Monday, July 21, 1997

Get Thee to a Nunnery

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

Last month I spent a week with 140 women.

My wife approved.
Last month I confronted one of the greatest challenges -- and honors -- of my life. I had been asked several years earlier (obviously not knowing at the time that I would be silmultaneously preparing to move) to serve as the Scholar-in-Residence for a community of Benedictine Sisters at Mt. Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie.
Now, I knew something of this community. Personally and professionally, they hold great interest to me. The only person in Erie, Pennsylvania that my parents knew when I announced that I was moving from Boca Raton to this snowy Great Lake city was a member of this community, the former prioress, acclaimed author and internationally revered (and reviled) activist, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. My parents had met her, and been impressed by her, during a trip to the former Soviet Union. They said she was amongst the most impressive women they had ever met -- passionate, articulate, forceful, a clear thinker with a shining moral vision and a relentless albeit compassionate voice arguing for the world the way it should be. That was my parents' impression. Personally, I think they understated the description.
Sister Joan -- and through her the Benedictine community here -- greeted me with great warmth on my arrival in Erie. And at the same time, she opened my eyes.
Before I knew her, I had not met many nuns. Certainly not many nuns who would appear on 60 Minutes in favor of ordaining women as priests. As I came to know the community, watching their activism both on the world scale (the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi is headquartered here in Erie) and locally (the east side of Erie has only survived -- to the degree that it has -- because of the dedicated work of inner city volunteers drawn very heavily from these same Benedictines), my appreciation for the diversity of modern American Catholicism deepened greatly.

Now I know that they have their Commentary (by which I mean magazines espousing the most conservative positions one might expect) -- but they also have their Tikkun (a liberal Jewish response to Commentary -- the Catholic liberal equivalent is called Commonweal). Now I know that they have their Lubavitcher rebbe equivalents -- learned, scholarly, gentle souls busy revitalizing the Old Time Religion. But they also have their David Sapersteins -- fiery prophetic voices whose passion is heard... on the liberal side of the scale.
None of what I learned prepared me to spend a week amongst the community.

Well, it wasn't a full week. We began with the sisters coming to us. For the retreat began on Erev Shavuot. And at the morning festival service for Shavuot last month, Temple Anshe Hesed of Erie had approximately thirty congregants at services -- and 120 Benedictine sisters. It was an interesting opening.
But what I was least prepared for, I believe, was an intense encounter for almost a full week with people living out their ideals. What did it remind me of? It reminded me of a kibbutz. (A kibbutz without... well, never mind.)
The theme of the week was: "Tzedakah: The Role of the Individual in Creation." To tie these themes together, we dealt with Midrash, with Creation stories, with Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism, with the relationship between autonomy of the individual and the authority of the tradition (a very interesting discussion to have with left-wing Catholics; try it some time, if you can find any left-wing Catholics nearby who are willing to talk), and the highest goal of tzedakah as being our obligation to build a better world. On an intellectual level, it was a wonderful exchange.
But it was more than that. Our disagreements were revealing, as well. I have always been schizophrenic on the subject of Israel. If I am among a group of committed Jews, Zionists whom I know love and care about our land, I am quite left wing myself. But if I am unsure of the group, if I do not know how deep runs their commitment to the safety and security of Israel as a Jewish state, I express myself quite differently. And with these nuns, whom I already knew to be committed to every peace process in the planet, I tacked hard to the right. Just so they knew how important Israel is to us.
But then we read the news. It was the week of the McVeigh verdict. And we began a discussion about capital punishment.

Their position was absolute. And clear. And unequivocal. Most of the women who spoke out were opposed to capital punishment under all circumstances. ALL circumstances. Even Eichman? I asked. Even Eichman.

It was in that discussion that everything flowed together for me, the vision of the beauty of the community in which I was a guest, the depth to which these women lived so many moments of their lives in accordance with the highest ideals of their prayers, their visions, their ongoing discussions. It was like late night college discussions, only carried out throughout one's life. It was, as I said, like the ideal vision I had of like on an ideologically dedicated kibbutz.

