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RAMADAN MUSINGS: Judaism and Islam

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Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand

Asian Lite marks Holy Month of Ramadan with a series of Ramadan Musings with Masarat Daud

While I shouldn’t be surprised at the intersections between Judaism and Islam, I must admit that it always lands up as a pleasant surprise when I come across them! In 2013, as a late bloomer in interfaith understanding, when I found out that female rabbis were a real phenomenon, I was blown away. If women have been able to negotiate their space in a time that preceded Islam, then how do we accept more backward rulings on women?

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand (her extensive bio is listed at the end) is one of the most grounded, deeply wise people I have met. Speaking of fasting, she mentions that while the Jewish tradition does not have a Ramadan-style month-long fasting period, but the fasts are scattered throughout the year. However, there are two days in a year where 25-hour long fasts are observed. One of them being Yom Kippur, which is a time for repentance and reflection, on what it is that we would like to change about ourselves.

“For 25 hours, there is no food, water, washing, wearing leather, sexual relations and such. We ignore our body for those 25 hours because the soul becomes more important than the body,” Shoshana adds. This is a time when God forgives us and we forgive others who have wronged us, so it is a period of spiritual cleansing and a way to ‘start over’.

The second important fast is during the middle of the summer and is called Tisha B’av (ninth day of the month of Av). It is a day that marks the tragedies that struck the Jewish communities, including the destruction of the temple (twice: by Babylonians and Romans), the expulsion of the Jewish communities from Spain and England. Shoshana explains that “this is a day of collective self-reflection, where we ask ourselves why did this happen to us?” It is a day of mourning and she mentions that during this day in Jerusalem, we can find people weeping at the site of the temple. It is viewed as the absence of God’s tangible presence and the question it poses is: how can we bring God and divinity back into our lives?

One fascinating moment of personal discovery was finding that Sadaqa in Islam (voluntary charity) has an equivalent in Judaism, called ‘Tzedaka’. However, in Hebrew, it does not translate as charity but is an act that embodies a sense of justice and righteousness; as charity, it is not an option.

“In Biblical times, because it was an agricultural society, there was an obligation to give away 10% of your crops to the needy and with the industrial age, that now refers to 10% of your income but there are differences of opinion among rabbis on that figure,” she explains.

Ramadan MusingsThere is a twist though. Shoshana explains that people who receive help through Tzedaka also have an obligation to share it with others lesser fortunate than themselves.” Generosity is an endless loop and “to be human, you have to become generous.”

In Jewish tradition, as in Islam, fasting is not obligatory on the pregnant women, the sick and young children. Fasting is not meant to harm our bodies. A common age to start fasting is at 13. Shoshana still remembers her first fast, a mixture of excitement and nervousness at stepping into the world of older people’s rituals.

“I remember thinking it would be tough to fast but when I did fast, I remember how exhilarating it was! As children, we don’t have control over our lives because we are guided and asked to obey our elders but at 13, I was taking responsibility for my own spiritual life. It was the relationship between just me and God.”

The only way to tackle prejudices and biases is to increase our knowledge, to “read” as the first word of Koranic revelation tells us to do. I hope this piece inspires you to read more on other Jewish traditions and through this, find commonalities we can share and with everything else, use it as an opportunity to learn more about Judaism.

Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is a senior member of the London-based Pears Foundation team and the director of the foundation’s operating programme, JHub. She is a founding faculty member of the Senior Faith Leaders Programme, and JDOV, a Jewish TED-style video platform www.jdov.org.

Previously, Shoshana was the Chief Executive of the UK Movement for Reform Judaism. She studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary where she was ordained as a rabbi in 1993 after graduating magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College.

She is the author of numerous articles on Jewish leadership and innovation, as well as The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales, an illustrated collection of Jewish stories for all faiths and all ages.

(Masarat Daud is many things. A girl’s education campaigner, a TED speaker, a TEDx curator, a recent SOAS MA graduate and a politically-incorrect humourist currently based in London.)