Report on the Conference Call: February 2, 2016
About the Call
Since September 11th, the Interfaith Amigos (Imam Jamal Rahman, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Rev. Don Mackenzie) have brought their unique blend of spiritual wisdom and humor to audiences in the US, Canada, Israel-Palestine and Japan. Their first book, “Getting to the Heart of Interfaith” (Skylight Paths, 2009), brought the Interfaith Amigos international attention with coverage from the New York Times, CBS News, the BBC and various NPR programs. Karen Armstrong calls their "exuberant and courageous" second book, “Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith” (Skylight Paths, 2011), "an inspiration and example for all of us in these sadly polarized times." Today's talk will be with Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal.
Welcome and Introduction of the Speakers
Reed Price: Good morning and welcome to our call today as part of World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW). My name is Reed Price and I am with the Charter for Compassion International (CfCI).
We are very honored to have the “Interfaith Amigos” join us today. We have two of the three Amigos with us: Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman.
Rabbi Ted Falcon is an author, teacher and therapist who has taught Jewish mediation and Kabbalah for over 40 years. Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, he also has a doctorate in psychology. Rabbi Falcon has founded spiritually oriented synagogues in Los Angeles and Seattle and published several books.
Imam Jamal Rahman is co-founder and Sufi minister at the Interfaith Community Church in Seattle. He also has taught at Seattle University. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and UC Berkeley. He also has published several books and leads classes and workshops around the world.
The Interfaith Amigos started working together after Sept. 11, 2001, when a Christian pastor and Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam, out of friendship, decided to explore interfaith dialog. It proved to be a difficult and satisfying journey in which each of the Amigos not only looked deeply at the truths of other paths of faith, but looked at his own tradition with a searching and fearless inventory. Interfaith work is compassionate work, which is to say it can be uncomfortable, challenging, and richly rewarding – since it causes you to search within yourself and with others.
Thank you so much for joining us today Rabbi Ted and Imam Jamal. I know you are accomplished in kicking off a conversation like this, so with your permission I’ll give this prompt and then you can take it from here. I have some questions prepared, but when you ready, we will ask our participants on the call to ask their questions first.
Here’s my prompt: If Sept. 11 seemed to pose a challenge to interfaith understanding, the subsequent years have almost doubled that threat. We have seen dramatic coverage of Muslim fundamentalist movements and powerful demonstrations of what appears to be faith-based terror by the Islamic State in the Levant or ISIL – with videos of beheadings, stories of ritual rape and calls to “kill the infidels.” As people in Syria, Lebanon and surrounding areas have fled out of desperation, the migrants themselves have been seen as security risks in Europe – and assailed as risks in the U.S. We have seen right-wing politicians in Europe and the U.S. call for blocking the path of refugees. Similarly, we have heard of threats that migrants from Central and South America pose risks to the U.S. – and we’ve heard a lot about building a wall across the US Southern border. I am going to assume that most of us on this call believe this fear-mongering is demagogic, simplistic and, at base, dishonest. But that’s not all it is – it is frightening and takes real dangers (people who operate by hate) and inflates them to boogeymen. Can you address this phobia of the other and talk a bit about how to counter it?
Rabbi Ted: Thanks Reed. First of all, it is our pleasure to join you on the call this morning. World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) is a reflection of the project that the three of us have been working on for the past fourteen years. This week’s special compassion coopetition (the “Compassion Games” WIHW coopetition) where people can turn their beliefs into action is really crucial. One of the difficulties of being human is that we are susceptible to fear. Our media, knowing this, tends to exaggerate aspects of this to keep us tuned in. What the statistics are actually showing is that there is less violence in the world today and in the United States. We have discovered that it is critical to begin Interfaith dialog not by discussing our differences, but by creating a context in which we can meet each other as human beings. We can discuss with each other how our faith matters or not; when we feel closest to the divine and the most distant, etc. We must create a context in which we can talk out from behind our masks.
Imam Jamal: We know from history and our own scripture-- the best way to overcome demonization is really what the Quran says, “to come to know the other” in a human, heart-felt way. There is a Central Asian mantra about “three cups of tea:” “listen, respect, and connect.” The Quran says diversity is for one essential reason- “to come to know the other”- on a very real level. “We have created some of you to be a trial for others.”
Rabbi Ted: Imam Jamal usually looks at me when he says this ☺.
