Saturday, December 5

The Faith Club - Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver & Priscilla Warner

In the aftermath of September 11, Episcopalian Suzanne’s book club began reading books about the Middle East, which prompted her to invite Ranya, the mother of one of her children’s classmates, to a meeting. A Palestinian, Ranya mentioned her idea of a collaborative children’s book project, co-authored by three women, Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Suzanne was keen to be involved, and through a mutual friend recruited Priscilla to the project.
The women soon discovered, however, that the task was more complicated than they thought, and the book writing quickly took second place to their discovering about common ground, prejudices and explorations of faith. This book, subtitled A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew – Three Women Search for Understanding, is the story of that journey.
The book is presented chronologically, with each woman contributing her perspective of events, the discussions and their personal history. Interwoven with the text are transcripts of their meetings, which they had the forethought to tape. Each chapter has a central topic – issues around the Crucifixion, conversion, prayer, rituals, ideas about an afterlife. These combine to present a picture of contrast. The overwhelming theme, however, is similarity and points of connection between these three, related faiths.
Though predominantly Christian, Australia is very secular, and though I went to a religious school the emphasis was on universal acceptance of difference – fellow students covered a number of non-Christian faiths, and while hymns were sung and Bible verses recited they tended toward the 'love one another' end of the spectrum. My father is anti-Catholic with the virulence only the lapsed have, and my mother was Presbyterian but not church-going, and though we haven’t talked about religion or beliefs I suspect now trends toward the New Age/Wiccan end of things. This all left me with a strong intellectual interest in religion in general and Judaism in particular.
I realized two things on reading The Faith Club. The first was how rarely we talk about the details of religious belief, and the honesty of these women is inspiring – many of the discussions raised strong emotions, often ties in with key parts of their identity.
This is strongest in the sections about Israel and Palestine, which I expected, and which confirmed for me that it’s too complex an area in terms of history, injustice, myth and tension, for one to have a reductionist position on. Although I understood intellectually something of the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish psychology, I realized I grossly underestimated its significance.
And I was surprised by the whole chapter on the Crucifixion, from Priscilla’s strong aversion to and discomfort about it to Suzanne’s complete lack of awareness of Jewish persecution based on the notion of Christ killing, a more in depth discussion of which follows shortly.
The second, and more significant thing for me, was the realization of how little I knew about Muslim practices beyond the fairly superficial. In particular, I was distressed to discover how much of my picture of Islam has been coloured by the way the popular media portray it. Even though I work with several Muslims and know them to be moderate, I tend (or tended) to think of them as exceptions. However, as is pointed out over and over in the text, there is as much room if not more in Islam for a range of practices, from extremely orthodox at one end to liberal at the other, but the most frequently presented image is of fundamentalism. Though this is often not the way the faith is practiced, Muhammad taught that the centrepiece of faith was inquiry, intellect and reason, saying :
You shall not accept any information unless you verify it yourself. I have given you the hearing, the eyesight and the brain, and you are responsible for using them (17:36)
[God] has sent down to [Muhammad] this book which contains some verses that are categorical and basic to the book and equivocal. But those who are twisted of mind look for verses equivocal seeking deviation and giving them interpretations of their own but none knows the meaning except God (3:7)

That is certainly not the way the faith is portrayed. As Ranya says, "people use the most liberal of lenses to judge their own religions and a literal lens when they look at Islam!" She also explains:

