Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Raise your Voice!

Our goal is to increase your participation in our ongoing conversation about sacred texts in the coming year. Please share your thoughts with us by completing a brief survey

We appreciate your feedback and wish you blessings of peace in 2012,
Tziporah, Grace & Yasmina

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Response to "Peace on a Corner"

Corey-Jan’s “Peace on a Corner” moves me deeply.  Legend has it that, when Nazi soldiers moved into Denmark to isolate and remove the Jews living there, King Christian—along with members of his court—had a yellow star stitched onto his sleeve before riding in an open carriage through the streets of Copenhagen. First a dozen, then hundreds and thousands of Christians joined in this powerful act of resistance.  I often wonder how history might have been rewritten if all of my Christian forebears in Europe had done the same.  I wonder, too, how different our world might be right now if American Christians and Jews had, en masse, sung “Salaam/Shalom” alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters in the wake of 9/11. For Christians, Christmas is about the birth and continual rebirth of God incarnate, calling us to a radically new way of being and a peace that surpasses all understanding. From that center we can act in godly ways. As another song puts it, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

How desolate it is to think of a world where understanding is lost, and how uplifting it is to see the beauty of compassion light up a whole community in a festival of unity. With too many incidents of bigotry, prejudice, hatred and ignorance being committed against minorities, including Muslims, I still do not wish to dwell on these issues, but rather on their remedies. Like Corey-Jan, I reflect upon the present energy around me and the meanings of the holidays, although as a Muslim I am not celebrating them. In the spirit of the holiday season, I wish that we would all replenish our hearts with the wonder of God’s miracles, His Mercy and His Compassion. One of the beautiful names of God mentioned in the Quran is as-Salaam, which means the source of safety, peace and perfection. May every human discover the peace in their hearts, and may that peace spread to all corners of the world.

I asked Corey-Jan to share her song and allow us to respond to it because I had heard her perform it in a variety of settings, and each time it really affected me. I grew up singing traditional Hanukkah songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, and performed the classic "I Have a Little Dreidel" numerous times in Religious School. I also sang Christmas songs in my public school's choir, never once wondering why they were the only holiday songs on the radio. I remain a fan of Christmas music and attend concerts at local churches every year. But this year I find myself humming "Peace on a Corner" as I prepare for Hanukkah; it is stuck in my head alongside "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells." Both the lyrics and the melody serve to boost my holiday spirit, reminding me that celebrating with friends is what increases the light and warmth on long winter nights. I pray that we are all enlightened by the music of the season, and that our spirits are raised as a new year of peace approaches.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Peace on a Corner"

Thanks to our reader Corey-Jan for sharing her music and wisdom with us this week. 
Click here to listen to this week’s sacred text, “Peace on a Corner.”

I was initially inspired to write “Peace on a Corner” because, listening to the radio, I heard about a zillion Christmas songs and very few songs about the holiday my family celebrates. And the one song that gets played the most is funny and entertaining—but it doesn’t shed any light on the meaning of the holiday. I was also inspired by the story of what happened in Billings, Montana in 1993, when a brick sailed through a Jewish family’s window because the family displayed a Hanukkah menorah (lamp) in their window. In response, several local churches invited each child in their congregation to make a paper menorah; these soon appeared in the windows of hundreds of Christian homes. A few days later, the local newspaper published a full-page drawing of a menorah, along with a general invitation for people to display it. By the end of the week, there were an estimated six thousand homes and businesses decorated for Hanukkah. The message was clear: Hate would not be tolerated.

The idea that hate can be—really, must be—combated by connection and understanding is so important. And the idea that everyone has something different to share —even within the same religion—is very near and dear to me. Particularly at this time of year, my family reaches out to share our holidays with people of other religions, and we seek opportunities to share in their holiday celebrations, as well. That way, the entire month of December is filled with a variety of traditions and celebrations, not merely with holidays which are narrowly defined as “ours” or “theirs.”
* * * * * * *

Corey-Jan is an award-winning playwright, poet and songwriter. Her work has been published and produced in a wide range of venues, and her unique book Diaspora Journey: A Passover Haggadah Drama has been performed as a Passover Seder in synagogues, churches and homes for more than a decade.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In Her Own Words

Each week, we strive to respond—as our name “She Answers Abraham” suggests—to the sacred texts that we share.  Last week, however, I was inspired to write a more personal reflection about the issue of proselytizing.  Yasmina's explanation of da'wa as an expression of humility convinced me that we three needed time to grapple with the texts and their contexts. Grace wisely counseled me to wait, to hold my initial thoughts for this week.  I am grateful to my friends for encouraging me to share both "answers" with you. Below is my first reply to Grace's post about proclaiming our faith.  

