Reopening the Tent of Abraham
Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman and Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow *
The world is falling helter-skelter down a steep incline toward a fatal cliff: an endless world war between the whole Muslim world and the West, or perhaps the United States. A war between the different families of Abraham.
Sometimes it seems we are already over the edge of the cliff, but perhaps, God willing, im yirtzeh hashem, inshallah, not quite yet. Barely.
Such a war would leave us all at constant risk of death, impoverishment for all public and many private goods, ridden and riddled with fear and rage. Write large – write "global" -- the tip of Manhattan on September 11, 2001; the city of Baghdad all of June, July, August, 2006; Qana on July 30, 2006; Kfar Giladi on August 6.
The only worse threat facing the human race is the climate disaster of global scorching. No plan of action for social justice, for tikkun olam, is serious unless it faces and tries to overcome these two dangers. (As we will see, they are to some extent intertwined.)
So – what are the steps that could be taken to move away from a US-Muslim war? There are two basic tracks for such action: changing public policy, and changing the pattern of religious relationships among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
The second path is one in which "the medium is the message," in which we embody in the present the future that we intend to create. As Gandhi put it, "Be the peace that you seek," or as Martin Buber put it, "The means we use turn into the ends we actually achieve." That path involves the achievement of deep interconnection among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
How do we achieve this? When we come together, whether with friends or strangers, especially when we are hoping to inspire compassion and connection, what we most want is to feel our hearts touched by one another, recognizing the humanness, actually recognizing the presence of the Other, in the other. When this happens, our time feels rich; when this doesn't happen, our time feels partly wasted.
And this is especially what we need and want when we meet with people from spiritual and religious traditions other than our own – if our meeting is grounded in seeking to see the One Who is the Root and the Blossom of all our traditions. The Image of God that appears in every human face is authentically divine precisely because each face is unique, reflecting the Infinite. So it is this uniqueness that we seek to see; in it is the One.
One aspect of that diverse uniqueness and the Unity on which we agree becomes apparent when we share our intellects. We may learn a great deal from each other, even come to understand our own selves better, by explaining to each other the thoughts and practices of our own religious path. And we may gain from discovering how much we agree and how we differ when it come to pursuing justice, peace, the healing of the earth. These are ideas, valuable and necessary. But even this is limited, if we restrict ourselves to it.
For example: suppose that to stem the flood of violence throughout the world that has been erupting in the name of G!D, YHWH, Jesus, Allah, and all the other intimate names known to the faithful, we hope to gather leaders and teachers from the very traditions that are using violence against each other. Will it be enough to share some theories and plan some actions to reverse the cycles of violence?
Both our experience and our thought teach us that it will not be enough.
Experience first: In the summer of 2004, we took part in just such a gathering. People from all over the world -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists -- shared many ideas and projects for peace. The gathering was well facilitated. At one level, we learned a lot. But ultimately, we returned home a week later not having been deeply touched by one another. I felt no deep need to keep in touch with the brilliant, creative, generous people I had met.
This felt truly shocking. Saddening.
At the level of thought and ideas, how can we account for that result? The Jewish mystics teach us that there are Four Worlds of reality: asiya (the physical world of action); yetzira (the emotional world of feelings); briyya (the intellectual world of ideas); and atzilut (the soul world of Oneness). The deeper task of Meeting in an interfaith community is the sharing of our lives in all four worlds, not only the world of intellect.
Pitching the Tent
We had an opportunity to explore a different model for interfaith meeting when The Shalom Center (www.shalomctr -- a network mostly made up of North American Jews with a number of other spiritually rooted participants, with offices in Philadelphia) brought together a small group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders and scholars for long weekends in September 2004 and again in January, May, and December 2005. Fifteen people – mostly the same, with but a few changes, took part in these retreats.
The gathering named itself "The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah."
We kept in mind and heart that what we wanted from the experience of these gatherings was not only a plan of action and an increased intellectual understanding of one another, but also a real sense of knowing and caring about one another as fellow human beings created in G!Ds (whatever Her name) image.
We began the first gathering by inviting all those present to share, briefly, with the whole group, just a single story from their spiritual journey – specifically, a moment that we recognized as having brought us to this peacemaking point in our lives. What deep experience in our own lives, for example, had brought each of us to want to connect with other traditions?
