I recently attended an Iftar dinner at my synagogue, along with members of a Turkish Muslim interfaith institute. My rabbi gave a speech about how the Jewish and Islamic traditions understand the reasoning behind the dietary laws and their relation to fasting, as both a spiritual exercise and a mark of distinctiveness and separation from the surrounding culture(s). One of the representatives from the Turkish group showed a video detailing what Ramadan is, how it is practiced and their efforts to conduct outreach through this types of dinners and meetings. They also had magazines from the institute dealing with what Ramadan is, as well as a magazine covering various topics in contemporary Muslim thought from the viewpoint of Fethullah Gülen and others.
The discussions at my table were mainly about the similarities between the dietary restrictions in both traditions as well as how to recognize kosher and halal items in the marketplace. We discussed the various symbols and different levels of kosher certification to help our Muslim friends follow halal through the purchase of kosher foods. I personally have always found it interesting how close the two systems are, and what that says about the shared understanding of what it means to be disciplined in terms of consumption. I think it is quite a powerful statement that Muslims follow halal by using kosher foods in that it shows a very deep interfaith connection simply by what one purchases.
The rabbi mentioned in his speech that the consumption of meat was permitted only as recognition that humanity has a weakness, but that the highest ideal is vegetarianism as it does not cause pain or suffering to animals. The commandment to avoid causing pain to animals as they are also creations shows that people are meant to be conscious about how daily life is conducted. While not everyone can be or wants to be a vegetarian, recognizing that it may be a failure to live up this ideal illustrates that we are concerned with the welfare of the animals with whom we share the world.
The discussion also covered the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic, the reasoning behind the number of daily prayers in both traditions, as well as stories about when various family members came to America. These kind of connections are very important as they are very simple actions that help break down possible barriers by showing that both groups are very similar. I found it very interesting how similar some of the stories are and how many of the Turkish attendees had come for educational or business reasons, like many of the Jewish people from various parts of Europe had done earlier in history.
Simple actions like these dinners show that the two traditions are very similar which is known in theory but people from both groups may not know the details of exactly what the connections are. Showing what these connections are can help to build bridges at the level of the laypeople, rather than the clergy. Sometimes I feel that these discussions do not always involve the laypeople as much as they should and I was very grateful to be able to attend.
Both traditions feature fasting, a way to not only discipline the body but also as a way to focus one’s thoughts on God. Ramadan, like Yom Kippur, is a time to ask forgiveness for wrongs committed against others. I was not aware of this until the discussion, which I found illuminating as it showed me another area of closeness between the two traditions. Especially in this time of divisive political rhetoric and other efforts to create distance between groups and individuals, trying to deepen connections is extremely important. Another aspect of Ramadan I appreciated was that one is supposed to consume dates, as this was what the Prophet Muhammad broke his fast with. Following his example is of course at the heart of many of the traditions and actions in Islam, just as in Judaism one is supposed to follow the examples of the Patriarchs as well as the many illustrious rabbinical figures throughout Jewish history.
Events such as these, as important as they are, should not be the only instance of interfaith engagement between followers of the two traditions during the year. The more interpersonal connections can be created, the more misconceptions or suspicions can be broken down and replaced with recognition of the many similarities. There are many other opportunities during the year for engagement, and I look forward to attending other joint events and deepening my knowledge of the lived experiences of both traditions.
Image Source: ccarlstead via Wikimedia Commons