08/08/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

A Time for Soul-Searching -- Reflections on Elul and Eid Al-Fitr

As we Jews begin the month of Elul, the month before our "High Holidays" of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Muslims in Israel and around the world celebrate the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr. Our calendars, which are both lunar, often run in a parallel way, so this is no coincidence.

I would like to share a look at the Muslim tradition, as described in a blog posting which appeared on the ICCI blog a few days ago, by Haneen Samer Majadleh, one of Israel's leading young Muslim educators and coexistence activists. Haneen is also a graduate of ICCI's Young Adult Dialogue and Education programs, and is currently one of the participants in a delegation which we will be sending to Northern Ireland later this month. She wrote about the meaning of Eid Al-Fitr in a blog post that we posted a few days ago, as follows:

According to Islamic tradition, Eid Al-Fitr marks the time to give thanks to God for helping the believers to perform their religious duties (fasting and praying) successfully. This holiday is also attributed to the conclusion of the compilation of the Quran, according to some traditions. Additionally, Al Fitr is the holiday of forgiveness, living in peace and togetherness; therefore, it is accustomed to visit friends and relatives and reconcile previous feuds on this holiday.

Charity is given throughout the days of the holiday, the sick are visited at hospitals, children are given gifts and sweets are eaten. The celebrations begin with a festive meal with the extended family on the noon of the first day.
Eid Al-Fitr is one of the two most important religious holidays in Islam. It is called the "little" holiday, whereas Eid Al-Adha which is one day longer, is called the "big" holiday. (

When I read this, as a Jew, I was mindful of how similar this is to Judaism. During this month of Elul, we are meant to begin a process of heshbon nefesh, of soul-searching, concerning our personal and communal lives, a process which culminates in the Ten Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah (our New Year) through Yom Kippur. This process -- which includes fasting on Yom Kippur -- is meant to reawaken in us the need for healing our world, for visiting the sick, taking care of the poor, and creating a just society.

This is not just a process between human beings and God, but very much an interpersonal process. Indeed, our tradition teaches that on Yom Kippur our sins against our fellow human beings are not forgiven unless we personally seek out the other and ask for forgiveness.

It is very clear that Judaism and Islam both share this common value of reconciliation as well as the practice of actually seeking it. When one studies Judaism and Islam by opening each other's sacred books and by learning from some of our best teachers, one is struck over and over again by the common humanity at the heart of these two major monotheistic religions.

This was particularly evident in the remarks of our speakers at our annual ICCI iftar seminar and break-the-fast meal, which we co-sponsored for the fourth time with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Jerusalem, about two weeks ago. Both presentations by our guest speakers -- Kadi Abulhakeem Samara, the Director of the Muslim Sharia Courts of the state of Israel, and one of Israel's leading Muslim religious leaders, and Rabbi Naphtali Rothenberg, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, the rabbi of the community of Har Adar, just west of Jerusalem(and my former commander, when I served in the Education Division of the Israel Defense Forces) -- reminded us clearly and succinctly of the essential principle of human dignity which is at the heart of both of these religions.

Kadi Samara -- who participated with me for four years in a unique program for religious leaders in Israel which we called Kedem--Kol Dati Mefayeis (Religious Voices for Reconciliation) -- spoke with his usual voice of moral clarity when he said:

Islam is a religion of universalism. Human beings and the value of mercy are in the center of our religion. The importance of the human being is vital.. An Arab or a Muslim is not preferable to any other human being. Human beings, by the nature of their creation, are to be honored and valued.

In the environment of the Middle East -- and especially in Israel and Palestine -- in which nationalism has trumped humanism in recent decades, it is important to be reminded that our major religious traditions stress that all human beings were created by God and that one can still be part of a people and still believe in the common humanity of all human beings. In our ongoing nationalist conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, this is all too often forgotten.

During Elul and Eid Al-Fitr, it is useful to be reminded of this. It is worth thinking about as we -- as individuals and as communities, as Jews and Muslims -- engage in our annual process of soul-searching.