From that powerful beginning, it was possible for us to pray together (not just observe one another in prayer) in ways that were authentic to and respectful of one another's traditions.
· For example, one Jewish participant led a service by using chant and meditation rooted in Jewish prayer, rather than the flood of Hebrew words that usually make up a communal Jewish service. Chanting these far fewer words, transliterated into English letters and translated, invited everyone to understand, participate, and take the meaning deep within.
• A Christian noted how important food and eating are for all of our traditions. He pointed out that the Mass – the peak moment of "prayerful eating" in Christianity -- was not appropriate for an interfaith gathering; but that eating together in an "agape meal" was an authentic New Testament practice not limited to Christians alone – and that such a meal could be an act of prayer.
• Another used what we might have thought the hardest, hottest of frameworks – the "Last Supper"-- as a way to get inside the skins of the different kinds of people at the table -- then and now. She invited us to take on one or another of the personae as the Gospels describe them, and thus to express the hopes, fears, angers, doubts of different people facing what might or might not be a spiritual transformation.
• The Muslims invited us to read some Sufi poetry, to chant the Names of God, and to move in the rhythmic forms of zikr and the Dances of Universal Peace– authentic Muslim spiritual practices, though different from the classical five-times-a-day prayer.
Getting to know one another's hearts did not prevent us from accomplishing the task of formulating ways to work together as the children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah toward peace.
If anything, it deepened our resolve to complete the task, because we had come to care about one another. We had personalized the faces of the other, even in the short time we were together.
So out of that gathering came forth a number of acts and efforts toward peacemaking.
One was the decision to write a religiously rooted public statement on peacemaking in the regions where Abraham traveled -- from Babylonia (Iraq) to Canaan (Israel and Palestine) to Egypt to the Kaaba (Saudi Arabia); to find support from many different religious leaders and communities for the statement; and to arrange its widespread publication in the fall of 2004.
And – precisely because we were from different communities, used to our own different sacred calendars, we discovered an astonishing confluence of sacred times in 2005, 2006, and 2007. – First we realized the unusual confluence of the sacred Jewish and Muslim months of Tishrei and Ramadan, and then the confluence with them of the Protestant/ Orthodox Christian observance of World-wide Communion Sunday and of the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Out of these discoveries arose a whole plan for multireligious observance of this holy season.
Still another was the creation of a book, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Beacon, 2006), to act as a handbook for creating other such groups and for stimulating conversations about the peacemaking possibilities in our different sacred scriptures.
And as part of the decision-making about these projects, individuals among us agreed to take on specific tasks to make the projects real.
In planning interfaith events, this is our strong recommendation: Each event must incorporate aspects of the Four Worlds:
• Opportunities to know the soul journeys of people whose paths may have been parallel to ours;
• Opportunities to celebrate the One through the specific idioms of one another's religions;
• Opportunities to understand the ways in which our traditions are similar and different in philosophy, theology, and practice;
• Opportunities to plan actions together that keep our Abrahamic families in peaceful connection with one another.
• Opportunities to eat, dance, and move together.
We were deliberately beginning with the Abrahamic communities, while at the same time intending to build the Open Tent that according to tradition Abraham's family built -- a tent open in all four directions so that people coming from everywhere and anywhere might be nourished.
Our experience may be helpful for any effort at making interfaith connection at a deep level. -- So here are our suggestions for shaping a successful interfaith retreat encounter:
1. Invite a small number of people (12-24), being sure to balance the number of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (But keep in mind this may not mean mechanical numerical equality: There are many more Christians than Muslims or Jews in American society. Yet be sure to have enough Jews and Muslims that they will not feel awkwardly lonely, or like tokens.)
2. Seek also to balance the numbers of various genders, races, and colors.
3. Condition people's attendance on their ability and willingness to come on time at the start of the retreat and remain until the end. (No exceptions! This is essential!).
4. After welcoming people, ask everyone to introduce themselves by sharing one story of their spiritual journey as it called them into this interfaith gathering. Set an allotted time frame (10-15 minutes each). Depending on the number of people, you may have to allocate several sessions to incorporate all the stories; use wordless melodies and/or silence after each or several stories so that people can digest what they've heard.)
