Kol Nidre 5771: Legal Right vs. Moral Responsibility – The Ground Zero Mosque

Tonight, many of us owe someone an apology for doing something we had the right to do – or for saying something we had the right to say.

Despite the fact that we had the right to say what we said or do what we did – our words or our actions were irresponsible.

For example:

  • One of you had every legal right to yell at the waitress for screwing up your order the other day;
  • A bunch of us had every legal right to put our work before our family this year and spend time gossiping about our friends to others;
  • A few of us had every legal right to come up with an excuse so as not to help someone in need.
  • Someone here had the right to be brutally and unnecessarily honest with your mother.
  • Someone else lied to his spouse.
  • A handful of you have cheated on a test.
  • And how many of you have paid more attention to your cell phone while driving than to the road in front of you?

While some of these offenses are more serious than others, not one of them is illegal.  But, they are all morally wrong, irresponsible actions that reflect poorly upon us and have the potential to harm our relationships with others.

We engage in offenses like these when we fail to use our moral compass – the part of us that allows us to know what is good and what is not.  Unfortunately, many of us haven’t used our moral compass much this year.  Sadly, this is not a big deal as society has made the moral compass obsolete by embracing an “if it is legal, it is moral” mentality. Morality has been reduced to law.  What is right and what is wrong is now determined purely by what our legal rights are.

Everywhere you turn these days, people are hollering and yelling about their “rights’.

What is a ‘right’ anyway? And just because you have a right to do or say something does that guarantee that your words or actions are ‘right’?  Could a right lead you down the wrong path?  Sure – just think about some of those things we have said and done this year that were legal – but immoral, irresponsible, or inappropriate.

Tonight and tomorrow, we have the opportunity and the obligation to unpack our moral compass and examine the words we spoke and the things we did last year. Ideally, we won’t pack the compass back up after this holiest of days and we’ll continue using it on a daily basis.  But, before we move forward, we must use our compass to help us remedy last year’s wrongs.  In most cases, it is not too late to rectify the damage that our irresponsible words and actions have done.  That is, of course, if we genuinely take appropriate action and change our ways.

On Yom Kippur, we should not only use our moral compass to evaluate our own personal lives.  We should also evaluate moral and legal issues that affect us as a community, as Americans and as Jews.  In wrestling with issues outside of our immediate lives and sharing our opinions with others and urging respectful debate and discussion, we play an important role in bringing about Tikun Olam – healing the world.  Oftentimes, the debates and discussions can be heated – but this does not excuse us from pursuing them. Judaism teaches us that arguments that are for the sake of Heaven – arguments for the sake of God and the wellbeing of God’s creationsincluding the wellbeing of our world and the people who dwell on it – these arguments are worth pursuing.

I say this because my words, the opinions that I express tonight, might provoke some arguments.  There will be some who disagree with what I say tonight.  While you might agree with me, the person sitting next to you – they might disagree with what I have to say.  And there is nothing wrong with this.  As a community – we can handle this.  Ideally, I hope that any disagreement that results from my words tonight will lead to healthy discussion and debate over a complex issue that is part of our national discussion.

Tonight, I ask us all to use our moral compass to examine the proposed Cordoba House also known as the Ground Zero mosque and community center.  The building of this mosque is an issue that directly affects us all as we continue to wrestle with the emotions and trauma associated with the death and destruction of 9/11.  It is also an issue that affects us as a Jewish community that values our right to build and maintain a religious building in the heart of a major metropolitan area.  And it affects us all as Americans who continue to live in a world where the threat of Islamic terror is very, very real.

At the outset, I remind you that I was directly impacted by the horrors of 9/11 – as a resident of New York, I saw American Airlines Flight 11 moments before it hit the World Trade Center.  I heard the explosion.  I smelled the smoke.  As I clutched my newborn daughter in my arms, I frantically searched for friends and family and would learn, in time, that Cheryl and I had indeed lost one family friend that day and thousands of others we never got the chance to meet.  As a rabbi, I stood in a burn unit in New York City, days after the attack – visiting a congregant who was clinging to life and other victims who were burned beyond recognition.  I was there.

