Category Archives: Blog

2023 Dialogue: “Help Me Be Teachable Today” – A Reflection

On Saturday, October 28, a group of individuals representing Edmonton’s interfaith and intercultural community gathered in the beautiful fellowship space of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples.

A Common Word Alberta’s 13th Annual Dialogue consisted of Christians, Muslims and Indigenous teachers coming together in a spirit of learning and for setting a foundation of reconciliation. This dialogue took place as global events have brought news of untold suffering and an incomprehensible destruction of life. The Planning Committee wondered how these feelings of dismay and despair be integrated with our invitation to others to learn. By the grace of God, and with the help of Indigenous ceremony in the form of the opening smudge and land acknowledgement, we were brought into the present moment to absorb what we were meant to learn that day.

We were in the care of Indigenous Elder, Fernie Marty, and his helper, Candida Shepherd.  Building on last year’s dialogue on the theme of “Expanding the Circle,” we gathered to further explore the intersections of land, history, displacement from one’s land and oppression and the impacts on the Indigenous people. We learned about our roles and our responsibilities as people of faith living today on Treaty Six land. The theme for the gathering was “Help me to be teachable today.” Fernie Marty is an Indigenous Cree Elder tasked with passing on Indigenous Cree teachings, and holds much knowledge about Good Medicine, medicine that contributes to our well-being including herbs. Yet, with all of this knowledge, Elder Fernie had shared that he wakes up every morning and prays, “Lord, help me to be teachable today.”  

The goal of our learning was threefold:

·         to understand the history that led to the Truth and Reconciliation’s (TRC) 94 Calls to Action (2015)

·         to begin to understand the Medicine Wheel as a tool to help us live into wellbeing for ourselves and every living thing around us

·         to see where we are being invited to do the work of reconciliation through the unending circle of the Medicine Wheel

The Medicine Wheel can help to heal us and the world. As Elder Fernie taught, we engage each day with the cycle of life in the medicine wheel. The four directions of help bring awareness to the four aspects of our human life experience that contribute to our wellbeing: our mental health, our physical health, our emotional health and our spiritual health. Our awareness is the first step to helping us rebalance these when one or more is out of synergy.   

For the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples, the cross, in the context of Christ’s great love or “Sacred Heart,” is at the centre of the Medicine Wheel. All of our attention to experiencing the cycles of life, the cycles of planting, growing, harvesting and resting, contributes to our ability to rebalance our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. And all of this comes from and goes out from the centre which is our One God – our Creator. 

The Medicine Wheel is a way to balance our inner and outer world.  When we reflect on the Medicine wheel, we are invited to consider many moving parts of the cycle and the circle – things happening all at once, all the time. The medicine wheel helps us leave the temptations that pull us out of the center of the circle. For our current collective work, the medicine wheel helps us interact with the TRC, since all of the calls to action fall into either mental, emotional, physical or spiritual incompleteness for our Indigenous peoples. We learned that CBC is tracking the progress on the 94 calls to action at the Beyond the Calls website. This website can help us remember, and encourage our government to play its role in the reconciliation we want to see. 

May we use this powerful tool of reconciliation as we remember our collective past here on Treaty 6 land, as we free people who have been harmed by the settler history of this land to speak their truth. Dennis Saddleman shared his truth in a poem about his Residential School experience called  “I hate you Monster “ — 2022  — where he compares the residential school building to a monster who is hungry to devour culture, language, confidence, and children. The poem ends with a vision of transforming our monsters to reclaim our dreams and stories of tomorrow. As we listen to the truth expressed by our children and elders and everybody in between, may we contribute in ways that allow for all those whose dreams and stories have been snuffed out to reclaim what we all long for as believers in One God.

2023 Dialogue: “Help Me Be Teachable Today”

A Common Word Alberta (ACWAB) Annual Interfaith Dialogue is approaching. We warmly invite you to join us again this year to build on the journey of expanding our circle and allow us to find

interconnectedness and reconciliation with the First Peoples of Treaty Six.

During our time together, we will be guided by our special guests Elder Fernie, and Helper Candida. They will teach us about the Cree Medicine Wheel of Life. Cree Medicine is the element that contributes to a holistic philosophy of health and healing where our well-being is at its fullest and emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental experiences are interconnected.