Imam Jamal: Friendship is really the key. When there was the crisis about the mosque being built at “Ground Zero” people were polled to find out their opinions. Only 37% said they were in favor of the mosque. The close to 60% who said they did not want a mosque did not know personally one Muslim. The 37% who supported the mosque knew at least one Muslim personally.
Rabbi Ted: What’s interesting in each of our traditions is the emphasis on opening our arms to the other. In the Torah there are thirty-six occasions where we are enjoined to treat and love each other as we would ourselves. Love the stranger. This is challenging. The essential motivation is when we remember that we, ourselves, have been strangers. When we see the other, we are seeing a reflection of ourselves. It is crucial to step through what we may see as impenetrable differences and see the common humanity that we share. One thing that is invisible is the Muslim world. Many identify Muslims mostly with Arab countries.
Imam Jamal: Only 12-18 % of Muslims are in the Arab countries.
Rabbi Ted: The way the media presents it, the Muslims are emblematic of the Arab countries and ISIS. When we look at the way that ISIS is using and twisting the basic beliefs of Islam, we need to understand that it is a battle for power and dignity.
Imam Jamal: We are using religion as a cover to conceal a conflict over economics and politics. Islamic mystics say that we are searching among the branches and leaves for what is in the roots. The roots are the struggles in economics and politics. It is amazing that every scripture that we have in the different traditions all have these timeless, exquisitely beautiful verses. The Quran says- “repel evil with something that is better.” That is a sacred injunction of the Quran. We are all conditioned; we all possess biases. Even prophets had them. The key is how we create the environment to connect as human beings in a natural, organic, humble way. Surely, if we do so, these conditionings and biases will dissolve.
Rabbi Ted: The Compassion Games WIHW Coopetition is where people create teams for compassionate acts in the world and record on a map on the internet what is happening. This coopetition reflects doing rather than just talking about it. Once we pierce the masks, it is important to find the core teachings in our tradition. A core teaching in Judaism is oneness. Christianity teaches unconditional love that is bigger than the ego. Love that is inclusive. In Islam, a core teaching is compassion. We must use the core teachings to measure other aspects of our own tradition as well as the actions we perform in the world. So, each of us becomes an agent of compassion in the world.
Imam Jamal: Also, when you mention the scriptures and core teachings, they overlap. They point out that all our holy books have verses- some “particular” and some “universal.” Particular verses are those that require the historical context for understanding. Universal verses are timeless. The problem comes when you take a particular verse and advocate it as a universal verse.
Rabbi Ted: We see every avenue and path as a path to a shared universal. When any particular path says it owns the universal, then we are in trouble and that path will be expressed in violent ways. Gandhi said that “every religion has truths and untruths.” Even divine revelation is brought to the world through the human mind. One way to address this issue is to understand that there are particular and universal scriptures and when we confuse them, we have difficulty.
Imam Jamal: The biggest problem is the problem of exclusivity- using words like “the chosen people,” “the only way,” etc. We can meditate on the Islamic metaphor: “all rivers flow into the ocean.” This can help us overcome being “holier than thou.” You may follow one particular river, but don’t mistake it for the ocean.
Rabbi Ted: It is crucial to move toward understanding of the universality of love and compassion.
Imam Jamal: Why don’t we talk now about the five stages that we discuss in our book?
Rabbi Ted: Okay. We have discussed some of the stages already. Stage 1: Developing effective interfaith dialog- creating contexts to know each other personally; Stage 2: Sharing the core universal teachings; Stage 3: Looking at those aspects of our traditions that are in keeping with the core teachings and those that are not. We have found that all our Abrahamic traditions go astray when we promote exclusivity, violence, inequality of men and women, and when we promote homophobia. These 4 categories continue to be brought up in our talks throughout the world.
Imam Jamal: Every holy book has revealed verses, particular and universal. We have serious problems when we take a particular verse and advocate it as universal. Stage 4: After building friendship, there is trust and willingness to be vulnerable and we can enter into deeper conversation. We have seen good friendships start to develop UNTIL there is some crisis, such as a crisis in the Middle East. If there has not been groundwork, then relationships can fall apart under this stress. However, with the three of us-we have a deep friendship. We can still talk as friends during such stressful times. The talks continue, unabated. One might say, “Big deal; so what.” However, it is because of 9/11 that Jews and Muslims came together and talked. Difficult conversations are very necessary and can happen only after there is friendship and willingness to be vulnerable. Stage 5: Being open to other traditions, experiencing the practices of other traditions and even incorporating them into our own. As a Muslim, I am still rooted in Islam. Other traditions simply water my Muslim roots.
