A Rosh Hashanah message of unity ... from the King of Bahrain

Last week, Bahrain’s Prince Nasser presented on behalf of his father, King Hamad, the Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance at a Los Angeles gathering of 400 interfaith leaders, diplomats, law enforcement figures, and academicians.

The Declaration is straight talk from an Arab head of state who is a practicing Muslim. And its plain meaning offers a gift of hope to everyone struggling against the proliferation of religion-fueled terror and bigotry. To the hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t want their beliefs defined by ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the Declaration is a strong, unambiguous statement on Muslim moderation. To Jews, there is a serendipitous nod to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Like most countries, Bahrain is far from perfect, but its centuries-old record of religious tolerance stands out in a region where owning bibles or attempting to build a church can land you in jail or worse, much worse.

Elements of the Bahrain Declaration move well beyond previous documents - like the Marrakesh Declaration - that took the first steps by cooperating clergy to distance their religion from extremism. The Bahrain Declaration takes specific aim at religious compulsion, stating –theologically – that religious activity that is coerced is without value, because, it does not reflect the operation of Man’s free-will.

It takes aim at the charismatic teachers of violence who claim to speak G-d’s revealed truth. We cannot always refute the claims of the believer, it says. But all of religious humanity can agree that a claim that is an affront to the universal moral conscience of an entire planet – something engineered by G-d himself - simply cannot be an accurate understanding of His will. This is all powerful stuff.

There was some debate about including a reference to the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Indeed, Sikhs, Baha’i, Buddhists, and Hindus all openly practice their faiths in Bahrain; perhaps mentioning the three Western monotheistic religions would be seen as insensitive to them.

The King decided otherwise. He felt that it was important to mention the three Abrahamic faiths that have so often clashed with each other. 

Enter Rosh Hashanah.

Perhaps the holiday’s most dramatic moment is the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn, which takes us back to Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his beloved son when G-d asked him to. When G-d stayed his hand, Abraham substituted a ram for his son.

The binding of his son by Abraham is a story shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it also distances them from each other. Muslims see Ishmael as the bound son, not Isaac. Christians sometimes find fault with Abraham’s acquiescence. People within each faith struggle to balance the two obvious themes that the story incorporates. On the one hand, it speaks of G-d’s right as Creator to ask anything he wants of Man; on the other, by the end of the story He shows His absolute abhorrence for taking life in His name.

By including the reference to the Abrahamic faiths, the King opted to underscore what we find in common, rather than what separates us. He underscored the role of Abraham as described in the Bible: the father of many nations.

Abraham is linked by Jewish tradition to chesed, to unstinting, altruistic giving to others. He argues with G-d to preserve the evildoers of the city of Sodom, although their sin, according to a later book of the Bible, was absolute selfishness, even criminalizing deeds of kindness and charity to others.

In other words, Abraham took the side not just of sinners, but of a society premised on an outlook diametrically opposed to the values that defined him. To be a father of many children-nations, you must learn to love all of them, even when they contend with each other – and with you. When your chief motif in life is giving, rather than receiving, achieving that love becomes that much easier.

The Bahrain Declaration will now be shared in world capitals and religious institutions. Our hope is that it will inspire those committed to moderation and mutual respect.  And as Jews pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for peace, stability, and opportunity for all, we return again and again to the model of Abraham – and, like a wise king in the Middle East, we pray that all will adopt the theme of Abraham’s life—searching for what unites us, rather than tears us apart. 

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean, Director of Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.