I welcome readers of all faiths to share their thoughts and experiences.  

B'virkat shalom (with blessings of peace),  

* * * * * * *

I once experienced being “witnessed to” by a proselytizing Christian, but only after my move to the southeast as an adult, when I was able to appreciate the zeal of a sincere missionary without feeling demeaned. Nor have I ever felt personally persecuted by a Christian missionary simply because he believed himself to be right and righteous. However, my equanimity in these situations was shattered when the teacher of my eight-year old daughter called to let me know that another girl—the daughter of Evangelical Christians—had offered to show her Jesus’ glory over lunch.  In that moment, I realized that I had failed to meet my obligations as a Jewish mother: I had not adequately taught my children what Jews do and do not believe about Jesus and personal salvation.  Once I recovered from my guilty feelings, I was truly grateful that I had been forced to clarify my beliefs because another person had proclaimed her faith.

* * * * * * * 

Tziporah writes weekly for the She Answers Abraham blog and prays daily for peace among all people. She seeks to raise her children to be both compassionate and righteous. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Proclaiming our Faith

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
The Gospel of Matthew 28:19-20

Known to Christians as “The Great Commission,” this text often evokes polarizing responses. On the one hand, it assures followers of Jesus that a living God is eternally present; and that, in obeying what Jesus taught, all on earth can be blessed.  Undeniably, however, many non- Christians and even some Christians have felt overwhelmed by a zealous missionary, at home or abroad, who seeks to convert the “alien other” to God. I believe that I can be a devout Christian and, at the same time, see God in all persons.  I especially appreciate the maxim attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words;” for, to me, heeding the Great Commission means living a life that embodies Jesus’ summary of the Commandments: to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.

Da’wa is the Arabic word for “invitation,” and is used in Islam to denote the practice of spreading God’s message. It is explained in the Quran:  “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” (al-Nahl 16:125) This verse is both a reassuring and humbling ideal. It is reassuring because it expresses the underlying notion of strong trust in God, the All-Knowing, Who sees into the hearts of all people, whether or not they display signs of guidance. And it is humbling because it reminds us that a Muslim will always fall short of conveying the beauty of God’s message, no matter how knowledgeable and how spiritual he or she is. For this reason, every Muslim, at every stage of life—whether practicing the formal da’wa or not—recites the following supplication: “O God, guide us, guide through us, and allow us to be a reason for the guidance of others.”

While Judaism welcomes convertsthe early rabbis established rituals surrounding formal conversion by the 4th centuryJews do not actively proselytize.  The main reason that Jews do not seek converts is that, throughout the centuries, proselytizing was often forbidden by the ruling religious majority.  In some historical periods it was even a capital crime for Jews to convert non-Jews, so Jewish evangelism did not develop as normative tradition for political reasons. Although Jews may be free to proselytize in many countries today, the collective history of Jewish persecution leads to our ongoing reluctance to proclaim our faith.  In fact, the custom of rabbis actually discouraging prospective converts in order to test their sincerity continues to this day, and—in the moment just before conversion—rabbis will often ask prospective converts if they are “choosing of their own free will to cast their lot with the Jewish people.”  Following his or her immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath), the new Jew proclaims the faith by reciting, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." (Deuteronomy 6:9)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


“A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid.”
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
On the fall harvest festival of Sukkot—once the most central holiday of the Jewish calendar cycle—we observe the custom of inviting Ushpizin (guests) into our sacred space.  Each year, we ask friends and family to bring a photograph of someone with whom they would like to share a meal. Their honored guest can be alive or dead, or a biblical, fictional or historical figure…anyone at all.  As Thanksgiving approaches and we celebrate the fall harvest as a nation, I am reminded of our Sukkot celebration earlier this season, when I hosted Grace and Yasmina—and their Ushpizin—at my home.  Their choice of guests reflects their deep understanding of the subtext of our interfaith work: We are striving to connect with each other, with our ancestors, with our community and with God.  We are holding hands as we walk together across the very narrow bridge, so that we will not be afraid.  This Thanksgiving, as I offer thanks for the abundance of my harvest, I am also grateful for their wisdom and friendship.

