Muslims, Jews & Hate – Reflections on Limmud Oz by Taha Allam


I recently returned from a trip to Melbourne, where I spoke at Limmud Oz on the topic of Muslims, Jews & hate alongside my friend and colleague Rabbi Zalman Kastel. I have since been bombarded with questions from people in my community; “What happened in Melbourne?”, “Did you actually present in front of a Jewish crowd?!?”, “What were you asked?” To answer all these questions and more, I’d like to recount some of the highlights of my journey, and the thoughts this trip provoked in me.

After landing in Melbourne on Saturday night, myself and Rabbi Zalman jumped into a taxi and were greeted by a passionate and talkative driver who seemed very interested in our line of work. After explaining to him why we were there in Melbourne, we embarked on a lively conversation that lasted the duration of the ride to the hotel. Our taxi driver, who was called Omar, opened up to us, sharing his experiences of leaving Somalia and travelling to different countries searching for a better life, before finally arriving and settling in Australia. He also had some poignant thoughts on interfaith relations, saying, “…if they talk to each other I guarantee you they will have no reason to hate one another”. The conversation was brought to a close when we arrived at our destination and he summarised by saying “people don’t realise what’s in between them but if they knew… they will find out that they are actually brother and sister.” He then embraced both of us and waved us off with a big smile. Beautiful moment right? But this was just the beginning.

The next morning came, and we headed to Limmud, which was held at the University of Monash. At this point I was thinking “the University of freaking Monash!! Bro this is cool”. After waiting for some time, it was my turn to present alongside the Rabbi. He spoke first, then I gave my presentation, in which I reflected a little on what my life was like growing up.

I recounted how my perspective was shaped in high school as a 15 year old boy who, like all my peers, viewed the world through a very narrow window. We believed we had it all figured out and our way of seeing the world was the only way. My peers and I reinforced each other’s narrow view of the world, creating a situation of the blind leading the blind.

Before I continue on, I’m going to share with you a little activity about perspectives – now we all know we are thinking about Jewish and Muslim people and hatred between the two and we assume we are all sharing the same perspective or viewpoint. However, in reality, we each have our own way seeing things and that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you place your hands in a diamond shape in front of you and look only through this makeshift window, what exactly do you see? Now turn around so you are looking in a different direction, look through your makeshift window again and notice what you see now. You are, of course, seeing something completely different.

When I was younger I viewed things only through my small window and I didn’t know about all of the different angles other people may be using as their perspective. I have since discovered the great variety of outlooks held by different people from all around the world, including that of the Rabbi himself along with Donna, the School Programs Coordinator for Together for Humanity.

I was introduced to both Donna and Zalman by my cousin Lina. She works in child protection and is also associated with Together for Humanity. The organisation was in need of a young Muslim, so Lina put my hand up for me. I had a mini heart attack at the idea but the feeling soon passed and suddenly it was time for me to meet the founder of Together For Humanity, Rabbi Zalman Kastel. To be honest I was scared and horrified and had no idea what to say or do in his presence. I had so many questions running through my mind like “what if it’s true what they say about Jewish people? Maybe I’m going to be their next victim”.

But the response from Zalman wasn’t what I expected. He was genuinely a nice guy. None of my assumptions were true. He didn’t have any harsh words or negative attitudes towards me at all. He wanted to know me! By the time the meeting finished, I came to realise that this guy was actually fonder of Muslims than some Muslims are themselves. And so began a new chapter of my life. I began working with Together for Humanity, going in to schools alongside presenters of Chrisitan and Jewish backgrounds, to talk to them about my beliefs and about connecting with and accepting people who are different. At this point, people from my own community began to approach me, accusing me of being a sellout, asking me “why would you work with the enemy?”, or telling me “you’re going to lose your faith if you take this on” and so on. But my experiences meeting people who were different to me had actually inspired a desire in me to know more about my religion. I felt strongly that it was time for me to learn Islamic law and undertake the deeper practices of Islam. I began to feel the religion of Islam was a way of life I could pursue and not just something that was taught to me when I was a child. I had, in those moments, discovered my purpose in life. To teach others who are not familiar with Islam, what the religion is really about. Not for the purpose of converting them, but for the purpose of peaceful coexistence.

After I had finished presenting my story to the audience at Limmud, I was approached by a few people who thanked me for sharing with them some of the moments in my life which had shaped me and allowed me to see things in new light. One person in particular who stood out was a woman who had written a note on a post-it sticker. I bet you want to know what it said, right? Not just yet, but all will be revealed soon.