Our guests will integrate this medicine wheel with the Calls to Action from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report to help us, as settlers, including newcomer settlers, understand our role in the reconciliation process. We will have four opportunities to have a dialogue in small groups. Our time together will conclude with reflections from Dr. Christina Conroy and Imam Sadique Pathan.

We invite you to share this opportunity with your friends and relations so that we can

all learn together what it means to contribute the best of ourselves and our faith traditions to reconcile with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. May God guide us in his infinite mercy and peace.

Refreshments and a light lunch will be served.

Saturday, October 28, 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples (10821 96 Street).

Tickets available at Eventbrite.

Invite your friends on Facebook.

2022 Dialogue: “Drawing the Circle Bigger”

Written and edited by Suzanne Gross and Naz Qureshi

On October 29, 2022,  A Common Word Alberta hosted its 9th annual dialogue. Individuals representing the Muslim and Christian faith traditions gathered in-person and virtually at the All-Saints Anglican Cathedral to engage in dialogue. Scott Sharman and Naz Qureshi  opened with the following context for this year’s theme of ‘Drawing the Circle Bigger’:

“We are asking our speakers to help us understand how our call into dialogue as Muslims and Christians also calls us to broaden the dialogue further. In particular, the way that Christians and Muslims living in this land we call Canada each have a responsibility to pursue right relations with the First Peoples in whose traditional territories we live. 

This topic was chosen in part because of the recent visit of Pope Francis to Canada as part of a penitential pilgrimage among the First Peoples. It also has a special urgency because of the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that address religious communities. While some of these calls to action are directed in particular ways to Christian churches and institutions, there are also interfaith dimensions. “  

The guest panelists were Christina Conroy, a professor of theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, and Imam Sadique Pathan from Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton. Four main questions were used to guide the reflections of the panelists, as well as the table discussions where participants shared insights from their experiences and perspectives:

1. What in your respective scriptures/stories from your faith traditions encourage us to take collective responsibility for “sins of the past”? 

2. Can you reflect on the overlap between the Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada and messages and examples of reconciliation from your faith traditions?

3. Are there scriptures/stories from your faith traditions that illustrate “drawing the circle bigger” to include everyone as worthy of the mercy or love of God?

4. Many Indigenous Peoples teach that all of us live in a wide web of relationships – to other humans, certainly, but also to lands, to waters, and to what are often called non-human relatives (which includes plant and animal life, and various kinds of spiritual beings). These relationships always come with mutual responsibilities. Please share a similar concept of relationship and responsibility from your own faith tradition and reflect on how it is relevant to dialogue and reconciliation.

The panel discussion from the two panelists was thought provoking and engaging. After each table discussion, a representative was asked to share key insights. Collectively, a few themes emerged that are summarized below.

Although our different scriptures do not all include a concept of collective guilt or collective sin, the concept of collective responsibility emerged as a guiding principle as we navigate oppression or injustice from the past. Having settled in this land, those who are not of Indigenous descent, inherit the social constructs and complexities that have arisen from the past.  Christina shared the Christian concept of Jubilee, which is striving to address inequity economically, including returning of land, and Sadique discussed the Islamic concept of justice, and being accountable for our actions. Both concepts invite us to lead lives with a spirit of recalibrating or rebalancing for justice to prevail.   

The Quran starts with us as individuals, encouraging believers to be critical thinkers when it comes to judging or discriminating against others. It calls the faithful to stand firm for justice, even it if is against yourself or your next of kin. The idea that reconciliation is the core work of a Christian can be found in writings of the apostle Paul, in Colossians.

Reconciliation starts with an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and apology but does not stop with simple validation. As Canadians, we need to convey intent that “we stand with you; what do you need or how can I help?” when it comes to reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.  

On the topic of overlap with Indigenous teachings about care of and responsibility for the natural world, our Christina reflected on how Jesus often referred to nature using natural plants and phenomena in his parables.  Who was Jesus’ teacher in all of this?  Likely his mother Mary. Both traditions have stories of caring for the environment, nature, and all created beings. Sadique shared stories from the Islamic faith on the treatment of animals and how in the Quran, everything created praises God the creator – even the rocks – a concept echoed in the Hebrew and Christian Bible as well.  

