Holy women: Inspiring interfaith prayer stories

One of my most significant sources of spiritual inspiration comes from a young Arab woman — Aseel, the translator at a meeting between leaders of the local Arab and Jewish communities of Hebron. Aseel is from the Israeli town of Tayiba and is currently a masters student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After the meeting I offer her a ride back to Jerusalem. On the way north, I asked her if she is religious. Visibly surprised that I even asked the question, she points to the pants she is wearing and her uncovered hair, both signs that state she clearly is not. Seeing my embarrassment, Aseel then tries to put me at ease, “I am not religious but  I do fast for all of Ramadan and pray five times a day.” “Five times a day,” I exclaim! “When is the first prayer?” I nearly lose control of the car when she responds: “About 5:20 a.m.”

Since that encounter, whenever I am tempted to wake up late for prayers, I think of Aseel, the self proclaimed non-religious Muslim woman who has already awakened and spoken with God.

One morning I wake up to pray at sunrise and triumphally proclaim to my students, “I think for once I have gotten up earlier to pray than Aseel.” One of the boys gently corrects me, “Rabbi, your story with Aseel was in the winter. In the summer the first Muslim prayer is much earlier; Aseel has long since finished her morning prayer.”

Just a few months later, the power of female prayer provides another source of connection — this time the prayers of a Jewish woman. In March last year, I  traveled to Cairo to visit Al Azhar University, which in many ways is the heart of Sunni Islam. Also on the trip was Rebecca Abramson, an interfaith activist and journalist from Israel’s Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) community. A mother of eleven, Rebeca is determined to create interfaith connection between her community and our Muslims neighbors. In her writing she contests Islamophobia through feature articles about moderate Islamic leaders.

Rebecca, who always dresses modestly, added a few veils for the trip and looked indistinguishable from Egyptian Muslim women.  At the airport I ran to assist with her heavy bags, but she adamantly refused my help. Assuming she was being overly polite, I wouldn’t take no for an answer and continued to try to take her luggage. Only when I looked ahead and saw Rebecca just ahead did I realize I was in fact engaged in a tug of war with an Egyptian woman.

While in Cairo, we visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue, site of the famed Cairo Geniza and the spot where folklore claims Miriam put Moses into the Nile. The time for the afternoon prayer arrived and Rebecca began to pray. As always her fervor and intensity is moving.  After she concludes the prayer, two young Egyptian women in western dress approach Rebecca. The women are sisters, and one asks Rebecca to offer a prayer for her sick fiancée. From then on, Rebecca and the sisters are inseparable. By the time we reach the Islamic University of Fayum they were wearing veils, and I suspect Rebecca had something to do with it.

Many of the prayer stories that have touched through the years are those of women. Perhaps as their obligation is less formalized in our traditions, they have more of an ability to touch on the essence of prayers and to exude authenticity of the heart.

Our God

Tolerance is of course an important value. However, my hope and dream is about far more than tolerating the other. My vision is a shift of consciousness. When a Jew or Muslim approaches the house of prayer of the other, may the passerby think not “there they worship their God” but “there they worship our God.” May the words of Rabbi Avigdor Nevensal, former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, “desecrating a mosque is a sin for it is dedicated to the same God as is a synagogue” be obvious to all. Rabbi Shmuel Salant, another former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, refrained from walking in front of Muslim worshipers, citing the Jewish belief that the site in front of a worshiper is a sacred abode  of the divine.

The goal that must be achieved is for people to acknowledge that the others’ worship of God is sacred not only for them but for us as well. This is the pathway to the ultimate discovery that the others humanity is sacred not only for them but for us.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
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