a different kind of relationship. You talk about the — one of the exercises, of asking everyone to listen to a series of statements. So the Jews are on one side, the Muslims are on the other, and you start with some statements. So just describe what happens and what that effects.
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah, so there are a lot of different versions of this game. One of them is “Me and All My Neighbors.” So “Me and all my neighbors are wearing blue jeans.” Whoever is wearing blue jeans steps into the circle and sees who else is wearing blue jeans. Then you gradually raise the stakes of that game and get more and more deep and more and more personal. “Me and all my neighbors have lost someone to religious violence. Me and all my neighbors have experienced a hate crime.” And without ever saying a word, just by seeing those connections and how they don’t always break down across faith lines in the way that you think.
Ms. Tippett: So if that statement is true of you, you walk into the center —
Rabbi Bassin: You step into the circle.
Ms. Tippett: And so immediately, the one group on one side, and the other group on the other side…
Rabbi Bassin: It breaks down.
Ms. Tippett: …standing together, based on experiences they share, which are quite deep.
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah, so it redraws those lines, and you don’t only have those definitions of: “OK, I’m walking into this room as a Jew” and that “I’m walking into this room as a Muslim.” Maybe it’s: “I’m walking into this room as a woman who’s experienced sexual harassment in my religious community.” Or, “I’m walking into this room as somebody with a disability who’s felt rejected in some way by my community.” And when you redraw those lines, it creates that connection in a totally different way.
Ms. Tippett: And I think that that image of opening up a new space is really important. And in fact, it’s a new form. It’s a very different approach from “We’re gonna have a debate,” or even, “We’re going to inform each other and then find common ground or agree.” And I think we all — you both spoke about it; have thought about this so much — how sometimes, when we’ve celebrated diversity or leaped to common ground, everything has been so superficial. And there was an interesting — I think this was an interview with you and Yossi Klein Halevi, and he says, “This is exactly what drew me to trust Abdullah, in this project. I told him, ‘You know, I am not a dove. I am not a leftist. My positions are very mainstream, skeptical Israel.’” And you said back, “And I’m not interested in marginal Jews who will agree with everything Muslims believe about Israel.”
Frances Kissling, who has been a real model for me, she came out of the abortion debate. As you say, this is a larger cultural dynamic. But one thing she said is, this push that we have to agreement works against our understanding — when there’s really deep, really deep disagreement to start with, it works against our understanding each other, which gets back to your point, beginning with understanding. It’s very countercultural to speak that way, in this culture. It sounds like it’s not a serious enterprise, if you’re not about agreement. I don’t know.
Rabbi Bassin: Because zealotry is a value more than compromise, or idealism is more of a value than the ability to be uncomfortable; but I do think, especially in this past year, that all of these calls that we’re hearing for more civil conversation — that the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. And we’re at least acknowledging the need for it, even if we’re still feeling around, culturally, in the dark for what those skills actually look like.
Imam Antepli: Also, there’s a conflation of political disagreement with moral disagreement. And I think many communities are not able to register their political disagreement, but build an overarching moral connection with one another.
Yossi is like my brother. There is hardly anybody who is closer to me like him, but watch us when we talk about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or watch, especially, us when we talk about Iran. I feel he’s possessed with Iran. I feel he’s exaggerating that problem. But do I ever doubt his integrity? Do I ever doubt his moral red lines? Do I ever doubt his moral imagination? And in that — I think many people think political disagreement translates itself as moral arguments.
Ms. Tippett: I think that language of “moral imagination” — reviving that, nurturing that muscle, as you’ve said…
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah. It’s — I think we have abandoned the language of morality, and I want us to have more moral courage and not to shy away from the things that are controversial, and to embrace those things that are going to get us in trouble. One of the things I’m really lucky at, with my synagogue, is that I put forth this plan for difficult conversations that I wanted our community to engage in. And I put out the line that the only people I don’t want in this space are people who are going to physically threaten our security. But beyond that, I think that we want to welcome as diverse voices as possible into the space. And it’s been hard, and some people have been challenged by it, but ultimately, the leadership has really embraced that, because they see the need for it.
Imam Antepli: You have to do this.
Rabbi Bassin: Yeah.
