The public areas of international airports represent a particular type of multi-cultural coexistence. People from all over the world come together and share space in close proximity. The faces of the crowd are of all hues and their clothes reflect different cultural and religious traditions. Broadly speaking, in these shared spaces, people get on with each other in a certain disengaged middle-class kind of way. There are restrained, polite interactions between the “fellow” travelers and interactions between the by-and-large wealthy travelers and the by-and-large less wealthy airport support staff and shop workers are governed by the capitalist rules of servility and superficiality. The capacity for humans to share space peacefully in this disengaged manner is not to be sneezed at. We see so many examples around the world of ethnic strife and inter-religious violence that it comes as a relief to watch our species co-existing even in such a dispassionate manner.
But there are areas within international airports where the rules of the game are different and I’d like to share a few experiences from one of those spaces that occurred to me recently. I am committed to certain religious disciplines of Judaism, including regular prayer. While travelling I will often need to find a prayer space at a certain time of day and on those occasions I will always seek out the prayer lounges of airports to pray in. Some airports have multi-faith prayer lounges where practitioners of different traditions rub shoulders with each other in quite a different way to the more neutral space only a few metres away. Recently I arrived at a major airport in time for my morning prayers. The multi-faith area was, as usual, filled with Muslim worshipers; men and women, travelers and airport workers, who had each removed their shoes outside the room and taken a prayer mat to begin their devotions. I donned the traditional fringed garment (tallit) and the leather strapped amulets (tefillin) that accompany traditional Jewish morning prayers. There was a degree of tension in the room. This was now an unusual and more intense situation than that prevailing in the rest of the airport. We “co-prayers” were now sharing a space of religious intimacy and intensity and our differences had suddenly become overt. A few moments earlier we would have passed or served each other without a second thought but now we were unavoidably entangled; co-monotheists engaged in similar acts of devotion, the precise cultural details of which jumped out and drew attention to the gulf separating us.
An intense young Muslim worshipper came up to me with agitation and told me to remove my shoes as this was a prayer space. I beckoned him to the doorway and explained to him that it is the normal cultural practice of my community to pray with shoes on as a mark of respect. He insisted that I remove my shoes and I repeated that whereas his culture marked respect through removing shoes, mine marked it the opposite way. He cursed me; we had now crossed the line from politely ignoring each other into a real stand-off. He was angry and confused and sat down to read a copy of the Koran to calm himself a little. After a while he resumed the conversation. He told me that he did not care at all about my traditions, that they held no interest for him, and he told me again that I was a fool not to remove my shoes. I returned to my devotions in the prayer room, shoes intact; now disturbed, distracted and upset.
Another Muslim worshipper finished his prayer and caught my eye. He was full bearded with a long white garment and intense dark eyes. He smiled, approached me, touched my arm and said quietly, “Salaam brother”. At that moment I felt intimately close to him. Menachem Meiri, the thirteenth century Catalan philosopher called the Christians and Muslims of his generation “brothers in Torah and Mitsvot”. This worshipper felt, for a few moments, like a real fellow traveler. He left the room, but I still felt his touch on my arm and on my heart. I finished my davening and carried on with my journey. I returned to the neutral bourgeois safety of the airport. Two interactions with Muslim worshipers had changed my day; one for better and the other for worse.
We are about to celebrate the Passover; the quintessential re-telling of the Jewish narrative. Although some of the themes of Pesach are universal and encourage identification with all oppressed people, many of the practices of the chag encourage a sense of isolation and boundary. The first description of the holiday in the book of Exodus emphasizes that the Pesach offering is only for the circumcised (12: 43-50) and that the eating of matzah, as opposed to leavened bread, represents a marker of inclusion in or exclusion from the community of Israel (12:15,19). The hagadah includes a late interpolation, “sh’foch chamatcha”, which amounts to a curse on the nations of the world. The story of the Exodus recalls the people of Israel emerging as a distinct, free political and cultural entity. Many of the ancient and current practices of Pesach reinforce a sense of boundary and isolation.
A great many practitioners of highly demanding distinct religious traditions around the world seek, for very good cultural reasons, to live permanently behind high walls. It is much easier to maintain a sense of community cohesion and commitment when the borderline between self and other is well delineated. My angry Muslim interlocutor’s encounter with me, an annoying religious other, was disconcerting and confusing for him. In that prayer lounge the boundary between us slipped for a few minutes and the result on his side was fury and incomprehension. The contemporary turn towards religious fundamentalism expresses a yearning for the taken-for-granted-ness of religious life that would have typified most isolated pre-modern societies across the world.
For his white robed co-religionist, on the other hand, a person who seemed equally committed to the particularities of Muslim practice, the slipping of the boundary evoked love. For me too the choice to seek out multi-faith prayer spaces is a principled one. I want to live in a world where the diverse members of my species learn to coexist peacefully in a deeper way than we currently do in the neutral marketplace. I want to be able to pray seriously alongside a like-minded devout Muslim.
I believe in boundaries and I believe in their dissolution. I want to participate in a Jewish communal life that is intense and pious. I appreciate the value of communities of common commitment and practice; communities with walls. I also want to see those walls dissolved by love, compassion, historical awareness and cultural relativism.
Pesach marks the very beginning of our story as a distinct people. As such some of its motifs push us towards separation. For a few days of the year we turn inwards and emphasize our foundational mythology and our sense of ourselves as isolated. In the Pesach narrative the enemies that we struggle with are without. But just as our yearly holiday vacations are brief exceptional affairs that take us out of our normal mundane lives to somewhere different and offer us intense new vistas, so too religious holydays are “places” that we visit temporarily in order to refresh ourselves and shed a unique light on our lives. To seek to reside permanently in the spirit of Pesach or Yom Kippur is as foolish as mistakenly thinking that our holiday destinations are our true homes.
How can we learn as a people, and as a species, to live together more peacefully? One way to live together in peace is to move our lives metaphorically into the world of the airport shopping mall. Many liberal, heterodox Jews choose to dwell in that polished world. Liberal Jews are not normally so committed to the disciplines of Jewish observance that we are driven to seek out spaces for prayer at all, let alone in the interfaith lounge. This was the unnerving thesis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest allegorical novel “The Buried Giant”; that peace of all sorts can only be attained and maintained through systematic forgetfulness.
Many illiberal Jews, on the other hand, are deeply committed to the practice of Jewish spiritual disciplines but do not yearn for the kinds of multicultural interactions that relativize our practice and allow us to transcend primitive feelings of superiority and triumphalism. Like my Muslim interlocutor, the enculturation of many traditionalist Jews has decreased their capacity to hold the complexities of multi-culturalism and has led inexorably to their retreat into cultural self-absorption.
There must be a different path. Is it beyond our species to develop kinds of religious education that will allow us to live out our religious traditions deeply and authentically in a way that will promote a yearning for peace with our neighbors? Is it too much to ask that as our Jewish learning and commitment increases so will our compassion, empathy and love for all people? What more can we do to promote deep, particularist religious commitment together with a sense of deep, universalist kinship? This Pesach as we revisit our foundational story and renew our commitment to cultural distinctiveness we might also ponder how that same story might be read in a way that liberates us from cultural narcissism.