Rabbi Ted: I am thinking about the Compassion Games coopetition and WIHW. There are two phases of our ego: 1) the lower phase – “the evil inclination”- the inclination to serve our separate self and leave the rest of the world out. In this lower phase, satisfaction is fleeting; and, 2) the upper phase-- the upper phase of the ego is more open. We are not concerned with how we can get stuff, but how we can make things better here. It is not about what I can get out of this. Instead, it is about how I can find what I have to contribute to make things better. The kind of reward we get from compassionate action in the world is so much deeper and longer lasting than what we can achieve through self-satisfaction. It is critical to walk the walk through the actions, words, and the energies we share.
Imam Jamal: It is essential that we look at ourselves. This becomes a spiritual endeavor. Mohammed- Peace Be upon Him- said “know thyself and you will be a sustainer.” In Islam, we have three stages of the “nuff:” 1) The Quran says the nuff or ego is a commanding master and it can incline toward wrong-doing. It is our work to make it a personal assistant. That’s where the true meaning of the word “jihad” (which means “effort”) is used; 2) Making choices. Our world is a world of opposites- sweet/sour, etc. We have choices we make. We must learn to make choices for the common good; 3) We must make the effort to align our personality with our higher-self. Rumi says, “Marry your soul.” When our personality and higher-self come closer and closer together, then that is when we experience peace. When we find inner peace, we can truly say we are becoming more developed human beings. Our purpose on Earth is to evolve to the fullest of our being and be of service to God’s creation.
Rabbi Ted: It is wonderful to share these things. We can be confused about what peace is. We sometimes think that peace is the absence of conflict and difference. However, the world exists in contrasts- sad/happy; light/dark; good/bad; male/female. It is the way we see our world. In more inclusive consciousness, the opposites are seen as one. When we get trapped in contrasts, sometimes it leads to polarization. We decide one side is good or best and the other side is evil. When we do that, it is extremely difficult to move toward compassionate dialog. We have to begin to appreciate at a more basic level and understand how polarization happens. We have a tendency to demonize the “other” in dialog. We need to recognize this and look for what we share. In Eastern tradition there is Yin/Yang. In Jewish tradition, there is the star where the energies above and below are in balance. Balance is essential. We need to hold the contrasts as one.
Imam Jamal: What does it mean to be compassionate with the other? It is about higher awareness to be able to make a discernment between behavior and “being”. The person’s being is holy. Keeping that in one’s mind and heart when one engages in speech and action has the power to shift heaven and Earth. Sufi Mystic Hamir says- do what is right, protect yourself. However, when you take the right action, do not take the person’s essence of being out of your heart. This knowledge, this discernment, has power.
Rabbi Ted: It is one thing to say or read these things, but the mind alone cannot achieve the kind of balance, integration, inclusivity and compassion that we are needing. That’s where spiritual practice is needed. It is recognized that we value the mind. Words themselves separate reality into chunks that interact and repel. However, spiritual practices- meditation, contemplation, ritualization, repetition of sacred words... allow us to transcend the limitations of the ego mind and allow us greater appreciation of the ego, helping us become open to the common ground that everyone shares as we move inward. The one thing that is the same for each of us is “silence.” There is only one silence. There is no separate kind of silence. Silence is one. Whenever we touch silence through meditation, we are entering an absolutely shared realm. We can awaken to a kind of energy and knowing that we can channel into integrity of compassionate action in the world.
Imam Jamal: I love that insight into silence. Silence is not the absence of sound. It is the absence of the little self. Silence is the language of God. Everything else is a poor translation. It is crucial in every tradition to witness one’s thoughts. If one is unmindful, it can lead to negative imaginary scenarios. I’d love to talk about a seminar I attended on racism. The speaker shared that every 28 hours, an African American is being killed by state-sponsored violence. However, he said that this statistic did not tell the real story. The real story is that African Americans are being killed at least a billion times/day by the thoughts we have in our minds. It is the collective clutterings of those negative thoughts/biases/prejudices, that are the real problem. We need to look at our biases and prejudices.
Rabbi Ted: This becomes very clear in every tradition. There is a verse for Jewish meditation- “I set the eternal one before me always.” This meditation is to be kept in mind while we go about our ordinary lives. Everything that appears before us is the manifestation of that one. The contrasts of life have to be. The spiritual work is to not get caught up in the contrasts, lest we destroy ourselves. We’ve reached a stage in our evolution where this is possible if we do not wake up to what we share and focus on our common survival.