I invited writer Flannery O’Connor to accompany me into Tziporah’s sukkah. This writer of some of America’s greatest short stories certainly understood, in her personal life, the meaning of a makeshift hut intended to remind the Jewish people of God’s providence throughout the Exodus journey.  In her early twenties, O’Connor was stricken with a crippling disease that compelled her to move from what must have seemed a most promising life among the literati of NYC to her mother’s dairy cattle farm in rural Georgia.  Yet, in the red clay—and even in the manure of a hen house—O’Connor found a Land of Promise.  As I celebrated Sukkot with women whose friendship has been manna for me, I was reminded that God’s daily provisions are sufficient for whatever “wilderness experience” we are called to face and for each narrow bridge we are asked to cross. Abundant reason for thanksgiving!

I wanted to invite a person who could revive some much-needed values in our present day; someone who saw beauty in all humanity, understood our common roots, and stood for the rights of justice and equality.[1] I picked an individual whom I thought best exemplified these virtues. He defied preconceptions and laid the foundation for a wider perspective while crossing a very narrow bridge. He contributed in freeing minds and souls in his time, and is still helping people forge their way across new bridges today; our own interfaith group is a testament to that.  Al-hamdu lillah: all praise, all thanks are due to God, and Muslims utter these words not only in prayer, but also in answer to the greeting “How are you?” This is because we recognize the human spirit as one of God’s countless and endless bounties. Tziporah welcomed that spirit of Abraham Lincoln, and me, into our Sukkot celebration.

[1]  The Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] taught in his farewell sermon: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve.  An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black, nor a black has any superiority over white, except by piety and good action.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Take a Breath!

Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey will rest, and the son of your maidservant and the sojourner will be refreshed.
Exodus 23:12
The observance of the Sabbath is mentioned in many verses of the Torah, but this one is my favorite.  It proposes that we stop working on the Sabbath not only to allow ourselves time to rest, but also to allow our work animals and laborers an opportunity to shore up their strength, because all living creatures need rest.  The biblical scholar Everett Fox translates the last word of this verse, vayinfash, as “pause-for-breath.”[1]  This definition of Sabbath rest resonates for me.  Since my college days, I have taken advantage of this weekly opportunity to turn off my phone and power down my computer, close my writer’s notebook and lock my car in the garage.  Through the years, people who learned of my strict observance of the Sabbath have asked me if it’s difficult not being able to do laundry or run errands on Saturday. It’s true that I have occasionally imagined being more productive by foregoing my Sabbath rest.  But these thoughts are fleeting.  Observing the Sabbath refreshes and recharges my spirit; this weekly commitment to pausing for breath has changed my life.

Christians share with Jews the scriptural commandment to honor the Sabbath. With numerous variations, we traditionally observe the Sabbath on Sunday, which we call “the Lord’s Day.” In communal worship, we understand the Sabbath as a “little Easter,” an experience of spiritual resurrection, refreshment, and renewal. I have to say, however, that the concept of physical rest, which Tziporah expresses in the pause-for-breath time she takes each week, is often lost in my own Sabbath practice. Tziporah’s example inspires me to realize my need to honor the “take a breath” in all its fullness. Taking Sunday (or another day) to “close down” and not just “rev up,” would enable me to express in practice my conviction that spiritual health is intimately linked to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being that God wants for all God’s people—and God’s creatures!

The Quran mentions the Sabbath as a commandment to the Jewish people.[2]  For Muslims, the essence of the Sabbath as a day for connecting with God has two aspects.  First, when practicing Muslims put on hold whatever they are doing and turn to God at different times throughout every day to perform their five prayers, they are observing an aspect of Sabbath.  In fact, the Arabic word for prayer is Salat, which means connection. Furthermore, Friday is a day that brings numerous purposeful actions, including the congregational sermon and communal Salat; during that time, Muslim men are prohibited from working. Friday is also a day for increased remembrance of God and reaching out to the community. The feeling that Tziporah describes as the fruit of her observance of the Sabbath is the same sense of peace I feel as an observant Muslim. This feeling is derived from the highest purpose a faithful person can have, and that is to obey the commands of God in order to seek His pleasure.

[1] This word, which appears only twice in the Torah, is also used in Exodus 31:17 to describe God’s taking a breath on the seventh day after completing the Creation.
[2] See 2:65, 4:47, 4:154, 7:163 and 16:124.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Clothed in Righteousness

O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment. But the clothing of righteousness - that is best. That is from the signs of God that perhaps they will remember.
(al-Araf 7:26)
According to Islam, appropriate attire is one component of an ideal, righteous society.[1] While some may consider covering the hair and body a burden, a backwards tradition or even a sign of oppression, as a woman who adheres to this tradition I know it is quite the opposite. The hijab (veil) shifts the focus from a woman’s external appearance to her intellect and internal beauty, and thus contributes to the betterment of society by elevating the level of social interactions between people. Women who choose to wear the hijab are highly motivated to obey God and honor His commands; their sense of humility and selflessness is heightened because they live in a state of constant awareness of their Creator and Sustainer. As humans seeking righteousness in our lives, we are often thwarted by our own shortcomings.  The religious teachings regarding appropriate dress are designed to help us reach beyond ourselves toward God.