The message I want to put forward is simple: don’t allow assumptions and stereotypes to get the better of you. Instead, whenever you’re faced with a question that challenges your way of thinking, go out there and have a yarn with somebody who has a different point of view to yourself. Go on your own journey to discover what people are about and learn from these experiences. Share those experiences with your friends and strangers. As a wise man once told me, take this opportunity to meet people and you’ll learn to find out what their hearts contain, share these experiences with others and be sure not to leave out any details. It’s the details that make an experience meaningful and exciting. You’d be surprised the life-changing impact you can have on someone. Limit your assumptions by sharing details you find along the way. Even if it is just a smile, as our Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) has taught us; smiling is a charity that we must keep as a contagious habit.


By Taha Allam

Orlando and a Multi Faith Dinner



For this article to be culturally appropriate for me, I need to start with a silence represented by the few blank lines above. Whatever I might say, it will have little meaning while many families in Orlando, and in other parts of the world grieve for relatives killed out of hate. After a silence, it is appropriate to take the cue from the mourners.

Owen Jones gave his moving perspective as a grieving gay man, that the murderer in Orlando and his hatred will be defeated. Of course he is angry and so am I. Hatred of LGBT people and other prejudices must be eradicated, no matter what the colour or religious affiliation of the haters, violent or otherwise. The challenge is how to achieve this.


Many LGBT activists have responded to the anti-islamic sentiment resulting from this attack by reminding us that “…it is our obligation as a queer community to remember that islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia work together.” (Jacob Tobia, Facebook Status.) Yet, many people will throw their hands up in despair and say that as long as certain kinds of religious beliefs exist we will never get along. These terrible events and some of the reactions to them feed a vicious cycle of animosity and division.


This cycle must be broken. It’s not easy. In fact when I reflect on the title I chose for this article, I think it might not be right to talk about a Multi Faith dinner after the massacre of LGBT people in Orlando. The pain felt by people identifying as LGBT is raw. I offer my sincere condolences to this community at this difficult time. I’m aware that religious attitudes contribute to homophobia, which was one factor that led to the massacre. As a religious man and a bridge builder, this atrocity and to a lesser extent, some of the hateful comments following it, have disturbed me greatly.


Yet, I continue to hope and to press on as a bridge builder. I’m inspired by the efforts of religious people to show solidarity and express empathy. One very moving account is that of Orthodox Rabbi Herzfeld who travelled with members of his congregation from Washington to an Orlando gay club to connect, commiserate and pray. He recounts the wonder of discovering how much they shared in common with those in the club, ‘Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.’


I was also moved by the very clear message issued by a group of Australian Muslims  and Muslim organisations which unequivocally rejected the hatred and anger which lead to the violence. They state, ‘The LGBQTI community has a long history of experiencing prejudice, vilification and violence…There is no justification for such homophobia’.’


There were some attempts at solidarity that didn’t mention the identity of victims, these caused hurt. The media also drew attention to a comment from another time by a Muslim cleric whose visa was promptly revoked. There is no need to pretend that differences of belief and clashing values are not challenging. On the contrary, because of these difficulties it is vital that people continue to make the effort to interact with those whose backgrounds and beliefs are different to their own. This is why we continue to teach children to embrace the “other”, regardless of difference, be it difference of beliefs, practice or orientation, to tolerate what is uncomfortable but tolerable and to develop relationships of goodwill and trust.


By Rabbi Zalman Kastel

Reflections on Passover: Honouring Tradition and Embracing the Other


For me, Passover is a mixture of ritual and redemptive messages. It is a recounting of my people’s narrative of persecution, redemption and relationship with God as well as a time for broader reflections on universal concerns and obligations including those we have to protect the most vulnerable.

On Thursday evening, the night before to Passover, I began with a ritual of hide and seek, known as the search for the leaven (which Jews are forbidden to have in one’s possession during Passover). Ten pieces of bread were hidden around my home by my children. I lead my family through my darkened home, holding a lit candle, a wooden spoon, a feather and a paper bag. Reflecting the tensions mentioned above, I left my house after only three of the ten pieces were found, as I had made a commitment speak at a Uniting Church interfaith event. Sitting alongside my Muslim and Christian fellow panelists, I explained to our audience how in Judaism, unlike other faiths that seem more focused on beliefs, practices such as the one I had only partially completed were highly significant.

