During President Barack Obama’s historic address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he said, “At a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.”
The idea that we are all God’s children is rooted in the closing verses of the first chapter of Genesis, which proclaims that God created the world and created human beings — male and female — in His image.
Each human being then is unique because he or she embodies in some way the image of God. Unlike trees or animals, God created human beings individually, not in groups. This has moral significance since it means that all of us are special and different from each other.
By describing that God created the first man and woman individually, the Torah is teaching us that no person can say that my father or mother is greater than yours, since we are all descended from the same father and mother. Another implication of these verses is that no one individual should be stereotyped because he or she belongs to a particular group or tribe. Our individuality transcends the groups we may be born into or to which we freely associate.
We live in a time when too many political, religious and public figures have ignored this teaching. By casting suspicion on the entire American Muslim community or on Islam itself, these figures are rebelling against this teaching and implicitly denying that each and every one of us is created in the image of God.
It is true that there are Muslims who have succumbed to fantasies of dominance through resorting to brutality, torture and murder. Often these fantasies are motivated by a distorted reading of the Koran.
But we should not jump to the conclusion that all Muslims read the Koran this way. There are many Christians who believe that abortions are an act of murder. Some of these Christians have committed acts of violence against abortion providers because of their faith. But I have never heard anyone jump to the conclusion that Christianity or all Christians believe that violence against abortion providers is morally legitimate. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are peaceful and law abiding citizens just as the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews are peaceful and law abiding.
At the Islamic Society, the president recounted how he receives many letters from Muslim Americans who feel frightened and demeaned: “I’ve had people write to me and say, ‘I feel like I’m a second-class citizen.’ I’ve had mothers write and say, ‘My heart cries every night,’ thinking about how her daughter might be treated at school. A girl from Ohio, 13 years old, told me, ‘I’m scared.’ A girl from Texas signed her letter ‘a confused 14-year-old trying to find her place in the world.’”
This is decidedly not OK.
Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a group of people of faith from Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, is calling upon all religious communities to show support for our Muslim neighbors, co-workers and friends who are feeling attacked and isolated. We are asking communities of faith to display on their property banners that read “Honor God — Say No to anti-Muslim bigotry,” or “We stand with Muslim Americans.”
In addition to affirming the dignity of each human being, we are also committed to opposing and changing policies and practices that promote torture in our society. To that end we are part of a broad coalition that wants to put an end to the abuse of solitary confinement in state and federal prisons.
We understand that prisoners have been convicted of crimes. Many of them have committed terrible acts of violence. We do not question the importance of punishment for crimes of violence and of property. But no person should be physically or verbally abused even if they have abused others. In order to teach others to be respectful, we have to be respectful of others.
Respect for the dignity of each human being is an essential value of the Torah and our faith. It can be challenging to be respectful of people have done horrible deeds. It is not at all so to be respectful of those who live among us. The Torah charges us to remember that as the president said last week in Baltimore, we are all God’s children.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.