I am heartbroken by misguided criticism of any religious practice, including the wearing of the veil, whose intent is to direct one’s focus to God. Indeed, images of a veiled Mary, mother of Jesus, influenced the Christian practice of women wearing head coverings, especially at worship, for centuries. Still, head covering as a sign of a woman’s submission to God became equated in early Christian dogma with their submission to human authority. The belief arose that a man’s head was to be kept bare before God, while a woman’s head would remain covered in submission to her husband.  As a Christian woman who sees herself validated by God as a full partner with her husband and others, I (like Yasmina) see submission to God as central to the righteous life, and I applaud any religious practice that, in demonstrating true humility, is liberating rather than oppressive.

Having spent several weeks reflecting on the words of Yasmina and Grace, I remain conflicted about how to respond.  My sense is that in both Islam and Christianity the practice of women covering their heads was adopted from Judaism and adapted to be more appealing. Rabbinic sources prescribe the covering of married women’s hair in public to ensure that anyone other than her husband will not be enticed by her appearance.  This clear mandate of tzniut (modesty) applies only to married women. A parallel custom of men covering their heads—in humble recognition that God is above them—also developed in Judaism, but it never pertained to women.  Today, women who regard themselves as equal to men before God may choose to wear a kippah (also known as a yarmulke or skullcap), and married women may reject the custom of covering their hair as outdated.  However, in both cases, because the women are reinterpreting centuries-old tradition, they may be accused of being arrogant—rather than humble—as they attempt to transform religious norms and infuse old ideas with new meaning.

[1] The actual details of proper dress are addressed in other verses of the Quran and various Hadiths.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who's In, Who's Out?

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The Gospel of John 14:6

These words of Jesus, so sacred to Christians, are often used as words of comfort at Christian funerals. Yet heard outside Christian tradition or misunderstood within it, they can be bitterly divisive, especially if they are interpreted to mean that non-Christians have no access to God or that only Christians who declare their faith in a certain way—using specific words or performing a specific ritual—are “saved.” In an earlier statement within this same biblical passage, Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.”[1] Later Jesus emphasizes once again that the Father dwells with those who “obey my teaching.”[2] Thus, as a Christian, I believe that I come to the Father through striving to live a Christ-like life, a life rooted in the sacrificial way of love—love without conditions and without exceptions.

Muslims understand the way to God as a path, referred to in the Quran as the “straight way,” and defined as “the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray.”[3] God has shown this path to all of His prophets and messengers, including Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus and finally Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon them all].  One reference to these honored prophets reads: “Those were some of the prophets on whom God did bestow His Grace, of the posterity of Adam, and of those who We carried [in the Ark] with Noah, and of the posterity of Abraham and Israel of those whom We guided and chose. Whenever the Signs of God Most Gracious were rehearsed to them, they would fall down in prostrate adoration and in tears.”[4] As a Muslim, I revere Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] as the Messiah who was born of an immaculate birth. I follow the teachings of God in the Quran and I humbly strive to emulate the character of Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], who gave the perfect example for loving and serving God and His creation, and embodied the true meaning of Islam.

I admire Grace for choosing a challenging text, which she described as having been “used too often in terribly disparaging, exclusionary ways.”  It immediately brings to my mind the many times I learned that Judaism allows all people of faith entry to olam ha-ba, the world to come, provided that they uphold 7 basic laws.[5] This teaching was often invoked by Jewish Studies professors to demonstrate Judaism’s superiority as a universal and welcoming religion.  This assertion—that all religious paths are acceptable but only mine is the “truth”—has proven personally dissatisfying and, at times, destructive to relationships between people of different faiths. I can certainly appreciate how this idea originated with the early rabbis, perhaps in response to emerging Christian teachings that acceptance of Jesus was the only path to redemption.  I can also see why later rabbis perpetuated it through centuries of persecution and forced conversion of Jews to Christianity.  Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with our apparent compulsion to declare ourselves and our beliefs as most right and exclusively true.  I pray that in the world to come, humanity will have evolved to accept the Baha’i teaching that all religions express a single Divine purpose[6] and serve as multiple paths leading to God’s presence in paradise.