At Friday Morning Prayers I participated in a sale to our local MP who bought the leaven that remained in many Jewish homes in the area included unopened boxes of crackers and bottles of Vodka. If the past is any indication, he will choose to sell all that leaven back to their Jewish vendors after Passover. For now, his ownership lets my fellow Jews off the hook. Regardless of the sale, some of the leaven that was not sold would need to be destroyed. So a small camp fire was lit at the back of my home to burn Bread. Some marshmallows were also toasted. These were not part of the ritual, but a little bit of fun on the side.

On Friday night, with my oldest two sons returned from overseas study joining me, my wife, their younger siblings, and some other guests around a festive table, we performed the “Seder”, the ceremony of retelling and reflecting on the story of Exodus. I suggested that this story, which inspired people like Martin Luther King Jnr, proves that you can “fight city hall” and win. The defeat of Pharaoh proves the vulnerability of all tyrants, showing that the oppressed can triumph and that all of us need to think beyond our own stories and needs to those of other vulnerable peoples.

My Universalist political commentary sat uncomfortably alongside the theme of a narrower focus of Jewish victimhood “in every generation”.  I shared a memory of my maternal grandfather, recalling his journey from Vladivostok during World War II. He told us how he and hundreds of other Yeshiva students danced on a rickety boat singing one of the Seder songs: “and it is this (divine promise) that has stood by our fathers and by us, because it is not just one (enemy) who stood against us to annihilate us, but, in every generation… and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands[i]”.  I tried to sing the same melody that he would sing when I was a young child, but don’t remember all of it. I said that next year I should listen to the recording my sister made of him singing it. My son reminded me that I said the same thing the previous year. I joked that maybe this was becoming a family ritual he could tell his children about one day.

On Sunday afternoon we had a mini-conference in the Synagogue, where I delivered a talk on the Torah position on Eritrean Asylum seekers in Israel. The current discussions and range of perspectives about Asylum seeker policy are echoed in discussions centuries ago. We have the legalistic perspective[ii], concerns about national security[iii], as well as interest in possible economic/demographic benefits[iv], land on the other hand we have teachings about prioritising the emotional and economic needs of vulnerable people[v].

Like so many things, there are different dimensions and approaches one can take. For me it is about navigating between these different approaches to honour my traditions in a way that also embraces “the other”.

By Zalman Kastel

[i] The Hagada, Vehi She’amda

[ii] Talmud Gittin 45a, Maimonides laws, Yad Hachazaka, laws of slaves 8:11, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 267:85, Beis Yosef on Tur Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 267, Rosh on Gittin 45a, Maharshal, Ran, Ritva, Beit Habechira

[iii] Abarbanel,

[iv] Talmud Kesubot 110b

[v] Vali, Rabbi Moshe David, (lived 1696-1777- Talmid Muvhak/closest or premier student of Ramchal) Biur Ramad Vali Mishne Torah, Devarim, p 242-243

Hunger & Compassion – Faith’s Mission to End Famine

A few years ago George Kent and I had a conversation on compassion. George views “caring as broader than compassion, since compassion is usually viewed as a response to suffering.” Caring, George remarked has much more applicability than compassion. Compassion is only called into being when there is suffering, when things are not going well, “Caring is part of everyday common behavior.” Caring, George noted, can be developed and called into place in every moment, in every situation in life.

George Kent is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Hawaii, having retired from his position at the Department of Political Science in 2010. For over 20 years George has been writing books, lecturing and working within organizations, analyzing the conditions of child abuse in the world and the role of hunger as a major source of suffering.

Last week in the Western Sydney suburb of Merrylands, George Kent and a panel of experts co-created a Conversations on Compassion event called, ‘Caring About Hunger’. The panel was made up by Shaykh Soner Coruhlu, Reverend Father Shenouda Mansour and Michelle Brenner, conflict resolution consultant. Holistic Practices Beyond Borders, Together For Humanity and Religion of Peace, teamed up to offer an open public forum to share the space between experts and audience.

George’s presentation opened with a reflection on what it is to care. “What is the meaning of caring about inanimate objects and about people distant from us in time and space? The challenge of caring was brought into sharp focus through examination of the massive problem of hunger in the world. A sense of the scale of the problem was conveyed by George’s pointing out that over three million children under five died each year partly because of malnutrition, while armed conflict results in less than 200,000 deaths each year.

The focus then shifted to hunger; with George pointing out that “hunger occurs in a social context. The extent to which people suffer from hunger depends on how they treat one another” Hunger, George brought out, is a social concern, a structural social conflict, it is not an isolated individual problem. “Hunger is not due to an inadequate supply of food in the world. Put simply, widespread and persistent hunger in the world is not due to any deficiency in global resources. It is due to the fact that people and agencies do not care enough about one another’s wellbeing.”

