Ramadan & Av: Learning from Each Other

Tonight, with the coming of the New Moon’s sliver of light, Jews enter the month of Av; Muslims, the month of Ramadan. I want to take this moment to examine ways in which Jewish-Muslim relations have become entangled in the broader crisis of Europe and America that has led to attacks on Muslims and to the atrocious murders in Oslo last week.

Tonight, I want to share some sense of the spirit-lifting meanings and possibilities of this moment.  Later this week, I want to examine the broader question of the wave of anti-Muslim feeling and action we are experiencing in America and Europe  -- and what to do about it. 

For Jews, the month of Av is one of foreboding, sorrow, and slow recovery – all built around memories of the Destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, one by the Babylonian Army in 586 BCE; the other by the Roman Army in 70 CE. The ninth day of Av – in Hebrew, Tisha B’Av -- has been set aside to mourn these disasters.

Jewish tradition blamed these disasters partly on Imperial arrogance, but partly on internal Jewish failings and corruptions.  

And the tradition sought to transcend these traumas: In the Biblical era, on the seventh day after the commemoration of Destruction there was a rejoicing with erotic overtones: On the Full Moon of Av, young women danced in the fields and chose their husbands. In the Rabbinic era, seven Sabbaths of Consolation after the day of disaster  were set aside to read Prophetic passages of hope, leading in seven steps to the renewal of Rosh Hashanah.

But efforts at transcending the trauma never fully worked. These two destructions helped set the tone of Jewish history as a series of traumas and victimizations – a tone that, after many later  repetitions and especially the Holocaust, still deeply colors Jewish responses to history, even though a “Jewish state” now holds considerable political and military power.  

For observant Muslims, Ramadan is a month of spiritual self-examination and redirection. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset each day in order to turn their attention from physical satisfactions to spiritual growth; read the entire Quran during the month; increase their sharing with the poor; and late in the month celebrate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. They end the month with Eid ul-Fitr, the Feast of the Break-Fast. 

What can we learn from each other, living this “moonth” alongside each other?

The effort to transcend trauma is not for Jewish hearts and minds alone. Islam as a whole has during the last several centuries been conquered, colonized, subjugated by various Western powers, from Morocco to Indonesia. Palestinians in particular have tried to elevate this  experience into a kind of Tisha B’Av of their own, observing the Naqba – the “Disaster” that came upon their community as Israel was established. 

For them and for many other Muslims, the Disaster still means military weakness, less creative arts and sciences, stagnant economies.  Can the Disaster itself be turned into fertile soil for a new Islam  --as Rabbinic Judaism flowered from the ashes of the Second Temple and as the Rabbis taught that Tisha B’Av was the birthing day of the Messiah? (Did they mean themselves?) 

And in the other direction, what can Jews learn from Ramadan?  In Jewish tradition, the forty days from the beginning of the month of Elul to Yom Kippur were intended to be days of  religious study and spiritual self-examination. But for most Jews, the currents of Modernity and its pressure for swiftness have swept away this practice, and even the Ten Days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are rarely taken as a time for self-assessment, repair of wrongs, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Perhaps the daily practice of fasting is what helps to hold the great majority of the world’s Muslims to observance of Ramadan. Perhaps Jews should be rethinking what daily practice for a full month would have such an impact on our lives. (There is a tradition of blowing the shofar every morning of the forty days that lead to Yom Kippur, but the Jews who do this are rare today. And perhaps the ritual is too “ritualistic,” too little a dent upon our earthy daily lives, to raise our consciousness as fasting does.)

Perhaps there is even a hint of what Jews could do, in the cultural history of Morocco. There the Jewish and Muslim communities feed each other – literally – at the end of Ramadan and the end of Passover. Muslims bring Jews the first post-Passover bread  -- for a celebration that became known as “Maimouna,” “Prosperity-time.” And Jews bring Muslims the first food for the great Break-Fast at the end of Ramadan.

Here and there in America during the last few years, mosques and synagogues have been connecting during Ramadan. Precisely in the face of the tensions between the two communities that have arisen in the last decade, what if they agreed that every evening – or even just every Sunday evening --  during Ramadan, Jews would eat with Muslims, in synagogues or mosques (and as individuals got to know each other, in private homes)?

What if synagogues agreed that during every Shabbat during Ramadan, they would read and study a passage from the Quran? 

Or what if the lesson were transposed into Jewish time -– so that despite the rush of business and the craving for mid-summer vacation, Jews ceremoniously set aside 18 minutes every morning in Av or from the First of Elul to Yom Kippur to dedicate some money to healing the world –-- pursuing peace, seeking justice, protecting the Earth? 

May your Av, your Ramadan, help lift you into a fuller awareness of the loving care we owe each other!

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