Monday, July 18, 2011
Why should a Jew care about Ramadan?
[and before you ask... Why should a Muslim care about Elul and the Jewish Days of Awe? is on the way]
I grew up as a Jewish boy on the edge of a Christian neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia and I was one of the few Jewish kids to go to my public school. Christmas was a BIG deal. I know all the words to “Silent Night” and I can sing “Come All Ye Faithful” in Latin. For many years my own father, with his full beard, was the Santa Claus in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia (worked his way from an elf, I am not kidding.) Christmas was a BIG deal when I was growing up. There was something to that lovey-dovey Peanuts Special version of Christmas which featured “peace and good will towards all mankind.” I loved going to New York in the season, not just because the shops were so beautifully decorated but because it seemed then that even New Yorkers were somehow more human and humane to one another during the “Holiday Season.” Imagine something that can penetrate the hearts of New Yorkers! And yet, I just cannot squeeze out a greeting of “Merry Christmas!” I still cannot.
I feel like my reasons make sense. The truth is that the religious core of the holiday, the celebration of the incarnation of deity in human flesh is anathema (to use the New Testament Greek word) to my Jewish faith. The crass materialism that now marks the observance for even not-so-religious folks violates both my sense of spirituality and my remaining hippie “simple-living, high-thinking” sensibilities. Christmas is just not for me. Never was. Never will be. My Christian friends make do with an incoherent “Happy something-or-other “squeak instead of an enthusiastic “Ho ho ho!” and I appreciate their patience and forbearance.
I have no such qualms about saying “Ramadan Mubarak!” On the contrary, I hunt down nifty e-cards on the internet. I even include personalized messages. In person, I give handshakes, hugs (or for women- a decorous nod) and those words come easily, “Ramadan Mubarak” a Blessed Ramadan! I keep a mental Ramadan countdown. I get enthusiastic. It is admittedly very weird for a Jewish guy. It is even weirder for an observant Jewish guy. I get that. Some, including those close to me have asked me what this is all about, sometimes politely and sometimes less politely. So as we begin another Ramadan and as my enthusiasm revs up again, I decided to sit down and examine the question for myself and share my answers. I look forward to your comments on my thoughts and I encourage you (as always) to be kind and respectful in responding to them.
I have to begin with the Halacha (Jewish law). The Torah warns us to avoid “chukkat ha goyim” the “statutes of the nations.” As a holy nation, separated by the unique discipline of the Torah we are sternly warned to avoid gentile practices. The law is complicated and this is just meant to be a quick review to expose my thinking. If you want to explore it further I will be happy to provide texts to help you. In any cases, the biblical verses seem clear enough.
You shall not follow the customs of the nation which I am expelling before you. For they have done all these above mentioned sins [This follows a list of sexual sins] and I became disgusted with them.
- Vayikra /Leviticus 20:23
After the practice of the Land of Egypt in which you have lived, you shall not do, and the practice of the Land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do and you shall not follow their statutes [customs].
- Vayikra/Leviticus 18: 3:
The medieval commentator Rashi comments on the latter verse.
This tells [us] that the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites were the most corrupt of all the nations, and that place in which the Israelites settled was the most corrupt of all.
This verse refers to their customs, matters which are [social] obligations for them, such as [attending] theaters and stadiums. Rabbi Meir says: These are the "ways of the Amorites" which the Sages enumerated. [Refers to a list of superstitious practices]
So the prohibition, says Rashi, applies particularly to Non-Jewish practices that reflect corruption, idolatrous superstitions or such things as attending “theaters or stadiums.” We are told elsewhere that the prohibition is on attending theaters and stadiums is one of the first and few laws that a potential convert must be taught. This refers to the Roman stadiums which were the site of violent gladiator games. Jews were and are forbidden to enjoy entertainments which focus on degrading human beings and torturing animals. (Skip extreme fighting on TV and most reality shows)
In general, these prohibitions distance Jews from things that are not in keeping with Jewish values.
By contrast, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah), the most authoritative code of Jewish law concludes that if the custom does not promote idolatrous behavior and/or is viewed as a "dignified act", then no such prohibition of "chukat HaGoy" exists. While there may yet be other halachic prohibitions that would restrain a Jew from taking up such a practice for themselves, there is surely no reason why we should discourage others from following it. On the contrary, I believe the obligations of Jewish spiritual citizenship may demand that we encourage it. That is where my thoughts begin.