An observation shared from a participant was that our governments seem to get stuck on apology and are unable to move to taking meaningful action that helps restore justice. One table participant commented: “If government is the obstacle to addressing the systemic issues that keep us from moving from apology to justice, maybe these interfaith dialogues are even more important! “

While a sensitive topic, it was one that needed to be broached, and it was done so in a beautiful manner. 

A Quaker-Jewish Perspective on Ethics and Halachah

Robert Kirchner

Topics addressed: theological grounding of ethics, relation to halachah, comparison of Jewish and Quaker approaches.

1. What is Havayah?

I begin by attempting to formulate a personal understanding (coherent, I hope) of ethics and its relation to theology. I’m not a trained philosopher nor a theologian; perhaps my thoughts on these topics are obvious and/or easily discredited. Indulge me please as I try to work this out for myself.

Studying organic gardening triggered a mystical response in me. Soil, I learned, is not an inert substance: it’s a living community, a complex ecosystem of growing and decaying vegetation, arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, as well as sand, silt, clay, water and air. The soil fauna and microbes constantly break down dead vegetation, making the nutrients within it available to the living plants, while feeding themselves other fauna, and storing extra nutrients in the form of humus. I felt radical amazement at how these billions of microbes in a foot of topsoil have richly interdependent relationships, with each other and with the plants and microorganisms that grow among them, permitting them to thrive, and how all of life, including us, emerges from this dense symbiotic network, cycling nutrients and energy among living things, as one organism dies, and another grows from its remains.

So what can we call this web of rich interdependence, these relations of parts to each other and to the whole? I want an word that not only objectively describes the phenomenon, but also recognizes and does justice to the radical amazement that it provokes. I want to call this phenomenon ‘love’. If we understand love not primarily as an emotion, but as actions of caring for another, of mutual aid, I don’t think it is at all far-fetched to say that the soil food web, including both living things and inorganic materials, massively exhibits love.

Now, let’s move from microcosm to macrocosm, from a bit of soil to the whole universe. I understand God, or (to use a friendlier term) Havayah1, to be the sacredness immanent within the universe. She could also characterized as the אחד2 of the universe. And just as in a bit of soil, the relation of all the parts to one another, and to the underlying אחד, is also massive love, now on a macrocosmic scale.

‘God is love’: so says a certain first-century Jewish text, 1 John 4:7 (though this text was excluded from the canon of Rabbinic Judaism). I don’t know whether there are comparable statements within the Rabbinic canon, or in subsequent Jewish literature. I do recall Rabbi Arthur Green asserting that love is the fundamental value underlying Judaism, notwithstanding the common misconception that this idea that Christianity has exclusive ownership of this idea, and that Jews are thereby preempted from saying the same thing.

2. Havayah and ethics.

There are at least two distinct senses in which we use the terms ‘good’ and its opposite, ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. ‘Good and bad’ can refer to things that I like or don’t like, respectively, or that humans collectively like or don’t like in general. A comfortable chair is good; stomach cancer is bad. Good and bad, in this usage, have nothing to do with ethics. In this sense, we can say that Havayah creates both good and evil, as in Isaiah 45: 7, for She is what underlies reality — all of reality — whether we like it or not.

In the realm of human ethics, however, my starting place is Hannah Arendt’s observation, ‘the banality of evil’. That is, evil (in the ethical sense) is fundamentally a manifestation of prosaic human stupidity, a failure of imagination, a lack of emotional intelligence, that prevents human moral agents from apprehending their connection to others, of thereby feeling compassion for their suffering, or of giving sufficient attention to the consequences of their actions (or inactions) toward others. Conversely, good (in the ethical sense) is action (or inaction) toward others which is fully informed by and imbued with an attitude of love. Love, awareness of connection, action that accords with such awareness — these are the very essence of Havayah. When humans, in our banality, act in ways that are contrary to love, we are living at cross-purposes to Havayah, to the spirit of the universe Herself, we are denying the sacred, cutting ourselves off from Her. I thus ground my ethics firmly in my theology, but without appealing to a personal God who issues commandments, nor punishments nor rewards therefor.

