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The Quaker on the Roof

by Robert Kirchner

In my own way, I am, I suppose, sort of a one-man interfaith dialogue – a state of affairs that has .come about largely through my involvement in a Scriptural Reasoning Group.

Let’s start with the fact that I am Jewish on my father’s side, though he and my mother were atheist, and so I was raised without any religious affiliation. I had a hunger for a spiritual community though, and I explored a range of religions on my own in my early adulthood, from fundamentalist Christianity to Wicca. My wife is Mennonite, and from her I absorbed Sermon-on-the-Mount values of non-violence and radical social justice. But my earlier experiences left a bad taste in my mouth regarding (what I thought was) Christianity, so I was not comfortable with many Christian beliefs, nor with typical Protestant styles of worship.

About 10 years ago, though, I found a spiritual home with the Quakers. Quakerism began in 17th century England as a radical-mystical Christian movement, but the emphasis has always been on right action and process, not on assent to a particular creed. Most Quakers nowadays still identify as Christian, but some do not. And Quakers’ silent worship style is closer to Zen meditation than to a Protestant church service. We are united not by our belief, but by our shared experience of God’s spirit in worship. Here it seemed was a religious tradition that I could learn and grow from, while still being my authentic self.

But throughout my religious journey, the Jewish part of me never quite gave up. In spite of my lack of involvement with it growing up, I have had a lifelong interest in Judaism, and in Jewish culture and history, mostly through reading. In university, I took several semesters of modern Hebrew, and a course in Jewish law. Spiritually, I am a bit like an adoptee, with a wonderful, solid relationship with my adoptive parents (the Quakers), but nevertheless feeling a need to connect with my biological family. At various points in my life I thought about deepening my connection to the Jewish community, but something always held me back.

First, the violent, patriarchal character of God as presented in the Hebrew Bible I found morally repugnant. In particular, the divinely sanctioned genocide of the Canaanites described in the Book of Joshua was not the sort of tradition I wanted to identify with. Second, I was put off by late-20th-century Judaism’s apparent commitment to political Zionism. I have no wish to see Israeli Jews ‘thrown into the sea’, but neither can I support the slow-motion genocide that the State of Israel has been inflicting on the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza, forcing them into open-air ghetto/prisons on near-starvation rations, mowed down by snipers if they protest. If that’s where modern Judaism is at, then no thanks, I’ll keep my distance.

In recent years, however, my perception of Judaism has altered. A growing number of Jews, in the diaspora and even in Israel itself, are as horrified by Israeli treatment of Palestinians as I am, and they’re not keeping quiet about it. Although old-guard Jewish organizations like B’nai B’rith still try to discredit and silence them, these post-Zionist Jews are no longer marginal within the Jewish community, particularly among the younger generation. It no longer seemed enough for me to express my own post-Zionist views from the sidelines: I felt led to jump into the fray and actively support other Jews challenging Israeli government oppression, in solidarity with Palestinians. So I joined Independent Jewish Voices Canada, an organization that does exactly that, as well as working for peace and justice generally, as an expression of Jewish values.

Secondly, although I’d rejected fundamentalist Christianity decades earlier, I was still seeing the Hebrew Bible through that lens, not through a Jewish lens, and this coloured my whole view of what Judaism is. Here’s where Scriptural Reasoning enters the story. The Edmonton group arose out of the efforts of one my wife’s Mennonite friends, Donna Entz, working to build bridges with the Muslim community. And I got dragged along, as I often do, as willing Quaker flotsam in the Mennonite wake. But through this group I got to know B, a learned Jewish attender, and from him I began to understand how Jews study their own sacred writings. First, there’s careful attention to details of wording in the Hebrew – details that are often missed in English translations. Then there’s elucidation of the text through comparison to thematically related texts elsewhere in the Bible, and commentary on these texts in the Talmud and collections of midrashim (rabbinic interpretation). The text is to be understood not just in terms of the surface meaning (p’shat) of the words, but their possible symbolic or allegorical meaning (remez), the meaning that emerges from comparison to other texts (deresh), and possibly mystical/esoteric meaning as well (sod). Most importantly, there’s no final definitive interpretation of anything: everything is perpetually up for debate. This intrigued me, and so with B I began attending Shabbat morning Torah studies at Edmonton’s Reform synagogue. And there I got to know the Rabbi – more on her later.