[1] The Gospel of John 14:2
[2] The Gospel of John 14:23
[3] al-Fatihah, 1:7
[4] Maryam, 19:58
[5] Jeffrey Spitzer's excellent explanation of Noahide Laws is at
[6] This is reflected in the Baha’i teaching of The Oneness of Religion.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guest Blogger Responds to Last Week's Post

Thank you, Yaira, for sharing your insights & wisdom with She Answers Abraham readers!

“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree.  And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
(Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
On first reading, this passage seems harsh and not at all fitting with the concept of religious pluralism. These verses—when removed from their original context and interpreted on a literal, surface level—can lead to fundamentalism and trouble. So first, let’s put them back into context.

By Divine decree, Moses will not cross with the Israelites into the Promised Land—so by the bank of the River Jordan, he gives his final address to the people. He begins by reviewing the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Then he offers guidance about how the Israelites should conduct themselves moving forward.

The central message that I hear in all of his advice, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep God as the focus of their lives. They are told to love God, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) The people are told to demolish the worship spaces, altars and statues of the former occupiers of the land because the continued existence of these things would distract them from true service to God.

Next, let’s look beyond a literal interpretation. It’s important to know that what happens in the Torah is not just an event in the distant past. Just as Moses stood addressing the Israelite people thousands of years ago, he stands today, here in my living room, talking to me. What I hear Moses saying to me is that to enter the Promised Land—to uphold a sacred, covenantal partnership—I must clear out all the things in my life that would distract me from a central focus on God. All of those false idols of cash and comfort and consumerism must go, and what must remain is true and constant devotion. When these verses are interpreted in this light, they are a reminder that to live a life grounded in the holy, we must keep our hearts clear of clutter and open to God. 

 * * * * * * * *

*Yaira is a Jew who believes that honest interfaith engagement is an important part of the connective, healing work so needed in the world right now. Yaira has a B.A. in English and is working toward an M.A. in Theological Studies. She is married with two boys and is fueled by laughter, gratitude and radical amazement.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taking Possession of Sacred Space

“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree.  And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
(Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
While I can appreciate the historical context of this commandmentto take possession of the land by abolishing the pagan cults of its indigenous people—reading this text makes me uncomfortable. The sounds of destruction resonate as I chant the Hebrew words aloud: demolish them, shatter them, burn them, cut them down and destroy them.  At first I thought it was the rampant destruction of the environment along with man-made structures that offended my modern, ecological sensibilities. After rereading this section of the Torah, however, I find myself deeply disturbed by a realization: This is not merely an historical account.  In modern struggles over physical space and sacred space, we continue to completely destroy places and utterly dispossess people in order to exert ownership.  And then—after we take possession—what do we have?

I share Tziporah’s discomfort with this text if it is treated as a contemporary commandment. But I understand the Deuteronomist’s words as an attempt by a devout man, writing thousands of years ago in a very different culture, to imagine how the God he knew and worshiped might speak to a monotheistic people. As we read and interpret Holy Scriptures today, I think most of us are genuinely striving to listen to God and to heed God’s commands. However, just as we have come to understand the ungodliness of slavery, despite justifications our ancestors quoted from the words of sacred texts, we might do well to realize that we are equally prone to misrepresent in our own time the One who continually reshapes us. When trying to make sense of difficult texts, I find it helpful to recall the words of Jesus: “As you would that others do to you, do you even so to them.” (The Gospel of Matthew 7:12)

I totally agree that this text ought to be interpreted in light of the time and place it was written, and we need to consider for whom it was intended. I, too, share your discomfort when sacred text is used to justify any wrongdoing, whether it is expropriation, destruction or abuse.  In our days, individuals around the globe misquote sacred texts to purposely spread fear and mistrust in people’s minds. I am deeply concerned when I hear about acts of injustice which violate people and their property, regardless of whether these abuses are physical or emotional. This can make me feel helpless, because it deeply affects our personal states of being, and can lead to despair. However, in response to this state of being, I am empowered by what fills my own heart: a renewed sense of submission to the will of God, because He is the Best Disposer of all affairs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When Prayers Go Unanswered

“When My servants ask you about Me, then I am near. I respond to the call of one when he prays to Me. So they should respond to Me and have faith in Me, so that they may be on the right path.”
(al-Baqarah 2:186)

Muslims are taught early on that supplications or personal prayers are to be coupled with all their actions.[1] These prayers are meant as a way to remember God, be closer to Him, and affirm the need for Him in all affairs. However, people might wonder why some of their prayers are answered while others are not. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] gave the following explanation: “The supplication of the servant will be accepted as long as he does not pray for what includes sin or severing family ties, and as long as he does not become hasty.” He explained that a hasty person says, ‘I prayed and prayed, but I do not see that my prayer is being accepted from me,’ and thus loses interest and abandons his prayers. The prophet further said: “God will grant him one of three things. He will either hasten the response to his prayer, save it for him until the Hereafter, or turn an equivalent amount of evil away from him.'' This definitely reminds me of the notion that we must always trust in God for He is the All-Wise.

