Crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall remove tens of thousands of written prayers from the Western Wall. (photo by Gil Zohar)
On April 10, equipped with long sticks, crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall removed tens of thousands of written prayers, which worshippers had wedged into crevices at the holy site over the previous half year. The painstaking work is done twice annually, in advance of Passover in April and Rosh Hashanah in September, to ensure space for new prayers. The notes that are removed are buried in Mount of Olives Cemetery.
The origin of the practice of placing small folded sheets of paper between the cracks of the 2,000-year-old ashlars is unclear. According to tradition, God’s female presence (Shechinah), has never left the holy site.
A retaining wall of the Temple Mount, built by King Solomon circa 960 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Kotel Maaravi (Western Wall) stands today beneath a religious plaza known in Arabic to Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jews believe the holy hill marks the navel of the world from where God began his creation 5779 years ago; the site also marks where Abraham brought his son Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice. Muslims consider the Western Wall to be where Muhammad tethered his winged steed al-Burak when he ascended to the Seventh Heaven. And Christians believe Jesus was one of the millions of Jewish pilgrims in antiquity who came here during the festivals of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost.
From 1948 until 1967, when East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan, Israelis were prohibited from visiting the site.
Have you heard about the sacred text in which the Almighty says, “Stand back from this community so that I may annihilate them in an instant?”
What about the king who gives permission to a people “to destroy, kill and annihilate the powers of any people or province that oppressed them, [even] young children and women, and to take their spoils.”
How do you feel about stoning a rebellious child?
That isn’t our religion! That’s not Judaism. It must be from some other religion’s holy book, right? Wrong. Actually, these come directly from the Tanach. Respectively: Numbers 16:21, Esther 8:11 and Deuteronomy 21:18.
Religious literature – heck, all literature – has concepts that might shock or offend. What about ideas that one doesn’t understand? Many educated people don’t read these sections as the literal truth. Thousands of years of commentators, in all religions, help us understand ideas that perhaps don’t make sense to modern sensibilities. These uncomfortable statements are sometimes proving a point by hyperbole, or creating metaphorical relationships to prove a point.
Many of us don’t take literature or anything we read – never mind the Torah – literally. We also know that, when something seems dubious, we should look it up. Use a dictionary, an online encyclopedia or even … a book.
Awhile back, an acquaintance sitting at a Shabbat table said something that seemed outrageous about Islam. His language and vehemence made me wish that there weren’t kids playing nearby. The man insisted he quoted the Koran correctly – nonetheless I felt concerned. Was he taking it out of context or distorting the point? When I got home, I looked it up. How? Easy, I have a copy of the Koran on my bookshelf. I took a whole course on the Koran as an undergraduate at Cornell.
Much of the time, we are too gullible. We believe what we read or hear from others or what we see reported in the news. We take it as true without thinking about it critically. We’re not always thinking about the words used in media reports … was the killer in Las Vegas a “lone wolf” or a “terrorist”? Does religion or race matter when it comes to how the media portrayed him? It does matter. A white man with Christian origins often doesn’t get called a terrorist or an extremist.
In that vein, many – including politicians and media commentators – feel free to make comments about Islam without actually reading the Koran. That sometimes results in a pretty skewed understanding of that faith tradition. Why am I talking about Islam? We live in a multicultural society. It’s important to know about our traditions and those of our neighbours.
Recently, Dr. Ruth Ashrafi gave a series of lectures to Catholics in Winnipeg about Judaism and the New Testament. She did it in connection with the Manitoba Interfaith Council, an important community organization. The president of the Interfaith Council is Belle Jarniewski, another member of the Jewish community.
These types of outreach efforts benefit everyone. Both Christianity and Islam have Jewish roots. Many Christians and Muslims want to learn more about Judaism. Further, Jews could learn a thing or two about others’ beliefs. Mutual understanding and education go a long way towards bridging differences and building on our common values. Ignorance breeds hate. We could all do with less of that, so let’s work on education.
It is easy to get whipped into a fervour when dealing with media reports or reading the newest bestselling polemical book about another people’s faith traditions. Yet, we aren’t experts in those traditions – unless we start from the beginning, read their holy texts, understand their customs, holidays and values before reading the newest polemic. Most of us aren’t even experts in our own traditions. When I was required to read the Hebrew Bible from beginning to end in graduate school, there were definitely upsetting things I read that I hadn’t known before. I had to read commentaries (both Jewish and non-Jewish ones) in order to get a better grip on what it contained.