Imam Jamal: We could go on and on but we want to respect time.
Reed: This is a wonderful discussion. Now let’s open it up for a Questions & Answers session. Please “raise your hand” by pressing 1 on your phones to ask a question.
Also, as Rabbi Ted and Imam Jamal mentioned, the Compassion Games are staging a WIHW coopetition. This is a great opportunity for you or your organization, group, congregation, place of worship or interfaith community to play in the Games in the spirit of growing global unity and respect. Learn more at http://compassiongames.org/world-interfaith-harmony-week/. Please sign up to play. Go to website to register. One way to play is to share your reflection on today’s call or on any of the other calls this week on the global Compassion Map. It’s easy to do!
Questions & Answers
Sommer: Hi Imam Jamal and Rabbi Ted. It feels so good to listen to both of you. I could listen to you all day. I want to share with everyone a little more about the Compassion Games. The Charter for Compassion is a team playing the Games. As you listen to these talks during the week, there is a way to bring your reflections into action- report on the global Compassion Map. We can see the impact of these talks on the world. The Games are during WIHW, February 1-7. The Compassion Games mission for today is around compassionate listening. As part of the mission, we shared the five stages that the Interfaith Amigos noted earlier in this call. Both of you are the inspiration of the Compassion Games mission today!
Rabbi Ted: Sommer, thank you so much. You can become an honorary “Amiga.” You are also engaged this Thursday in a “blab” about the Games, right?
Sommer: Yes, “Blab” is another platform where we can communicate. On “Blab,” we can see each other. It has 4 different screens to see everyone and a chat box. We will have a WIHW dialog this Thursday, February 4th from 4:00 – 5:30 pm Pacific Time. I did invite you both, Rabbi Ted and Imam Jamal. “Spiritual Playdate” is another partner who will be there, as well as some team organizers. To find out more, go to the Compassion Games Facebook event page and/or the Compassion Games website. Or, you can go directly to the blab event site to sign up: https://blab.im/compassiongames-compassioninaction-world-interfaith-harmony-week-in-action.
Rabbi Ted: I’ll do my best to attend the conversation on “Blab.”
Reed: What can we do on our own to counter hate speech? How do we avoid shouting matches?
Rabbi Ted: First, the old song of counting to ten does not always work- but we need to recognize when we are falling into the pit of anger or righteous indignation and then, take a deep breath. We need to come to center. No one is making you feel a certain way. We need to try to honor another person’s being and not their behavior. We often get defensive and start attacking. It is critical to do some kind of spiritual practice to know what it feels like to be centered and respond to our world. One thing that may be helpful to people who watch TV-- try spending thirty minutes switching between MSNBC and Fox News. Feel what is drawn up within you as you do this. It is our nature to agree with one or the other. The stations are the same thing- the opposite side of the contrast. They appeal to the parts of us that like to be right. It is important to catch ourselves when we dip into the path of anger and righteous indignation which sometimes masks as integrity. Integrity is never anger. It is always compassion.
Imam Jamal: We must truly practice active listening. Really listen. Sufi masters say to put your head on the person’s chest and sink into what they are saying. What is the issue behind the issue? Behind the anger is fear, frustration. Be able to honor that by listening and becoming aware of that.
Rabbi Ted: It is important to get the person’s permission before putting your head on their chest ☺.
Imam Jamal: Haha. Yes, I was talking metaphorically. Also, about self-righteousness... A Sufi mystic said- when someone does something wrong, it riles you up, but you don’t notice your own arrogant soul. If arrogance comes from righteousness, then when fighting extremism, we ourselves might become extreme, unjust, and elitist. We have to be very mindful of ourselves. That practice is very necessary.
Reed: Imam Jamal, do you have advice for Muslims who are confronting Islamophobia? Both of you- do you have suggestions about how to react to the phobias you discussed earlier.
Imam Jamal: It is very important to practice what the Quran says: that God, out of divine design, has created diversity. We need to connect on the human level with the other. This works against Islamophobia. The universe is made of stories. There is a spiritual need to connect with the other. In Seattle, we had meet and greet programs, inviting people to please come and meet their Muslim neighbors. We want non-Muslims to learn more about Islam. Maybe then, people will realize it is not a religion of violence- it is a religion of peace and social justice. Muslims need to ask what we are doing to learn about other traditions. We also have to have an appreciative understanding of other faiths. The main work is to greet and meet and connect. Have the “three cups of tea:” listen, respect, connect.
