The high-volume debate about the planned Islamic center — aka “The Mosque” — near the site of the former World Trade Center is, according to politicians and journalists, about freedom of religion or Muslim extremism.
Some local rabbis will tell you next week that it’s really about civility. Their message: listen to people who disagree with you, stop shouting, stop accusing.
Many spiritual leaders indicate that they will devote part of their Rosh HaShanah sermons, usually their most important public words of the year, to some lessons from the controversy surrounding the Islamic cultural center that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf hopes to erect two blocks north of Ground Zero. Avoiding the issue’s political implications, they probably won’t announce if they’re for or against the project, named Park51, they say.
Some rabbis have told him that they will “absolutely” allude to the cultural center controversy, says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. The subject can’t be avoided, he says. Others told him they will “absolutely not” discuss it, that the mosque is too divisive or too topical.
Across the country, religious leaders’ interest in the mosque is widespread, Eboo Patel, a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, wrote last week in the Washington Post. “Pastors and Rabbis will begin preaching sermons on common ground Christians, Jews and Muslims share.”
Five years ago, the moral lessons of Hurricane Katrina, which had just destroyed New Orleans, were on everybody’s mind and on most rabbis’ lips. “Katrina was not contentious,” Rabbi Potasnik says. Who didn’t grieve for the victims?
Rabbis who choose the mosque as a sermon topic this week will emphasize mutual respect, Rabbi Potasnik says.
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of Central Synagogue in Manhattan says he will discuss civility in a wider sermon about shame and apologies, and Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn says he’ll allude to the mosque in the context of a sermon about “divisive” discussions about the future of Israel.
The heated debate over the mosque represents a general trend in society, says Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel of Lawrence, L.I. “The issue here is sensitivity to people.”
Rabbi Harlan Wechsler of Manhattan’s Congregation Or Zarua says his Rosh HaShanah sermons will center on “classical topics like repentance.”
“I try to be a ‘non-topical’ rabbi,” taking sermon topics from Jewish tradition, not newspaper headlines, Rabbi Wechsler says. He’ll talk about the possibility of change, about the importance of Israel. “Definitely, not the mosque.”