These remarks were made at the Rumi Forum’s Interfaith Iftar on July 12, 2015. I thank them deeply for the warm invitation and opportunity to share in their sacred ritual.
I belong to a Facebook group devoted to talking about women’s hair covering practices. In this group, which is open only to women, posts range from serious questions of modesty, what it means to look distinctive in public spaces, women asking questions about religious practice and, of course, “Does this scarf match my outfit?”
The most amazing part of this group for me is that its virtual members represent a cross-section of observant Jews, Muslims, and Christians, donning tichels (which is what I wear), hijabs, hats, and headscarves. The group has taught me one fundamental truth: That once we approach a level of observance — a level of faith — where we consider our spiritual practices holy, we are all really the same. We all struggle with issues of modesty, with traditional values, and with what it means to be a religious person in modern society.
As instructive as hair covering practices have been for me, practices and liturgy around food are equally instructive. Food is the bridge — the tipping point — which turns us from instinctive animals relying on impulse only into thinking, faithful human beings. As a God-fearing Jew, I don’t just eat: I bless the God that provided me that food. As I searched my core texts this week for messaging about food, I noticed that the Bible, every time it praises God for or asks God to be the Provider of food, it uses universal language. For example, from Psalm 145: “The eyes of all wait for You, and You give them meat in due season. Open Your hands and satiate all living beings.”
The first paragraph of our Grace After Meals presents a similar message: “Blessed are You, Lord our God … who has fed the whole world in Your goodness, in kindness, favor, and mercy. God is the giver of Bread to all flesh, for His kindness is eternal. And in His great goodness we have never lacked and we will never lack food.”
And so the choice not to eat is equally significant to all of us. By choosing to fast as a spiritual practice, we deny ourselves a most basic need in order to cause change — in ourselves, in our God. We look within, reflect, ask forgiveness, plead our case. Although God or Allah or Jesus asks us to deprive ourselves, we must make a conscious choice to abstain — not just once per day, but every time we are exposed to our triggers. Even outside of prescribed fast days, we abstain and exempt ourselves from pieces of mainstream society in order to unify ourselves with other who practice our religion.
Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a former professor of sociology, once noted that all Jews in America are Jews by choice. Generalizing wider, then, all practitioners of religion in America are practitioners by choice. We all make the active choice to adhere to our faith practices.
As observant people of faith, we must be in conversation. We must support each other in our respective and distinctive quests to attain holiness and godliness. In sharing a meal, we not only sustain our bodies, we nourish our spirits as well. The similarities between us create openness when we join together at the table, the differences add sweetness to our conversation.
My husband Bob and I thank you for including us in this sacred meal, and thank the Rumi Forum for the warm invitation.
I bless us, through our abstinence and our openness, through acceptance of others and faith, to find fulfillment every day. May our active choices as partners and our limitations in society provide us new opportunities for growth and belief. May our communication be welcome and accepted by the One to whom we each direct our prayers.