Rabbi Ted: What often is hidden is that religiously motivated hate crimes are aimed more at Jews than at anybody else. In France- 51% of all religious hate-related crimes are against Jews whereas Jews make up just 1% of the pop. Islamophobia and other phobias are alive and well in our society. When we hear hate speech, rather than tell another person they are wrong, it is better to share our experience from our faith that speaks against violence. It is problematic when we believe our faith is better than another, when we think we know better than others. The claim of exclusivity that seems comforting to the fragile ego is dangerous to our world and our lives. These issues also emerge in the relationships in our homes- our personal relationships reflect what happens in the world between nations. We give each other wonderful opportunities to practice sharing when we experience discomfort. We can share what our experience is. Lots of times we may be afraid of announcing ourselves as a Muslim or a Jew in a challenging context. We need to be open about that fear and to share it. We need to tell people what we are feeling.
Imam Jamal: Having that connection/friendship is critical so you can begin to be vulnerable. You can have difficult conversations and open up hearts both ways. As a practice, I connect with very right-wing fundamentalist Christians. After about a year or two they have lost their fear and animosity. I have become transformed also. I have reduced my biases and prejudices. There is a sweetness in their community. Even though the same differences remain, now that we have this relationship, the differences no longer loom as a threat.
Rabbi Ted: We also discovered, as we work together, we tend to see others as “fundamentalists.” Chances are, we are “fundamentalist” too, when we are caught up in the contrasts. The yearning to be right, seeking some form of security, is part of being human.
Reed: I want to be respectful of your time. I have a final question. Given the challenges that you’ve experienced and the work you’ve been doing, are you optimistic about the future of interfaith dialog? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Do you believe this is true?
Imam Jamal: I am very optimistic. Before 9/11, major interfaith work was between Christians and Jews. After 9/11, this work included Muslims. There has been a remarkable acceleration of interfaith dialog. Hindus and Buddhists have been included. Now, Wiccans, pagans. Today, we have a Wiccan chaplain in the US military. There is growth of interfaith work. I am hopeful.
Rabbi Ted: One reason I am happy to work with Imam Jamal is that when I am not hopeful, he has enough optimism for both of us. I have to admit that sometimes I feel depressed. In the book we are writing now, “Finding Peace Through Spiritual Practice” –a chapter has to do with dealing with despair. Sometimes when I look at over population and environmental degradation, it is difficult for me to avoid feelings of pessimism, doubt, and despair. I revert to the necessity and value of spiritual practice. We need to be able to hold the despair and the hope as one. It is part of being human. We need to honor that by walking and talking a compassionate reality.
Imam Jamal: Rabbi Ted, you provide the most brilliant ideas to go about this work. As you would remind us, Thich Nhat Hanh says that “these are all bells of mindfulness” -seeking to awaken us to greater truths. We need to do the spiritual practices.
Rabbi Ted: You’ve just illustrated why you help me so much ☺.
Reed: You can preorder the new book and also order “Getting to the Heart of Interfaith” and other books by the Interfaith Amigos. If you purchase the book(s) through Amazon Smile at www.smile.amazon.com, Amazon will donate a percent of the sale to the Charter for Compassion Intl. if you designate us as the non-profit recipient.
These Charter supported calls, such as the one today, are always free to you, but our operation is NOT large, and we very much appreciate the financial support if you are able to “pay it forward.”
Remember, the Compassion Games is staging a World Interfaith Harmony Week Coopetition - and please sign up to play. After you sign up, then share your reflections on today’s call on the global Compassion Report Map.
We have three more calls this week in conjunction with World interfaith Harmony Week, which is a UN-supported event from February 1-7.
Tomorrow at 9 a.m. Pacific Time and noon Eastern we hear from Aleasa Word of Chapter2 Living about cultivating emotional intelligence, and from Marie Roker-Jones and Louisa Hext of CompassionConvos – a project aimed at creating safe spaces for deep conversation and understanding. Learn more on our website: www.charterforcompassion.org.
Marilyn Turkovich: Thank you so much to our two presenters. This has been a wonderful exchange. One of the comments we’ve received about this talk is that the friendship and respect between Rabbi Ted and Imam Jamal really comes through. The importance of making friends is the first step to dialog and transformation.
Please join us for the upcoming calls this week. We have the call tomorrow as well as calls on Thursday and Friday.
Thank you from the Charter for Compassion International.