5. Incorporate aspects of communal prayer -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian -- that individuals can lead and the group can share, not as observers but as participants. This means choosing prayers, practices, and languages that are accessible to the group and that everyone can do without being disrespectful to their own religion. Leave time as well for whatever more distinctive "members-only prayer" may be necessary.
6. Intersperse business/action meetings with prayer sessions, story-sharing sessions, meals together, some form of dance or movement, and informal time so that the balance between body, heart, mind, and soul is kept in check.
7. At the final session, leave time not only for a summary of the action directives that have emerged from the meetings but time for people to give feedback to organizers and one another about their experiences with one another at this gathering
8. Appreciate the expansion of one's own consciousness, of one's own world of connection and caring, through heartfelt contacts with people we don't ordinarily encounter in our daily lives.
Celebrations Under and Beyond the Tent
Let us now turn to the specific possibilities for sharing the observance of sacred seasons and festivals as steps in shared action for social justice. These possibilities have been specially poignant during the fall in the years 2005, 2006, and 2007, because the Jewish sacred month of Tishrei and the Muslim sacred month of Ramadan occurred simultaneously. They converged as well with the Worldwide Communion Sunday of Protestant and Orthodox Christians (first Sunday in October); with the birthday of Mohandas K. Gandhi (October 2); and with the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4; he opposed the crusades and renewed his Christian prayer practice by studying at length with Muslim teachers).
Muslims observe Ramadan, the month of the revelation of the Qur’an, by fasting from sunrise to sunset everyday, having an iftar (break-fast) meal after sunset, and turning their attention to God and to works of compassion for the poor. Close to the end comes Lailat al Qadr (27 Ramadan, 20 October), the Night of Power. It marks the night in which God first revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Some Muslims spend that whole night in prayer or in reciting the Qur'an. and Lailat al Qadr is considered a good time to ask for forgiveness.
As Ramadan ends and the next month begins, there is the Break-fast Festival, Eid al-Fitr. In Morocco, for a thousand years the Jewish community has brought the Muslim community the first food for Eid Al-Fitr. That tradition might be enriched in America by bringing members of the two communities together to share a celebration feast. (Conversely, Moroccan Muslims brought Jews the first bread for the night after the last day of Pesach. This "ninth day" became an add-on festival called Maimouna, "Prosperity.")
Meanwhile, in their High Holy Day observances, Jews are also turning their minds and hearts to God, to repentance (teshuvah, “turning”) and to forgiveness -- both seeking and granting it. Since Tishrei is considered the seventh month, counting from the spring, this "shabbat" month recapitulates an entire lifecycle in miniature, through the four phases of the moon:
o Rosh Hashanah, the birthtime of the moon and traditionally the anniversary of the creation of the human race, a time in which Jews feel “reborn”;
o Then on the tenth day, the waxing moon, an encounter of each newborn person with the awesome Other, through the 26-hour fast of Yom Kippur -- an expression of deep reconnection with God;
o Then at the full moon of Tishrei, Sukkot, the harvest and celebration of a full and fruitful life;
o And in the waning moon Sh'mini Atzeret/ Simchat Torah, -- the hidden renewal-time of preparing for winter, seeding the future, praying for an on-time start to the revivifying rainy season, and both finishing the weekly rhythm of reading of passages of the Torah by reading of the death of Moses, and at once rebeginning the rhythm by reading the Creation of the world.
But the sacred seasons could be shared even when they do not overlap. (In some ways it is easier in practice though symbolically not as powerful, since each community could be focusing during its own festival on hosting the others, rather than trying simultaneously to be hosts and guests.)
• Muslims could host one Iftar (break-fast) meal for members of the other communities, after nightfall on any of the evenings of Ramadan.
• .Jews could, in line with old tradition, invite "sacred guests" from other traditions into the open, leafy Sukkah; invoke Sukkot blessings upon all "seventy nations" of the world; and implore God to "spread the sukkah of shalom" over us.
• Muslims could invite other communities to join in celebrating some aspects of Eid el-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan), and Jews and Christians could (as in Morocco) bring food to the celebration of the end of Ramadan's fasting.
• Churches could invite Jews, Muslims, and others to join in learning about and celebrating the teachings of Francis of Assisi.
