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Preparing the Heart for Engagement

Alchemical Relations 

Preparing the Heart for Engagement 

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

There is one particular passage in the Torah, in the tenth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, that both disturbs and delights me. For centuries it has provoked lively debate and wide-ranging interpretations among our sages and rabbis. But the message does not seem to have been written exclusively for Jews. Vivid and haunting, it stands out in its relevance for all of us today. A timeless, spiritual ice-breaker with universal applications:

Circumcise therefore your heart and be no longer stubborn.”

A million questions arise.

What does it mean to circumcise your heart? Usually the term circumcision is used in our tradition to describe the ceremony where a portion of a baby boy’s foreskin is removed as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. In fact, the ceremony is called a “Bris,” which means covenant in Hebrew.

So what might it mean in the Torah when we are asked to circumcise our hearts? Does it mean to remove the heart’s outer membrane which might prevent us from feeling empathy for one another and love for God? Is it an indication that the heart, before circumcision, might be protected but also kept impenetrable? What vulnerability do we uncover when we expose our hearts without their protective cover? Might the protective cover in fact be a wall of separation? And what stubbornness is the Bible referring to? Is it the stubbornness of ego and resistance to new ideas and change?  Is it the stubbornness of self-righteousness that de-legitimizes other people’s beliefs and keeps us aloof and unwilling to explore our differences with our neighbors?

And my own personal question: Could that biblical instruction be just as aptly applied to my work as an activist in the interfaith community?

Growing the Interfaith Movement

I have spent decades seeking innovative ways to reach out and introduce interfaith to the uninitiated. In fact, it has become my magnificent obsession, inspired by a desire to celebrate our diversity and make interfaith engagement a household word on a global scale – which I now view as an attempt on my part to “circumcise the heart” of the world and make us all vulnerable to one another.

It began when I was a free-lance journalist in my early twenties, traversing Central and South America for 18 months. I visited 19 countries and 54 cities, living with families, learning their language and customs, and sending articles about Latin America back to a chain of Chicago newspapers. Slowly I began to incorporate filmmaking and public speaking into my repertoire, which led to my directing more than 20 documentaries, including “God and Allah Need to Talk,” the film I made following the tragedy of 9/11.

I lived in Europe and Israel for more than a decade and jumped at any opportunity to visit Africa, India, Australia, and Russia, as well as criss-crossing America several times. In each place I studied the people and their ways of life, endlessly seeking points of mutual intersection, both culturally and religiously. Contrary to popular belief, I discovered that East can meet with West.

Ruth Broyde Sharone and Joseph Prabhu, Co-Chairs of Southern California Parliament of the World's Religions, introduce a film on the history of the global Parliament and its evolution since it was first established in 1893 in Chicago

I then began to expand my reach, presenting interfaith programs on college campuses, helping students launch interfaith clubs, and teaching workshops on peacebuilding and interfaith immersion. I’ve participated in a Muslim/Jewish women’s dialogue group for more than 15 years, all the while serving for ten years as co-chair of the Southern California Parliament of the World’s Religions in Los Angeles and regularly attending interfaith conferences.

My greatest joy has been conjuring up new activities that allow for direct encounters of the heart. Six years ago, I initiated a major event on meditation and contemplation that brought together 18 diverse communities.  I also negotiated a collaboration between Latinos and Yanquis and organized a delegation from LA to attend an interfaith conference in Guadalajara, Mexico. My friend Dalit Argil and I produced a Universal Freedom Seder in Los Angeles during the Arab Spring of 2011 that attracted 250 people from 16 communities and representatives from the Egyptian Consulate. We secured the help of two imams, an Episcopalian female priest, and a rabbi to lead the event.

I also organized four major interfaith pilgrimages, called the Festival of Freedom, travelling to Egypt and Israel in 1993, ‘94, ‘95 and 2000.  Five years later I gathered 20 people to visit Turkey to celebrate the birthday of Rumi, the famous Sufi poet whose life and poetry serve as a unifying force for interfaith understanding.

In retrospect, by trying to encourage everyone to get on board, I realize I was inventing interfaith, new ways for people of faith and practice to meet and develop relationships. I helped create a multi-media “transformance” called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a unique interactive journey of wisdom through live music, visual imagery, performance, and ritual. The plans for the event were actually ‘hatched’ in my living room with a group of eight people from diverse artistic disciplines.

Next came an interfaith memoir, Minefields & Miracles, written to share the stories of my global interfaith encounters, hoping other activists would do the same. These days I am writing and composing INTERFAITH: The Musical, determined to reach mainstream America through music and the theatre.

From the Heart

Guadalajara Delegation – Photo: RBS

Guadalajara Delegation – Photo: RBS

In all of this, I haven’t been keen on promoting the traditional academic panels that characterize so much interfaith programming. I prefer interactive activities to formal presentations – favor cooking, baking, and eating together rather than just sampling our neighbors’ exotic recipes. We need activities that engage our hearts where true alchemical change occurs — this is why I cherish interfaith dialogue.

A few years ago, at a local synagogue, I met Mohamed, a 25-year-old Egyptian Muslim. He was in a group of 20 foreigners who had been invited to tour America and learn about our country’s history of pluralism. The participants on the trip had all been hand-picked. They all hailed from countries where one dominant religion held sway and where members of minority religions were barely tolerated, marginalized, or in some cases banned and punished. Funded by University of California, Santa Barbara, the goal was to illustrate how multiple religions can successfully co-exist and how all parties might enjoy equal political status.

In introducing myself I told Mohamed I had visited Egypt five times and was in awe of his country’s history, culture, and its many contributions to the world. He smiled broadly. As we continued talking, I shared stories about my time in Egypt. I could clearly see he was enjoying our conversation. I asked him what he considered the highlight of his American tour. He said he liked all of it, but the biggest shortcoming was that wherever they took him, “there were always too many Zionists.”

There was silence for several moments as I mulled over how to respond. As a Jew who had lived in Israel for ten years, as a “Zionist” who believed Israel to be the legitimate, UN-approved homeland for Jews, and as someone who also supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, I considered my options.

Universal Freedom Seder in Jerusalem   – Photo: RS

Universal Freedom Seder in Jerusalem – Photo: RS

Finally I spoke.

“Well, Mohamed, I guess you’ll have to consider changing your viewpoint about Zionists,” I told him.

“Why is that?” he asked, incredulous.

“Because I am a Zionist, and you like me!”

Mohamed laughed out loud because it was true. I saw his face muscles contract and then relax, and then tighten again as he reviewed the unnerving thought of his somehow liking someone whom he probably considered “the enemy.”

“I’m Jewish and I want Israel to survive and thrive,” I elaborated, “but by the same token, I want the Palestinians to be able to raise their children in a peaceful and safe environment as well. My fondest desire would be to find a solution so both peoples could prosper and live full and satisfying lives.

Mohamed smiled, and I perceived some subtle change taking place within him.

It was just a brief exchange between an American-Jewish woman and an Egyptian-Muslim man, but alchemy had occurred. When we said goodbye, our smiles were genuine. We exchanged emails and corresponded for several months afterwards, and I put him in touch with some friends of mine. I remember him still to this day because of the courage it took for him to open his mind and “circumcise his heart.” And at that moment, when it occurred, he also created a covenant with me.

So what does it mean to circumcise our hearts? I believe it is to do just what Mohamed did: to open our hearts and minds to the “other.” It means tearing down the walls we have built around ourselves. For if we don’t let our hearts be touched, how can we ever hope to bring to fruition the interfaith vision of a world grounded in mutual understanding and love among the multitude of traditions and ways of being that give it such richness?