Here we are 9 years later and our country is in an outrage over the proposal to build a mosque at Ground Zero.

As American-Jews, we take pride in the fact that our country is a place where freedom of religion is respected.  Our Constitution protects this.  Our nation was founded on this basic idea.  Legally, there is absolutely no reason not to build the mosque.  No reason.  Whoever owns that small piece of land in downtown Manhattan, as long as it is approved by the appropriate offices in the city of New York, they have the right to build whatever they wants on that land.  Period.  As far as I can tell this is a black and white issue.

However…as in our own lives, we must ask just because we have a right to do something, in this case build a mosque, is it the morally responsible thing to do?  On this holiest of nights, where we explore our own morality, we must wrestle with this question as Americans who value our freedom of religion.

Recent events teach us that a religious group having a right to say or do something does not mean that the group’s words or actions are ‘morally justified’.

  • Consider that just a few months ago, Israel had the right to announce that she was going to build in East Jerusalem.  This poorly timed and provocative announcement infuriated the Palestinian community and the larger Arab world and drew condemnation from our own county.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, realizing the ‘irresponsible’ nature of the announcement, apologized to Vice-President Biden and soon after, building plans in East Jerusalem were changed.
  • More recently, the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville had the legal right, whether we like it or not, to burn the Koran. Fortunately, the pastor of the church, Terry Jones, was talked out of going ahead with the burning.  Even talk of the burning sparked outrage in the Muslim world.  On many levels, burning the Koran would have been extremely irresponsible.  Even proposing it was morally wrong.

These two events remind us that just because a religious group has a right to do or say something, it does not mean that it is the right thing to do or say.

Before I continue, let me make myself explicitly clear: it is wrong to condemn all of Islam and all Muslims for the attacks of 9/11. We cannot in any way condone the burning of the Koran and other acts of bigotry and hatred against the Muslim world.  As Jewish Americans we must speak out against such immoral behavior.  And we have a legal and moral obligation to insure that all religious groups have the right to practice their religiou freely here in the United States.

This being said, I believe that it would be morally irresponsible for the Muslim leadership behind the proposed mosque to move forward with the project at Ground Zero.

The leaders behind the mosque have a responsibility to listen to the fears and concerns of the American people and understand that the terrible wound created by a group of Muslims, albeit a radical group, is still raw.  The leaders have a responsibility to reach out and create healing by responding to the fears and concerns of Americans in a way that shows compassion and genuine support for the vast majority of people who are still traumatized by the events of 9/11.

As a rabbi, I believe strongly that a religious leader is responsible for strengthening his religion from within while, at the same time, fostering positive relationships with other religious, ethnic and cultural groups.  This benefits everyone.   I am worried that the religious leaders behind the mosque appear to be extremely concerned with protecting their “rights” and advancing their cause while having little interest in calming the uneasy feelings that non-Muslim American have towards Islam in the post-9/11 world.  This is not doing anything to build bridges and create positive relationships.

In some respects, I can understand why the religious leaders behind the mosque are behaving this way.  As a Jew, part of a religious minority that is often discriminated against, I am very concerned about the rights of Jewish Americans.  Muslims in America do have rights – the same rights that we have.  They have a right to practice their religion freely and safely in our country.  And this, I am certain, is not always easy in the current climate.

At the same time, the leadership behind the mosque has a moral responsibility to insure that the free practice of their religion does not violate sacred space or jeopardize the safety and wellbeing of other Americans.  I do not believe that, at this time, the leaders are living up to their responsibility.  I pray that they will change their ways.

