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The Arabic Lesson: Discussion & Study Guide

This discussion and study guide to The Arabic Lesson contains an article summary, Big Ideas to consider, questions for discussion, a bibliography, and more.

A. Overview

The Hebrew word shalom, commonly understood to mean peace, appears nearly 500 times in various forms inTaNaKH, the Hebrew scripture. This fact—and the fact that shalom also means hello and goodbye in everyday usage—attests to the high priority Judaism places on peace (as in bo-achem l'shalom—come in peace and tsaytchem l'shalom—go in peace). However, that's not the entire story. Shalom's three-letter root— sh-l-m—implies even more than peace, hello, or goodbye. For example:

  • Exodus 21:36 contains the phrase shalem yishalem, meaning "you will surely pay," in the sense of "to make whole."
  • Genesis 33:18 states that "Jacob arrived shalem," that is, safely. Others "arrived whole."
  • Judges 1:7 has Adoni-bezek lament, “shilam li,” "God punished me," in the sense of "to pay back." Others "requited me."
  • I Kings 11:4 describes Solomon's heart as not being shalem im Adonai, "whole with God."
  • Isaiah 32:17 declares that righteousness brings shalom and, in 48:22, that the wicked do not findshalom—implying, respectively, the presence or absence of satisfaction and quietude.

Post-biblical teaching also extols sh-l-m. For example:

  • In Pirke Avot 1:12 Hillel admonishes us to love shalom, peace, and strive for it.
  • Talmud Gittin 59b tells us that the entire Torah exists for the sake of shalom, peace.
  • Talmud Yevamot 65b teaches that you may sacrifice even truth for the sake of shalom, peace.
  • Talmud Berachot 10b extols us to walk before God with a whole heart—shalem.

Thus, the English word "peace" is, in the Hebrew, intricately nuanced, as Buber observes: "The great peace is something essentially different from the absence of war." Shalom implies a positive condition that includes wholeness, fulfillment, getting things right, reaching for perfection, being at one with God—a constellation of goals to pursue actively.

This guide summarizes Rabbi Ruth Sohn's article, “The Arabic Lesson,” and explores ideas found in the Focus section articles, which draw on unfolding events in the Middle East and the Vietnamese war experience. The authors plumb the deeper meanings of "peace" in order to

  • affirm the importance of personal reformation and activism,
  • examine the possibility of reconciliation among disparate cultures,
  • explain how different ways of viewing the world influence peacebuilding,
  • explore the role of religion in the quest for peace,
  • examine how human passion and compassion affect the success of peacebuilding.

The discussion, under the rubric of three "big ideas," helps explore the meaning and the practical aspects of peacebuilding.

B. Summary: "The Arabic Lesson" by Rabbi Ruth Sohn (excerpts from a journal based on her family's six-month Cairo sojourn).

1. A sense of isolation, fear, avoiding hostility, trying to fit in.These initial reactions, shortly after arriving in Cairo, stand in sharp contrast to the outward friendliness displayed by the Cairenes. Rabbi Sohn worries that their warmth might disappear if they learn that the family is Jewish. Not even the heartfelt welcome her family receives in an upper-class family's apartment diminishes her sense of being "other," with a new twist: their Palestinian Arab hosts, with roots in Jerusalem, are, like the Sohn family, "other" in Egypt.

She discovers that "other" applies among Jews as well when some Israelis at the Cairo synagogue refuse to accept her right, as a woman, to read the Megillah at the Purim celebration.

2. The very anticipation of living among Arabs engendered feelings of discomfort.Yet, the reality she discovers in Cairo was quite otherwise. Rabbi Sohn writes: "Personal experience can change one's attitudes about an entire people." She comes to see, in this instance, that Jewish teachings in the Passover haggadah reinforce a negative mindset by equating "Mitsrayim," Egypt, with slavery, thus "influencing us to see Arabs as oppressors, as a historic enemy."

3. Rabbi Sohn's Arabic teacher could not understand why Jews want a Jewish state.That prompts the author to observe that (a) we have failed to make the case for Israel's existence and (b) incompatible views of the world complicate dialogue toward reconciliation: Jews see Israel as linked to Jewish survival and Arabs see it as a foreign incursion in the Middle East. A son's classmate similarly opposed Israel because he believed that it had taken land from Palestinians and had invaded Egypt. Rabbi Sohn notes that the memory of Egypt's maltreatment of Jews living in Egypt after 1948 is a further barrier to honest dialogue. She explains: “Same events, same facts, but [Jews and Arabs] interpret them to fit different ongoing narratives.”

