Within Jewish tradition there are sources that express not just a tolerance towards aspects of Muslim religiosity, but a real admiration and positive intellectual and religious respect. It is important for both Jews and Muslims to become acquainted with these sources, and to consider their implications…
by Zvi Zohar
JERUSALEM – Here I consider one such source, found in the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi of Jerusalem (1782-1853). It tells of a relationship between two outstanding men in late 18th century Damascus: a great Sufi sheikh and the Chief Rabbi of Damascus.
One of the two heroes of Farhi’s tale, the Sufi sheikh, attained great mastery of the Seven Wisdoms, i.e., the body of universal human knowledge. Since a person’s perfection is contingent upon mastery of these wisdoms, the sheikh was more perfect than all the Jews of his generation, with the exception of the rabbi of Damascus, who was his equal and even slightly his superior in the realm of universal wisdom.
But the Seven Wisdoms are of course only one aspect of religious perfection: the highest form of religious accomplishment is the encounter with God and closeness to Him. In this realm, the realm of religious-mystical experience, it emerges quite clearly from Rabbi Farhi’s account that the sheikh was on a higher level than the rabbi. In that account, it was the sheikh who guided the rabbi along the paths of mystical experience, by way of the garden and the pool, until their joint entry into the Holy of Holies to encounter the Divine Reality reflected in the holy name YHVH. The words on the golden tablet they gazed upon were: “I envision YHWH before me always”. This formula is to be found in every synagogue. Yet as related by Farhi, the one who actualised the promise born by this verse, the person who was indeed able to envision in his consciousness “He Who Spoke and the universe was created”, was not the Jewish rabbi but the Muslim sheikh.
At the end of their joint journey, the rabbi shed copious tears, acknowledged the sheikh’s advantage in this crucial realm, and concluded: “It is becoming upon us to do even more than that”.
Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi, addressing his audience in Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire in the fourth decade of the 19th century, presented the Sufi sheikh as an ideal spiritual figure reaching the greatest heights of awe of God. Incidentally, it becomes apparent to the reader that the Sufi sage exceeded his Jewish counterpart also in his personal qualities: he loves the truth for its own sake; he develops a relationship with his Jewish colleague out of an intellectual attraction and without a utilitarian agenda; he is not jealous of another whose intellectual accomplishments are greater than his own; he shows genuine admiration for the rabbi as a man of wisdom, regardless of the lower religious-communal status of the group to which the rabbi belonged.
From this story it is clear that at the highest levels of individual religious spirituality, there is a great deal of overlap and similarity between Judaism and Islam. This overlap is clearly expressed already in the first section of the story, when the reader discovers that there is a realm of universal intellectual discourse—the Seven Wisdoms—that is a highly regarded field of knowledge shared by the sheikh and the rabbi. Further on, it becomes clear that what these worlds share is not limited to the “neutral” intellectual dimension, but extends to the practices of preparing for mystical experience: fasting, repentant thoughts, immersion and change of garments. And above all else, there are shared elements and a partnership in the mystical experience itself—and in the joint focus of this experience: “He Who Spoke and the universe was created”. Not a Muslim God, and not a Jewish God, but the God of all existence, the Creator of all.
Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi conveys to his Jewish audience in Jerusalem the possibility that a person who was born, raised and educated as a Muslim, who is a product of elite religious Muslim training, can as a result be no less capable (and perhaps even more so) of “connecting” to the universal Divine than a person who is a product of a parallel Jewish path. To some, it might seem inappropriate for a religious leader to show such respect and admiration for the achievements of a person rooted in a tradition that is not his own. To others, such as the current writer, Rabbi Farhi’s attitude expresses a greatness of spirit that all of us would do well to contemplate—and to internalise.
Zvi Zohar is a professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar Ilan University, where he also heads the Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research and the Strengthening of Jewish Vitality, and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies in Jerusalem. A full translation, analysis and discussion of rabbi Farhi’s account will soon be published in Jewish Studies Quarterly under the title “The Rabbi and the Sheikh”. This article is part of a special series on Jews and Muslims in each other’s narratives and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).