Being Open to Others in Order to Fight Prejudices

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Recollection 1 – Jewish Religion

Speaking about her Jewish religion, Mrs. Sharon Helfer shared the knowledge gained by her own quest for meaning and her experiences. This first meeting, of a series of conferences oriented towards interreligious dialogue took place on November 22nd at Residence Marie-Rose Durocher. To expand on her presentation of explaining what the Jewish faith says about God and how to practice this religion according to various Jewish denominations, Ms. Helfer elaborated on the following three points: Who is God in the Jewish faith? What is the Jewish faith? And how can one know and serve God?

Who is God in the Jewish faith?

The Jewish God has no physical appearance; he has no body even though the Torah speaks of the hand and the heart of God. He is the Creator of the universe. He is immanent in his creation. He is an intimate presence. The feminine aspect of God is called “Shekinah”.

This scholar presented the Jewish God as a “God of the Covenant, a God who accompanies. All that He is is beyond us. His uniqueness is proclaimed by the prayer that begins with “Hear, O Israel, God is One” (Deut. 6:4-9).

This God of the Covenant is very well represented by the exodus from Egypt which constitutes a central moment in the Jewish faith. It is at this time that God proclaims “From now on if you keep my commandments, I will be your God and you will be my people.”

What is Jewish faith?

The speaker presented a picture of some world religions to paint a fair picture of the situation. Percentage wise, Christians occupy the first place with 33.6% of believers, followed by Muslims with 20.28%. The Jewish religion is 0.23%, far below the population that declares itself atheist at 2.35%. This is why we say that “Jews are a proud minority.”

The respect and love of the Torah is reflected in the profession of the scribe and the wearing of phylacteries and the possession of the mezuzah (an elongated case that contains two texts of the Law). They are also manifested by the feast of Simchat Torah where we celebrate the Torah by carrying the scroll and dancing on the 9th day of Sukkot.

Over time, the Jewish faith has evolved under the influence of women even if they still have difficulty finding their place. During her talk, Sharon presented a wheel that represents the liturgical celebrations of the year, celebrating certain areas: agriculture, history and family. While describing each of them she noted that the Passover is the most celebrated holiday. She also highlighted the existence of a division between Jews. Those who come from Eastern Europe speak Yiddish (a mixture of languages, including Hebrew).  Those from Spain, the Sephardic branch, under Arab influence, speak Ladino.

How can one know God?

To this important question, Sharon has a simple and clear answer. “If we love God, we want to know him, to study his creation, hence respect and love for the Torah.”

A member of the Reformed Jews, Sharon met the Imam of the Quebec Mosque. She observed that by learning to know each other better, we “improve our knowledge of God.”  Her research led her to a greater knowledge and understanding of humans.

Continuing her explanation of the distinctions in Judaism, Sharon spoke of the Kabbalah, a mystical path of Judaism, emphasizing the existence of three branches. She then mentioned the three key books that are: the book of Creation (3rd or 4th century), the book of Clarity (Languedoc – 12th century) and the book of Splendor or Zohar (Moses of Leon, 13th century – Spain).

She went on to mention the existence of another key, the ten “sefiroth”. These are the attributes of God, two of which are wisdom and beauty. She also spoke of the reparation of the world, a theory of the Kabbalah (17th century) that containers holding the divine light broke; and to repair them, one must follow the commandments, pray, help others, and eat kosher food.

She ended this part of her presentation by pointing out another distinction: the union of man and woman. The presence of God among us is described by the notion of Shekinah, considered as the feminine part of God. From this concept, one can understand the metaphors of the conjugal relationship to account for the desire for union between the “En sof” (the Infinite) and the Shekinah.

How can one serve God?

Among other distinctive elements in Judaism, Sharon emphasized that social justice is very present in their religion. She mentioned the fact that Jews serve God by walking in solidarity. They pray with their feet! They use their free will to do good and to practice mercy in the world. Evil cannot be camouflaged.  They seek the path to walk when they suffer, and they try to turn evil into good. In addressing the presence of mercy in Judaism, Sharon quoted a rabbi, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

An unusual journey

Raised in a modern home where there was not much talk of God, Sharon became acquainted with faith while meeting with a rabbi, in a synagogue, who told her that “God is good.”  It was in Israel that she met her husband, Peter, a native of Sweden. They have three boys and are part of a community. This community was the subject of her doctoral thesis.

Then Sharon, who once knew very little about prayer, undertook a second master’s degree and then began a doctorate in Jewish studies. Discovering the importance of belonging, she was not content to continue her research only on Jewish studies. She became more interested in dialogue without losing sight of the fact that Jews are in the minority.

She now emphasizes listening, what she calls oral history. She participates in the Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Quebec. This approach enables an inner transformation that allows her to see the other as a sister, a brother. 

“You have to fight the prejudice of thinking that the other wishes you harm,” she says. Today, Sharon has undertaken a post-doctoral degree on the oral history of Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans and Haitians. She listens to life stories while compiling the data collected in a database.

The conference was rich in content touching on many aspects, including the question of forgiveness, the many branches of the Jewish religion and the conflict with the Palestinians. 

The session, organized by the SNJM Spiritual Animation Committee, ended with a celebration in the chapel.

Source: Sr. Constance Létourneau
Photos: Sr Yolande Dufresne