Jews often struggle with the idea of personal prayer, since there are prescribed supplications in the liturgy, which implies that there is a correct way to pray.  Many of these ancient prayers relate to the rebuilding of the Temple and coming of the Messiah—supplications that do not appear to have been granted for nearly 2,000 years.  For me, true prayer is about searching my own heart and finding the strength to ask for things that I deeply desire but may never be given.  Each time I pray for the healing of someone who is dying, I struggle to find the right words to pray.  This brings to mind a folk tale, found originally in the Talmud, about a shepherd who does not know the liturgy but desperately wishes to pray to God.  In alternate versions of the story he plays his flute, sings the alphabet and says, “God, if You had sheep, I would take care of them as if they were my own.”[2] Some people mock his prayers and attempt to silence him, but in the end he is always rewarded for offering a true and heartfelt prayer.

Christians too struggle with the question of why some prayers, particularly deep supplications of the heart, seemingly go unanswered.  The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives…”[3] The lives of saints and mystics show that the search is particularly important, for long periods of seemingly unanswered prayer are not empty at all; the search always leads to discovery, always brings the seeker closer to the heart of God. We discover that prayer is about changing us. “Not my will, but thine be done” was the prayer of Jesus in his darkest hour. That supplication shows Christians that when we seek to conform our own will to God’s, darkness becomes light and goodness ultimately prevails.

[1] These prayers are distinct from Salaat, the mandatory act of worship which includes prostration. They are referred to as Duaa.
[2] This version is retold by Eric A. Kimmel in Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Another beautifully told and illustrated rendition is Yussel’s Prayer, by Barbara Cohen.
[3] The Gospel of Matthew 7:7-8

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Eternal Life

A man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? The man then recited the Ten Commandments and commented that he had kept them from the time of his youth. Jesus replied, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The Gospel of Mark 10:17-22 
This story from the Gospel of Mark challenges its Christian audience for several reasons. On the surface, it appears to be making a statement against material wealth. It further suggests that obedience to the Law of God is insufficient for inheriting eternal life, usually understood as life after physical death. However, this text challenges me in a different way. I think Jesus was emphasizing that although obedience to religious life is important, it is not completely life giving, even in this life.  Life in its fullest sense comes through sacrificial giving, not hoarding, of whatever riches a person may have; these riches may be talents, resources, special traits, monetary wealth, or other gifts. To follow Jesus, in this case, is not so much about dutiful obedience to the Law—or even about fervent belief in Jesus and his teachingsas it is about living fully every day through the giving of oneself to others.

As a Muslim, I believe that the path to eternal life is belief in God and living righteously.  The means for staying upright and walking on this path are interdependent, and building one’s life on them can be described as servitude to God and His creation. They include belief in God, His messengers, the Scriptures and the Day of Judgment; ritual practice; and Ihsan, high moral character, which is reflected by doing acts of kindness.  The messengers and prophets exemplify righteous living, and people who follow their example in life will be closest to them in the hereafter. It is for this reason that Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] invited the man to an even higher place in heaven, where he would find treasure and companionship with the most upright beings. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] said: “A man’s true wealth hereafter is the good he does in this world to his fellow man.” As a Muslim, I believe in all the prophets, whose lessons were given in different times and contexts but share a common thread: love and servitude to God, and dependence on Him alone.

While it is true that many Jews believe that observance of mitzvot (commandments) and strict adherence to Jewish Law is the path to eternal life, there are varying opinions regarding the centrality of ritual laws.  One stream of rabbinic thought emphasizes gemilut hesed (deeds of lovingkindness) as taking precedence over all else.  These acts of kindness, such as visiting the sick, burying the dead and bringing peace between people who disagree, can never be repaid. Rabbi Elazar quotes the prophet Micah to define lovingkindness: “You have been told what is good and what God requires of you: ‘to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.’ What does this verse imply? To act justly, this is the law.  To love kindness, this is deeds of lovingkindness. To walk humbly with your God, this is to bury the dead and accompany the bride to her wedding canopy.”[1] Similarly, the Talmud lists examples of gemilut hesed, stating that the principal of the reward for these deeds—a richly fulfilling life— is earned in this world, and the interest is rewarded in the world to come.[2] Personally, I am striving to achieve a life of gemilut hesed, with the early rabbis—and Jesus and Muhammed—as my guides along the path.

