It may seem unlikely that a Muslim man, a Jain woman, and a plate of food could represent ingredients of hope in this heated debate, but where others have failed in their open-mindedness, they have succeeded.
Mumin is a kind old man with a tenderness that belies his huge proportions. A devout follower of Islam, he is a six-foot-three, 111-kilogram moral yardstick for all those around him. Eating, like everything in life, is a matter of faith for Mumin the Muslim. He only eats meat that is slaughtered in the prescribed Islamic way, and avoids all food that is haram (forbidden). The food Mumin eats is inextricably linked with his obedience to God.
Jamini moves in to the apartment next to Mumin. She is a sprightly woman with an innocent, inquisitive nature and a penchant for reading. A follower of the Jain tradition, she is a five foot two, 44-kilogram writer with an infectious laugh and a boundless love for her family who live in India. As a consequence of her central belief in ahimsa (non-violence), Jamini the Jain is a strict vegetarian. She believes it is wrong to be violent towards any living being.
The perspectives of Mumin and Jamini are a microcosm of the debate between the pro-shechita Orthodox Jews and the anti-shechita animal-rights activists. On one side we have a faith's dietary practice based on divine decrees. On the other side we have an ethical argument against the mistreatment of animals. Our friends Mumin and Jamini may share the same apartment block, but with such contrasting dietary practises and beliefs, it seems unlikely they have anything else in common.
Mumin, in keeping with the tradition of Islamic hospitality, invites his new neighbour to his apartment for dinner. Jamini explains to Mumin that she is a Jain and does not eat meat, fish, root vegetables, eggs, onion, or garlic. Mumin smiles with his inimitable warmth, secretly excited by the challenge of concocting a dish without so many ingredients, and secretly embarrassed for not knowing what a Jain is.
The two strangers dine together before sunset. Mumin cooks a wonderful meal and the conversation and fruit juice flow for several hours. Jamini is touched by Mumin's generosity and empathizes with the way in which his faith impinges on all aspects of his life. Mumin is fascinated by his effervescent guest and respects the way Jamini reflects ahimsa in every facet of her life. The two-part company as friends, their horizons broadened; their faiths infused with a renewed energy and purpose.
There is no reason why Mumin and Jamini's model can't work for those involved in the shechita debate; but first we need to find a dinner table that is suitable for both sides. The complexities of kashrut (Jewish dietary law) apply to not only food, but also to cutlery, crockery, and cooking utensils. Many Orthodox Jews will therefore only eat in their homes or prescribed licensed premises so as to avoid eating treif (non-kosher) food. One may assume a PETA activist would only eat in vegetarian outlets, but one would always ask first out of respect. So how do we bring the opposing parties together without causing any further antagonism?
One option would be for the Orthodox Jewish community to follow in Mumin's giant footsteps. They could open their minds and doors to people of different faiths and beliefs, and only serve food that their guests are comfortable eating. The question of whether a PETA activist has ever been invited to spend a vegetarian Friday night meal in a Jewish household is a moot point. I suggest that the experience of witnessing first-hand the devotion in the Torah, and hearing the sublime symphony of the after-dinner benching (blessings), would help the activist contextualize the practice of shechita. But getting the activist to the front door in the first place is a challenge in itself.
For those unwilling to offer or accept such hospitality, there are plenty of licensed kosher vegetarian restaurants where Jews and non-Jews can eat together. There are always circumstances in which two people of different faiths can share a meal-we just need to look for them.
Interfaith eating is not about forgoing our own beliefs in order to bend to someone else's lifestyle-just ask Jamini. Rather, it is about considering and catering for the beliefs of our neighbours, while staying true to what is in our hearts.
The little effort it takes to ask someone about her dietary beliefs and practices can go a long way. At an interfaith lunch in the House of Commons, Rabbi Lionel Blue told me a charming story about a man he met on a train to Belgium:
"He came up to me later and pulled out some food. `Monsieur, it is a baguette with hummus - it is kosh-er.' I was so touched that I kissed him on both cheeks and he kissed me on mine, and everybody cheered. You see, food can bring us together."
An Orthodox rabbi may not have accepted the baguette, but he certainly would have appreciated the man's thoughtfulness. A single step toward feeding a person according to his/her beliefs is a step toward friendship and progress.
Interfaith eating shifts the focus of the argument about religious dietary practice into a more productive arena. Sharing a meal is a simple and powerful way of getting to know our neighbours better. Interfaith eating, grounded in mutual respect and a willingness to learn, provides an opportunity for us to transcend the type of monotonous dialogue epitomized in the shechita debate. Like Mumin and Jamini, we are able to connect on an experiential level and find common ground on which to sow seeds of hope. And what's more, we get to eat-which is never a bad thing.