4. Israel's response to Hezbollah's incursion into Israel and the murder and abduction of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon catalyzed and escalated anti-Israel rhetoric.Rabbi Sohn and her son hear their new friends accuse Israel of genocide and holocaust against the Palestinians; they view Hezbollah as fighting for Arab rights and dignity. She also observes how the Egyptian government, originally critical of Hezbollah, begins to blame Israel for driving a wedge between the government and the street.

5. Sharing a Jewish view with those who hold other versions of the story is a step toward understanding.While many obstacles complicate the task and frustrate the effort toward peacebuilding, getting to know another culture and its language through intimate interaction with other human beings forges a significant path to harmony.

C. Discussing Three "Big Ideas": Peace Begins with Me; Building Peace Occurs One Person at a Time; Tikkun Olam Requires Dialogue

1. Peace Begins with Me.

a. In "The Compassionate Heart,” Thich Nhat Hanh proposes that the practice of "loving speech and compassionate listening" can end violence. What do those terms mean to you? Explain how such acts might remove what Hanh calls "wrong perceptions" on the part of perpetrators and all human beings.

Syndicated columnist David Brooks asserts that extremists "have roots stretching back centuries. They will not suddenly ignore their foe—us—when the hatred of us is the core of their identity" (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 9/29/06). In your opinion, will Hanh's approach be effective in a conflict if the practice of compassion is not reciprocal? Explain (and see 2c below).

b. What personal barriers interfered with Rabbi Sohn's desire to live harmoniously with her new neighbors? Discuss her efforts to remove the obstacles. How would you have attempted to resolve these challenges? Explain.

c. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1964), and Nelson Mandela (1918- ), practitioners and teachers of nonviolent resistance, acted much as Hanh prescribes. What were they trying to change? (The answer: respectively, British racism in India, racism in the United States, apartheid in South Africa.) Why did they choose to practice nonviolence? Why do you think they were successful?

d. Might Hanh's prescription for neutralizing angry feelings work for you? Explain. How else might you reduce your anger? Would you be wiling to subdue anger directed at someone who wishes to harm you or your loved ones? Explain (and see 3e below). In addition, list and discuss what you believe to be the positive and negative consequences of anger.

e. What does Hanh mean by "wrong perceptions"? When have you tried to convince someone to change an idea you didn't accept? Explain why you succeeded or failed.

f. Which statements in the "On Peace" sidebar appeal to you? Explain. Which one has the best chance of being widely practiced? Explain.

g. Which statement in the "Jewish Wisdom" sidebar most appeals to you? Why?

h. Leviticus 19:18 commands: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Liebman observes that "a love of neighbor manifests itself in the tolerance not only of the opinions of others but, what is more important, of theessence and uniqueness of others…"—p. 74. Explain. How might this tolerance contributes to dialogue?

2. Building Peace Occurs One Person at a Time.

a. Describe the formative experience (in "Complexify") that transformed Rabbi Reuven Firestone's attitudes about Arabs. Can you remember a similar or parallel experience in your own life? Explain.

b. Explain what Rabbi Firestone means by "trust." How do you establish a trust relationship with friends? With strangers?

c. Rabbi Firestone suggests that we must be willing to talk with our enemies, that the sides must have equal power in the discussions, and that solutions are difficult. How do one-on-one negotiations address each of these concerns? Explain.

d. Rabbi Sohn speculates that Jewish "Mitsrayim liturgy" may have influenced how she approached individual Egyptians. What helped her get past that discomfort? How do preconceptions and stereotypes color your feelings about others? How can you overcome misperceptions?

e. Explain how each statement in the "Trust" sidebar helps advance the cause of peacebuilding.

f. In "The Other" sidebar, Anat Hoffman, The Reverend Cannon Charles Gibbs, and Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman emphasize how important it is to know the other person. Dr. Muhammad Hourari emphasizes that it is important to know yourself first. Why are both necessary for one-on-one encounters for peacebuilding? Explain each part of Hillel's teaching—"If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?" (Pirke Avot 1:14)—and the relationship among them:

g. Schindler (in Hirt-Manheimer, p. 177) says that effective dialogue depends on "our willingness to be honest with ourselves, to engage in…cheshbon hanefesh, a self-reckoning of the soul." What does that require of nations? Of you?