Imam Antepli: You have to face the ugliness in yourself and in your community. Most of the moral conversation is this: hitting the chest of the other side, what moral failures that you see. But the real moral conversation is to put an honest mirror, put yourself into a CT scan, CAT scan, and see what the report is. What is in you, in your community? How much moral energy and commitment and drive is behind what you do, and how much of is this shallow politics? That’s why it’s very difficult, but we should absolutely shake the moral imagination of our communities. We have to improve the level of self-critical moral awakening, moral courage, in our communities.
Ms. Tippett: So we’ve been talking about what it means to be Jewish and Muslim and in relationship, and we’re all, also, inhabiting this reality of being alive in the year 2017, which is a moment of tumult, globally. And Rabbi Bassin, your Rosh Hashanah sermon this year — I seem to be drawn to those. I need to come to your synagogue on Rosh Hashanah next year.
Rabbi Bassin: I can get you a free ticket.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK, great.
You were talking about the Kabbalistic interpretation, the creation story, as a Jewish lens to Martin Luther King’s prophetic statement that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” So I wonder if you would just offer that up, and then I’d like to hear of a text or a metaphor of Islam that is with you in this moment, writ large.
Rabbi Bassin: One of the feelings that I needed to speak to as a rabbi in 2017 was this feeling of spiritual exhaustion that people were having at the kind of darkness and hate and anger that was building. And I know that we need to be recharged. So the story that I referenced was the fact that on the same day that that white supremacist march happened, a group of our congregants, about 20 of our congregants who — we formed this partnership with an organization, called Tiyya, that serves refugees resettling in Southern California — a group of us went down to Orange County to help them prepare with a back-to-school day for about 300 refugee kids, many of whom were going to be returning to school for the first time since leaving their war-torn countries.
And if you want a better metaphor of what light driving out darkness looks like, you couldn’t think of one, than this group that was yelling, “Get out, get out! We don’t want you in our country!” Here we were, saying, “Welcome. We are glad to have you as our neighbors.” And that’s what it looks like to drive out the darkness with the light. That’s what it looks like for that holy light that gets spread into the world and to collect those pieces and those shards of that holy light and to hold it up. But we can’t let that spiritual exhaustion win, and we can’t drive out the hate with hate.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so right with that, that that is never a sentiment that’s going to win. So whatever those small battles are that we have to fight that are battles that are rooted in love, that’s what’s going to marginalize the hate, not yelling back.
Imam Antepli: A piece of tradition that holds me up, and it really informs my desire to reach and build strong relationships with American Jewish communities, is a Turkish Haredi joke.
A Turkish Haredi Sufi walking at midnight, and he sees another Turkish Haredi desperately looking for something. And he says, “What’s going on?” “I left my car keys here. I can’t find them.” And then he goes on helping him. They look everywhere. And at some point, gentleman who’s trying to help him says, “Are you sure you left your key here?” He said, “No, I don’t think I dropped it here.” He said, “Why are you looking here, then? Why are you looking for it here?” He said, “This is the only place where there is light.”
“This is the only place the light is on.”
So for many, many questions, for people of faith, we are facing as a result of modernity, whether it’s empowering women and defeating patriarchy, whether it’s empowering and creating a respectful space in LGBTQ communities, whether defeating the common rising voices of hate and exclusion — some of those answers are already in the tradition. Some of the answers are in places where tradition is shedding light upon. But many of those answers are in those dark places where the work — intellectual work, theological work, spiritual work — is not being done. And it’s very difficult for one tradition to go to those dark places alone. We can shape a different kind of theology, walk into those dark places, holding each other’s hands — together — and glorify God’s names in a very unique and different way, together, inshallah. Thank you.
Ms. Tippett: Imam Abdullah Antepli was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University, and he has also been the co-creator and co-leader of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. He now serves at Duke as the Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs and an adjunct professor of Islamic Studies. Rabbi Sarah Bassin serves Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, and she was the first executive director of NewGround in Los Angeles, a Muslim-Jewish partnership for change.
[music: “Fanshawe” by El Ten Eleven]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Jill Gnos, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Brettina Davis, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, and Kristin Lin.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to the wonderful Aron Hirt-Manheimer, whose continued friendship and support made this conversation possible. Additional gratitude to Liz Grumbacher, Elena Paull, Isaac Nuell, Rick Tremblay, Brendan Sullivan, and Sandra Williams.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
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