Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When We Don't Eat

"And when you fast, do not look dismal...anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
(The Gospel of Matthew 6:16-18)
Fasting, specifically as an act of piety, is not commanded in Christian scriptures. However, Christians who observe periods of fasting do so because they find that fasting, together with prayer, is a private and deeply spiritual practice that draws one’s heart closer to God. The liturgical season of Lent[1] is a time when many Christians observe a partial fast, abstaining from certain foods, such as sweets and/or meat. Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday often involves abstinence from both food and drink for a period of 24 hours. Any time of spiritual struggle is an occasion for fasting; Christians are reminded that fasting is not simply about self-denial, but about heightened awareness of all who suffer.

I am moved by your spiritual practice of fasting, Grace, and intrigued by the text you have chosen from The Gospel of Matthew.  I had always understood these verses as part of a Jesus’ teachings about practical piety which emphasize private rituals.  Since the Torah[2] doesn’t specify how we are to “afflict our souls” on the tenth day of the seventh month, the rabbis[3] instituted rituals for Yom Kippur, including prohibitions against eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, bathing and anointing with oil, and sexual relations.  In this context, I had understood Jesus’ teachings—particularly the instructions “anoint your head and wash your face”—to be a reaction against the rabbis’ public piety. Incidentally, the rabbis themselves often railed against overt piousness, which they viewed as arrogance.  They considered fasting to be a form of repentance and added numerous public fasts to the calendar to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. They also prescribed communal fasts during times of drought to petition God, in His mercy, to send rain in its appropriate season.

Fasting is a central part of the Islamic tradition and one that I hold dear. One of the five pillars of Islam, fasting is prescribed during the month of Ramadan, the 9th lunar month.[4]  Similar to the Christian and Jewish traditions, the abstinence from food, drink, smoking and marital relations has many purposes in Islam. Fasting is one way to attain a heightened sense of God consciousness, by giving the “self” an opportunity to rise above its desires and allowing the soul to attain the virtues that adorn the righteous.  Some common practices that are encouraged during this month are giving to charity, strengthening family and friendship ties, intense reflection and repentance, and nightly prayers and reading of the Quran. Ramadan elevates my awareness of the mind’s power to fight temptation and helps me establish good habits.  I feel a profound sense of spiritual revitalization, as my gratitude, compassion and, most of all, humility are heightened when I fast.

[1] Lent is a 40-day period of reflection and penance, which begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Easter. Good Friday, the Friday prior to Easter when Christians commemorate the death of Jesus, is a day of atonement.
[2] Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7
[3] Mishnah Yoma, Chapter 10
[4] Quran, al-Baqarah 2:183-185

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What We Eat

“He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated for other than God. But whoever is forced by necessity, neither desiring [it], nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed God is Forgiving and Merciful.”
(al-Baqarah 2:173)
Islam teaches that the body and the intellect are, amongst other things, an amana or trust. Therefore, any law regarding them is meant to preserve and protect this trust.  As a result, Islamic dietary law prohibits intoxicants, smoking and specific categories of animals. Based on other verses and the Sunnah,[1] the list of animals includes carnivores, swine, reptiles, birds of prey, pests and insects, due to the nature of their diet and metabolism.  As a confirmation that life is sacred and that the only reason the animal is being killed is to fulfill one’s need for food, all animals deemed lawful are slaughtered in a humane fashion. The phrase “In the name of God, God is greater” is recited during the process.  Consequently, a Muslim may not eat from a carcass, an animal that has died from strangulation, blow or fall, or an animal that has been sacrificed for an idol. Living by these rules nurtures my spiritual and physical well-being, and raises my awareness of the many trusts I have been given.

There are many similarities between the Muslim dietary laws and Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws: humane slaughter accompanied by the recitation of a blessing by a trained ritual slaughterer, forbidden animals such as swine, birds of prey and carcasses of wild animals. The basic difference may be the inherent assumption that dietary laws are related to maintaining a healthy body.  While some Jews have interpreted the laws of Kashrut in this manner, I see them as part of an altogether different rubric of laws.  The lists of permitted and forbidden animals in the Torah,[2] as well as the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk,[3] are classified by the rabbis as hukkim, statutes, for which the only explanation given is “I am the Lord your God.”  The underlying reason for observing Kashrut, then, is simply to follow God’s mitzvot, commandments.  The physical act of eating at once elevates the spirit to a state of holiness and humbles the body to a state of submission before the Holy One.