Ramadan is very “Jewish.” In Ramadan, we have a practice that promotes monotheistic worship in the world while employing practices that are specifically endorsed by Jewish tradition (prayer, fasting, charity and ethical restraint). The continuity of Ramadan with previous Jewish practice is actually acknowledged by the Qur’an itself. Even the Qur’an says it’s very “Jewish.”
O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.
- 2:183 (Muhummad Asad trans.)
“Those before you.” That would be US. Indeed there are obvious parallels to specific and well-known Jewish practices. The dedication of the month of Elul as a period of repentance and spiritual focus and the standard Sephardic practice of doing special early morning selichot (“forgiveness”) prayers for the 40 day period from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kipppur is a clear parallel to the Muslim practice. That this period corresponds to the period in which Moses received the Torah is paralleled by Ramadan’s commemoration of the receiving of the Qur’an. Similarly there are fasting practices associated with this period in the Jewish year for the 10 days of repentance. There is even a kabalistic custom quoted in Yedid Nefesh by Rav Yechiel Bar
Lev to refrain from food during the daytime for the entire 40-day period (Shabbat and Rosh Hashana exempted). The Qur’an’s comment that the practice of Ramadan is based on previous practice can and should be taken at face value. Ramadan has Jewish roots.
Ramadan also supports Jewish values. Perhaps most important is the intention of Ramadan as laid out in the Qur’an “the awareness of G-d.” It is precisely the awareness of G-d which the Tur explains is the absolute purpose of the entirety of Jewish practice. There is no worthier goal for a human being and it makes sense that we would support others in their attempts to achieve it through prayer and fasting, means which are so clearly approved by our own tradition.
Ramadan also has a deeper ethical dimension. A hadith relates this as follows.
Abu Huraira related that the Prophet said: If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during the fast, then Allah does not care if he abstains from food and drink (Bukhari, Muslim).
Indeed the great Muslim theologian Imam al-Ghazali divides fasting into two dimensions: ordinary and special fasting.
Ordinary fasting means abstaining from food, drink and sexual satisfaction.
Special Fasting means keeping one's ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet -- and all other organs -- free from sin.
Ramadan is a time for developing emotional and impulse control. In accordance with this, Muslims use this time to focus on all their behaviors as well as increasing charity to the poor and caring for others. In education we have an adage “Catch them doing good!” Criticizing someone when they are doing wrong is not nearly as effective as encouraging them when they are doing good. The same goes with our society. Being a critic of the evils of our society is not nearly as effective as encouraging those as they genuinely strive for the good. Could there be a better opportunity than Ramadan?
Ultimately, Ramadan is part of a process of repentance (taubah / teshuvah) of facing oneself, altering ones behavior and facing G-d to ask for forgiveness of sins from G-d in His infinite mercy. It is all about returning to G-d after our own self-imposed alienation knowing that he will accept us if we are sincere.
In a well-known hadith relates G-d's address to mankind,
O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.
Hadith Qudsi 34 (Tirmidhi , Sahih)
The message of the greatnesses and far-reaching consequences of this return to G-d is again familiar enough to Jews. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) in a beautiful litany of the greatness of repentance writes:
Rav Meir used to say Great is repentance, that because of an individual who repents, the entire world is forgiven, as the verse says (Hoshea 14:5) I will rectify their waywardness, I will love them gratuitously, for My anger has turned away from them.
In a broken world, desperately in need of redemption, I don’t know whose repentance is going to tip the scales. If my warm “Ramadan Kareem!” or my warm “Ramadan Mubarak!” or my little e-card encourages a moment of genuine return to G-d, if it inspires a Muslim friend to be good and to do good, I make myself into a partner in their holy endeavor. As a result, all of us, Jews and Muslims reap the benefits of a more peaceful world that better reflects the glory of the One true G-d.
In a few weeks, Elul will begin and I will write another piece entitled “Why Muslims should care about Elul and the Jewish Days of Awe.” I hope some of them will choose to encourage me, and the rest of us, as well.