you must understand that while average American sees images of primarily militant, angry Muslims on TV, and characterizes Islam as violent, the average Muslim sees equally violent images of angry Israeli settlers and Israeli soldiers and helicopters firing missiles onto cars, killing innocent Palestinian children. So what kind of image do you think they have of Jews? Or of American support of Israel?
To which Priscilla responds with new recognition, "So... in the Muslim world, Jews are considered violent, because the loudest voice in Judaism is an occupying, aggressive, militant voice?"
I also realised that, apart from thinking it was entirely too complicated for me to have an informed opinion on the matter, I had very little knowledge about post-New Testament events in the contested region. Although I knew a little about Zionism and the creation of Israel, I certainly didn't know that before 1948 Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims and Christians. Having Priscilla and Ranya's viewpoints, coloured by very personal histories, contrasted gave an interesting and powerful insight into the hostility and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
I was similarly interested in Priscilla's very strong reaction to the Crucifixion, and her disbelief at Suzanne's total lack of knowledge about the anti-Semitic term, and idea of, Christ killer. I had come across it before, though only in books* and never in person. As the book points out, interpretation of the New Testament accounts of the decision being made by the Jews of the era to crucify Christ are not possibly accurate, as the Romans would never have given Jews that power. I had long known this, but it was only while researching background for this review that I discovered first that the portrayal of Pontius Pilate as reluctant may well have been to avoid antagonising the Romans during the early days of Christianity's establishment, and second that Pope Paul VI's Nostra Aetate in part repudiated the notion that Jews of the time were responsible or that their modern descendants hold any accountability (how generous, two millennia later). I had certainly never interpreted, as Priscella does, "Philistine" as a sub-section of the Jewish population.
Priscilla's accounts of feeling as risk of another Holocaust, an outnumbered member of a tiny and easily-eradicated population surrounded by goyim hostile to her beliefs, was fascinating. This position is not framed as being unique to her, and if it is common among Jews generally, or even only North American Jews, goes some way toward explaining the strong presence of Judaism in popular culture, as an affirmation that Jews are not alone, are vocal, and are present. More than any other section this disclosure and discussion demonstrated how Idliby, Oliver and Warner's open, honest and relentless explorations of their own and each other's beliefs reveal hidden truths that usually go unsaid and acknowledged.
I found their differences in world views fascinating, across a spectrum of issues. Priscilla, for example, lost faith after 9/11, seeing it as abandonment by God; Ranya and Suzanne saw it as separate from God, an expression of human decisions and actions. Discussion with them helped her put the events of Sept 11 into "a broader context of world suffering" instead.
I think this difference in initial outlook is to some degree reflected in the fundamentally different approaches Judaism and Christianity have toward God. Suzanne articulates it thus: "Judaism is more humble, unsure of God's love,. seeking to earn it and praise Him; Christians begin assuming His love and forgiveness, and expect entry to heaven on the back of Christ's sacrifice."
Yet the core of the book is the similarities that bind the three Abrahamic faiths, rather than the more commonly emphasised differences - for although we have different social values, we share moral values. As each woman learned more about the other two belief systems, and in the process about her own, the more blurred many of the divisions seemed. i suspect that, for some practitioners, this possibility would be the most confronting aspect of participating in a faith club themselves, as there could be a potential for loss of one's own distinct religion in appreciation of the merits of others.
One of them, and I've sadly lost the note to remind me who, captured the essence of The Faith Club for me, by saying to her husband:
I've started thinking of religion like college degrees. One person might earn a BA in literature while another earns one in history. They're both equally well educated, though differently educated. The real test is how they apply that knowledge in their lives.
I finished reading The Faith Club approaching the anniversary of the death of someone close; until I came across the authors' discussion of their first interfaith Yom Kippur, I had always found WH Auden's "Funeral Blues" the most affecting and resonant articulation of grief. I finish this review grateful for the discovery of this Jewish prayer of remembrance, which I said for Dy:
We Remember Them
We remember with sorrow those whom death has taken from our midst during the past year...
Taking these dear ones into our hearts with all of our beloved, we recall them now with reverence.
In the rising of the sun and its going down, we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and are sick of heart, we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember them.
So long as we live, they too shall live,for they are now a part of us, as we remember them. - Hebrew Union Prayer Book
- Alex
* most notably in Deborah E Lipstadt's amazing text Denying the Holocaust - The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which I cannot recommend highly enough. For a quick primer on Holocaust denial, check Wikipedia.

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