Ramadan and Jews
As we mark the new moon of Tammuz this weekend, the Muslim community begins the month of Ramadan.
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
I spent much of last week following the third unit of a residential course for faith leaders in interfaith understanding. It was a rich and wonderful experience, organised by Cambridge Coexist, a title to which my computing skills cannot do justice because the ‘C’ represents the crescent moon of Islam, the ‘X’ Judaism’s Magen David, and the ‘E’ the form of the cross. Old friendships among us were deepened, new friendships made.
I asked one of my new friends, Remona Aly, what Ramadan meant to her. She sent me the following inspiring response:
For me, Ramadan is a time for spiritual renewal, self-discipline, sincere gratitude and focused introspection. In one of my favourite verses in the Quran, Allah tells His servants: “I am closer to you than your jugular vein”. Just as God is intimately close to each one of us, Ramadan is an invitation and a beautiful reminder to me to draw closer to my Creator whose mercy envelops me like a warm embrace.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year, entails fasting daily from dawn until dusk. Especially when it falls over mid-summer, and particularly for Muslims living in latitudes far from the equator, this cannot be easy. As one of the participants on our course acknowledged, its challenges include struggling with feeling ‘hungry, thirsty and irritable’.
But, as on the Jewish fasts, fasting itself is not the whole and sole purpose. Ramadan, traditionally understood as the month when God’s revelation of the Quran commenced, is a time for intense prayer, deep study of its sacred text, and generosity in giving. My friend Shezad has often told me how warm-hearted crowds gather at the Mosque before and after the Iftar meal with which each day’s fast concludes, to pray and study together far into, and especially in the last ten days of the month, right through, the night. His words have always communicated to me a joyful and wonderful sense of spiritual community.
It would be foolish to deny that relations between the West and Islam contain painful difficulties and challenging concerns, in both directions. For Jews and Muslims especially, there often lies between us the unaddressed shadow of the politics of the Middle East. But if one googles ‘Ramadan and Jews’ one finds numerous U-Tube videos of Jews and Muslims celebrating the Iftar meal together, across the world.
My perception is that there exists a deep and widespread admiration for a community which adheres to the discipline demanded by Ramadan. Such commitment enables it to have an important counter-cultural voice amidst the individualistic ethos of societies where those very individuals often feel lonely and unhappy in the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfilment.
There is no such thing as a serious religious life, or spiritual path, without discipline. Judaism too makes its demands on us in how we pray, study, eat, conduct our personal and work lives, give charity, commit ourselves to our community and dedicate ourselves to fostering an inclusive society founded on justice, compassion, human dignity, freedom and peace.
Ramadan therefore offers an opportunity for us, Jews and Muslims, to test out what might lie beyond fear and mistrust so that we can begin to find in each other a fellowship of culture and values, and share, in Remona Aly’s words, ‘a beautiful reminder’ of our longing to be servants of God within the embrace of God’s compassion.