This new encounter with Judaism triggered further bouts of reading, and I learned that there are mystical traditions within Judaism that see God, not as the smite-thirsty character that appears in (p’shat readings of) Torah, but as immanent in the universe Itself, manifesting Itself in terms of feminine as well as masculine attributes, such as wisdom, beauty, compassion, and justice. Indeed, the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma (‘Hear O Israel’) asserts that God is one: that is to say, there is nothing else, and so everything that is – you, me, the rocks, the stars – we are all part of God, and God is within and around us. This is a theology that I as a Quaker can enthusiastically embrace. As we Quakers like to say, there is ‘that of God’ in every person – and, I would add, every animal, every plant, every molecule of animate and inanimate creation.

Additional reading led me to Finkelstein and Silberman’s (2001) The Bible Unearthed. The modern archaeological consensus is that the original Israelites were themselves Canaanites who abandoned the coastal cities upon the collapse of the Bronze Age Levantine civilizations, resettling in small egalitarian villages in the unpopulated highlands of Judea and Samaria. Perhaps their social position in those cities (which had been under Egyptian military control for much of that era) had been some of slavery, and this oral memory formed the nucleus of the Passover narrative. But the bloody conquest of Canaan described in Joshua through Kings is demonstrably fictional. Indeed, if my Passover conjecture is correct, then I find the actual history to be far more inspiring than the myth. A group of ex-slaves developed a culture with strong valorization of social justice and deep suspicion of the power of kings (cf. 1 Samuel 8) and their armies, values that resurface even more emphatically in the Prophets, in Talmud, and (dare I say it?) in the Gospels. Again, this is a spiritual heritage that I as a Quaker can enthusiastically embrace. The Canaanite conquest stories are to be understood, I believe, as a retrospective lamentation, written around the time of the Kingdom of Judah’s fall to the Babylonian Empire: if only we had completely removed these pagan nations, if only we had finished the job that Joshua started, there would have been no-one to lead us into temptation, to worship their idols for which we are now being punished.

So as I said, I began participating in Torah studies at the Reform synagogue. Then I began attending Friday evening Shabbat services as well. The Rabbi, I discovered, has a knack for taking what seems to be a dry Torah passage, or a formulaic prayer from the liturgy, and drawing layer upon layer of deep meaning out of it, like magic; I come away surprised and inspired and hungry to learn more. She accomplishes this regularly: I don’t entirely understand how she pulls it off. We Quakers have an anti-clerical bias, but I confess I’m somewhat in awe of this Rabbi’s gifts.

The term ‘Torah’ refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Torah is often translated as ‘the Law’, but the Hebrew word actually means ‘teaching’. Judaism has always insisted that there is an oral Torah as well as the written Torah. Oral Torah is often equated with the Mishnah, the nucleus of the Talmud. But in Reform Judaism, Torah is broader even than that. It is Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life, and like a living tree, it continues to grow new rings and put out new branches. Through Quakerism, I had come upon the quaint old term ‘Gospel Order’, which Quaker writer Lloyd Lee Wilson defines as ‘the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the creator.’ It speaks of an order inherent in the universe – as sweeping and inclusive as the notion of Dharma in Hindu and Buddhist teachings, or the Tao in Chinese traditions – that humans can align themselves with and cooperate with, if we choose to. I now understand Torah in this light: Torah is the continually evolving understanding of this natural order, as given specifically to the Jewish people. Christians and Muslims have the New Testament and Kor’an, respectively, as their specific understandings, grafted onto the Abrahamic rootstock. Other peoples have their own equally valid understandings and teachings. Hinduism, for example, has the Vedas and Upanishads, among other sacred writings. Indigenous peoples have their own ceremonies and unwritten teachings. But all life-affirming religious traditions, I believe, point toward the same God-given natural order.