This observation has been echoed by other hunger experts, such as Reverend Bill Cruise of the Exodus Foundation who told me, “George is right, the biggest problem is not the lack of food or the technology for moving it but keeping the institutions and people caring.”

Following the presentation, the panel discussed how caring about hunger was addressed in their own areas of expertise. Shaykh Soner Coruhlu offered the Islamic position on the issue, “It is a responsibility, an obligation to feed others, to give out to others. It is part of the expectation of what a person is, one who provides for others. In the Qur’an we are warned about the importance of encouraging others to feed the poor, needy, and destitute. One does not attain spiritual excellence by simply feeding the poor; one must also encourage and motivate others to do so [1]. Salvation in Islam is centered on the belief in One God and the well-being of all creatures.”

In my comments as the next speaker on the panel, I explained that I have been researching and writing about the compassion revolution that is quietly taking place in the world, an interest which is drawn through my work as a conflict resolution specialist. Referencing the work of Social Neuroscientist Tania Singer [2], I explained that there are two distinct pathways that operate within the brain, one which is responsible for feeling empathy for another and one which reflects on the perspective within the thinking of another. These two pathways work together to create a holistic picture of ‘the other’. However, when they are not working together with the intention of understanding the “being of the other” there can be a lack of caring.

I went on to explain that traditional economic theory focuses only on the motivational system of consumption, based on self-interest. However with the inclusion of social neuroscience and psychological economic research, we begin to recognize that economic theory should be much more nuanced. When care is seen as a motivational drive, this creates a society that is pro-social. This means that there is the capacity for economic modeling to shift towards including care as a motivational factor in shaping the market.

The next panelist to speak up was Revered Father Shenouda Mansour who told us “On one occasion, I pointed to a man standing in line to receive a hot meal, and said, “God loves you”. The man responded, “I know God loves me”. I respondedHow do you know?”, and the man responded, “By this food on this plate!” He then recounted another about his free food kitchen in Woolloomooloo. “A Muslim man approached me and asked, “…is it alright for me to come here, for I am a Muslim?  I responded by saying, “We are brothers!” Father Shenouda then quoted from the Christian bible, sharing multiple passages which compel Christians to show compassion for others, with a particular emphasis on feeding those who are hungry.

Midway through this talk, there was an incident which indicated how caring can take place instinctively. A large group of the audience began to file out of the room as it was a Muslim prayer time. Although this group didn’t ask for the presentation to be stopped on their account, those present in the room automatically decided to switch to a quick audience Q & A so that those who were in the room could continue to engage, while those who had left would not miss important content. This perspective taking was a real life example of the simple act of caring about others.

After Father Shenouda’s presentation, the conversation was opened up to the audience, inviting questions, thoughts and reflections. One audience member wanted to hear the Jewish perspective on these issues from our mediator Rabbi Zalman Kastel, the National Director of Together for Humanity. His response brought to light the obvious similarities between the Jewish, Muslim and Christian perspectives. While the themes of charity and compassion were common, one specific aspect of Judaism stood out as particularly relevant. There is an idea in Judaism of the importance of justice, that when a person has something in their pocket, and this something is not for the benefit and consumption of the person holding it, it is an obligation to dispense it and give it away to others who do not have it. This obligation is distinct from the perception of giving ‘left overs’. . It became clear from the language understood by all of the clergy, Rabbi Zalman Kastel, Shaykh Soner Coruhlu  and Reverend Father Shenouda, that justice means caring, that needs being met creates a form of balance. Imbalance, hunger, is experienced when needs are not met.  Balance and justice are for the human being to consider and concern oneself with.  Caring about hunger is therefore a requirement for a just society.

A question was then asked, “If religions are concerned traditionally with caring, then why when church and state was unified, which was for quite a time in our world history, why has there been and still is such a wide gap between the knowing of being caring and the actual experience of living in a caring society.”

Shaykh Soner answered by identifying a time in the Islamic history when there was no hunger in the land.  In fact it became hard to fulfill the obligation to feed the hungry, to give to the poor, so people were instructed to go beyond their homeland to find others outside the region in order to fulfill the obligation of justice.

The question however lingered on.

This Conversation on Compassion; Caring About Hunger held at Merrylands was one step on the journey of breaking down social distance. It not only brought together the expert perspectives from the study of hunger, the Jewish world, the Muslim world, the Christian world and the conflict resolution world, it brought together participants form a far afield as Canberra, the Eastern Suburbs, the Southern Shire as well as the North Shore, Western suburbs and the inner city as well as the diversity of world views from students, professionals and various areas of interests. Bringing diverse worldviews together offers an opportunity for thinking beyond the parameters of one’s own limited perspective. Hunger is a social structural conflict that is not based on not enough food, or geographical isolation, it is due to a lack of caring.  George Kent has brought this to our attention, now where to from here?