I’m reminded, when seeing hot media rhetoric, of how my twins tell me about one of their fights. I hear the dramatic narrative from one side, and an entirely different tale from the other. The truth – or my understanding of their fight – lies somewhere in between all the different versions of their stories.
A friend of mine reads the news in multiple languages. If he has particular interest in one issue, he might use one piece of paper to take notes from all the international news sources. When he’s finished, he has created something like a Venn diagram. The news everyone seems to agree on, no matter the language or political agenda of the news source, is somewhere in the middle.
It’s only through study, asking questions and gaining knowledge that we become educated enough to understand difficult conflicts, religious disputes and political issues. We’d benefit from the programming of organizations such as the Manitoba Interfaith Council. As well, we can take time to read our sacred texts and others’ holy books in order to understand ourselves and our neighbours better.
Living an upright life as a Jew includes seriously taking responsibility for engaging with our foundational texts. Then, maybe, we’ll be living out our mandate as the People of the Book.
The next time you read a polemic against someone else’s religion (or your own) or hear a skewed media report and believe it without further research, remember that Venn diagram as a way towards better understanding.
We’re People of the Book. Maybe it’s time to crack some open? We can always learn more.
Joanne Seiffwrites regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She is the author of the book From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
The next novel up for discussion at the Jewish-Muslim women’s book group is The Red Tent.
One Sunday in July led to several new experiences for yours truly, a 23-year-old Jew living on Vancouver’s North Shore. For starters, it was my first time in a mosque, it was my first time in Delta and it was without a doubt my first Jewish-Muslim book gathering. Thankfully, it wasn’t my first time reading a book in less than 24 hours, as my decision to attend the gathering after seeing it mentioned in this very newspaper, was pretty spur of the moment.
The book group’s second-ever session was held at Baitur Rahman Mosque, a building that, upon first impressions, was slightly imposing – British Columbia’s largest mosque, dwarfing any synagogue I’ve come across – but which proved home to an incredible amount of warmth. The warmth began with smiles when I entered the room late – it was a longer journey than I expected – and continued through the entire two-hour session about the book (I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb), and well into the snacks and chats afterwards.
Having been greeted by 30 or so women from both Jewish and Muslim backgrounds, there was the classic ice-breaker – going round in a circle, saying one’s name, a little bit about yourself and an interesting fact. I may not have been able to beat one woman’s fact (she used to be a stilt walker) but my relatively young age meant I stood out.
This lengthy introduction introduced me well to the thoughtful, kind group. In true Canadian spirit, they were from so many different places and cultures. The Muslim women in particular had a heartening appreciation for their country. One said she “liked Canada very much”; another one-upped her, exclaiming, “I am one of the luckiest people alive” for having been welcomed here. There’s no doubt that the women from both religions were of a progressive stance – the bulk of Jews was from egalitarian Or Shalom synagogue, while the Muslim women were part of the Ahmadiyya community, which has been persecuted relentlessly by more orthodox Muslim groups.
As conversation began about the book, it became clear that everyone was so lovely – was I the only person who hadn’t helped Syrian refugees settle in Canada? – that I began to wonder if the group was a case of “preaching to the converted.” Surely the people most ignorant, and most in need of education about other religions, weren’t the type who would turn up to this group? A cynic by nature, this worry stayed with me during the (fairly fleeting) discussions about the book and the (much longer) follow-up conversation about the link between religion and education, how and whether you can teach critical thinking, and other thought-provoking questions.
So, I reached out to the organizers from both sides. The email chains that followed gave me insight into two great communities and their prior interfaith ties, as well as into two pioneering women: Tiferet Welch from the Jewish community and Aisha Naveed from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at. They provided some strikingly similar answers to my questions, illustrating how much common ground can be found between the two religions (religions that, evidently, don’t always see eye to eye).
About why the book group came about, it seemed that the books were simply a way of facilitating discussion about religion itself. Welch said she decided to make the group happen after meeting some of the Muslim women, who “stated their knowledge of Judaism and, hence, Jews, was extremely limited,” but they were “fueled with a strong desire to know more.” Naveed said “the book club was initiated to remove common misconceptions between the Jewish and Islamic faith,” explaining to me how her community believes in interfaith dialogue to “encourage learning” and “prevent ignorance.”
The women were also on the same wavelength about the group’s future – Naveed called it “an organic venture” and Welch said “we want to see it progress organically.” They were both proud of what it had accomplished in such a short time: Naveed proclaimed it “a huge success,” while Welch described the discussions as “open” and “honest.”
