The Qur’an Declares: God Dwells Among Us; And Also Among Others – OpEd


Most Jews would be very surprised to learn that there is a verse in the Qur’an which says that at Sinai, before Allah give the Torah to the Children of Israel, Allah made a covenant with all of  the Children of Israel, raising the mountain (Sinai) above the whole Jewish people and saying: “We took a covenant from you when We lifted the Mount (Sinai) over your heads saying, ‘Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it.'” (2:63).

According to this Qur’an verse the Jewish nation’s future fate stood under the shadow of Mount Sinai: accept this covenant or this mountain top will be your tombstone. This explains the miracle of all of Israel choosing to agree to the covenant with the One God of Abraham.

I am a Reform Rabbi who first became interested in Islam 63 years ago, when I first studied Islam at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  I have continued my study of Islam off and on since that time. Actually I am an Islamic Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Prophet Abraham, the first Hebrew (Genesis 14:13) to be a Hanif Muslim, and I submit to the covenant and many commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. 

As a Reform Rabbi I believe that we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. This is an important lesson that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in Germany in the early 19th century. 

The Qur’an tells us (17:110) “Say, “Call upon Allah, or call upon Ar-Rahman the Most Merciful. Whichever [name] you call – to Him belong the best names.” And do not recite your prayer [too] loudly or [too] quietly, but seek a way in between.”i.e. be a moderate Muslim. or Jew, or Christian.

This ayah is the basis of Reform Judaism. God has many names not only because God has an unending complex personality; but also because of all the different individual people, and different peoples-tribes-nations, who relate to the one God in many different ways. Thus, no one should raise his voice in prayer over other monotheists as though his prayers were better than those of others in his own community; or in other monotheistic communities.

The Hebrew Prophet Malachi (2:5 New International Version) states: “My covenant was with him (Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David), a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them (the commandments) to him Banu Israel); this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.” Awe and reverence for the one God is the basis for all monotheistic religions.

As the Qur’an says:  “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it (the commandments).” (2:63).

Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K..Reform Judaism is called Liberal  Judaism. In many ways statements in the Qur’an about Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Ahadith relating Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some 12-13 centuries later. 

I believe that the Qur’an verse I quoted above and the following Torah verse contain an important lesson for mankind. “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29:45-46)

These two verses say that the purpose of God’s actions to liberate the Jewish people, and instruct them to build the Tent of Meeting; was to meet a Divine desire for relationship. This concept was noticed by Jewish commentators throughout history. As Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th Century Spain) notes; these verses mean “the purpose of My bringing them forth from the land of Egypt, was only that I might dwell in their midst.” 

For in the rational sense of things it would appear that the dwelling of the Divine glory in Israel was only to fulfill a human need to be free; but this is not so. It also fulfilled a Divine desire. The Torah is telling us something fundamental about God. The God of Prophet Abraham is a passionate God, a God who loves, cares, and gets involved.

God is not an impersonal First Cause or Prime Mover, which is itself unmoved. Unlike the notion of a perfect, unchanging God portrayed by so many philosophers, the Torah notion of God–while ultimately beyond human language or concept–is of one who responds to human needs and desires, and enjoys a relationship with humans of every language, color and nation.

That notion, of God desiring human love and human relationship, lies at the very core of Judaism Christianity and Islam through the ages. God’s passions find expression and resolution in God’s reciprocal love of human beings. Due to that desire for love and commitment God first created the world and mankind; and later made a brit (covenant) first with Prophet Noah, and later with  Prophets Moses and Aaron and the totality of the Jewish people.

While the One God’s love extends far beyond the borders of the Jewish People; it began there and then spread to other religious communities; culminating in the Muslim Umma. 

Choosing the Jewish People was an expression of God’s desire for emotional connection and for mutual concern. God’s love created the world. Our love for God sustains the world; and fills our lives and all religious communities lives with meaning.

In fact each of us has a deep-seated need to love and to be loved. It feels good to care about another person, to belong to a group of people who share a history, an ethos, and a vision for the future, and most importantly, who share a love for the creator of our world. 

Over the millennia, the Jewish people have cultivated a loving relationship through deeds of holiness, acts of loving-kindness, and the ongoing study of Torah, the accumulated record of our relationship with God.

Israel is not the (only) chosen people. While Israel can’t adore any other God, God can and does redeem other nations. “Are not Israelites like Ethiopians to me? Says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Crete and the Aramaeans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)

Israel is a chosen people because at Sinai the Jewish people chose to be chosen, thus becoming the first to be a chosen people and a holy community. Others, who have individually chosen to be part of a kind and loving religious community, also have the Divine dwelling in the midst of their community.

But in the Jewish case, the covenant at Sinai involved an entire people. The principle that God made a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are good and faithful believers, helps us understand the verse in the Qur’an which I quoted at the beginning of this essay.

This Jewish experience at Sinai is also referred to in the Oral Torah. When God offered all the newly freed slaves the Torah, a party of them hesitated. Most of our rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could hesitate when offered the opportunity to commit themselves to God.

But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by both small and large parts of the Jewish people. God’s proposal of a covenant partnership was the most awesome offer the recently freed slaves had ever received. 

If many people in the Western World today have a problem making a long term marriage commitment, what about people who had been slaves in Egypt only three months earlier.

Some of the Jewish People said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours and then decided to make a commitment. but a few remained undecided. A small minority were afraid to commit. So, would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of an endless commitment and partnership?

Fortunately, according to Rabbi Avdimi, God came to the rescue: “The Holy One, blessed be He, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a)

Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference in the other person’s answer and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant at Sinai; probably the only time in more than 3,500 years of Jewish history, that all Jews agreed on something. Yet, as a good parent loves all his or her children, Allah loves all mankind.

And as the Qur’an states, and then repeats: “Verily, those who believe, and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds; shall have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”  (Quran 2:62 & 5:69)

And the Qur’an goes even further, proclaiming that religious pluralism is the will of Allah. “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God’s plan is) to test (each group of) you in what He has given you: so compete in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is to (please) Allah who will show you on judgment day the truth of the matters which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)

And: “O mankind, We created you from male and female, and made you peoples and tribes, that you may know (respect) one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and [well] Acquainted.” (Quran 49:13)

The Talmud builds its midrash about the suspended mountain upon a phrase in Exodus 19:17, but some later midrashic texts use the parallel verse from Deuteronomy 4:11 “You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark, overcast, with thick clouds.” The use of this verse allows for a novel feature of this exegetical complex to emerge, namely that Sinai’s peak ends up in the heavens. Consider, for example,  Song of Songs Rabbah 8:1. “Mount Sinai was uprooted and stood in the high heavens, and the Israelites were set under it, as it says (Deuteronomy 4:11), “And you came forward and stood at the foot of (lit. under) the mountain.” 

In other words, when God lifts the mountain and makes it float in the air, all the Jewish People walk forward and see that its raised peak literally pierces the heavens.

The midrash Pirqei de-R. Eleazer 41 which appears likewise to rewrite Deuteronomy 4:11, and to meditate on the “You came forward” connection aspect: “And from its place Mount Sinai was uprooted, and the heavens opened, and the top of the mountain entered heaven.” 

While a small minority of the recently oppressed Children of Israel needed pressure from above to be applied in order to make an ongoing commitment to God’s Torah; the generations that followed all saw the raised mountain not as a threat from below; but as an ongoing mountain top connection to heaven itself.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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