This essay was originally published on 9/15/09 as Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, back when Zeek had a web partnership with Jewcy rather than with the Forward. But the formatting on that original piece has gone wonky and it's become nigh-unreadable, so I'm reprinting it here.
It is a sticky August evening in Garrison, New York. I'm sitting on a park bench at a retreat center with a woman I've only just met. I'm wearing capris, a tank top, and my rainbow kippah. She's wearing a turtleneck and long dress with her hair tucked under a scarf. Our assignment is to teach each other a favorite text from our own holy scriptures. She is a Muslim and I am a Jew.
I've chosen Psalm 27, since the month of Elul is fast approaching and it's customary to read the psalm daily during that month of spiritual preparation. We read two English translations, one from JPS and the other from my rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. "Yah, You are my light," Reb Zalman begins. We talk about the psalms writ large and what it’s like to pray them.
She opens her vinyl-covered pocket Qur'an to surat An-Nur, "The Light," and I open the translation I brought with me. "Allah is the Light of the heavens and of the earth," begins Fakhry’s translation. We talk about what each of us thinks it means to speak of God in these terms. The sky over the lake turns pink and then darkens. When we turn to go inside, the meadow is filled with fireflies.
There are eighteen participants in the first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, organized by the office of multifaith initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. We have been carefully hand-picked. The Jews present were recommended by the heads of our various rabbinic programs as people likely to find this kind of interfaith encounter fruitful. The Muslims present aren’t clergy students (since, it turns out, their clergy formation process doesn't map neatly to ours) but scholars, academics, community leaders, lay leaders. Many of them are Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow.
The formal structure for our time together revolves around studying one of the stories our two traditions hold in common: not the Abraham/Ibrahim, Isaac and Ishmael tale around which most Abrahamic initiatives are based, but the story of Joseph/Yusuf. Two Jewish scholars and two Muslim scholars will delve deep into the story and its commentaries over the course of our week together.
We read Tanakh and Qur'an, midrash and tafsir. Each of our teachers illuminates a different facet of this shared story. Raquel Ukeles teaches us about intertextuality in the Joseph narratives, Sherman Jackson provides a Blackamerican Muslim perspective on the ambiguity of love in the twin Joseph stories, Rabbi Or Rose offers Hasidic teachings on the Joseph cycle as a spiritual journey, and Mahmoud Ayoub teaches us about the Yusuf story as a lesson in repentance, love, and forgiveness.
If this were the entirety of the retreat experience, dayenu: it would have been enough.
Four small subgroups are formed within our larger cohort, each tasked with a project. The first group organizes a storytelling circle: one night we sit on floor pillows and pass a microphone around. We're invited to share love stories, then to share grandparent stories, which turn into immigration stories and then freeform stories about who we are and where we're coming from.
The first couple of tales are tentative, but then we start to loosen up. It's the "grandparent" theme that really gets us going. Despite our considerable differences, we all had beloved grandparents and we all want to share something of how they made us who we are.
One of the retreat organizers tiptoes out and returns with milk and cookies. We tell stories and we nosh. By the end of the evening, I'm starting to feel less like I need to be on my best behavior, and more like I can let some of my personality shine through.
The second group project is a session of intrafaith dialogue, e.g. dialogue within (rather than between) our religious-community groups. The Jews gather in the Jewish prayer space, the Muslims gather in the Muslim prayer space, and each group takes half an hour to talk about what the retreat has been like for us so far, what we're learning, what's been good, what's been hard. Not for the first time I'm amazed by the simple fact of sitting in a circle with rabbinic students from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox seminaries (plus the other two transdenominational seminaries besides my own.)
I say something about that, and everyone laughs a little. And then I say the thing that's been bothering me all week: I know how different we are from one another. But I don't know enough about the Muslim cohort to know what their differences are. I don't even know what questions to ask. We all know the terms Sunni and Shia, but what do they mean in practice? I can see variations of dress in the Muslim students, but what do those imply? What do I not even realize that I don’t know?
When the two groups reconvene, the students in charge of the session take a new tack. They invite us to take turns, one Muslim speaking and then one Jew speaking, asking questions of one another. We come up with an incisive list of the things we don't know about each other but wish we did. This is the first time that I hear someone outwardly name the elephant in the room, the issue of Israel and Palestine, and it feels to me as though the room breathes a collective sigh of relief.
On the first night of the retreat, the subject of travel in Israel came up at the dinner table. (Of course all of the rabbinic students have spent time there; our perspectives differ, but it’s a natural area of conversational common ground for us.) I felt awkward, worried that the Muslims at our table might feel alienated but unsure how to ask them what the conversation was like for them.