And what did they have to say to my “preaching to the converted” angst? Naveed said that, because interfaith gatherings “are a form of open and safe space,” they mean you learn a great deal about one another. Welch said “there needs to be a distinction made between being open and being knowledgeable.” In layman’s terms: those who attend the group are open, but that doesn’t mean they’re knowledgeable, and the group aims to educate.
Welch also pointed out that, because the event is promoted, for instance, via Or Shalom’s electronic bulletin, geography is a non-issue. Theoretically, people all around the globe can subscribe to the group and see how progressive it is. And, she reminded me that, once this article is published, other Jews will know about it, and thus the group’s potential for change is increased.
With that in mind – how to sell the group to someone reading this? I’ll break it down, simply and honestly, into three points.
First off, the reading material is quality. The first session the group discussed the book Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay, edited by Amy Levin, Gina Messina-Dysert and Jennifer Zobair. It led to a worthwhile discussion on how both religions are traditionally patriarchal, and what this has meant for female faith in male-dominated arenas. For me, having started off dubious about I Am Malala, the second session’s read proved a powerful one. The youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner’s account is both humble and knowledgeable, a memoir that explains well the Taliban’s rise, Pakistan’s history and politics, and the monumental importance of educating girls.
Second, the discussions that stem from the books are as intelligent as they are interesting. The two-hour discussion flew by at the mosque – the only thing I can compare it to is a dream university seminar or tutorial; i.e. one not ruined by hung-over students unable even to blag the required reading. Participants were incredibly educated and respectful. We covered moral values and where they should be learned, we discussed the media’s portrayal of religion and our internal prejudices, and I gained a ton of insight into a religion that many of us could, and should, know more about. Their actual definition of jihad – as education; a clear rejection of terrorism – which hung proudly in the room, struck me as particularly vital in this day and age.
Third, the post-discussion food is fantastic. The informal portion of the event, where we stood eating (delicious snacks) and chatting, was where we all connected more personally and more deeply. I found out what it’s like to be judged immediately and constantly for wearing a hijab, and how it feels to be asked where you’re from, to reply saying “Canada,” and then receive a demanding “No, but where are you really from?” On a more light-hearted note, I found out how pleasing it is to interact with people outside my usual social circle, to do something new and to spend a Sunday afternoon with a group of thoughtful, inspiring women from all over. Oh, and did I mention how good the food is?
The group’s next meeting – about The Red Tent by Anita Diamant – is scheduled for Dec. 18, 2-4 p.m., at Or Shalom. Women interested in attending are advised to follow Or Shalom’s web page or subscribe to its email list, and to RSVP Welch at [email protected].
Rebecca Shapirois the associate editor of vivalifestyleandtravel.com and a travel blogger at thethoughtfultraveller.com. She’s been published in the Guardian, Elle Canada and the Huffington Post, as well as various other Jewish newspapers in the United Kingdom and Canada. She currently resides in Vancouver, having previously lived in London, Shanghai and Toronto.
A 1,200-year-old gold coin fonud at Kfar Kama. (photo by Israel Antiquities Authority via Ashernet)
Two teenage students from the lower Galilee, Dor Yogev and Ella Dicks, who were participating in an Israel Antiquities Authority dig in nearby Kfar Kama, found some ancient coins. Included in the find was a 1,200-year-old gold coin inscribed in Arabic and mentioning the name of Muhammad and monotheism. The find shows that the people who lived at the location were there at the early Islamic period in the 7th and 8th centuries. The location of the dig, Kfar Kama, is the home of the Circassian community. The Circassians are a Sunni Muslim community closely allied with Israel; they participate fully in Israeli life, including their young men serving in the Israel Defence Forces.
Belle Jarniewski (fifth from the left) is one of the co-founders, with Sumera Sahar (fourth from the left), Perry Kimelman and Dr. Rory Dickson of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Group of Winnipeg. (photo from Belle Jarniewski)
Started in Winnipeg last year after a visit from Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Calgary’s Beth Tzedec, Belle Jarniewski and Perry Kimelman believe that a local dialogue group with Muslims and Jews will do a lot of good for both communities.
Jarniewski is chair of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, a position she has held since 2008. And, just recently, she began a two-year term as president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council, the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold that position.
“The Manitoba Multifaith Council had brought in Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Calgary for its Multifaith Leadership Breakfast in 2015 and I was intrigued to hear how successful he had been in his own interfaith dialogue work and to hear how well he had reached out to the Muslim community there,” she told the Independent.