[1] Sukkah 49b   
[2] Shabbat 127a

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Seeking Solace

I was faithful even when I said, “I suffered terribly;”
I said in my panic, “All people are unreliable!”
 (Psalms 116:10-11)

I am struck by the unflinching honesty of the Psalmist, who readily admits to human frailty in suffering.  Often, when we are distracted by pain, we allow its attendant anger to overtake us, and we blurt out terrible things about each other which we later regret. We seek relief in blaming someone else for our situation.  Sometimes we accuse each other; other times we denounce God.  This verse begins with a declaration of faith—I believed in God despite my suffering—and concludes with an admission of loss of faith.  The Psalmist reflects on a previous experience of suffering, when pain caused him to lose faith in humanity. Yet he maintained an unshakable faith in God.  I find solace in repeating this verse as a mantra; I feel my pain begin to dissipate.  I am confident that when I look back on this difficult time, my faith in God and others will have endured.

I too am struck by the suffering Psalmist’s human declaration of faith undercut immediately by blame. For the cry of why is inevitable, the search for someone or something to blame natural, and the fear of God’s abandonment keen. From my Christian faith, I take comfort in observing that Jesus too, in his loneliest and most bitter hour, echoed another Psalm as he cried in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[1] That moment of human agony, transformed by a divine spirit of compassion and forgiveness, shows me the redemptive power of love. I can affirm that the grace of God, often working in and through the caring of others, enables us to endure and, if we are willing, to grow spiritually through suffering; to find, even amid suffering, a “peace that passes understanding.”[2]

Although the second part of the Psalmist’s statement sounds negative, I can read a more positive meaning; one that is deeper and parallel to my own belief.  He is saying that no “good” would come out of any human if it were not for the grace and mercy of God, and it is this trust in God that brought back his faith in others eventually. Personally, I take comfort in the words “for God is with those who patiently persevere,” which are repeated several times in the Quran. This notion is echoed in many of the sayings of the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon him], including “acknowledge God in ease and He will acknowledge you in distress.”[3]

[1] Psalms 22:1
[2] Philippians 4:7
[3] Imam an-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith, Chapter 1, No. 19

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Raising Our "God Consciousness"

“Verily, God orders justice and kindness (Ihsan), and giving [help] to the relatives, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and evil and tyranny. He admonishes you, so that perhaps you may take heed.” 
(al-Nahl 16:90)
This Quranic verse is used to close the sermon each Friday in almost every Mosque around the world; it is a command that serves as guidance in daily affairs. Unfortunately, the words sometimes lose their meaning in translation, especially the word Ihsan, which is often translated as “kindness.”  In a Hadith, the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon him] defines Ihsan as “to worship God as if you are seeing Him, and although you do not see Him, He sees you.”[1] Ihsan is the force that helps Muslims strive for excellence in character and moral values, and this verse is a reminder that God looks into our minds and hearts every second of the day.  It leads to my “God consciousness” in thoughts, words and actions, and helps me remember that truthfulness in action is only achieved when an awareness of God permeates all of my senses.

Reading Yasmina’s reflection, I thought about rabbis who end each Sabbath service with a “closing benediction.” This practice is now considered outdated by many, but was fairly standard in the synagogues of my youth.  The closing benediction was often an opportunity for the rabbi to summarize the sermon and to remind the community to live by its message in the coming week. As I grow older, I can better appreciate the appeal of a ritual in which religious leaders offer guidance to the community and establish clear expectations for daily behavior.  In Jewish liturgy, there is an ancient meditation that individuals may add to conclude their personal prayers in the Amidah: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.”[2]  Perhaps this would be a fitting conclusion to any sermon; a reminder to both listeners and speakers that God is present in our lives and attentive to our words and actions. 

I am stirred by Yasmina’s emphasis on “God consciousness” in the exhortation all Muslims hear weekly.  The sheer variety of Christian denominations means that the experience of a living God is likely to be evoked for Christians in many different ways.  Benedictions that conclude Christian worship are expressed as blessings. Some churches also include a dismissal or sending forth which is reminiscent of al-Nahl 16:90, calling upon worshipers to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.”[3] Quoting the Hebrew prophet Micah, Christians also affirm the need for hearts that are attuned to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[4] Interestingly, it is an opening prayer in my own tradition that lifts me most powerfully to God consciousness: “Almighty God…from whom no secrets are hid…cleanse the thoughts of our hearts […that] we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.”

