There has been no greater driving force for unity and division, construction and demolition, love and hate than religion. It has galvanized empires, influenced doctrines and inspired the world’s greatest works of art and architecture while simultaneously catalyzing millenniums worth of war, bloodshed and conflict. In 2017, it is easy—and all too common—to view religious creeds more as battle cries than invocations. The connotations of an individual’s religion break far through the limitations of dogma and holy practices into the realm of personal characterization, political beliefs and general morality.
To dissect the current state of theology we spoke with local religious leaders representing the world’s three major religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism—Father Francis Pizzarelli of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson; Shaykh Ibad Wali, director resident scholar of Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park; and Rabbi Joshua Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton. In a discussion amongst believers of various faiths, differences, presumably, should have arisen. Yet what emerged was the discovery of a overlying truth, humbling in its unifying simplicity: we’re all praying to the same God.
What are the main tenets of your religion?
Pizzarelli: To love unconditionally, to forgive unconditionally, to be people that are inclusive in welcoming no matter what one’s human circumstance or social situation is, to build bridges and not walls, to consciously reach out to the people on the fringe without shame, blame, guilt or judgment.
Wali: To serve God through humility, worship, chastity, charity and unity; have mercy for the younger and respect for the elder; fulfill the rights of the neighbor; sacrifice our own needs for the needs of others; and abide by and uphold the law of the land.
Franklin: In the most simplistic terms, the main tenet of Judaism is the belief in one God. But from this fundamental idea we derive an array of complex theologies and beliefs. One of Judaism’s greatest blessings is its lack of dogma and creed. This openness fosters a forum of ideas, encourages debate, welcomes questioning and encourages challenging the status quo.
If Judaism is free from dogma, then what makes a “good practicing Jew?”
Franklin: An often quoted Jewish joke sums up the way Jews feel about any given issue: “If you have two Jews, then you have at least three opinions.” Judaism welcomes diverging views about even the most basic tenets. We tend to have a desire to resolve questions, yet Jewish thought offers us the idea that it’s okay to end a thought with a question mark. We value the right question more than the right answer. I cringe every time someone describes themselves as a “bad Jew.” Jews practice Judaism in different ways, which is made possible by Judaism being more than just a religion. Judaism incorporates culture, ethnicity, language and a connection to Israel as a Jewish homeland. The Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan offered a fitting image for Judaism in connoting it with a civilization. This opens the door for people to identify through a variety of outlets. I don’t believe there is any one way to “be Jewish.”
Do members of the three major religions worship the same God?
Wali: Yes, as prescribed through divine revelation from the same God.
Franklin: Judaism is the parent religion to Christianity and Islam in many ways. The latter two faiths offer new perspectives on God and the idea of divinity and created new systems of belief, ritual and worship. From my perspective, we worship the same God in different ways.
Pizzarelli: I believe we worship the same God and there are many roads that lead to that God—no one road is better than another.
What’s your responsibility and how do you react when a member of your congregation expresses hate, particularly toward another religion?
Wali: Our responsibility as community leaders is to lead by example. When anyone expresses hate toward anyone else, we remind each other to keep our own faults in mind and heart. Judge our own self before judging others. Instead of focusing on what we disagree on, we need to focus on how to disagree and how to communicate that in a compassionate, honorable and humble manner.
Franklin: In response to the acts in Charlottesville, we sent our community a statement that condemned anti-Semitism, hate speech, violence and baseless hatred. In it, we recognized that values antithetical to who we are as Jews have been given voice within our beloved country. Hatred and bigotry have no place in our community and we aspire to ensure that the same holds true for all Americans. What we witnessed in Charlottesville was not anything new, but a resurgence of a baseless hatred that most of us mistakenly thought was limited to only the margins of America. As Americans, as Jews and as the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, we unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, homophobia and all forms of baseless hatred.
Pizzarelli: Hate has no place within my congregation. I am very direct and very clear that if one calls oneself a Christian there can be no hate or discrimination in one’s heart.
What is it like practicing your religion on Long Island?
Franklin: Judaism on the East End of Long Island lives in its own world. Half of our community lives in the city full-time, but are out here on the weekends in the off-season. Luckily, the Jewish experience lives on the weekend, as our community comes together every Shabbat on Friday and Saturday morning. Over the summer, our Friday night Shabbat service is at Main Beach in East Hampton, drawing hundreds of families.
Pizzarelli: It has been a powerful experience. For the most part, I’ve encountered people from every religious tradition that are profoundly respectful of religious difference and deeply grateful for the work that I do. There are always a handful of negative people who see no value or purpose in the practice of religion. My heart aches for them because of their narrow-mindedness. I love and support my agnostic and atheist brothers and sisters and feel I learned some very important life lessons from them.
Wali: Overall it is exciting to be part of one of the most diverse regions in the world where differences are appreciated and celebrated. It is only in a few concentrated areas where people are not so accustomed to or comfortable with diversity, which naturally leads them to fear the unknown. Practicing in such areas can be uncomfortable for anyone that is different.