It was wonderful. It was beautiful. I loved it. It was not for me.

Okay, so I am not Catholic. And I am not female. Aside from those obvious differences, however, the intenseness of the spiritual setting, the closeness of the communtiy were things I value a great deal. The learning and discussion we shared together we amongst the most precious moments in my life.

But something about the Eichman discussion bothered me. I am not sure exactly what it was. Perhaps it is this: I am not sure what happened to my ideological purity and certainty. I am not sure what happened to my easy absolutes. I am not sure I live up to the best inside me often enough.

Once I was a pacifist. But Israel needs an army.

I am opposed to capital punsihment. Except when I am not.

There is no way to peace; peace is the way. Except against Nazis.

Think globally, act locally. But Wal-Mart has the cheapest baby formula.

I spent a week amongst women who appear to lead completely consistent lives. It is a compelling model. But it is not something I am easily able to achieve.

I spent a week with 140 women. I had a great time. I learned a lot. I was enriched, refreshed, renewed.

And then I came home. To my wife. And my son.

There are many different ways of serving the One God. And I am glad.
Shalom and Salaam: Judaism and Islam

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

The desert sun beats down upon the tent. A man takes one look back inside, into the darkness that he can feel even inside his heart. But he stands, and he stretches, and he wipes his eyes. For there is something that remains to be done. Something important.

The man had been a wanderer, a journeyman, going from place to place throughout his life. But the time had come to find something permanent, to buy a place that would always be his -- beyond dispute. He needed to find a place, and stake a claim, and fix his name to that place forever. For his wandering days were done. It was time to bury his wife.

And Abraham approached the inhabitants of the land. And he bowed low. And he knew their customs, and spoke their language.

A real stranger would have missed the nuances and the hidden offers. But Abraham did not. For even though he was different from the people around him, he had taken the time to come to know them. They were not strangers to one another. Different, yes. But in celebrations and in crisis, they came to stand together... they shared together... as neighbors, and as friends.

And he bought the cave, of Machpelah, the site found today in the modern West Bank city of Hebron. But his wish was not fulfilled. For Abraham's children have not continued to stand together. They have not taken the time to break bread and share fully and know the nuances of each others' lives. And the cave, the burial site so carefully purchased by Abraham, meant to be his for all time, unchallenged... even that site is in dispute.

But there is more to tell, more even that this very Torah portion can teach us. For time passed. And Abraham remarried. The Torah calls his new wife Keturah.

But the ancient rabbis were deeply disturbed whenever the Torah only mentions a person once. They assumed that, like Jacob who became Israel, a person could have more than one name. You have a character with a cameo appearance -- well, whenever they could do it, Biblical economy required these ancient rabbis to identify the single mention of one name... with a character who has more familiar.

And so, who was this Keturah, this woman whom Abraham married after Sarah's death? Why, what other woman was there in Abraham's life? Who was the woman who, thrust upon him by Sarah so that at least he might have some children, he was later forced to send away, when Sarah gave birth to Isaac? Who was it who tradition said Abraham snuck out on Thursday afternoons, to visit in the desert, to whom -- while he remained devoted to Sarah -- he nevertheless had also come to love? The only other woman we know about in Abraham's life besides Sarah... was Hagar. And so, the rabbis say, Keturah... this must be Hagar. Hagar, to whom Abraham returned after Sarah's death, Hagar, destined to be the mother of a nation of her own.

For the most part, we Jews understand very little of the nation that came from Abraham and Hagar, from the faith that calls Ishmael its ancestor. From the 1950's on, it was common in this country to refer to the three great faiths, as in the name of a popular book of that era, by the term Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

But by the year 2010, if it is not already (it depends upon who does the counting) Islam will be the second largest religion in the United States, not Judaism. But, even beyond the self-interest of demography, is the self-knowledge that will come from the dialog. Because, as I said last week, there are some ways in which Islam and Judaism -- especially traditional Judaism -- have far more in common with each other... than either religion does with Christianity.

