Jews and Muslim share a remarkable history. Medieval Jewish scholars read Aristotle and Plato in the Arabic translation. The masterpiece of Jewish philosophy–Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed–was written in Arabic.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed the deterioraton of that relationship. While Jewish-Christian relations have never been better, Jewish-Muslim dialogue consistently falters.
What We Share
Focusing on shared religious values is one way we can improve them. The month of Ramadan is an ideal opportunity. The parallels between the traditions and teachings of Ramadan and the message of the High Holy Days are striking. Consider the following:
1. Fasting: During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. On the Jewish Day of Atonement–Yom Kippur–Jews undertake a 25-hour fast.
What is the purpose of fasting? To focus our minds on matters of the spirit.
Too often we live purely in the physical and material world. As the poet Wordsworth put it, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Fasting helps us avoid that trap. It reminds to look at the higher purpose of our existence. What do we live for? What is most important to us?
2. Mercy: A traditional practice of Ramadan is to ask El Raham (the God of Mercy) to open the gates of rahim, or “mercy.” On Yom Kippur, Jews implore and refer to God as El Molei Rachamim, the God of mercy.
While both faiths emphasize God’s attribute of justice–that is, the idea that God asks us to do good and reject evil and provides reward and punishment for doing so–both also conceive of a God who accepts and forgives our missteps. The great Jewish commentator Rashi suggested that God’s greatness consists of balancing justice and mercy (Din and Rachamim).
3. Law: Judaism and Islam share a core religious concept: the centrality of a system of law. In Judaism it is known as Halakhah, which means “the way.” In Islam it is known as shari’a, which also means “way.”
This concept finds concrete expression in Ramadan and in the Days of Awe. Each has a set of positive and negative commandments. Their goal is to concretize sacred concepts in daily life. Or, to use the elegant phrase of Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, both faiths seek to translate the poetry of heaven into the prose of everyday life.