I so appreciate the fervor with which both of you observe the dietary laws of your faiths, and I can only hope that you will not be offended by my own practice, which is to “eat darn near anything.” I use this colloquial expression to acknowledge—with humor, not sacrilege—our differences. Christians interpret the creation story of Genesis 1 to mean that all plants and animals are given to us as God’s good gifts, without restriction. Yet, we also acknowledge that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor 6:19-20) The wholesome nurture of our bodies demands that we are mindful of what we take into ourselves [4] and cautious about creating stumbling blocks for others.  Recently, I was preparing a dinner for the three of us and found myself struggling to know fully how to “keep Kosher.” I fear that I may have unintentionally violated an especially important prohibition for you, Tziporah. How deeply grateful I am, then, for the spirit of hesed (kindness) that allowed both of you to sit at the table with me.

[1] Sunnah refers to the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him], found in the Hadith and other texts.
[2] See Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14
[3] Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21
[4] Christian denominations differ in their positions on alcohol. While Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches generally permit consumption of alcoholic beverages, Mormons abstain from both caffeine and alcohol.  Seventh Day Adventists—who run excellent heart hospitals in this country—recommend adherence to a vegetarian diet, which is believed to be more easily digestible and thereby protective of the human body. For personal health reasons—not religious mandate—I eat meat, chicken and fish, limit my consumption of bread and abstain from alcohol.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Angels All Around Me

In the name of Adonai, God of Israel, to my right is Michael, and to my left is Gabriel; before me is Uriel and behind me is Raphael; and above my head is the Shekhinah, God's presence.


Yasmina, when we were speaking last week you mentioned angels and I haven't been able to stop thinking about them!  In discussing the need to praise God very day, you said, "When a person is absorbed with her daily routines, an angel comes to remind her to remember God.” And I had this image of an angel tapping me on the shoulder! I love that Muslims understand the sudden occurrence of a thought into one’s head or heart as an encounter with an angel.  Often, Jews resist discussing the presence of angels in the world, claiming that angels are Christian, when in fact Jewish literature and liturgy is filled with mentions of angels.  I sing “The Angel Song” (arranged by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach) every night to my son before he goes to sleep. Each of the angels mentioned in the song plays a specific role in protecting humans in the world. It comforts me to think that God sends us angels to help us in our times of need and to remind us that God is present in our daily lives.  

Similar to the nightly song of angels that you sing to your son, Tziporah, is the bedtime blessing in my family: “May all God’s holy angels watch over you as you sleep.” While the Christian gospels recount significant appearances by angels as God’s messengers or as heralds of good news, the concept of a Guardian Angel from Catholic Christianity is not universally shared among non-Catholics. Even so, the motif of supernatural angel with wings and halo is pervasive in Christian art, iconography and verse.  While these images abound in art and artifact, deeply ingrained in Christian teaching is this verse from Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb 13:2) Thus, angels may also be viewed as spiritual beings who take embodied form. I wonder if it is this teaching that gives rise to a popular exclamation expressed toward someone who has demonstrated a deep kindness, “You are an angel!”

Yes, the thought of angels protecting, helping and recording our deeds is inherent to Islamic teachings and gives me ample room for contemplation about the unseen world. Coincidentally, reciting the verse known as the “Verse of the Throne”[1] grants a Muslim a peaceful night-watch from an angel. One of my favorite Hadiths about angels that relates to the remembrance of God is: “When any group of men remembers God, angels surround them and mercy covers them, tranquility descends upon them, and God mentions them to those who are with Him.”[2] What a humbling and wondrous thing it is to be the subject of God’s mention! To me, this is a magnificently gentle and loving sign of generosity from my Lord.

[1] Ayatul Qursi 2:255
[2] from Fiqh-us-Sunnah by Sayyid Saabiq, Vol. 4, p.102