All my life I’ve had a strong affinity to Judaism and Jewish culture, but my misconceptions had kept me at arm’s length from the organized religion. Now, thanks to Scriptural Reasoning, I have discovered a form of Judaism and a Jewish community that is in accord with my deepest spiritual values. So I joined Edmonton’s Reform Jewish synagogue. Inwardly, I already identify as Jewish, but because my mother was not Jewish, nor was I raised as a Jew, I have to formally convert to Judaism. But I see no incompatibility between being/becoming Jewish and remaining Quaker. I spoke to the Rabbi about this and she agreed. (Most rabbis, even within Reform Judaism, would not, I suspect, be so open-minded, and so I’m deeply grateful to her for this.) Now I’m taking conversion classes with the Rabbi, and in a year or so I will be able to formally convert, with the full support of my Quaker Meeting. I will be 100% Quaker and 100% Jewish.1 These two faith traditions dialogue away within me. With the Rabbi’s support, I’m organizing, among other things, a discussion series in the synagogue about peacemaking in Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, I continue to attend Scriptural Reasoning, which started me on this rich path.

1 To be clear though, I am not a ‘Messianic Jew.’ While I draw considerable inspiration from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t believe he was the Messiah, or rather, I believe that the Messiah is within each of us. So-called Messianic Judaism, in my experience, is just Evangelical Protestantism with a bit of Jewish packaging.

Surprise Learnings from Sharing about our Holy Books

By Suzanne Gross, Mennonite Christian

When I first considered joining the Scriptural Reasoning group, I felt a bit timid about being a valid representative of my faith tradition. Scriptural Reasoning invites us into each others’ faith tradition by choosing scriptural passages from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Quran on a topic that is illustrated in each of these passages. I have grown up in a faith tradition, taken some Bible and Religion classes many, many years ago, but beyond that am not schooled in Biblical Studies.

Over time, I began to see how steeped I am in the stories and passages presented. I am grateful for having grown up in a community that has passed on the stories and interpretations that have helped me make sense of my faith. And I am grateful, now, to be part of a group that shares this desire: to share the stories and interpretations or understandings of what has shaped our faith – from multiple faith traditions.

We gather over snacks and fellowship, and then read the scripture from each tradition one at a time, and through a circle conversation, take turns asking questions of the people whose tradition we are exploring. We are fortunate, now, to have all three faith traditions represented.

Initially, we did not have someone from the Jewish faith in the group. We would read the Hebrew scripture and discuss it from our Christian or Muslim faith lens. Now that we have a Jewish person who speaks to these texts, I realize how very different a Christian interpretation and understanding of what we call the “Old Testament” can be from a Jewish understanding. This has opened up a whole new perspective for me with respect to assumptions and understandings of the Hebrew scriptures.

An outcome of these discussions I was not expecting has been a deepening understanding of my own faith. I was indeed surprised when I found myself defending the Apostle Paul. Whereas I generally say that I love Jesus, but wrestle with Paul, when one of the Muslim participants suggested that Paul is the downfall of Christianity because he sanctioned breaking the purity laws around circumcision and food, I had a profound revelation: without Paul, I would not have the opportunity to have the faith I have. I am indeed grateful to Paul! And yet, when two weeks later, we looked at the passage on marriage where — for the New Testament passage — Paul exhorts women to submit to their husbands, I had to confess that I struggled. I cannot accept this hierarchy when Jesus empowered so many women. This confession opened a path for a Muslim participant to confess that she, too, loves the Quran, but wrestles with other writings that misrepresent her faith as she understands it. It was a beautiful coming together of people searching for truth through their respective faiths.

