These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Turkey 2016: Day One – Elu V’Elu

Posted on January 13, 2016 by Andrew Ash

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Today was the first day of our 2016 Pardes trip to Turkey. It was not an uneventful day. With sadness and anger did I receive the news that a suicide bomber attacked the heart of Istanbul’s historic center, a square adjoining the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. These monuments have stood for generations and will continue to stand long after those who planned and encouraged today’s attack have faded to dust. Sometimes I imagine God sees the world through the long lens of history, and it comforts me when I find the actions of an individual on any given day must otherwise have been so disappointing to a God who wants the best for us as a species. “Slowly, slowly. Some day.”, I imagine God saying, “I can wait as long as it takes for humanity to get it right.”

Thankfully we were nowhere near today’s attack when it happened, and are all safe.

Later today we visited a mosque during prayer time. I felt anxious when we arrived, wondering if we’d be seen as a foreign, unwelcome presence. Sometimes those fears proved valid, such as when a woman in our group broke a rule of etiquette akin to entering a synagogue on Shabbat holding a cellphone, and was yelled at unkindly. However the Imam responsible for the community made many accommodations: he intervened to calm people down, he invited us inside, allowed both men & women to sit together in the men’s section, and welcomed us to take photos. If we were a foreign presence, it was his presence beside us that calmed his congregants down when some were upset. It strikes me that across religious communities that’s an important role for a spiritual leader. People can get upset so easily.

Lastly, here are some observations about the differences between Jewish and Muslim prayer. These observations are my own, as frankly as I can express them, and do not reflect the views of my teachers or Pardes:

  • They bowed in unison, with a precision that reminded me both of synchronized swimming and soldiers obeying orders, whereas we often will bow at different times, according to our individual speed saying a prayer. It felt powerful to witness such cohesion within a community. It also felt a little frightening; I think because I’ve been trained to associate direct obedience to authority with the potential for abuse of power.
  •  Before today, *Allahu Akbar* (God is Great) was sadly an expression I’ve heard mostly in action movies, and not spoken by the “good guys”. Today I saw what Allahu Akbar means to Muslims in context. They repeated it as a mantra every time they bowed low, for about ten repetitions in total. It reminded me of how we repeat Adonai Hu Ha’Elohim (Hashem is God) ten times at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, however for them this kind of repetition is a daily practice. I wonder what that’s like.
  •  They made different use of silence than we do in synagogues, with about five seconds elapsing after a call & response from the Imam before he would lead his community in the next call & response, repeated about ten times. There was a rhythm to it that felt refreshing.
  •  The prayer spaces themselves had different emotional footprints, much as synagogues do. One felt tranquil and intimate like a quiet cave. Another felt loud and exposed like praying at a town square. However they were both equally mosques.