By Michelle Brenner


[1] Qur’an 69:31-33


Jewish and Gay Pride – Safe Schools and Communities

This week, the Australian government announced an inquiry into the Safe Schools coalition; an initiative focused the creation of “safe and inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families[1]”. The aim of Safe Schools is one I wholeheartedly support and I hope the inquiry does not undermine this vital work. I do not accept the argument against this kind of work that “it goes beyond education and compels students into advocacy of a social engineering agenda[2]”. Creating spaces that are inclusive and free of discrimination and teaching children to embrace all their peers regardless of differences should be fundamental to education.

This controversy comes at an interesting time for me.  I have been trying to get my head around notions of Jewish pride and how it might be related to gay pride.

One way of looking at pride is to see it as promoting that group, or practices associated with that group as superior to others.

It is undoubtedly wrong to claim that Jews are superior to those who are not Jewish. For example, using the expression “goyishe kop” which means “non-Jewish head” to suggest that because someone is not Jewish they are not clever demonstrates the wrong kind of pride.

However this kind of chauvinism is different to the pride that people develop in response to persecution or discrimination. This, of course is the kind of pride depicted by the phrase ‘gay pride’, a reaction to persecution which asserts a refusal to be ashamed or to hide a characteristic which may make a person a target.

Jonathan Sacks, addressing the topic of Jewish pride tells a story about his father being approached by a fellow congregant at a London Synagogue who thought young Jonathan had forgotten to remove his Kippa (skullcap) as he went out into the street. Jonathan’s dad replied: “no son of my mine will be ashamed of who he is[3]”.

The stress young LGBT school students suffer as a result of prejudice is a matter of life and death for some[4], and for many others a source of great anguish. A social worker and advocate for LGBT people in the Jewish community wrote “I have friends who have succumbed to this hopelessness (caused by the attitudes to LGBT people in the Orthodox Jewish community) and are no longer here to make their case. I know people who are alive today because of the outspoken compassion of the rabbis”[5]. He explains pride as serving to “combat institutionalized shame and re-build a strong sense of self-esteem. This is the true meaning of pride. Pride is about affirming our (collective) self-worth despite the challenges we face.”

But while this kind of pride serves a positive function, there are possible dangers with pride. One Jewish educator suggested to me, that Jewish pride is more important than interfaith respect. His argument was that ‘Jewish children in a particular city don’t have adequate pride in who they are, so showing them how people of other faiths are wonderful might further weaken their commitment to their Jewishness’. I do not accept that Jewish pride should be allowed to become a barrier to embracing the “other”. Research has found that “it is possible to improve children’s attitudes toward a racial outgroup without causing a negative impact on their feelings toward their racial in-group[6]”. We should not resort to reinforcing a weak sense of self by encouraging defining oneself by what one is not. This idea is also extremely applicable to the Safe Schools coalition. Teaching students acceptance and respect for LGBQTI students will not “impose an ideology[7]” or affect the students’ own identities, it will simply help them to understand others’.

By Rabbi Zalman Kastel





[3] video


[5] Mordechai Levovitz,

[6] Levi, S.R., West, T. L., Bigler, R.S., Karafantis, D.M., Ramizez, L., Velilla, E. (2005) Messages about the uniqueness and similarities of people: Impact on US Black and Latino youth. Journal of Applied Development Psychology 26 p.714-713


Talking About Minorities and Tensions – Rabbi Zalman Kastel

As I sit down to write this, I am afraid of upsetting people, but also of doing the wrong thing. I have been listening to opposing arguments relating to cultural and religious diversity and seeing how each is true for the people who hold them. A binary paradigm would demand that I simply take one side and ignore the other. I don’t think a binary approach is working. Despite all the good intentions of advocates, we are seeing the triumph of “Trumpism”: rising anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and the Australian High Court ruling allowing asylum seeker families to be returned to Nauru. On the other hand, attempts at acknowledging people’s fears of the “other”, such as an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph, have been met with backlash. Along with positive feedback, there was a torrent of criticism ranging from thoughtful and partly justified to defamatory.