Our last scriptural reasoning topic was “non-violent responses to hatred.” The discussion was rich, leading to discussion around forgiveness, and how that works in our lives. The next day, I found a quote from Nelson Mandela that I thought summarized some of our sharing: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” We had truly come together around such an important element of our human experience.

Dialogue that makes the Impossible, Possible

By Bushra

It was a cold morning, not as cold as some other mornings I’ve experienced during my last two years of residence in Edmonton, but I was too excited to feel the cold. I remember thinking about the possibility of experiencing the impossible. Even though it seemed pretty casual to most people in that great spacious auditorium of long walls and high ceiling, for me as a new immigrant, born Muslim, studied at Catholic school, always interested in finding out more about so called “our God” and “their God” and frankly, never appreciated by the religious studies teacher for asking too many questions, this interfaith dialogue was in fact experiencing what didn’t seem to be practical, or even possible, in my school years.

I entered the building reminding myself of the term “6th”, repeating in my head that no matter how impossible it may seem to me, this interfaith dialogue has been going on for 6 years now. I guess I wanted to calm my nerves whenever I thought of the reactions I might receive as a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab, or as I heard many times in the recent year; “as others, who are not much liked because of people’s fear from what they are not familiar with”.

Interestingly enough, this was also the sentence I heard from the speaker, after being repeated a couple of times at our table too. Around a table of 8, with me being the only Muslim, two lovely Christian sisters, one Catholic couple, both wearing a cross with the lady’s one being slightly smaller than her husband’s, a priest and his friend from Ontario, and a very nice young facilitator who tried hard to remain nice even when unintentionally interrupted by our comments. Our communication started with talking about certain topics of our personal life (icebreaker on the program), which I found rather too personal at first. But then again, I’m from a conservative culture, so I did my best to ignore the little voice crying not to talk about personal feelings with 7 total strangers.

The topics were printed on the cards which were already placed on our table. The little voice vanished after one of the lovely sisters shared her sad experience of losing her husband. The sorrow, the pain, the emptiness, the confusion and finally, reaching God for help. What a familiar story. I felt every part of it, so similar, so meaningful. So this was the whole point, I thought. Familiarizing with “others”, feeling the similarities, and believing how close we are in our faith. How we will all reach God for peace in the days of difficulty. How we can all find comfort in the warmth of his kindness.

The card I picked asked me to share my passion with the group. And so I did. Free from the little voice, feeling God’s love, stronger than ever, for putting my fears aside, sitting with his believers, trying to know them and be known by them. I talked about my passion, and they talked about theirs. Followed by commenting on the speakers’ speeches and the conversation topics our facilitator led (facilitated discussion on the program), mostly trying to get to know each other, our communities and our common beliefs about peace, war, justice, poverty, racism, love and God.

It was only an interfaith dialogue, successfully repeated for the 6th time, but for whatever reason, it felt like being part of a silent, ongoing social evolution that tends to make the impossible, possible.

A typical program at Christian Muslim Dialogue in Edmonton

By Donna Entz, Facilitator, A Common Word Alberta

In the last ten years I have attended Dialogue events in Canada and the USA. The usual format has been speakers being given equal time and then a Q & A for the audience to engage the speakers. Here in Edmonton we decided instead to make it a priority that the participants engage with each other and have therefore designated the time allotments accordingly. The Speakers are there to shape the theme of the event and to be a catalyst for the discussion. We certainly hope that people leave the event pleased with the speakers and how they were challenged. But even more we as a committee long to hear from participants that they had a positive time around the tables in the facilitated discussion period. We try, but don’t always accomplish two blocks of time, each 45 minutes in length.

As to opening ceremonies, we always start by a prayer or recitation of one faith community, and close the event with the other. The first is usually the host community. The last years we have had an Indigenous person doing a welcome and opening as well.