Islam seems to many Jews to be strange and exotic, different -- if not, indeed, dangerous. Even the meaning of the word Islam is distant to Jewish ears, for Islam means "submission;" a Muslim is "one who submits" to the will of Allah. We are so accustomed to discussing rights rather than responsibilities that the concept implied in this surrender seems foreign indeed.

But our faiths are not so far apart as it may seem at first.

First clue to our closeness comes from language. We can see the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic -- or hear them -- with the word "kippah," the proper Hebrew term for the Yiddish "yarmulke." In Arabic, a headress is called a "kefiyah." To one who remembers that, in all semitic languages, the "p" and the "f" are the same letter, one will rightly see the same word.

When my wife and I were in Egypt (it was many years ago, actually, and we hadn't even started dating yet'; we travelled together, "just friends." How's that for hope for all the forlorn souls who have had to hear that line.) we did not know Arabic. But the languages were so close, especially in the areas of food, and directions, that we were actually able to get around a bit on broken Hebrew.

But for deeper similarities, we must turn to history.

Like Judaism, Islam was founded by a prophet, not a Messiah. Muhammed -- like Abraham -- was a patriarchal figure, a desert leader. Like Moses he was a charismatic and political leader as well.

In the sixth and early seventh centuries, the Arabs in the Saudi penninsula were pagans... worshipping the moon, sun, ancestors. In the northwest corner of the penninsula, a group called the Beth El cult used Kabaa (cube), stones placed on their sides. They had 360 idols (one for each day of the lunar year) surrounded large black meteoric kabaa. Another tribe in the area worshipped an ancient tribal God Allah (the equivalent of 'El in Hebrew, and Allaha - "divinity" in Aramaic).

The prophet Muhammad was born in 570 CE to a poor Arabic family. His father died a few days before his birth; his mother died when he was six. His grandfather who raised him after his mother's death died when he was nine. Muhammed eventually became a caravan trader. At 25, he married a 40 year old widow.

In the year 610, in the month of Ramadan, on what Muslims would later come to call the "Night of Power," Muhammed began a new career. He began to preach. Like Abraham, his first convert was his wife, then his 1st cousin Ali (who would later become the fourth caliph).

The next people to follow him were a Christian slave boy, and a single wealthy merchant. Most of his early followers were young and either poor or slaves -- and after three years he had only forty followers.

Muhammed became involved in local politics in the city of Mecca, but ran into trouble, and, in the year 622, fled from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, a city later called medinat-un-nabi (city of the prophet), or, simply "Medinah." Muhammed's flight on July 16, 622 is considered by Muslims to be a turning point in world history. The prophet was invited by 75 elders of Yathrib to help with their problems there, and he developed the covenant of Medinah -- which included a provision for the protection of the Jews there.

The covenant said: "the bond of God being one, and the believers being bonded in brotherhood to one another in contradistinction to other men, any protection given by the least of them shall be honored by all." These words would later come to be known as the Shahada - the Muslim confession of faith, parallel in some ways to the Jewish Shema.

By 630, Muhammed's followers had increased in numbers, fought numerous battles, and, finally, returned to Mecca. This trip would later be echoed by millions of Muslim pilgrims following in its footsteps, on a journey towards Mecca knows as the Hajj. At this time, the concept of Holy war (jihad) developed: it is important, however, to note that jihad is based on one verse of the Quran, the verse of the sword, which is in distinction to 124 other verses which stress peace and tolerance toward non-Muslims.

Within a single year of Muhammed's return to Mecca, ALL the Arabs in the Saudi penninsula had converted to Islam -- either by choice or under duress. Within a single century, Islam was the dominant religion of Egypt, Armenia, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Iraq, Central Asia, Spain, and parts of France. The explosive growth of Islam only came to an end in the year 732,at the battle of Tours, in France. It was one of the most important battles in all of world history. Like the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks at Marathon, had that battle gone the other way, all the world would be different, and our concepts of East and West would have been turned upside down.