[1] Riyad-us-Saliheen by Imam an-Nawawi, Hadith 60
[2] Psalms 19:15
[3] James 1:22
[4] Micah 6:8

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

God is Love

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God...for God is love.” 
(I John 4:7-8)

A familiar children’s song in Christian Sunday School repeats “God is Love; God is Love,” echoing a verse from the first of three Johannine letters in the Christian Bible. In this text, an elder addresses both youth and adults of the community with the affectionate greeting “my little children.” Yet the writer uses a Greek word for love that goes far beyond affection: not eros (sensate love), nor even filios (love of friend or kin), but agape, sacrificial love grounded in action rather than feeling. Agape extends compassion, forgiveness, and mercy even towards an enemy. It is the divine love that Christians see manifest in Jesus, and that, in my mind, enables human beings to see God in one another.

In Islam, loving God is incomplete if it is not coupled with doing what pleases Him. All the prophets displayed examples of how to put this love into action. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], whose life was recorded in extensive detail, once said: “The most beloved of you to God are the ones who are best to His creatures.” Honorable qualities such as compassion, forgiveness, generosity, caring and mercy are to be applied towards all God’s creatures as clear signs of our love for Him. Individuals who possess these qualities can lead others to remember, praise and glorify God. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], offered the following supplication,[1] which was attributed to David [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]: “O Lord, grant me the love of Thee; grant me the love of those that love Thee; grant that I may do the deed that wins Thy love; make Thy love dearer to me than self, family and cold water.”

Reading Grace’s words and Yasmina’s response, I am immediately struck by the extent to which all three of us feel connected to God’s love.  It is this shared belief that serves as a foundation for our friendship, as well as for our faith.  Jews teach that God’s love for all of creation is at the core of God’s compassion for all creatures.  This love is best expressed in the Jewish liturgy in a prayer known as “Ashrei,” which is often led by school children and is also attributed to King David: “God is good to all; God’s compassion extends over all creatures.”[2] When I hear the psalmist’s words sung aloud, I am filled with a yearning to embody such pure generosity of spirit.  I am inspired to imitate God’s love—to find a way to be good by behaving toward others with compassion and kindness.

[1] From the Hadith, in the book Sunan at-Tirmidhi.
[2] Psalms 145:9

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Beginning

“And God said, ‘Let us make a human in our image, according to our likeness….’”
(Genesis 1:26)
From an early age, children begin to ask “why” to try to make sense of the world around them.  Similarly, this verse inspires me to ask “why is God speaking in the first person plural?” According to rabbinic legend, God is addressing a heavenly court of angels, consulting with them about whether the time to create humanity has arrived.  I love the image of God—almighty and above all creatures—asking permission to complete the work of creation.  According to Rashi’s commentary,[1] “the text teaches courtesy and humility; the greater person should consult and ask permission from the lesser person.”  This lesson resonates for me: When we share in the process of decision-making and treat each other with courtesy and respect, we elevate our daily interactions to acts of holiness. 

I take delight in the rabbinic legend that Tziporah recounts.  This verse also raises a question for me: Just how do human beings bear the image of God?  If we do not view as literal the anthropomorphic images of God popularized in Western art, how do we see our spirits as bearing the imprint of God’s DNA?  In what is often referred to as Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” Jesus prayed, “…that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me.”[2]  Do we have the potential to be in God and to see God in every human being? Definitely.  Is this a Divine calling?  I think so.

Indeed, humility and courtesy are virtues that elevate the human rapport, and the idea of consultation[3] is innate to Islamic decision making.  However, Islam teaches that God is All Wise and All Knowing and therefore does not seek council from anyone. One Quranic account of the creation of man reads: “Behold! Thy Lord said to the angels: I am about to create man, from sounding clay from mud molded into shape; when I have fashioned him in due proportion and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance to him.” (15:29-30) God honors Adam by mentioning him to the angels before creating him and by commanding the angels to prostrate to him. Although different from the rabbinic legend, this narration leads to the same lesson of humility. If the heavenly court was commanded to honor Adam, are we not—as sons of Adam—commanded to honor each other and all God’s creatures?  Undoubtedly, acting with humility is one of the ways we honor God.

[1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) lived in France (1040-1105).
[2] John 17: 22-23. This prayer offers Christians one way of understanding the plural use of “our” when referring to the one God.
[3] This concept is known as shura in Arabic.