A vast majority of Americans of all faiths (including Islam) are opposed to the building of the mosque at Ground Zero because, in our minds, this mosque is throwing salt into that 9 year old, raw wound that has yet to heal.  The proposed site for the mosque is located in an emotionally charged area – an area that sits about 600 feet from where the World Trade Center stood and just ½ a block from where World Trade Center Building 7 stood prior to falling down on that dark day.

When United Airlines Flight 175  struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center, part of the plane’s landing gear and fuselage  came out the north side of the tower and crashed through the roof of the building where the proposed mosque is to be built. The plane parts destroyed three floor beams and severely compromised the building’s internal structure.  For many, understandably so, the proposed mosque site is part of the disaster zone and potentially a grave containing the ashes of my friend and all those murdered by Islamic extremists.  To build a mosque and an Islamic center on this sacred site clearly shows a blatant lack of sensitivity and compassion for the victims, their families, and every other American traumatized by the horror of 9/11.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a devout Muslim and the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy is just one Muslim American who is opposed to the building of the mosque.  He gets it.  He has publicly said that this issue “is not about religious freedom. It is about the importance of the World Trade Center site to the psyche of the American People.”

I was pleased to learn that the Imam, the religious leader behind the mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, says he now knows how important this site is to Americans.  He asserts that had he known earlier how upset people would be, he would have chosen another location.  His reason for not moving the site elsewhere, however, troubles me: he fears that if the mosque is moved, the headline in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack – meaning what?  That the radicals will strike once again?  This begs the question – is this mosque being built at Ground Zero because the same groups that brought about 9/11 are calling the shots?  If this is the case, doesn’t this make the building of the mosque even more inappropriate?

Imam Rauf  asserts that he is a bridge builder and committed to improving the relationship between Islam and the western world. He worked with the FBI after September 11th. Unfortunately, he is linked to organizations and statements that support a dangerous ideology.  I don’t want to go into them tonight.  You can do your own homework and read about them in the papers and on-line.  Please do your homework.

I do want to mention, however, the title of the Imam’s book – a book that offers the Imam’s views on how to rebuild the American-Islamic relationship.  The title of the book in the U.S. is What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America.  However, overseas, the title is The Call of Azan from the Rubble of the World Trade Center: Islamic Da’wa in the Heart of America Post-9/11.  Let me explain some of the words in this lengthy title.

The “Azan” is the Islamic call to prayer. It consists of a number of sentences repeated several times including the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great).  Throughout history, this phrase was called out by Muslims from newly conquered sites and has become a phrase shouted by a terrorist before an attack.  “Allahu Akbar” was shouted by the terrorist at Fort Hood as he killed 12 people, by the EgyptAir co-pilot as he shut off his plane causing it to plummet to the ground, by the terrorists as they decapitated American Nick Berg, by Palestinian militants as they attack Israel and, most importantly, by the hijackers on Flight 93 as the plane crashed in Shanksville, PA on September 11.

Most Americans don’t want this phrase being called out from the ‘rubble of the World Trade Center.’

The Call of Azan from the Rubble of the World Trade Center: Islamic Da’wa in the Heart of America Post-9/11. ‘Dawa’ is the missionary work by which Islam is spread.  Dawa is proselytism. The purpose of Dawa is to implement, spread, and defend Sharia or Islamic law, which, it must be pointed out, many Muslims would say does not condone terrorism.  However, the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center believed in their sick minds that what they were doing was in accordance with and supportive of Islamic law.  Given this, is the ‘rubble of the World Trade Center’ the proper place to implement, spread and defend Islamic law?