I apologised sincerely and have had the article taken down, but there are some principles worth considering, regarding thinking and talking about out-groups. We need to: 1. Engage with, rather than deny people’s fears. 2. Acknowledge the important difference between saying something is entirely about race or religion and considering a cultural or religious dimension as one contributing factor. The pursuit of justice must certainly start with protecting those with less power from those with more power. But justice for the vulnerable does not mean that they can do no wrong. Censoring discussion about tensions between members of minorities and majority groups is a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive posture.

I have seen this desire to censor tensions in my work with school students in my capacity as National Director of the Intercultural Understanding organisation Together for Humanity. On one occasion, a Year 11 student leader told her peers and our team of multi-faith presenters that the best strategy for dealing with tensions between groups is just to “pretend it is not happening”. However, “pretending” will often fail. Anti-racism literature insists that, “Participants must feel ‘safe’ to speak honestly and frankly, including talking about negative experiences. If people feel under attack and think they will be labelled as racist, they are less likely to listen or engage”[1]. One effective conflict resolution strategy is referred to as adopting the “and stance” which seeks to understand both sides of a dispute. Acknowledging the others’ stories can make it easier for them to add your perspective to theirs.[2]

In her article, “The Cologne Attacks and the Big White Elephant in the Room”, Randa Abdel Fattah questions the difference between saying race (or religion) has everything to do with these crimes, and saying it has something to do with it. The answer for me is in the benefit and truth of the latter vs. the harm and falsehood of the former. The distinction between the two approaches can be clearly observed in the example of the failure of some Australian Rabbis to turn to Secular authorities in cases of suspected child sexual abuse at Yeshiva centres. It is wrong to say that the Jewishness of the Rabbis was entirely to blame for their behaviour. This is simply not true as we can see that other Jews, including religious Jews, have trusted secular authorities to deal with these problems. Blaming Judaism falsely taints a community with the wrongful deeds of some. Yet it would be reasonable, and not anti-Semitic, to look beyond the question of assigning blame, and instead explore whether their Jewish faith was a “contributing factor” to these terrible choices. People and their decisions are multi-faceted and multi-determined. Although there were factors affecting individual Rabbis’ choices other than faith, such as concern about institutional reputation, personal loyalties, poor personal judgement that also contributed, these do not negate the validity of discussing the role of faith as one factor among others.

There is a careful balance. It is unhelpful to essentialise apparent problematic behaviour as being inherent to a group identity. This has been termed the “new racism” in which people express negative attitudes to certain groups whose “differences” are seen to be irreconcilable and a threat to the social values of the majority.

We need to move beyond the binary approaches where conflicts are attributed entirely to culture and religion or not at all linked and completely irrelevant. We need to move away from accusing those who want to explore faith as factor which contributes to conflict of being prejudiced. There is a complexity in the human spirit and complexity when humans with varied needs and assumptions meet in a rapidly changing world.  I don’t believe there are whole cultures or faiths that are incompatible with my own. It is just that mutual curiosity and effort are required for fostering understanding and coexistence.


Rabbi Zalman Kastel is the National Director of Together for Humanity

[1] Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30

[2] Stone, D. Patton, B, Heen, S. 1999. Difficult Conversations. Penguin Books

We Wish You a Merry Christmas? Interfaith perspectives on offering Christmas greetings.

happy whatever


This festive season has seen another flare up of the debate surrounding a fatwa issued by the imam of Lakemba mosque directing his followers not to wish people a Merry Christmas. This debate prompts the question, should those of other faiths feel obliged to wish Christians a Merry Christmas? What statement is being made by a refusal to do so?

I’m an atheist who loves Christmas and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. For me, and for many people, Christmas is about holidays, family, food and a general festive vibe. But this year I’ve started to think twice before saying my routine “Merry Christmas” to shopkeepers, co-workers and neighbours. I don’t believe in the theology behind Christmas, so I’ve been subtly changing my vocabulary to “have a great holiday” or “enjoy the Christmas break.” I’m sure nobody has noticed this subtle change except me, but it has allowed me to express my goodwill towards others while remaining true to what I do (and don’t) believe.

The decision to wish people a Merry Christmas or not can be even more difficult for some of those who have strongly held religious beliefs that directly oppose the concept of celebrating the birth of Jesus as God’s son. In order to better understand this issue, we have compiled some interfaith perspectives on walking the delicate line between remaining true to one’s own beliefs and sharing goodwill and respect for others’. Below are summaries of a Jewish, a Muslim, a Christian and an Existentialist perspective, to read any of the responses in full, click the link at the bottom of their summary.