Have you found the tenor of your congregation has changed since the presidential election or in response to any of the president’s rhetoric?
Pizzarelli: No. It has caused many interesting conversations and, unfortunately, some profound tensions between families in response to the president’s ongoing rhetoric that continues to be demeaning and disrespectful. As our president, he should be a source of unity and healing, instead he has become a source of division and profound wounded-ness. It troubles me that the religious leaders of our community have been somewhat silent in regards to the present administration’s disrespectful rhetoric. It troubles me that we are not more vocal about the social injustice that seems infectious all around us. It troubles me especially on Long Island that we have not done more within the religious community to support the dignity of our undocumented brothers and sisters and challenge those in public office to a higher standard of leading and speaking. As religious leaders we need to move beyond our fear and not allow it to paralyze us from standing up for what is right and just for all. Hope must become the anthem of our souls.
Wali: Initially, congregants were in a state of confusion, fear and felt alienated but together. We soon reached a state of peace, unity and determination. More than the rhetoric of our president, the unbalanced media coverage by various news channels is what is dividing our great nation. If we can promote a more balanced approach, we will be able to see positive change in ourselves and our communities.
Franklin: I try to stay out of the political arena. My role as a rabbi is to be a spiritual leader, not a political pundit. In bringing people with a variety of views together, I seek to address issues that we can unite around. Politics too often divides, especially in the current political climate.
How can interfaith relations be improved?
Franklin: The town of East Hampton has a strong interfaith partnership among the local clergy and congregations. Our East Hampton Clericus meets regularly and joins together to stand up for issues that go against the grain of our communal ethical values. The Clericus has been and will be at the forefront of responding to issues that call to our collective religious conscience.
Wali: We are actively breaking barriers and building relationships with other communities in the region. We are also conducting events such as health fairs, community BBQs, tutoring programs, interfaith programs and many more to create platforms for our communities to interact and build relationships through our Hillside Islamic Center. We have worked alongside communities such as Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, The Congregational Church of South Hempstead and the New York World Alliance of Religions’ Peace Programs in Long Island City.
Pizzarelli: There needs to be greater dialogue among all of the religious traditions. We need to become one voice when it comes to social injustice, discrimination, hate and disrespectful rhetoric. As religious leaders we must give voice to the oppressed and discriminated among us, we must become stronger advocates of human rights for all of God’s people.
What is the biggest misconception about your religion?
Wali: That it is barbaric and promotes violence. I have attended many interfaith programs highlighting verses from the Holy Quran to show the true meaning of Islam: mercy, compassion, forgiveness and a way to salvation.
Franklin: People ask questions ranging from “can Jews get tattoos?” to “can Jews be cremated?” to “do Jews believe in heaven and hell?” The answer to each of these questions is “yes…but it’s complicated!” Jews hold a plethora of beliefs and opinions that are often at odds with one another. We also find that the way Jews tend to live their lives goes against the grain of tradition…Many Jewish millenials and Gen Xers believe that Judaism and Jewish community is no longer relevant for them. But studies suggest that we find our closest friends in religious institutions. This is because when we have deep conversations about life’s ultimate questions, when we encounter individuals with common experiences and when we have a sanctuary in which it’s okay to be vulnerable with others, we build a sacred community that enriches lives in the most profound way.
Pizzarelli: Many see it as a religion of idolatry and rigid rules and regulations. Catholicism is rooted in the social gospel. Social justice—care for the poor and marginal—is critical. Living the core teachings of Jesus is key: unconditional love and forgiveness, building bridges not walls and being a faith tradition that is inclusive.
Father Pizzarelli, what about Jesus exemplifies the Christian belief and what it means to be a good Christian?
Pizzarelli: In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks about speaking with integrity and practicing what you preach. The biblical Jesus always practiced what he preached. He led by example. He constantly challenged his disciples to reach out to the poor and the marginal and the people that were ostracized. Through example he taught inclusiveness—that God loves everyone without condition and we need to do the same.
What can someone of another faith, or someone considering conversion, do to learn more about your religion?
Franklin: If someone were to find themselves interested in converting, they should talk to a rabbi. Because of the intensity of learning and the volition on the part of the Jew, we find that those who choose Judaism are some of our most committed congregants.
Pizzarelli: The simplest approach would be to study history and possibly come as a guest to a service. Most Christian traditions provide information opportunities.
Wali: Attend an active local Mosque and interact with the leaders of the community. Read the translation of the Holy Quran under the guidance of a Muslim Scholar and study the life and message of Prophet Muhammad.
What about Mohammad exemplifies Islam?
Wali: One of the many ways of doing good in Islam is to respect the elderly. In this regard, the following saying of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and all the prophets) has been well documented in books of ahadith (sayings of the Prophet (pbuh)): “By him in whose power my soul is, Allah does not bestow his mercy except on a merciful one.” They (his companions) said, “All of us are merciful.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, “Not only that each of you has mercy upon the other, but to have mercy also upon all people.” (At-Tirmidhi)