And what about the name of the mosque and community center?  The Cordoba House?  In order to understand just how troubling this name is we need to talk history.  Cordoba is a city in Spain.  In 711, Muslims took over the Iberian Peninsula (what is now Spain, and Portugal).  Cordoba was proclaimed the Islamic capital of the region.  The city fell to the Muslims in the Battle of Guadalete during which whole cities were razed and a grotesque number of people were slaughtered in a general destruction that sent non-Muslim civilians fleeing to the hill countries.  Over the years, the Islamic leadership of the Iberian Peninsula would extend its control into Africa under the authority of the Caliphate of Cordoba.  The Caliphate of Cordoba is often described as giving religions freedom to non-Muslims.  This is not accurate.  The Caliphate of Cordoba gave non-Muslims the status of dhimmi (a non-Muslim subject of a Sharia law state). The non-Muslim in the region had three choices: 1.  Accept the dhimmi status, pay a tax levied on non-Muslims and exist as second-class citizen; 2.  Convert to Islam;  or 3.  Die.  This is part of the legacy of Cordoba.  It is also very important to note that the first “Cordoba mosque” (the first mosque built in Cordoba) was built upon the ruins of a Christian church.  That mosque was a symbol of triumph over the previous religion and culture of the region.  And now, the proposed 21st century Cordoba mosque will stand on the ruins of Ground Zero.  The symbolism, the message is truly disturbing.  Could this be why Cordoba House is now often referred to as the “Park51” project? Does this name change make a difference?

As a nation, we have not yet finished mourning the horrific events of 9/11 that were perpetrated by fanatics screaming “Allahu Akhbar” and embracing distorted Islamic ideals. For this reason alone the proposed mosque is pushing Americans too far too fast.   It is totally and completely legally justified but morally irresponsible.

The affiliations and the words of the Imam and the symbolism associated with  Cordoba only reinforce for me, my opinion.

Tonight and tomorrow, as we use our moral compass to reevaluate our words and deeds and work to rectify the damage that our words and deeds might have done, we have to believe that everyone has the ability to live up to their responsibilities by correcting their mistakes.  Sometimes, we need others to jumpstart our moral compass by pointing out our mistakes for us.

Imam Rauf, if you sincerely want to teach peace, love and understanding, you need to take some bold steps. It is time to focus less on what your “rights” are as a religious leader and more on what your “responsibilities” are as such a leader. Don’t hide behind the threat of your extremist brothers and sisters.  Disavow terrorism completely.  Disassociate with groups that support terror. And show the compassion you claim your religion has by immediately doing the responsible thing: find another place to build the mosque.  The rubble of the World Trade Center is not the place to build.  You could create such good will by doing the right thing!

Imam Rauf, if you live up to your moral responsibility, I believe that you will do what is needed to begin rebuilding and repairing many broken bridges that were destroyed in the name of Allah.  You will indeed be the bridge builder you claim to be and I believe that over time the wound of 9/11will heal and the building of a mosque will not have to be forced upon a neighborhood – rather it will be welcomed as a sign of true healing, growth and peace.

To those who feel that this will never happen, let us remember that tonight is a night of hope, renewal and change.  Let us remember that there are Muslim leaders out there, like Dr. Jasser, who I mentioned earlier, who have publicly stated that the mosque at Ground Zero should not be built.  Let us remember and believe that anything can happen tonight.  We can all change our ways.  We all have the potential to begin again tonight.  You must believe this.  And I pray that this year will be the year that liberal and moderate Muslims in America, in Israel and across the globe will courageously step forward and put an end to the irresponsible behavior of their extremist brothers and sisters.  And when this happens – may we have the courage to reach out to them and do our part to insure that the children of Abraham can live in true peace and understanding.

May it be God’s will.

One thought on “Kol Nidre 5771: Legal Right vs. Moral Responsibility – The Ground Zero Mosque

  1. Rabbi Jacobs:

    My wife Helen and I observed this live podcast from home [N.J.], as Helen recuperates from surgery. The service was wonderful, as usual. But I could not hear the sermon very well because the laptop available to us had a very compromised audio, but I am delighted that I could access every word through your blog. Before, I did not have much knowledge, but after reading your words and understanding your clear logic, I came to appreciate the expressed wisdom.

    Thank you.

    John H. Lifland MD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s