A Jewish Perspective – Rabbi Zalman Kastel

Rabbi Kastel’s response to this issue is to reflect on the need to balance two competing priorities when it comes to wishing people a Merry Christmas. One consideration in Jewish law is the importance of fostering positive interfaith relationships with ones neighbours, while a competing consideration is remaining true to one’s own faith and not endorsing religious beliefs that are counter to your own.

While Rabbi Kastel is in favour of prioritising building positive relations with others, he argues that having positive relations with others means accepting views which are different to ones own. Therefore he believes we need to respect or at least tolerate the views of those who prioritise remaining true to ones own faith and respect their decision not the say “Merry Christmas”.

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A Muslim Perspective- Sheikh Soner Coruhlu

Sheikh Soner sees no issue at all with Muslims wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. He explains that keeping good relations with people of other faiths is an extremely important aspect of Islam. He also argues that wishing somebody a Merry Christmas is not the same as celebrating Christmas oneself, it is simply respecting and acknowledging that this day is important to others.

Furthermore, he explains the importance of examining ones intentions when evaluating any action. He argues that when a Muslim wishes a Christian a Merry Christmas, the intention is not to imply that he believes that the divine was born on that day, but rather that a messenger was born. As Muslims believes that Jesus was a messenger of Allah, it is not contrary to Islam to acknowledge the birth of Jesus.

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A Christian Perspective – Father Patrick McInery

Father Patrick is disappointed in the fatwa issued by an Imam of the Lakemba mosque in 2012 forbidding Muslims from wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. He sees this fatwa as being indicative of a deeper underlying issue- that of exclusivism or supercessionism i.e claiming “my religion is right; all other religions are wrong!” He believes that in our multi-faith society we must respect others’ religions even if their beliefs directly contradict our own.

He has come to the conviction that all religions must have a role to play in God’s plan and thus they should all be respected. He strongly believes that for Muslims to wish Christians a Merry Christmas would not compromise their faith, it would simply show appreciation and respect to the many people within their community for whom this is a special time. He himself offers greetings to Muslims on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and he does not see this as compromising his faith, but rather as a social and religious courtesy.

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An Existentialist perspective – Emma Bromley

Emma reflects on what Christmas means to her as an Existentialist. She explains that she sees this time of year as important because of the time spent with family. As a result, although she does not believe in the theology of Christmas, she believes in much of the sentiment and has no problem wishing people a Merry or Happy Christmas. As she says these words, her focus is not on the religious meaning of them, but rather on the positivity of the words Merry and Happy. She sees these greetings as a way to express her goodwill towards others at this time of year, without any religious connotations.

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Have your say

What do you think? Will you be wishing your friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas this year? We’d love to hear your opinions on this topic, so leave a reply under this post.


By Grace Smith


Grace is a Communications Officer at Together for Humanity.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas? An Existentialist Perspective

As a person who holds no religious beliefs, Christmas is nonetheless a time of joy for me and my family. At Christmas and New Year we reflect on the year that has been and anticipate the year to come. I use the term Festive Season more often than Christmas and I embrace everything about it – trees, decorations, lights, stockings, sending cards, presents and feasting. To a religious outsider it may look very materialistic, but to me it is about taking the time and care to spoil those I love. Spoil them with gifts and food and love and song.

Holding no religious beliefs doesn’t mean that I cannot wish people a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I focus on the Merry and the Happy of that sentence and mean it when I say it. As I do not deny the existence of a Christ from an historical viewpoint, I do not feel that I must avoid the mention of the word at all. I am more inclined, however, to wish people Good Cheer for the Festive Season for this is more encompassing of my beliefs.

At Christmas time I talk with my children about the story of the birth of Jesus, not as religious instruction but just as we talk about other stories likeRomeo and Juliet or the Battle of Hastings. My children believe (or have believed) in Santa. I ask them to think about why they would believe in Santa (or the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny), but not in the notion of a God; and we take this opportunity to talk about belief. They know that I am an existentialist and that as adults they will develop their own beliefs. They also know that, no matter what they believe, they will be loved.

My children also know that we have family members who are religious: their grandfather, who they spent a lot of time with, was Jewish. My father-in-law embraced the Festive Season with us – especially enjoying the extra time he spent with his grandchildren. We would still place his presents under the tree and encourage him to wear a silly paper hat, but we would also ensure that the food we served was sensitive to his beliefs. This is the first Festive Season without him and we will share stories of him at lunch on Christmas Day.

I cry over the lyrics in Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun when he sings of the seeing his dad, brother and sisters, gran and mum at Christmas; and that when his baby girl grows up although she may be far away they will all be waiting for her on Christmas to join them. I hold my children tight and look at my husband and family and know that this Festive Season is going to be a joyous one.

