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.