Sermon given October 31, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Have you ever wondered why the story of Noah is a favorite Bible story for children? Sure, it has all those animals, and some children’s versions are sanitized. When we think about the actual biblical narrative, though, we must admit that it’s downright scary. Every living creature is killed, too frightening, really, even for Halloween!
Now, I’m not a biblical literalist, and never have been. From my earliest childhood, I recall my parents, Religious School teachers and Rabbis telling me that biblical stories didn’t necessarily happen exactly the way they are written. Instead, as I still believe, the Bible is true, in the sense that it offers valuable and trustworthy ethical lessons.
The Noah tale offers a variety of meaningful morals. One of those precepts may be directly related to God’s decision to destroy all flesh, or at least the lives of all land animals, including humans, except Noah, his family and the beasts who enter the Ark. Perhaps we are to learn that evil corrupts everything around it. Wickedness is pervasive, spreading to all living things, if left unchecked. The lesson is stark, even frightening.
On September 11, 2001, America and the world beheld evil. Honestly, we would have to admit that we knew that such evil lurked in the dark shadows of this planet. Jews are particularly aware of these tendencies, for we have so often been the victims of savage human brutality.
More specifically, the world knew, before September 11, that certain elements within Islam had the capacity for monstrous acts of terror. Suicide bombings had already been devastating Israel for months. Osama bin Laden had successfully destroyed two American embassies, murdering hundreds. We were shocked by an earlier attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. Still, we were not prepared for the eruption of evil on that fateful day. We were not ready to evaluate Islam, as the purported inspiration for infamy.
Wisely, and quickly, the President of the United States jumped into the fray. He told us that Islam is a religion of peace. He reminded us that many American citizens are Muslims, and that they are just as loyal to our country as Americans of any other faith. He mentioned the many moderate Muslim countries that are allies of the United States. He called upon us all to build bridges to Muslims, in our communities and throughout the world.
Many of us heeded our President’s call. Here in San Antonio, a Tri-Faith Dialogue was already hard at work, long before September 11. Incredibly, the Dialogue had previously set September 13 as the night for an interfaith service. I was privileged to participate in a Benediction of peace, which I offered with my friend, Imam Omar Shakir, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The Dialogue continues: Christians, Muslims and Jews meet regularly, to learn from one another, to study together, to celebrate each other’s holy days. Not long ago, right here at the Temple, we happily hosted one such gathering, the annual Sukkah of Peace event.
At the same time, in the weeks and months and now years following September 11, other voices began to be heard, holding forth on the subject of Islam and evil. Many offered quotations from the Koran, purportedly demonstrating that Islam is an intolerant religion, even hostile to Judaism and Christianity, not at all a religion of peace. A national leader of the Southern Baptist Convention gave a speech, in which he defamed the prophet Mohammed, asserting that Allah is not the same God worshiped by Christians. A well-known local pastor delivered a series of sermons, which I have heard on audio cassette, making similarly slanderous statements about Islam, inciting his local flock and worldwide television congregation. Most recently, an American military General and high Pentagon official has been heard in churches, proclaiming that our American war on terrorism will be successful, because the Christian God is greater than that of our enemies.
All the while, many other Americans, myself included, have continued to insist that Islam is a religion of peace.
When presented with selections from the Koran, calling for killing non-Muslims, we have presented equally violent verses from our own Bible. Religious intolerance, and even murdering other people simply because they worship other gods, is countenanced in our Scripture, too. Teachings of peace prevail, in the Koran as in our Bible.
When told of Mohammed and his followers, who converted millions to Islam at the point of the sword, we have responded with facts of history. For well over a millennium, Jews lived under either Christian or Muslim rule. While there were certainly difficult times in Muslim countries, none of those incidents compares to the pogroms, the Crusades, the Inquisition, of Christendom; let’s not even mention the Holocaust. Suffice it to say that, from the birth of Islam until 1945, Jews fared inestimably better under Muslim dominion than in Christian countries.
When we have heard arguments that Muslims today are inherently violent, filled with hatred and bent on terror, we have protested. Millions of innocent, good people should not be blamed for the wickedness of the radical few.
Tonight, my friends, we must admit, we have been mistaken in this last regard. Let me say it personally: I have not spoken out clearly enough on some aspects of what I now know to be the truth.
No, I do not for a moment regret defending Islam as a religion, the holiness of Allah or the honor of the prophet Mohammed. Allah is the Arabic translation of the Hebrew word Elohim, the English word, God. We do worship the same God.
No, I do not retract my analysis of history. Over the sweep of time, Christendom has much more for which to repent than does the body of Islam.
No, I do not disagree with the President about the loyalty of Muslim Americans. Despite the sins of a few, many serve our country with pride and honor.
No, God forbid, I do not disavow my Muslim friends, participants in interfaith dialogue, men and women of goodness, who oppose terrorism in the name of Allah, just as strongly as you or I.
And yet, let us be honest: What many of us have called “radical Islam” controls almost all of the Muslim world today. We can no longer pretend that a few rotten apples are spoiling the reputations of scores of sovereign states, or that a small number of terrorists are misrepresenting more than a billion men, women and children.
The story of Noah teaches us: Evil, left unchecked, spreads to infect all that surrounds it. All the flesh on Earth had become corrupt. Today, in the name of truth, in the search for peace, we must acknowledge: The body of Islam has become corrupt, with violence upon the face of the Earth.
An editorial cartoon in last Sunday’s New York Times depicts two scenes. The first shows an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. The caption is, “Radical Islam.” The second, titled “Moderate Islam,” depicts the Prime Minister of Malaysia, parroting the old anti-Semitic calumnies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: “Jews control the world.” I fear that, in today’s world, the cartoon is all too true.
What the cartoon could not portray is the standing ovation that the Prime Minister’s despicable remarks received from leaders of Muslim nations around the globe, including friends of the Untied States. What the cartoon could not portray is the support that one of the world’s largest Muslim nations, Saudi Arabia, gives to the radical Islam that nurtured the suicide bombers of September 11. What the cartoon could not portray is the pathological hatred of America and Israel, even tolerance for terrorism, taken for granted today in the Muslim world.
Yes, many Muslims devotedly disavow anti-Semitism. Yes, many Muslims rail against vilification of the United States. Yes, many Muslims speak out against terrorism, whenever and wherever it occurs. Yes, we must sadly admit, these Muslims are in the minority today.
The story of Noah offers many lessons. One of them is the metaphor of the Ark, reminding us that all life is in the same boat, rocking on perilous waters. We are in this world, on this Earth, in this life, in this Ark, together. We will not be brought together by hateful words, ignorantly claiming that Islam is a religion of hatred. We will not be unified by latching onto the evil words of populist demagogues, who would bring disrepute to the saints of a sister faith. But our Ark of life will also not stay afloat, if we do not tell the truth: The body of Islam is infected with evil today. Let us stand by our Muslim friends, with honesty and respect, helping and urging them to reform the great distortion of their faith throughout the Muslim world today.
Of course, the most powerful image in this week’s Torah portion is the rainbow. God offers a symbol of hope. After the darkness, the light will shine through, with beauty and with radiance. Let intolerance and insults no longer be found in the mouths of Christians and Jews, who characterize Islam unfairly. Let Islam evolve, once again, into the religion of peace it was meant to be. Allah expects no less. God is on the side of all good people. Elohim offers the promise of the rainbow, faith in a brighter tomorrow. Humanity is one. Allah, God, Elohim is one.