The icebreaker is done with a set of cards supplied by the Intercultural Dialogue Institute. The cards are distributed around each table and each person shares an experience in turn. The cards are topics that help us establish our common humanity before we address faith issues later in the program. Some examples would be: Describe a time that you were very afraid, tell about a favourite person as you were growing up, etc.

The speakers of each community are given two rounds of 15 minutes each. The core of the Dialogue happens in the two discussion periods after the speakers. Here is an example of a typical schedule for our event, based on our 2018 dialogue event.

But in summary, none of this is possible unless there is “a willingness of all faith communities to work together on a continuous basis to form a closer bond”. Let’s not lose sight of this as the beginning point for anything of good to happen through the logistics of the Dialogue event.

Facilitating the Muslim Christian Dialogue

By Pouria

Through facilitating the Muslim Christian Dialogue 2018 event hosted by A Common Word Alberta, I was greeted with a warm welcome from the multi-culturally diverse audience upon my arrival. Being unacquainted with the others at my table, we played an ice breaker card game to break through the barriers between us. We quickly warmed up to one another as we shared stories and laugher ensued. A humorous moment that I recall, was when a Muslim gentleman, seated next to me, got the ‘share a stressful moment card, but he could hardly recall any stressful moment in his life!

 After the game and the fantastic remarks by the MCs, we had the chance to listen to two inspirational talks by the two guest speakers. The speakers would break to allow every table the opportunity to discuss the topics brought up by the speakers. I certainly enjoyed the mutually compelling discussions at my table, where a Christian lady shared her sad story about her father. Despite all her efforts in opening his eyes to and being more tolerant of different religions, he was still resistant to it. In contrast, everyone at my table was so willing to be open and transparent and coming together in dialogue to “walk the path together”. In addition, we had some detailed discussions on the practical aspects of the two faiths. Undoubtedly, a couple of Christian ladies at my table were somewhat astonished by the refusal of a hand shake by the Muslim gentleman and found it to be a challenging topic, which I tried to explain from the Muslim viewpoint. After an explanation, the ladies were satisfied with the rule and learned that it was by no means used to segregate or disrespect the other gender. It was simply a rule that both Shia women and men follow, due to the special reverence between the genders. Overall, the event was not only beneficial in teaching us to learn the differences between the religions, but also, to learn from and embrace each other’s faiths. To build onto the event, I am looking forward to more of these opportunities in the future.

The 6th Annual Christian/Muslim Interfaith Dialogue

By Joseph Abraham

The sixth Christian-Muslim Dialogue was held at the ARCA Banquet Hall in Edmonton on October 27, 2018. The theme of the Interfaith Dialogue was “Walking Together: Experiencing Peace In Our Midst.”

In a world that is constantly changing, where relationships between nations and neighbors are deteriorating, it is imperative that we constantly communicate with each other. Engaging in dialogue is very important to understand the view of others, especially in today’s world where we are no longer living in a situation where we are insulated from outside influences. As the saying goes the only constant in the world is change. Those people who are not willing to adapt to the changes that come, are left behind. Embracing change does not mean that we have to give up the values we stand for, but it is always beneficial to look for positives in the opposite parties whom we detest. Participating in the Interfaith Dialogue definitely helped to open the eyes of many in that regard.

After coming to Canada as a new immigrant myself, I faced many challenges to integrate with the Canadian psyche along with much discrimination and racism. The same discrimination exists in the country I originated from, in the form of the caste system where different groups are considered superior to others based on the caste they are born into. I could experience the feelings of the lower caste when I arrived in Canada and faced a similar type of discrimination.

These very same feelings of discrimination and hopelessness are currently being felt by the Muslim community and visible minorities in Canada which were clearly highlighted by the speaker Mr.Zaid al Rawni. The importance of loving your neighbor was highlighted by Dr.Wes Thiessen from Calgary.

The fundamentals of Christianity as explained by Jesus himself in Mark 12:30-31 as following:

30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

When we Christians follow the above two commandments of God it is possible to experience “peace in our midst.”