3. Ethics, halachah3, and Quaker testimonies.

However, merely saying, ‘act in accordance with love’, is insufficient practical guidance in many cases. Our limited human intelligence, our lack of awareness of others’ needs, our failure to consider complex consequences of our actions, may all result in harm rather than aid. Moreover, the demands of compassion toward others must be balanced against the need to care for ourselves, not to mention our finite attentions. For all these reasons, our individual capacity to do good, in actual practice, may be significantly enhanced when the principle of love is supplemented with the collective wisdom of a community, developed over time, as to how to apply that principle in specific cases, or even broad classes of cases. Hence the utility of notions such as halachah and Torah.

It occurs to me that Quakers have a somewhat analogous notion, the Testimonies. These are broad principles or values – formulated variously as

  • Simplicity
  • Truth
  • Equality
  • Peace

(acronym STEP), or

  • Simplicity
  • Peace
  • Integrity
  • Community
  • Equality,
  • (and more recently, Sustainability)

(acronym SPICE(S)).

These Testimonies are still highly general, far from the specificity of typical halachic rules. But each Testimony derives from concrete actions that early Quakers felt ‘led by the Spirit’ (i.e. commanded by God) to take, contrary to contemporary social norms and laws. The Testimony of Peace is a generalization of Friends’4 early collective leading to refuse to participate in warfare; and that decision has been reaffirmed by every subsequent generation of Quakers. Similarly, the Testimony of Equality is a generalization of Friends’ early refusal to show deference to their social ‘betters’, and their recognition that women could minister as well as men; and this Testimony was reaffirmed and extended further when we came to oppose slavery and accompanying theories of racial superiority. So each of these Testimonies has a kernel of historic specificity, of concrete application, which still obtains, as well as a penumbra of extensions.

Quakers, like other mystical movements, emphasize personal direct experience of God. But in discerning how we should act in the world, Friends’ focus on individual experience is tempered by our collective decision-making process. An individual may experience a ‘leading’ to do something, but if it somehow reflects on Friends generally or requires support from other Friends, the leading must be ‘tested’ by the whole Meeting. If the Meeting ‘unites’ with the leading, it becomes part of Quaker practice, perhaps just for that local Meeting; or if other Meetings adopt it as well, the practice may come to be adopted among Quakers more broadly. These decisions are recorded in minutes of the Meeting. In practice, Friends rarely consult minutes from more than a few years ago, and tend to rely more on the memories of long-term members. Friends do not study past decisions the way Jews study the Talmud. Perhaps we ought to.

I don’t have much further to say about halachah at this point, being still largely ignorant of the field. But I am encouraged by this discovery of certain parallels between halachah and Quaker practice, and this motivates me to learn more about it.

These parallels should not be overstated, though. One obvious difference is that Quaker decisions are reached by the whole Meeting, whereas halachic decision-making, Orthodox or Reform, is restricted to those with specialized training, the rabbis.

I close with a lament that both Reform Judaism and Liberal Quakerism, in modern times, have largely abdicated the field to individualism. At a time when our communities urgently need to be collectively discussing and strategizing about how to resist and overcome capitalist injustice and environmental disaster, we are instead left more or less to our own devices; the surrounding culture insists, and we have acquiesced, that it is a matter of individual choice how we earn our livelihoods, how we get our food, how we travel, etc., though all of these ‘personal’ decisions have huge collective impacts. I value personal autonomy – I don’t wish to move to an arrangement where every personal decision needs to be approved by a committee – but we can’t effectively challenge the status quo so long as we each make all of our decisions in isolation.

1Havayah (הויה) means ‘existence’ in Hebrew. It is sometimes used in liberal Jewish circles as an alternative to Adonai, to refer to God. The word is etymologically related to the ineffable Biblical name of God, it is a permutation of the same four Hebrew letters, and it is of feminine gender.

2Eḥad, ‘one’.

3Halachah (הלכה) means Jewish law, literally ‘[way of] walking’.

4I use ‘Quaker’ and ‘Friend’ interchangeably.