Just as there are differences among different groups of Jews, there exist vastly different groups of Muslims. In all of the monotheistic religions, following the death of the founder figure there is, for a time, a succession struggle for the mantle of the legacy of the leader between the blood relatives of the founder and the spiritual disciples. Only in Christianity was this struggle compelely resolved in favor of one side. In Christianity, the Jerusalem church -- which was totally defeated in the end -- was led by James, the brother of Jesus. In Judaism, different tasks developed, some for the family of Moses (through the descendants of his brother Aaron), and some for the chosen leaders, from Joshua on down.
In Islam, as well, we have surviving After the prophet's death, Islam was led by Caliphs, elected to power. Ali (Muhammed's nephew) was the fourth Caliph. But after his death (he was murdered), Islam essentially split into two groups. The vast majority of Muslims (80%) are Sunni Muslims, followers of the dynastic succession of the caliphate. Sunni Muslim leaders developed a tradition of cooperation and consensus decision making.

The next largest group, consisting of almost all other Muslims (18%) are Shi'ite. They are followers of Ali, who was eventually killed by a member of the Ummayid dynasty of Sunni Muslims. The Shi'ite branch of Islam was tinged with a sense of rejection and bitterness from the outset, beginning with the murder of Ali. To this day, Shi'ite practice is marked by devotion to an infallible imam -- a single strong leader. Among the Shi'ite Muslims is often a sense of revolt against the establishment.

There are other groups of Muslims as well: Wahhabis, Amidiyya, Sufis. The Bahai, now a separate religion, are in part a 19th century offshoot of the Sufi Muslims, the most mystical branch of Islam.
The central document of Islam is, of course, the Koran. The work is presented as a dialogue between Allah and unbelievers. It contains a restatement of the revelations of both Judaism and Christianity, seeing Jews as the original chosen people, who lost that status (much as we were viewed later by Luther), and viewing Jesus as a prophet but not son of God. The Koran is divided into 114 sections, called suras, traditionally arranged not by chronology but by size. Like Judaism, the Koran is interpreted through commentators and exegisis... in fact, that style is of interpretation is essentially Muslim in origin.

Different approaches to the Koran exist bewtween different groups of Muslims. The Sunni approach tends to be more straightforward and exegetical, akin to the Jewish tradition called peshat (the contextual method), establishing customs with human intelligence based on the Koran and the traditions of the practices of the prophet. The approach of law plus custom also resembles the Jewish practice of halacha (Jewish law) plus minhag (custom).

The Shi'ite approach to the Koran tends to be more allegorical, more focused on ultimate meaning, and personal interpretations, with independent reasoning and original thinking held as secrets possessed by only a few. This compares more closely with the Jewish approaches known as Derash (the interperative method, from which Midrash emerges) and Sod (the secret, mystical tradition of the Kabbalah).
Allah is presented in Islam as an absolute unity. This is an explicit rejection of the Christian trinity -- "They are unbelievers who say God is the Third of Three. No God is there but One." No animal or human depictions are allowed in Islam, as these are considered a form of idolatry. This, too, partly parallels Jewish practice. Islamic art and science focused on geometry, math and astronomy.

Muslim religious life centers on a prayer, similar to the Shema, called the Shahada , emphasizing that Allah alone is the one and only God, and Muhammad is truest and greatest prophet. Also similar to Judaism, the repetition of this declaration of faith effectuates ones' conversion to Islam. Muslim practice prohibits lying, stealing, gambling, usury, pork, murder, and promotes honor of parents, kindness to slaves, protection of orphan and widow, charity, faith, patience, honesty. As in Orthodox Judaism, the role of women is quite different from that of men: women may not testify in courts. Men may marry out of the faith (as, for example, did King Hussien, whose wife then converted), but women may not. More similar to Christianity, Muslims view this life as a testing ground, and death a gate to the eternal life. The Jewish image of a record book of all our deeds also appears in Islam.