• During the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah and the Muslim festival of Eid Al-Idha, each community focuses special attention on its memory of the moment when Abraham prepared to obey God's command to make an offering of his son and was halted as his knife was raised, with the substitution as sacrifice of a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket nearby. For Jews, this comes with the reading of the Torah passage during Rosh Hashanah; for Muslims, with a festival that includes the ritual slaughter of a sheep and the sharing of its meat with the poor.
Synagogues and mosques could eat together in either or both of these times, and then join in reading and discussing both the Jewish and the Muslim teachings of the story of Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah, and Isaac. Since the stories both diverge and overlap, there is much for the two communities to learn from and with each other, so long as both put "on hold" the need to assert the unique truth of its account, and listen to the other family story with open hearts – not necessarily with belief but with a temporary suspension of disbelief.
• During these sacred months, Jewish and Muslim families could certainly join each other in the spiritual focus of the month. Together they might read some crucial passages of Torah and Qur’an:
• For instance, from the Qur’an they might read Sura 2: 127-128, as Abraham and Ishmael together build the sacred Kaaba in Mecca and pray that God teach their descendants how to surrender to The One. They might discuss how they feel this prayer resounding in them and in their lives.
• And perhaps they might read Genesis 25: 7-11, where Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham who become the forebears of the two traditions, come together to bury him and then to live together at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. How do they imagine the conversation of these two brothers at their father’ grave? What message would they hand down to their descendants?
• Together the families might listen to the Rosh Hashanah shofar, an echo of the ram’s horn that in both traditions caught the ram in a thicket and thus made possible its substitution for the offering of Abraham’s son to God.
From the Tent to the World
Moving beyond such moments of sharing the observance of sacred time, the families of Abraham might also take concerted action for peace and justice, intended to change public policy.
The most obvious and perhaps the most urgent action might seem to be setting forth another path of peacemaking in the tangled wars and conflicts of the Abrahamic region, and of US governmental policy toward that region. But this may also be the most difficult arena to begin with, because there, in the broader Middle East, the collisions of Jews and Christians and Muslims with each other are harshest and hottest. So in each of the various American communities that identify strongly with each of the Middle Eastern communities, there has been a mobilization of dug-in support for one or another position, and the generation of suspicion and anger toward each other.
Before looking at other arenas for joint action toward changing public policy, however, we might note that some possibilities do exist for agreement on goals and means for peacemaking in the Middle East. Let us look at the three Abrahamic families in America:
About two-thirds of American Jews believe the Iraq war was a profound mistake, ethically and politico-practically, and seek a way to bring American troops home without worsening the situation of Iraqis. About two-thirds support the emergence of an economically viable, geographically coherent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel, though among them are probably disagreements about the territory of such a state (especially how much of East Jerusalem might be part of it, and what to do about large Israeli Jewish settlements that have been created on the West Bank ). The opposition of the Israeli government to both these views, however, and its encouragement of US intervention in Iran, has paralyzed practically all of the large, "mainstream" Jewish institutions and prevented the majority of the Jewish public from making its views felt in policy realms. During the period from 2002 to 2006, there have emerged a spectrum of Jewish groups that are organizing toward these goals. Meanwhile, there are also Jews who are intensely fearful of and enraged with Arab and Muslim behavior, who strongly support the maximum extension of Israeli and US power over Arab and Muslim countries, whether Iraq or Palestine or Saudi Arabia.
Among Christians, the Roman Catholic Church and the "main-line" Protestant denominations are -- on paper, and to some extent in action --- committed to US disengagement from Iraq and to a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their willingness to act on these opinions has often been undercut by the fear of being labeled "anti-Semitic" if they challenge some aspects of Israeli government policy; but this inhibition is weakening.
A much smaller number of Christians, a minority within the minority that see themselves as evangelicals, actively oppose a Palestinian state and endorse the widest claims of Israeli power, considering themselves "Christian Zionists." They ground their policy on a theological vision that the end times are near, and that fulfillment of the most expansive biblical visions of Jewish power is necessary to bring on the final convulsion of history.