Now, a few days in to our learning together, one of the Muslim professors asks a question about how Jews perceive Israel and the energy in the room shifts. One of our potential points of contention has been raised and the sky hasn’t fallen. I feel as though an invisible weight has been lifted.
My small group gets the privilege of leading the session entitled "difficult conversations." When we meet early in the retreat to begin planning, we begin cautiously by asking each other what we think the difficult conversations are. Slowly we shift into talking about the stereotypes that each group holds of the other.
Often the same stereotypes cut in both directions. Each of our communities has a tendency to feel that the other is more powerful. The Jews say: but there are so many of you; Israel is surrounded by hostile nations! And the Muslims say: but you are so disproportionately powerful given your small numbers! As we share with each other what we've heard in our communities, we wear the same chagrined expressions.
We decide to begin our session with a roleplay. I will announce that we are on flight such-and-such from JFK to Heathrow and that I am our flight attendant. Then I will walk over to my two fellow retreatants, seated on chairs in the middle of the circle, and say, "I have a halal meal and a kosher meal...?" and pantomime handing one to each.
In the ensuing conversation, my two classmates will aim to work in as many obnoxious stereotypes as possible. We decide to do a trial run, so I pretend to hand the meals to them and then I sit back to see what they will do.
"Give me that," the Muslim says. "You took the wrong meal." Then he mutters, "Just like a Jew -- taking what doesn't belong to her!" It's an appalling remark, and yet in this moment it's hilarious; I have to fight back a giggle. His Jewish counterpart doesn't miss a beat: "Excuse me? I'm offended! Are you talking about my homeland, the land of Israel?" And they're off.
A few minutes later we notice that one of our fellow retreatants is standing near us, eyes wide as saucers. "We're practicing a roleplay," one of my cohorts says hastily. The retreatant who overheard the conversation bursts into relieved laughter.
We tweak her about it for the rest of the retreat -- "you didn't honestly think that was real, did you?" But of course it could have been. Each group harbors fears of the other. Maybe what's most miraculous about this retreat is that we're beginning to name those fears, and to hear each other naming them…and then we sit down to eat and talk about life and work, parents and children. Not ignoring the tough stuff, but not allowing it to define us, either.
We grow bolder. One of my colleagues asks me about my kippah: what does it mean, why am I the only woman wearing one, what do the colors signify? In return I learn about the Ismaili tradition of which she is a part, where in smaller communities women may serve as lay leaders and pastoral counselors.
I know that there are divides within each group which remain hidden. That African-American Muslims, Arab Muslims, and South Asian Muslims have different experiences and priorities doesn't come up until the "difficult conversations" session, when one South Asian Muslim notes that the Israel/Palestine issue isn't a central issue for her as it is for some of her colleagues.
By the same token, the Jewish participants generally don't raise the places where we diverge, issues of sexuality and LGBT ordination and who counts in a minyan. But even with these issues largely unspoken, we're still learning about each others' communities, and everything we learn nuances our understanding.
At lunch, a Muslim participant asks how long women have been writing midrash, crafting Torah commentary, ordained as rabbis. She seems galvanized by our response. We talk about Amina Wadud, who has been leading mixed-gender Muslim prayer since 2005. What was once inconceivable is already a reality, even if it's not yet comfortable or mainstream. What else which once seemed impossible is within our grasp?
As the week ends, the Jews are on the cusp of the month of Elul, a month of prayer and contemplation and the inner work of teshuvah (repentance/return.) The Muslims are on the cusp of Ramadan, which could be described in much the same way.
We hug and shake hands, we agree to meet on the internet. We brainstorm a list of ways we can continue to work together. What would it be like to bring each other to events in our own communities? Can we teach together? Can we write together? How can we ensure that the fragile friendships we're beginning to build outlast our visit to the Garrison Center? And, most importantly, how can we share some of this sense of transformed relationship with the people in our communities who aren’t here?
On Shabbat, at the kiddush after morning services, I tell a group of people where I've been all week. "Why don't we ever hear about Muslim clergy denouncing violence?" one of the congregants at my shul asks. There is a note of gotcha! in his voice.
"Because our media doesn't report it," I say. "Or because it's being said in a foreign language and we don't understand it. Or because it's not news. Or because we're not listening. But it's not because they're not saying it."
He looks startled, but apparently decides to take my word for it. I wonder how many of my new Muslim friends found themselves in a similar position at the masjid when they got home -- when they said they'd spent several days studying texts and forming connections with Jews, what push-back did they encounter?
The family of Abraham has long been at loggerheads, but this retreat shows me that we can do better. (I would argue that we must.) Both of our traditions name us as spiritual cousins. Being related doesn’t necessarily mean that we always like everything about each other—anyone with an extended family knows that. But I'd rather be on speaking terms, even though our family tree is sometimes warped by our history.