What I learned from Ramadan

Randolph Haluza-DeLay

(Published in Canadian Mennonite, May 6, 2020)

We were in the midst of the Christian season of Lent as I wrote this. Shortly after Lent ended and Easter came, Muslims began the season of Ramadan. The month-long period of daily fasting launched on April 23. The couple of years I have observed the season of Ramadan have been of stunning benefit for my Christian faith.

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection and heightened devotion for Muslims. This period of 29 or 30 days—the dates change every year, following the lunar calendar of 13 months—is marked by fasting, prayer, self-examination and community. The fasting is most well-known, just as giving up something for Lent is what most people understand about the Christian season. Each fasting period lasts from just before sunup to just after sundown. Believers are to refrain from food, any sort of drink, intimate relations, tobacco and other impurities, and are encouraged to give more to charity. 

Ramadan fell across the summer solstice in the year that I fasted; the longest days of the Canadian year are long indeed! Fasting is not unusual for me, or for many other Christians. But abstaining from water or any other drink made this fast much more strenuous in effort.

The rigour of the Ramadan fast was my first lesson. The discipline reduced my energy and concentration, so it provided appreciation for what Muslim co-workers and fellow Canadians may be experiencing for a full month. It also reminded me that, as a Christian, my holy days are holidays and I do not need to take vacation time to practise my religion.

Most Muslims break the fast each day with family, friends or fellow congregants in the iftar meal. My second lesson was that the daily fast was far more difficult because I had no one to celebrate each day with. The difficult things are easier when family or others share the journey. 

In another year, I was to be at a month-long gathering of Christian scholars during Ramadan. Fasting would be awkward, so I decided to pray five times a day. This is another pillar of Muslim religious practice. Some liturgical and contemplative Christian traditions also set several specific times at which to pray the “divine office” that may include matins, midmorning prayer, vespers and so on. For Muslims, the five times are set according to the arc of the sun across the daily sky. The specificity of the time reminds the faithful that God comes first, before any of the activities we might be engaged in. This attitude, and frequent prayer, would be something that Christians would value, I thought.

Two lessons also occurred that year. The first was the inconvenience posed by regular times for prayer, even among fellow believers! I set reminder alarms for lunch, and at morning and afternoon tea breaks, in addition to the early-morning and late-day times. But the days fluctuated enough to make these alarms disruptive. God interrupts our lives!

The second lesson was how wonderful this practice was for producing a sense of closeness to God. For several months afterward, I kept the routine, and now I am flabbergasted as to why I did not continue. 

Lent and Ramadan are “disruptions” in the regularity of life. They interrupt the normal everydayness in which habits form without conscious reflection, and life becomes taken for granted. Like bumps in the road that, when driving late at night, disrupt the sleepy autopilot, we need these disruptor moments in our faith lives. 

Randolph Haluza-DeLay participates in several Christian-Muslim dialogue groups in Edmonton and co-taught a course with a Muslim theologian at The King’s University called Engaging Islam as Interfaith Encounter.

Interfaith During COVID-19

By Naz Qureshi 

I was speaking to an older employee of mine this morning who advised me regretfully that she had been looking forward to Easter services and because of the pandemic , unfortunately would have to miss them. I asked her what denomination of Christianity she belonged to and informed her there were several online Church services taking place. She advised me that she was Catholic and within minutes I sent her a link with all the upcoming Catholic services in the city. She is aware that I am a Muslim, and was touched, saying that was very kind. I wished her well and felt good about being able to provide my employee with a way to participate in her worship because it meant so much to her to do so; to connect with the Divine Oneness the way she knew how to. Suddenly, I noticed the music I had playing in the background. It was a contemporary Jewish religious singer that a Jewish friend had emailed me that very morning. It was sent as a token of light in these times of isolation and uncertainty. While I understood none of the Hebrew words, it was that small act of kindness that had touched me and I was listening to it in that very moment while I worked. In that tiny, precious moment, the ‘paying it forward’, those small acts of consideration came full circle. I leaned back in my chair and I smiled at the realization of how blessed I was to not only witness, but be an active participant in the children of Abraham giving and receiving in harmony to one another.

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.