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A Difference in Approach

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Transcribed by Reuven Goldfarb with the assistance of Eliyahu (Khaled) McLean and Rabbi Pam Baugh and clarifying editorial input from Reb Zalman. Revised excerpt from an audio tape of the Farbrengen, an event featuring Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach, Z’Tz’L, co-sponsored by The Aquarian Minyan and the Berkeley Hillel Foundation, March 19, 1994. The following remarks are by Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi.


Used to be, when I would go to Israel, I would go up to a place outside of Nablus, called Balata. Balata was one of those “refugee camps.” In Balata there lived Sidi Murshid Hassan, of blessed memory–Salah alaihu. Many of you were there that Yom Kippur afternoon [September 15, 1975/5736, Aquarian Minyan, Berkeley] when we did zikr with Murshid Hassan. Just as we were praying the Avodah where the High Priest enters the sanctuary, he came and led a zikr with us, and we, at that time, got as close as one can get to the inner sacred space.

Alas, he passed on. Hardly any great and universalist Sufis around among Palestinians–only the hard-rock fundamentalists are around, and it’s very hard to have dialogue with them. You see, I wish that we would again have our counterparts among Palestinians so that we would be able to do like we did at the time in Hevron, years ago…. We went to Hevron and there found the grave of Shibli, one of the Sufi saints. And there was an old blind Sheikh there (he sat there telling his beads), and when I came and sat in front of him, he turned to me–he had felt that I was there and asked me whether I knew Nur (Steve Durkee) and Mariam (another spiritual friend).

I said, “Aiwa.” Yes.

“What do you want?”

I said, “I want to say zikr with you.”

And he said, “Then come, on Thursday at 4 o’clock.”

We came back, a whole group of us, on Thursday at 4 o’clock to that little shtiebele, the Zawiyah. And there the Sheikh sat on the side. And the Qadi of the mosque had come. He had this red fez with a white turban wrap around it, and he wanted to find out whether it’s kosher for them to say zikr with us.

We are trying to get to talk to each other, but there isn’t a translator there. The young Arabs didn’t want to admit that they knew Hebrew, so I couldn’t give it over to them in Hebrew to translate into Arabic. So they brought the public health official, a doctor, to translate.

He came in, and he hadn’t said his afternoon prayers. So he began, “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,” and, standing at his side, I said the prayers along with him. He finished his prayers, and then comes the hearing. And at the hearing, they say,”Who sent you?”

I respond, “The One, be He Blessed, Who sent our father Ibrahim out of Ur of the Chaldees.”

“What do you want?”

I said, “I’m here to say zikr with you.”

“Why don’t you go with your own people?”

I said, “I davvened this morning with my own people.”

“So why do you want to say zikr with us?”

I said, “Because when I’m outside of the Holy Land, I find my Ihwan, my brethren–Sufi brethren–to say zikr with them there, and to be in the Holy Land, and not to have a chance to say zikr, with you, is sad. I’d like to be able to say zikr with you.”

“Are you a Muslim?”

I say, “La. Ana Mu’min.” I’m a believer. I’m not a Muslim, I’m a believer.

And they ask, “What do you believe in?”

And I say, “Ash-hadu.” I bear witness. “La illaha ill Allah al-ahad.” There is no G-d but G-d, and that G-d is One.

Okay. Not too bad.

“So, do you observe the Shariyat [the Muslim guide to righteous conduct, equivalent to the Halakhah]?” The Shulchan Aruch, you know? Do you know Shulchan Aruch?

The term “Shuchan Aruch,” “a prepared table,” is also found in the Qur’an,

where there is a Sura that’s called “Ma’ida,” which means “the prepared table,” and in that Sura is written what Muslims may and may not eat. Do you hear that? There’s a Sura called Shulchan Aruch in the Qur’an!

So they ask me, “Do you observe the Shariyat?” I say, “Aiwa.” Yes, I do.

“What level of Shariyat do you observe?”

I say, “I observe the Shariyat of the banei Ishaq [and] the banei Yaqub.”

So he says to me, “Then why not follow the Shariyat of Islam?”

I say, “Because it is not fitting, it isn’t ‘Adab,’ it’s not fitting for a son to go in paths different than his father. So I come from the banei Ishaq and banei Yaqub and not from the banei Ismail, and so I have to follow the Shariyat of my parents.”

“What about Tariqat?”

So we were talking about the higher levels of the Sufi. I said, “With that, I’m with you at one.”

Then somebody gives a kick on the side and says, “Ask him! Ask him! What about Rasuliyat?” What has he got to say about Muhammed? Ah, they got me, ah!

So I say, “Ash-hadu.” I bear witness. “La illaha il Allah, wa Muhammed-ar Rasul’Illah.” There is no G-d but Allah. Muhammed is His messenger.

So they say to me, “Then you’re a Muslim!”

And I say, “La. Ana Yahud.” No, I’m a Jew.

“Then how could you say, how could you say such a thing?”

So I said, “Allow me to go back with you in your history. There was Ismail, he son of Ibrahim Khalil Allah, Abraham the friend of G-d. Ismail still had the Tawhid–the knowledge of the Oneness of G-d–but his children fell into the dark ages, into the jahiliya, into the unknowing. And so, they had lost their way to the Oneness of G-d. So, Ya Rahman, Ya Rahim, the Merciful, the Compassionate, sent out a messenger to the children of Ismail to bring them back to the Tawhid–to the Oneness. I believe that he was a true messenger.”

The Imam said, “I don’t want to talk anymore. I want to say zikr with this man!”

And they brought in the drums, and we start to say zikr.


Another time, in Hevron–and I want to talk about that because it hurts so much, you know; another time, in Hevron, there was a group of people that went on a pilgrimage with us. And we came to the tomb, and I said to the people, “Wait a little bit.” And I went in to the Sheikh of the tomb. He has a little office there. And I said to him, “May I speak to you for a moment?” He speaks a very good English.

“Yes. What can I do for you?”

I said, “I’ve come to ask your permission to do our pilgrimage here.”

He said, with a bitter heart, he said, “You need my permission?”–pointing to the guys with the Uzis outside.

And I said, “You, and your family, and your ancestors, have been the keepers of this sacred tomb for all these years, and it isn’t fitting that I should ignore that.”

He got up from behind his desk and gave me a hug, and a kiss on both sides of the cheek, and then took me and the group around Machpelah. What a difference there is in the approach! How important it is not to forget that.


The story about Shlomo that touches me so much was the time when he was invited to sing in a prison, and out come all the Jewish women prisoners. And he said, “Are these all the prisoners who are here?” They said, “Yes, but there are some Arabs; they don’t want to come.” And Shlomo went inside and said, “I can’t perform, I can’t sing if they don’t come. Let me invite them myself.” And he went to invite them.

Comes to one of the cells, there’s a woman sitting on the floor, sort of beating her head and crying. He asks, “What’s going on?” And they tell him that her son was killed. So Shlomo took off his shoes and sat down outside of her cell, doing like in shiv’ah with her, grieving. A woman, Khaleda, was translating for him to her. She was there in that prison because of a bomb that she had planted. So it was a high security prison.

After a while the Arabs all came to the big hall, and they were singing with Shlomo and dancing with him. And he was explaining a Torah based on “L’ma’an lo nayvosh v’lo n’kalaym”–may we not be made to be shamed nor defamed–all of us, if every one of us, if everything about us were known, wouldn’t we also be behind bars?

And beginning with that he finally got them to sing and to dance, including the wardens, now dancing with the Arab women. Can you see this? So it’s a difference in approach, do you understand?