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.