If a Muslim-Jewish conversation is taking place at all these days, it is rife with friction — not just in Israel, which has seen a sharp spike in inter-community tension and violence in recent days, but all over the world. Even at times when Israel and the Middle East aren’t teetering on the edge of a conflagration, it is difficult to see how the gap between the two religions can be bridged.
But underneath the surface, there are those who make efforts to reach out, come together, and live side by side — even if it means fasting during the hottest days of summer.
One such man is Rabbi Natan Levy. An Orthodox rabbi and interfaith leader living in London, Levy realized during his tenure as university chaplain in Bristol that the voices of Muslim and Jewish faith leaders such as himself were “always stronger, always listened to a bit more by politicians and media, if we worked together.” Armed with this understanding, Levy and his Muslim colleagues set up an online radio station called Salaam-Shalom.
That experience, he says, made it “impossible” for him to “live within the media stereotypes of Islam.”
Now, Levy, forty years old and a father of four, has cooked up an idea he hopes will transform the conversation his community has with Islam. He’s decided to fast during Ramadan, the monthlong fast which began around the world last week, alongside the British Muslim community — and he’s planning to go the whole nine yards.
“I am hoping to do the whole thing for the month, sans Shabbat,” Levy told The Times of Israel.
So far, he admits, it hasn’t been easy. “The first week has been sort of rough. I’ve been looking forward to chicken soup all week,” he says. With temperatures in London peaking at nearly 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), it’s been a challenging week for the intrepid rabbi. And perhaps not surprisingly, nobody in the Jewish community has opted to join him in the fast.
“It is still early days, and so far the only acolyte who has asked to join me in fasting has been my 10-year-old daughter,” he says, quick to reassure us that he declined her offer.
“I am not asking anyone else to join me, nor would I expect it. Fasting is not fun. All I am hoping is that it opens us some closed doors and builds some new bridges,” he says, but adds, “I just wish I had chosen a Ramadan in winter. This is the longest Ramadan fast in the whole 33 year cycle. But it could be worse, I hear in the Nordic countries the fast lasts for over 21 hours each day, rather then our measly 19-odd here in the UK.”
So why has he decided to go through with it? While Levy says that while the main motive behind the fast was his wish to bring about a change in the way Jews in the UK engage with Muslims and Islam, there were a number of other catalysts for his show of solidarity.
The first, he says, was the need to try “to get beyond the headlines” about radical Muslim groups such as the Islamic State (IS), the Nigerian Boko Haram, Hamas, and others, and instead engage in an “honest conversation with everyday Islam.”
Levy says that last week, during his morning commute, he found himself “sharing tips with a Muslim gentleman” on London’s Northern Line “on whether it is better to eat a big meal for the early, early morning breakfast or not.” In the end, Muslim and Jew both agreed that it was better to eat less — not an earth-shattering agreement, perhaps, but still a step toward fostering a sense of kinship between the two faith communities.
“I don’t want to appear naive; there are elephants in the room between Jews and Muslim, scary ones,” Levy says. “But I think we [should] start talking elephants only once the bonds are there, and the trust, and the mutual understanding of two peoples standing under the gaze of God.”
In British society, he says, such mutual understanding seems to be a long way off.
“I am sad and frustrated that the Anglo Jewish community appears to live in a state I could only call deeply distrustful of anything that hints of Islam.”
Levy says that it was an incident that occurred in his local synagogue last month that finally prompted him to undertake the fast.
“A congregant in my local shul ran home in fear because she found herself sitting next to a Muslim guest for the Kabbalat Shabbat service,” he says. “Her mother told her to rush back to the synagogue and raise the alarm with the security guard. It caused a ruckus, and was a shameful moment for us — but not a surprising one.”
The Muslim woman in question was a Cambridge professor, a friend Levy had invited for Shabbat dinner.
According to Levy, the British Jewish school system provides few opportunities to engage with or learn about other faiths — even though Britain, and London in particular, is known for its diversity of cultures and faith groups.
“My daughter has not been taught a single thing about Ramadan at her Jewish school,” Levy laments. “All this fasting is simply a way of getting the conversation started about how we — as Jews — could learn to engage with our Muslim neighbors.”
A third reason for Levy’s fast was the wish to increase his own awareness of hunger and poverty.
“Fasting focuses my thoughts on the real hunger in our midst … My voluntary fasting won’t help feed the hungry per se, but being hungry makes me angry that others must go hungry, and I pray I can do more to help them,” he says.
Asked to what extent the Jewish and Muslim communities in the UK have supported his decision, which he says was “purely personal,” Levy replies — with a healthy dose of humor — that although some have tried to test his resolve, others are eager to learn more about it.
“My work colleagues are currently enticing me with sandwiches to see if I will cheat, and the congregants at the local shul keep asking why a Jew would want to fast over Ramadan. So I guess that does mean a conversation is under way,” he says.
“Will it take us all towards a deeper understanding? Will it open those long-closed doors? I really don’t know. I hope so, I pray so, but I don’t think we will know until our children stop running away whenever they see a Muslim in the synagogue. And that, I fear, is a long process of remembering that we are both children of Abraham.”
Levy says he has been reassured by Muslim friends that his act of solidarity will not be “misconstrued as appropriation” — on the contrary, they said, they would be “honored” by it.
With their blessing, the rabbi plows ahead with the fast — one day at a time. But with Ramadan dogged by the specter of a possible escalation in the Middle East, he understands that his purely theological gesture might “quite unintentionally” have a political significance as well.
In order to explain what that significance might be, Levy tells a personal story.
“Two weeks before our wedding, my future wife and I had our first fight, and it was so bad that we almost canceled the wedding. Our rabbi heard what was happening and that evening he came to meet with us. ‘I have been fasting all day,’ he said, ‘for the both of you to find shalom.’ He said other stuff, too. But now, nearly 12 years later, it’s the fasting that I can so vividly recall. That a man would stop eating to bring peace between two people made an impression, a big one. My wife and I did get married, obviously,” he adds pointedly.
“So, yeah, I am fasting, for whatever it is worth, and whatever kind of power such a thing might have, so that Israelis and Palestinians stop hating each other enough to listen to each other, and mourn together now, so we may celebrate together in the future.”