Again, in great similarity to Orthodox Judaism, Muslim religious practice is divided into distinct categories of obligations. As in Judaism we speak of actions which are chayav (required), mutar (permitted) and assur (forbidden), so, too, in Islam there are obligatory, desirable, permitted, discouraged and forbidden actions. Obligations include the salat -- the act of worshipping five times a day. (On this point it seems a contrast with the Jewish obligation to pray three times a day... until one considers that in our prayer services there are two recitations of the Shema --morning and evening -- and three of the Amida -- morning, afternoon and evening, which adds up to five major prayer units during the day.)

Traditional Jewish society is organized around halacha (law); Muslims have a similar concept -- the shariah, a functioning system of divinely ordained laws, which yield a whole social structure, covering all areas of life, religious, social, political, secular and moral. The shariah, like halacha, is viewed as Divinely commanded, and mediated by tradition (again, similar to our notions of written and oral law.) And, again in similarity to Judaism, Islamic practice is an expression of both iman (faith) and din (religious practice). These words are even similar to the Jewish equivalents (emuna means faith; din means law).

There are five pillars of Muslim faith. They are:

1) iman-faith... solemn repetition of shahada

2) Salat - prayer five times a day. (Like in Judaism, any knowledgeable believer may lead the service) Muslims at prayer face Mecca, with a mihrab, a niche in the mosque, indicating the direction to turn... much as Jews have a mizrach, a painting or other object indicating the direction of Jerusalem. Friday is the Day of Assembly-- with two sermons at midday prayer. Festivals follow the strictly lunar calendar, not a lunar calendar with solar adjustments, as in our tradition. This means that Ramadan, for example, is sometimes in January, and sometimes in July.

3) Sawm -- fasting (comparable to the Hebrew term "tzom," which means the same thing): the obligation to fast during the month of Ramadan, which celebrates the revelation of the Koran.

4) Zakat (comparable to the Jewish tzedakah) -charity: the requirement to give alms to support the poor.

5) Hajj- the obligation of each Muslim, at least once in a lifetime, to travel to Mecca. This practice unifies Islam; the hajj involves forgiveness of sins, and carries with it a promise of salvation.
Why are there so many similarities between Judaism and Islam? The answer, partly, is that Muhammed was exposed to and interested in Jewish tradition. He was close to the Jewish community during the time he spent in Medina. The folklore, the fables, the Biblical stories told in Islamic circles come through a Jewish filter, and are tinged not with Christian interpretations, but Jewish ones. As we can see from the above, however, the very closeness of Hebrew and Arabic as languages implies a certain commonality of concepts that manifests itself as similarities in our traditions.

But the influence has been mutual. Some of the most important works of Jewish history, the philosophy of Saadia Gaon, the code of Maimonides' code, the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and others, depend in great measure on a knowledge of contemporary Muslim thought.

And Judaism shares with Islam the idea that are religions give us more than prayers. They provide us with a structure, a framework, a way of life that touches on every aspect of life. This may be the most profound similarity of them all.

And we are linked as relatives, as cousins even in the stories that both of us tell. Have we not one father? Are we not both the children of Abraham? To Muslims, Abraham was the founder of Kabaa (stones) now placed at the center of every mosque; most significantly, he was the first to profess monotheism.
At the very end of his journeys, at the ripe old age of 175, Abraham, too, is gathered unto his ancestors. And as far apart as they had drifted, as far apart as history and destiny had thrust them, the two who had been playmates, the two who shared his blood came together again. Imagine the scene! Awkward at first. It had been so many years. How are you, my brother? How has life treated you? Look, we have this last task to do, this duty to our father. It is a poignant moment. But they did come together at last, to bury the past and plan for the future, Sarah's son and Hagar's son, the children of Abraham: Isaac... and Ishmael. Judaism... and Islam.

We say Shalom Aleichem.

They say Salaam Aleikem.

