I went to the Los Angeles screening of a new documentary“Out of Cordoba” at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. The place was packed with people—Muslims, Christians, Jews and others who are part of LA’s dynamic interfaith community. I expected a film about the Islamic period in Spain— that golden age when Muslims, Christians and Jews created a vibrant interreligious culture that has been called “the ornament of the world” — but what I experienced was something deeper and richer.
Will LA someday be called the “ornament of the world” as well as the “entertainment capitol of the world?” Our architecture is not as beautiful as Cordoba’s, but I feel the LA interfaith community has a beauty and energy that rivals that of Muslim Spain. At very least, the LA interfaith community exemplifies the spirit of convivencia—“living together in harmony”— for which Cordoba was famous.
The documentary itself was inspired by the tragic and troubling events 9/11. Its director, Jacob Bender, is a Jew who was very active in the interfaith world when the planes hit the Twin Towers in his hometown, NY City. Shaken to the core by this attack, he asked himself some deep questions:
Is there a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world? Are Jews and Muslims eternal enemies, incapable of peaceful coexistence? Does religious faith lead inevitably to xenophobia and violence?
To address these questions, he decided to make a documentary exploring the lives of Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (Rambam) and the Muslim philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd). These two men espoused a religious outlook grounded in reason and toleration that exerted a tremendous influence within and beyond their own religious traditions.
Bender’s original plan was to do a Ken Burns type of documentary but it turned into something much more interesting and personal. He himself became part of the story as he interacted with Muslim and Jewish scholars and religious leaders who were influenced by Maimonides and Averroes. He traveled to Cordoba, Morocco, Paris, Venice, Egypt and finally to Israel before returning home to his family in New York. He ends the film as he begins, with his daughter in his arms, recalling the words of Maimonides (which I’m paraphrasing): “Two things fill me with hope and wonder: the beauty of God’s creation, and the face of my child.”
The most controversial part of the documentary deals with Israel. Bender shows how the legacy of Maimonides has been distorted by Orthodox Jews to promote a sectarian view of Judaism very different from the open-minded spirit of Maimonides himself. Maimonides did not feel that Jews had a special monopoly on Truth, and was open to the teachings of Greek and Muslim philosophers as well as to Torah. When Maimonides died, he was such a beloved and important religious leader the khalif of Egypt decreed three days of mourning for the entire community to honor a man who had been his personal physician.
Bender also interviewed a rabbi critical of Israeli home demolitions and the separation barrier that has caused untold hardship to Palestinians. Some Jewish members of the audience took offense and asked, “Why were you so one-sided? Why did you show the wrong doing of Israelis and not show the terrorism of Hamas?” Bender responded that he had shown Muslims who were very critical of Muslim terrorism. A Muslim leader in Cordoba read a fatwa condemning the terrorist attacks in Madrid and 9/11.
Bender went on to say that if Muslims are self-critical and condemn terrorism by their co-religionists, Jews should also be willing to condemn the injustices perpetrated by their own community.
He spoke with the authority of one who had worked as a film maker for seven years in Israel, including several years spent at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs Museum in Jerusalem. He also spoke as one who has internalized the reasonable spirit of Maimonides and Averroes, both of whom were condemned by fanatic co-religionists in their time. Fundamentalist Muslims burned the books of Averroes, and fundamentalist Jews burned the books of Maimonides.
Yet the spirit of these two remarkable men lives on, nonetheless, in people like Jacob Bender and in the interfaith community that gathered to watch his movie. I am grateful for this film and hope that it is shown widely. I should add that this documentary not only has a powerful message, it is also stunningly beautiful—a work of cinematic art that captures that beauty of two religious traditions that have had many misunderstandings and conflicts but have also profoundly enriched each other in ways that have to be seen to be believed.
Anthony Manousos, laquaker.blogspot.com