Jarniewski approached her synagogue with the idea of seeing if she could work with them to hold the kinds of events with which Osadchey had seen success, but received little interest. So, she decided to start a group independently of an institution.
“Perry and I are also members of the Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group, which discusses (primarily) the Arab-Israeli conflict, but seems to eschew any real discussion of religion,” she explained. “Both of us have been active in interfaith work for quite some time and have many connections to wonderful people. We felt that was something that was missing. Once we realized that both of us had long been interested in starting just such a group, we put our heads together to see what would be the best way forward.”
Of course, to get the idea off the ground, they needed a Muslim partner or two. They found a perfect match in Sumera Sahar, a member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW). The second Muslim co-convener they found was Dr. Rory Dickson of the University of Winnipeg’s department of religion and culture. And, with that, the four set out to build membership, which is now a balanced mix of almost 40 Jews and Muslims (by invitation only). Members have been proposed by other members, as well as by the conveners.
“It is important that those who join are interested in dialogue with each other, are interested in religion and culture – our own and each other’s – and accept the very few rules we have imposed upon ourselves,” said Jarniewski.
These rules, she said, include “no discussion of politics – there is already another group established for that very reason – and, as well, both groups decided early on that we preferred not to involve clergy. If someone wishes to join, they must be referred through a member.
“We also have a closed group discussion through our private Facebook page, which seems to work very well. The ages of our members are from university through … well, I don’t ask … I would say in the 60s.
“The diversity of religion streams and origins of both Jewish and Muslim members contributes to some wonderfully rich discussions,” she continued. “The group is all about learning about each other’s religion and culture and each other, and getting to know one another. For far too long, Muslims and Jews have had, at best, a polite relationship with each other, but haven’t really gotten to know one another and learned just how much our two religions have in common.”
The group has held a number of evening get-togethers, learning about Sharia and halachah side by side. “The word Sharia evokes, for most Westerners, the most extreme form of Islamic law,” said Jarniewski, “but we learned that Sharia is far more complex than this simplistic interpretation.
“One night, we had Dr. Ruth Ashrafi talk about the role of women in Jewish law and Drs. Rory Dickson and Ahmet Seyhun lecturing on family law in Islam. On another night, we had a great discussion about halal and kashrut.
“At our very first meeting, one of our Jewish members, who hails from Iran, recited a Muslim prayer in flawless Arabic. What an icebreaker that was!”
Sahar told the Independent this group “is an important initiative and much needed, given the popular and often-unchallenged notion that somehow Jews and Muslims are historical and natural adversaries.”
Sahar is an executive member of CCMW’s Winnipeg chapter, the co-coordinator of a community food bank serving Arabic-speaking refugees and has recently been invited to sit on the board of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.
The core objective of the Muslim-Jewish dialogue group is that Muslims and Jews get to know one another directly without the filter of religious or political organizations. Sahar contends that most, if not all, group members believe that the group is a crucial step toward countering antisemitism and Islamophobia and, most importantly, to bridging communities.
Like Jarniewski, Sahar has made good friends and formed a much better understanding of the similarities both religions share, not just religiously, but also as minority religious communities.
“Being a minority community has its challenges, and both Jews and Muslims share similar anxieties and concerns,” said Sahar. “We share the struggle of gaining acceptance and inclusion without losing our religious values and identity. We are also subject to the question of representation – who speaks for us?
“Both communities are pluralistic and diverse but, as is the case with most minority groups, we are often represented in the media and popular discourse as a single voice. I was struck to learn that this issue is as much a source of frustration for the Jewish members of the group as it is for the Muslim members.”
The dialogue group has provided a platform to discuss such issues and suggest some strategies to overcome them. The convenors are pleased to see the sincerity with which group members have engaged with one another and are hopeful in their potential to build understanding.
“I feel that it is more important than ever to speak up when unfortunate statements are made in these rather difficult times that attack Muslims and Islam,” said Jarniewski. “These statements are generally mired in stereotypes and ignorance. It is important that our community realize they are received in the Muslim community in the very same way that the Jewish community is hurt by antisemitic comments.”
Jarniewski is well aware that, across Canada, there are Jewish-Muslim groups such as the one in Winnipeg who are coming together to engage in dialogue. “Little by little, groups such as ours will have a very positive effect,” she said.
Jarniewski quoted Catholic priest and Swiss theologian Hans Küng: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”