3. Tikkun Olam Requires Dialogue.

In "The Ecstasy of Rage," Yossi Klein Halevi describes his journey of faith that included being a welcome participant in Muslim prayer celebrations. He deplores Islam's later inaccessibility starting with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.

a. Explain Halevi's statement that "there is no Middle Eastern culture without Islam." Does that view encourage Hamas and Hezbollah to erase Israel? Explain. Does it encourage a bilateral-states solution? Explain.

b. Halevi sees Israel's defensive wall as a spiritual and physical barrier that forecloses the possibility of dialogue. Do you agree or not? Explain. (See also "The Fence: Fortification or Folly?"—Reform Judaism May 2004 at http://www.urj/rjmag/04 summerand follow the link to the study guide, and 3e below).

c. Why does Halevi believe that Western Europe does not treat the Muslim world seriously? Do you agree? Explain.

d. Pope Benedict’s recent remarks were interpreted by many to conflate Islam with violence. He later met with Muslim leaders to mend fences, but stopped short of retracting his words (a quotation by a 14th century Byzantine emperor: "Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.") How do actions like the pope's effect what Halevi calls "political clarity"?

e. Rabbi Sohn found that getting to know the minds of others, probing the meaning of their words, and sharing understandings with them promoted harmonious interactions. How would you apply that approach among your acquaintances? In the broader community?

f. Rabbi Sohn considers how the various stakeholders can interpret the conduct of the Israel/Hezbollah war differently. Why do even Israelis differ in their views? Note Lelyveld: "Perhaps the most poignant and distressing value conflict relevant here is that into which the newly reborn State of Israel has been plunged. There the very real longing for peace, after so much blood and tears, conflicts with the very real fear that the security and the preservation of the state are threatened," p. 86. Talmud, Berachot 58a, teaches: "If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first." How would you approach Israel’s life-and-death, war-and-peace dilemma?

g. What roles do the "Religion & Peace" sidebar suggest for religion in peacebuilding? Do the positives balance the other reality—religion's divisiveness throughout history? (See, for example, "Christianity's Forgotten Jews," Reform Judaism Fall 2006, and the study guide athttp://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1186. See also http://www.urj/rjmagand follow the links to "The Jews of Iraq" and "The Jews of Iran" and their respective study guides.)

h. Martin Buber wrote: "The busy noise of the hour must no longer drown out the vox humana....This voice must not only be listened to; it must be answered.…Peoples must engage in talk with one another through their truly human men if the great peace is to appear”—Friedman, p.198. How might you help fulfill Buber's demand?

i. Dialogue sometimes depends on circumstance, as Schindler notes: "We descendents of Abraham—Muslims and Jews—who live here in America are better able to reclaim our common heritage and to engage in fruitful dialogue than we are in our father's house. It is the great tragedy of contemporary life, is it not, that at the cave of Machpelah, there in ancient Hebron, Muslim and Jew are still incapable of dialogue, or even of peaceful silence"—Hirt-Mannheimer, p. 177. How can we overcome barriers to dialogue within our own families?

j. Which of the statements in the "What You Do Matters" sidebar most encourages you to create opportunities for dialogue with people of other faiths, or no faith? Explain. How can you create such opportunities—alone or with others?

D. Resources

1. Works Cited

Maurice Friedman, transl. & commentary. Martin Buber. A Believing Humanism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967)

Aron Hirt-Manheimer, ed. The Jewish Condition: Essays on Contemporary Judaism Honoring Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler (New York: URJ Press, 1995)

Arthur Lelyveld. The Steadfast Stream: An Introduction to Jewish Social Values (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995)

Joshua Loth Liebman. Peace of Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946)


2. Other Readings

Jay Cantor. Great Neck: A Novel (New York: Knopf, 2000)

James Finn. Protest, Pacifism and Politics: Some Passionate Views on War and Non-Violence (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

Amal Rifa'i, Odelia Ainbinder, with Sylke Tempel. We Just Want to Live Here (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003)

Penny Rosenwasser. Voices from a "Promised Land" (East Haven, CT: Curbstone Press, 1992)

Kathryn Watterson. Not by the Sword: How the Love of a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman (Simon & Schuster: 1995)

Eli Wiesel. From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences (New York: Summit Books, 1990)