By Emma Bromley

We Wish You a Merry Christmas? A Christian Perspective

It seems to me that this fatwa forbidding Muslims from wishing Christians Merry Christmas is a topic that re-emerges every year. I have been told that the reason it is forbidden is because it is seen as condoning or endorsing a false religion. If this is the case, it seems to me that this represents a deeper underlying issue – that of supercessionism or exclusivism, that is claiming “my religion is rights; all other are wrong!”

I think in a multi-faith society, we have to move past supercessionist and exclusivist attitudes.  Yes, I have convictions about the role and identity of Jesus Christ that others do not share.  But that does not mean that I do not respect others and their religions.  I have come to the conviction that if religions have survived for hundreds of years without having been superseded, then in God’s providence they must have a continuing and future role to play in God’s plan for the unfolding of human history.


As you know, interfaith activists tend not to use the word “tolerance”.  It implies that one is merely putting up with something that is intrinsically “bad”, because the one doing the “putting up with” is inherently superior.  I believe we have to move beyond this negative approach towards a much more positive appreciation.  While we do not accept each other’s theological positions on key doctrinal matters, we can always respect the person from another religion who does not share them, who holds opposed positions.


Muslims already wrongly suffer a bad reputation in society due to the criminal behaviour of a tiny minority who act contrary to the Qur’an and tradition and commit terrorist violence.  The proponents of the fatwa might engender good will towards the Muslim community if they refrained from forbidding the offering of greetings to their majority fellow citizens on the occasion of Christmas.  To do so would not compromise their faith.  It would simply show appreciation and respect to the majority community.  I personally have received a number of such greetings from Muslims in recent days.  I offer greetings to Muslims on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr.  I do not see it as compromising my faith, I see it as a social and religious courtesy.

By Father Patrick McInery


We Wish You a Merry Christmas? A Jewish Perspective

In 2012, The Sydney Morning Herald  reported that a fatwa had been issued by one Imam against Christmas, warning that is it a sin to wish people a Merry Christmas. But this view was been rejected by the Mufti of Australia who asserted that “there is a difference between showing respect for someone’s beliefs and sharing those beliefs”.

There have been no sermons in the Australian Jewish community about Christmas greetings. Yet, this kind of thinking is evident in old Jewish texts including one published in Venice in 1565.  Rabbi Joseph Karo states that “It is forbidden to enter the home of an idol worshiper on the day of his celebration and wish him peace, however if he found him outside it is permitted but he should say it in a soft tone and a heave head”.

On the other hand, prioritising interfaith relationships is encouraged by an equally authoritative scholar know as the Rema who argues that “it can cause hatred if we (Jews) separate ourselves from them (our non-Jewish neighbours) on the day of their celebration…therefore if one enters the city and he finds them rejoicing on the day of their celebration he should rejoice with them”.  One Australian Rabbi I spoke to told me he has never been asked about Christmas greetings, and thought of it as being more about family and shopping than religion for most people.  I don’t see many Australian Jews seeking a ruling on this so I am not offering one.

Like the Rema, the Mufti is quoted in the article as stating “we are required to have good relations with all people, and to congratulate them on their joyous events is very important.” Yet I think a mature society should be, and in fact generally is, able to have good relations even with people who don’t feel right about the greetings.  I wonder if anyone would think it intolerable for a Tony Abbot supporter to refuse to congratulate a Turnbull supporter for the successful leadership challenge.  If a non-Christian sees Christmas as a celebration of Jesus and claims about his divinity that they don’t approve of, it should be met with tolerance.

In the same way, we should tolerate someone who disapproves of Islam or Judaism and does not wish to pretend otherwise. For example, I always feel uncomfortable when people who are not Jewish are requested to wear a religious hat when entering a Synagogue. The little cap is designed to make a statement that the individual in question might not feel like making.

Overall, I am inclined toward prioritising relationships and expressing goodwill between neighbours of different faiths. Many people would find it hard to accept an argument that “Merry Christmas” cannot simply mean “I like you and respect you” and I wish you well” rather than “I agree with your theology”. On the other hand, words don’t have one fixed meaning, they mean whatever it is that someone thinks they mean.

A commitment to relationships includes advocating tolerance for views and approaches that are different to one’s own.  If someone has a problem with saying Merry Christmas, we should be able to handle that as long as there is a more general attitude of goodwill and respect. We must agree without enmity. That is what tolerance is.

By Rabbi Zalman Kastel