Moving Beyond Fear Together

Moving Beyond Fear Together
by Aziza Hasan and Andrea Hodos

Andrea Hodos and Aziza Hasan are colleagues at NewGround: A Muslim -Jewish Partnership For Change

Two Faiths, One Prayer by Marta Evry

Two Faiths, One Prayer by Marta Evry

Concern and anger overcame us when we heard that a mother and daughter had been punched in the face in the subway in Queens, New York. Seeing the Orthodox Jewish woman’s head covering, the assailant mistook the pair as Muslim, assaulted them and yelled “get out of my country.” The New York Daily News reports that hate crimes are up by 33% in New York and Muslims have seen a 48% increase in hate incidents since 2016. Nation-wide, the Anti Defamation League reports that “anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to same period last year.” With the rise in hateful sentiments toward both Muslim and Jewish communities and the lack of differentiation between both communities, it is clear that Muslims and Jews are seen as “the other, together.” Indeed, we know women of both faiths have chosen to no longer wear their head coverings in public. Some families choose not to display their religious attire in public spaces. 

Feeling this fear ourselves, we recognize the urge to retreat and retract, to focus on protecting our loved ones and ourselves. And yet, fear has a way of restricting us in ways that might initially protect us, but may ultimately put us at greater risk. Egyptian icon and poet, Naguib Mahfouz encapsulates this danger, writing: “Fear does not lead to life, fear leads to death.” If we only act on our urge to isolate, we cheat ourselves out of relationships with allies who could strengthen us in the long run. 

The beginning of the New Year for Jews and Muslims is an important time for reflection in both communities. Since in 2017 the Jewish and Muslim New Year coincide, it seems like a timely moment to consider how we can strengthen one another and ourselves to move through the fear that may paralyze us and cause us to face greater jeopardy. We can turn to the imagery of our holidays for some insight.

Jews refer to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the Yamim Nora’im, “The Days of Fear/Awe.” Rosh Hashanah is the time to recognize the sovereignty of God as Creator of the World, Witness and Judge. God has the capacity for sight and perspective beyond anything we can imagine.

The themes of fear and sight weave through many of the Biblical texts read during the High Holidays. The ability to see things anew recurs in the readings—for instance, when Abraham lifts his eyes and sees the ram revealed in the thicket, waiting to be sacrificed in the place of his son, Isaac. Throughout the holidays, the liturgy and texts call us to widen our perspective, to see anew that which might be beyond our immediate reality.

Although not part of the high holiday canon, there is a moment later in the Torah that seems pertinent, where the Torah presents a pun on the words “fear” and “sight.” At the beginning of Exodus, the actions of many women bring Moses into the world and keep him safe. Among these women are two midwives described as “Hebrew midwives” or “Midwives to the Hebrews.” Are they Hebrews or Egyptians? We don’t know. What we do know is that that when given a commandment by Pharaoh: “LOOK at the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill it,” instead of paying attention to the gender of the child, “the midwives feared God and did not do as Pharaoh commanded, and let the boys live.” [Exodus 4:16-17] The word “look” and the word “fear” act as homonyms for one another in the Hebrew text. The midwives have taken Pharaoh’s command and reinterpreted it; they see something beyond the immediate danger of Pharaoh’s retribution, something that gives them the strength and moral clarity to act on in solidarity with and on behalf of the Hebrews.

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While the midwives made Moses’ life possible by achieving perspective beyond their immediate physical fears in the Torah, the Quran also has a story about fear and the life of Moses. For Sunni Muslims, this story is at the center of the holiday of Ashura, when Muslims fast to commemorate the day that Moses fasted as gratitude for the liberation of the Israelites. Shia Muslims mourn the death of the grandson of Prophet Mohammad and refrain from all celebration. 

The Muslim tradition dives into the story of Moses in Chapter 20, fraught with fear: A terrified mother places her son, Moses, into the river and tells her sister to secretly follow him as he flows down the river. Moses is eventually saved by the Pharaoh’s wife, but once grown, he flees the Pharaoh’s home in fear after deadly confrontation. After some time, Moses entertains the idea of going back to face the Pharaoh, but when he and his brother Aaron express hesitation prior to confronting the Pharaoh, God says: “Do not be afraid, I am with you both, hearing and seeing everything.” [Quran 20:46] The Almighty also tells Moses to speak gently to the Pharaoh when requesting freedom for the Israelites—telling him to “speak softly so that he may hear his transgressions.” [Quran 20:44] The command to speak softly is perplexing given the Pharaoh’s record of brutal oppression. Yet soft and gentle speech is God’s directive so the message would be heard and reflected upon. Even though Moses is fearful to confront the Pharaoh, he moves forward.

As we heal our relationship with God and ourselves, as we repair our relationships with others, and as we reach out to work toward justice, we ultimately create and reinforce the safety net that holds us all. We transform our fear into a catalyst for change. 

The story continues with Moses working through fear in different trials and challenges, eventually receiving the declaration that God is “forgiving towards those who repent, believe, do righteous deeds, and stay on the right path.” [Quran 20:82] The text beautifully mirrors one of the central prayers in the Jewish High Holiday liturgy where T’shuvah (repentance), T’fillah (prayer), and Tzedakah (justice) are held up as powerful tools to “transform the harshness of our decree” no matter how harsh the circumstances. 

Collectively, these texts give us models for harnessing courage together as we confront our fears. Repentance requires that we broaden our perspectives to face the ways we have contributed to the pain of others and to repair those relationships. Prayer, belief, and reflection help us keep faith during trying times. When we clarify and broaden our perspectives, we see beyond our immediate fears to the concerns of others. As we heal our relationship with God and ourselves, as we repair our relationships with others, and as we reach out to work toward justice, we ultimately create and reinforce the safety net that holds us all. We transform our fear into a catalyst for change. 

May we, like the midwives, have the courage to look past our immediate fears and use our newfound perspectives to give birth to justice and righteousness. As we reach out, may our relationships with one another as Muslims and Jews sustain and support us, allowing us to reach past our immediate communities. May we remember the mother and daughter on the subway, keeping them in our hearts as we work through our fear and contribute to a safer world for all. §


An earlier version of this article was published in the online publication, Jewschool.

Issue 08
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Aziza Hasan, Executive Director of NewGround, has extensive experience in program management and coalition building. Aziza’s work has been featured in several outlets including Yahoo News, Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith” with Krista Tippett, and the LA Times, among others. Aziza currently serves on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Interfaith Advisory Council.

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Andrea Hodos is currently the Program Co-Director at NewGround, where she facilitates the High School Leadership Council and the adult Changemaker cohorts. She is also the Director of Sinai & Sunna: Women Covering, Uncovering and Recovering, a performance-based community venture harnessing the power of theater to move the Muslim and Jewish communities—literally and figuratively.