May we both find peace with each other...

speedily and in our day...

for yesterday would not be too soon.
Correspondence with a Reader

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

When I moved to Erie, I was consistently warned: be careful what you say to people. The town is so intertwined that surely if you comment on person A to person B, you will have no idea that A and B are related to one another.

Perhaps the Internet works the same way. Perhaps, in a larger sense, it is proving that we are all related. At the very least, it allows people who otherwise might never have met to hear -- and learn -- a great deal about each other.

Several months ago, I wrote the following words in this column:

"Item: In Muslim countries throughout the world, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the grisly ancient practice of female circumcision continues almost unabated despite laws banning it in many countries, with its practitioners solidly certain that destroying all women's ability to enjoy sexual intimacy is the key to reining in the wanton, libidinous passion of the flesh, and preserving fidelity in the home."

I must confess that I never expected a response from a Muslim reader. But, friends, I got one. A request, politely worded for the most part (except at the very end), for proof. And for clarification.

Here were the comments: I came from one the largest Muslim country in terms of population, and have travel parts of the Muslim world. As far as I have studied and observed, Female circumscision is pre-Islamic practice, which still exists in parts of Africa in the Muslim country Sudan. 

(a) Can the Rabbi provide evidence if he is correct? (b) Would he correct himself and his column as obviously he is wrong? (c) Or is it his intention to misinform people and slander the Muslims?

My response, in part, read as follows:

Dear XXX: I will certainly respond to your concerns in an upcoming column.

I was basing my statement on a source I have since misplaced (although it did concentrate rather heavily on Sudan, if I recall, and so the source itself may have painted an inbalanced picture.) If I further recall correctly, my source said that there were laws on the books against this practice in many countries, but that this practice was common in the countryside, and the laws are absolutely not enforced. As I said, I am not sure where I was reading this from (I think it was a feature in the Sunday New York Times magazine section, and therefore I no longer have it.) Anyway, I will clarify this, and I apologize for overgeneralizing in a way in which I should have known better.

I will a) try to find the source, b) indicate that I am NOT in a personal position to verify the accuracy of the source and c) indicate as strongly as possible that I meant no slander, and will retract any words that I cannot prove.

Having personally attended this country's first ever national Muslim -Jewish Convocation in Chicago several years ago, cooperation between our two faiths is something I believe in strongly. In my own presentations on Islam, I often make the statement that ORTHODOX Judaism, which I view as one of the authentic expressions of our religion (except in the immediate aftermath of Orthodox condemnations of non Orthodox Judaism), has more in common, in many ways, with Islam than with Christianity.

This reader and I have had further conversation since this time. I do not know much about him, neither where he lives, nor to what branch of Islam he belongs. I do not know much about his goals or beliefs. Nor do I know if he will see this promised clarification.

What I do know is that I meant no slander in my original words -- and I wonder what motives are behind seeing slander in them. After all, I clearly indicated that Muslim countries do have laws banning the practice -- which is, as the writer said, pre-Islamic -- and that the practice is not limited to Muslim countries. But perhaps I was not clear enough.

The Internet provides a fantastic opportunity to get to know people we otherwise could never have met. But we cannot see each others faces. We cannot perceive the gestures and the warmth, the lack of hostility oft conveyed more by tone than by tounge. This is why there are so many flames on the net. And so it is important to be careful.

For that reason, my next column will be devoted to an exploration --in positive terms -- of the relationship between Judaism and Islam. For the more we listen, the more careful we are in what we say, the more we can learn about one another, the better we will get along in the end.

In this was the computer is surely a gift from the God we share in common. As it is said: "Atta Notein Lahem da'as" -- "God, you give to human beings knowledge," or, left untranslated, "DOS". Or, as Abraham said to Isaac (or was it Ishmael): "God will provide the RAM, my son."

Now, if someone writes in defending the actual practice of female circumcision, I am prepared to stick by my position, culturally imperialist or not.

May we find a way to express our revulsion at the truly barbaric acts that remain in the world, without writing each other off, dismissing each or "dissing" each other as complete barbarians.