Archive for July, 2009
Jews can learn from it
By Ralph Dobrin
My wife and I recently renovated our bathroom. It’s amazing how much work such a small project involves. It took a lot of hard physical labor, resoluteness and intelligence on the part of the workmen who made it all possible. Three men did most of the work: a pumber called Danny, who brought two other men, both of them Arabs from suburbs in the eastern part of Jerusalem. There was Yusuf, who helped Danny strip away the walls and floor tiles and dismantle the pipes, which were old and corroded; and Hassan laid the floor and wall tiles.
And what a huge effort it was on their part! True, they were paid for their efforts, but nevertheless, I had to appreciate that for a few days of their lives they dedicated their strength, intelligence and and experience to me personally. For a while these three men became a central part in our life. So we cared for them. We cared that they were drinking and eating enough; that they were sufficiently rested from their grueling work from time to time. We weren’t just being nice. After all, if you expect people to do a good job for you, you’ve got to care about their physical well-being.
From time to time we would chat with them. Sometimes we praised their work and occasionally we would ask them to pull out a tile that hadn’t been placed absolutely straight. Each time they obliged very willingly. Yusuf spoke Hebrew fairly well, while Hassan had a little difficulty. My wife and I once had a fairly basic command of Arabic. So we practised our rusty Arabic with them. They seemed very happy that we could converse, albeit very haltingly, in Arabic.
Every day I prepared lunch which we ate together, while chatting about work, family, health and the Israel-Arab conflict. About this latter issue, they said a few things that I didn’t agree with, and I countered calmly, to which they responded calmly.
The fact that they are part of a nation with which my nation is locked in a desperate, mortal struggle, seemed to have no bearing on the degree of amiability in our relationship, even though I made it clear that nationalistically I have views that place me more Right Wing than Avigdor Lieberman.
I had noticed that Hassan took himself to a corner a few times a day and prayed. Sitting down to have dinner with him on the evening that he finished his work, I touched on the subject of religion.
“Religion is an important part of your life?” I asked rhetorically.
I continued: “I saw you praying.”
His expression seemed to say, “So what?”
I proceeded: “A lot of people in Jerusalem are religious. Isn’t that so? There are Muslims, Jews, Christians.”
“We all have the same rab” (master of the universe), he replied.
I reckoned that we were on friendly enough terms for me to be able to say: “You undoubtedly know that many people all over the world are worried about Islamic fanaticism.”
He just stared at me impassively. His docile manner emboldened me and I continued: “A lot of people are acting like crazy madmen in the name of Allah. Hamas, Hizbollah, El Khaida. They kill thousands of innocent people. They kill Jews and Christians. They kill Muslims and they even kill themselves.” I smiled to try and maintain a friendly discourse. After all, the man had helped make a marvelous bathroom for us and he was now sharing a meal with me and my wife at our dinner table. But it is not every day that I can engage a devout Muslim in a conversation on this crucial issue.
He responded: “The people who do all this killing are so badly mistaken. The Koran is against such acts. That is not really religion. The people who do these things are not real Muslims.”
“I had the impression that they are very dedicated Muslims,” said I. “And they call what they do Jihad,”
“That’s not jihad,” he responded.
I replied cheerily: “Oh, I thought that jihad was waging war in the name of Allah.”
He was cautious with his words. Slowly, in his imperfect Hebrew, interspersed with Arabic words that we happened to understand, he explained: “Jihad is not just making war to defend Islam. Jihad is really service to God. I serve God through humility, modesty and the way I support and raise my family. I do this by trying to be honest, hardworking and productive. And the way that I can support my family and be productive is by laying floor tiles and wall tiles in people’s homes. This is my jihad. That’s why I work as cheerfully and as well as I can. That’s why I take care to lay every tile as straight and as perfectly as I can. At the end of the day I want to be able to say that I did a good day’s work. That, for me, is jihad.”
How can anyone not be impressed with this outlook, I concluded. Later I checked the Wikipedia and in different words it more or less confirmed what Hassan had said.
All this leads me to recall conversations that I have had with Haredim. Quoting freely from the Scriptures and Sages, they always give me the impression that they reckon that everyone else is out of step and that only they have the right answers. And I bet that Hassan, like the Haredim or like any other religious group, thinks that his religion is the only right way to commune with God.
But the main difference between Hassan and a very large part of the Haredi men is that for Hassan and his peers, working hard for a living is part of their credo. And they are the ones who build Israel’s cities, grow the produce, fix the cars, repair the plumbing, work in our factories and clean our streets. Without their hard work, Israel couldn’t function as an orderly state. On the other hand, while some of the Haredim do work – like the rest of the Jewish population in Israel, but mainly in jobs that don’t require too much muscle, sweat or soiled hands and clothes – to a large extent many Haredim make a lifestyle out of sponging off the rest of society, using Torah study as a reason.
Now I bet that Hassan is no less devout to the rab (it has the same meaning in Hebrew) as any resident of Meah Shearim, Bnai Brak, Betar Ilit, etc. He prays five times a day. He does so quietly. Some of the content of his prayers is similar to Jewish prayer. But he spends little time on his duvenning. Most of his time is dedicated to being as decent and trustworthy a human being as possible. And as productive!
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to promote Islam. Some of the nastiest, most evil scoundrels in the world are those who intone “Allah hu’akbar!” five times a day.
But as a way of life, Hassan’s personal take on Jihad, which can be summed up briefly as “be a real mensch,” is what the rabbis should be emphasizing to their communities and to the students in the yeshivot. They should be drumming into their heads the importance of productive labor in order to earn their living; not to be too proud to dirty their hands in the course of an honest day’s work; to strive for perfection in whatever they do; to practise humility; and for God’s sake, not to expect hand-outs from the rest of society.
Surely, that’s how they would come closer to tikun olam (repairing the world.) And surely, as Hassan said, that is how one really serves the rab. Indeed, all Israeli Jews should digest that.
See also: http://www.israelandtruth.org