The numbers of American Muslims are approximately equal to that of Jews. They are far less effectively organized to have an impact on public policy, and since 2001 have been hobbled by suspicions of their patriotism expressed by some other Americans, and by harassment from some public officials. Almost all of them support disengagement of US military forces from Iraq, and a heavy majority support a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (though some argue that a single state from the Jordan to the Sea would best express Muslim values and/or the empowerment of Palestinian communities).
This tour d'horizon of American religious opinion on the Middle East suggests an imaginable but difficult coalition among those Jews, Christians, and Muslims who urge the abandonment of terrorism, assassination, and war and encourage the cultivation of an ethic of nonviolence among the many conflicting parties in the Middle East; who support the emergence of a viable, democratic, peaceful, and independent Palestine deeply influenced by the Christian and Muslim values so vivid to those who live in the shadow of Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock; who seek an Israel that sees the best vision of itself as an expression of Jewish and democratic vitality expressed not through expansionism but in the prophetic values of justice, creative self-renewal, and peace; who work for the achievement of a full peace among Israel, Palestine, and all the surrounding states and political groupings; and who insist on the disengagement of the US military from Iraq.
To be able to mobilize strong public support, such a coalition would need to be aware of the practical realpolitik behind these policies, yet root itself most deeply in religious commitments to oppose oppression, war, violence, and injustice – values shared by all of the Abrahamic faiths.
And it would need to face the truth that even those who could agree on these basic values and the future goals might deeply disagree about events in the present. The Israel-Lebanon War, for example, found many people justifying Israeli strikes at Lebanese roads, villages, and cities on the ground they were necessary to root out a terrorist organization. Other people justified Hezbollah strikes on Israeli cities as necessary to punish Israel for its attacks or deter future ones. There were far fewer people ready to say that both sets of attacks violated what Christian religious language of just war calls "proportionality" in self-defense, and what the Talmud puts far more colorfully: "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. But if you could prevent his attack by wounding him instead of killing him, and nevertheless you kill him, you are a murderer."
Yet the kind of Abrahamic coalition we are urging would require precisely that kind of ability to apply basic religious values across tribal or ideological lines. Can it be achieved? We can find out only by trying, by gently planting seeds -- underground, at first invisible. Some will fail to sprout. But some will rise from acorn into oak.
One more complexity in the effort to draw on the Abrahamic communities to move toward Middle East peace. As we mentioned near the beginning of this essay, there is an overlap in the dangers of global scorching and of a US-Muslim world war. That overlap is rooted in the Middle East, which is not only the heartland of Islam but also the belly-land of Oil.
The profligate use of oil and coal puts the greatest pressure on the global climate – already endangering the weave of life upon our planet. And the addiction of modern technological civilization to oil is one of the pressures that leads to war in the oil-rich fields of the Middle East. Oiloholic America, in particular, has made a habit of first trying to make corrupt bargains with undemocratic and oppressive governments of oil-rich countries, and where this becomes impossible, either overthrowing the recalcitrant government or conquering the country.
So Abrahamic compacts to seek Middle East peace may need to take oiloholic addiction into account, and to work against it. Ending the addiction may not mean eschewing the use of oil altogether, but it might well mean emulating the miracle of Hanukkah – using one day's worth of oil to meet the needs of eight days. Reducing oil consumption to one-eighth of what it is now.
Indeed, it might be easier, more prudent, to begin the knitting-together of an Abrahamic action coalition around protection and healing of the earth than around the making of peace in the Middle East. Two other arenas that may lend themselves to early experiments in common action are empowerment of the poor and the protection of human rights, civil liberties, and equal justice for the weak -- in the present American atmosphere, immigrants of many origins, and Muslims of many backgrounds.
So we encourage groups or "Tents" of the Abrahamic communities that may arise in any American community, after going through the processes we have suggested of learning to understand and trust each other, and to celebrate together each others' holy seasons, to choose whatever level of action and focus of change meets their own situation.
* Rabbi Phyllis Berman was guide and facilitator for many of the sessions of the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. She is the founder (1979) and Director of the Riverside Language Program, an intensive school in New York City for adult immigrants and refugees from all over the world. She was for twelve years director of the Summer Program of the Elat Chayyim retreat center, and is the co-author of Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World and A Time For Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral As A Spiritual Journey.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org, which voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life; a co- author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims; and the author of Godwrestling – Round 2 and many other books, some on public policy and some on Jewish thought and practice.